Food scholar prepares an intellectual feast


Photo by Mark Stehle

In order for meat to pass Islamic dietary laws, it must be slaughtered by a butcher who first cries out, “I do this in the name of God! God is great!”

Celebrated diarist James Boswell suggested that it was cooking, not reasoning, that distinguished humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Betty Crocker, that icon of American cookery, was invented by the marketing department of a Minneapolis flour mill.

Clearly, food is more than just fuel for the body. Food has so much substance attached to it, in fact, that it took Solomon Katz Gr’67,Hon’72 the better part of a decade to digest it all. The product of that long assimilation—and whence the above tidbits were culled—is “The Encyclopedia of Food and Culture” (Scribner, 2003), a three-volume, 2,004-page work that has been widely praised by food scholars and reference librarians.

Katz, who is director of the Krogman Center for Research in Child Growth and Development and professor of orthodontics in the School of Dental Medicine, served as the encyclopedia’s editor-in-chief, a task he likened to putting together a jigsaw puzzle. “Figuring out how all these pieces fit together to make a coherent whole took three years,” he said. Despite his job title, Katz is an anthropologist first—“the only one in the Dental School.” His interest in food is reflected in his research on nutrition at the Krogman Center, which he conducts “with an eye on the biocultural perspective.”

Katz’s fascination with gastronomy goes back to pleasant childhood experiences. “My enjoyment of cooking started when I was about 10 or 11 years old, when I watched my grandmother, Ida Heffron, cook for Passover,” he said. “I was so impressed by all that she did from scratch, and impressed with the quality of it all that I actually started writing down her recipes.” His academic interest in the subject began at Penn in the mid-1960s, when he studied the foodways of the Alaskan Inuit people.

“So much of what we do in anthropology is tied up in what we eat, and you can’t understand what we eat without putting it in a cultural context,” said Katz over lunch recently. Certain foods, for instance, have iconic status in specific cultures or places, such as the bagel, barbecue, the cheesesteak and tea. Or consider Spam, referred to in a sidebar article as “the Woody Allen of the meat world”—its status as something of a culinary joke is paradoxically key to its success.

Katz recruited some of the best names in the world of food to write the encyclopedia’s 650-plus articles. While most of them are academics, the list includes several authors of cookbooks and books on food, such as Margaret Visser (“The Rituals of Dinner”) and Rod Phillips (“A Short History of Wine”). Among the food professionals tapped to contribute was Fritz Blank, the chef-owner of Center City’s Deux Cheminées, who contributed articles on gastronomy and intestinal flora.

“The encyclopedia tries to provide a much-needed integrated perspective on food,” he said. Judging from its sales—the encyclopedia is Scribner’s best-selling reference work to date—and the awards bestowed on it (including the Dartmouth Medal, the American Library Association’s highest honor for a reference book), it has succeeded.

Thinking of adding this to your home bookshelf? Start saving now, because it will set you back a cool $400 (info: Alternatively, you can visit Penn’s Museum Library, which has a set. Some area libraries may also have it; call yours to find out.

Originally published on April 15, 2004