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Crumbs of Knowledge

Ben Schott's 'Miscellany' has everything you never needed to know about food and drink

By Heather Irwin

It's the rare book that's made me look into the toilet and really take an interest in finding out just how healthy I am based on the Bristol Stool Form Chart. According to the handy guide before me, normal, er, movements, are apparently somewhere between a three and four--I'll spare you the descriptive details. Based on my untrained observation, things seem to be working out somewhere between a four and a five for me. I'm not sure how worried I need to be at this point.

Possibly even more cause for concern is that I've committed approximately eight Biblical food abominations and I may have possibly been both "squiffy" and "rosinned" in the last 48 hours, according to page 39. I'm not totally sure, but if so, this may explain the bathroom situation. My only consolation is that I can now name with confidence all of the children from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Things do seem to be looking up.

Arriving from across the pond this month is the sequel to Ben Schott's Original Miscellany, titled Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany (Bloomsbury USA; $14.95). Defying any real explanation, the book is a 153-page compendium of such bite-sized odd and irrelevant factoids as the aforementioned. Thank goodness, I now know that I can effectively cure a hangover with raw egg, sugar and milk (p. 121) and accurately read my own tea leaves (p. 53). Then again, after reading my own stool, I'm not sure how much more I really want to know about my future--or my past.

But I'm a sucker for totally useless information--the stuff that both concerns and horrifies your friends upon discovering that you actually know. (Horrified or not, I'll note that I'm a popular teammate choice when it comes to Trivial Pursuit.) Schott's Food and Drink offers just the kind of totally useless information that clogs the mind from remembering mundane things like where you left your keys and whether you've put your pants on.

Just last night, for example, I found myself using terms like the "Scoville Scale" (p. 47) to describe the capsicum content of the chilies in our salsa to people who frankly could care less. I now actually know that habañeros and Scotch bonnets are the hottest by far. That little jalapeño you're choking on? Please. It's a mere 2,500 SU's compared to the habañero's potential 300,000. Stop yawning, damn it!

Over the water cooler, you can let co-workers know that you're now an expert in the various ways to prepare and eat dog and that without proper refrigeration it can be a real salmonella hazard (p. 120). Just wait and see who's about to become employee of the month with handy tips like those!

That, of course, brings me to Toblerone peaks. How many, you may ask, are too many in such a scrumptious and velvety chocolate treat? What is enough? Is there some hidden meaning in the fact that both the 50 and 75 gram chocolate bars have 11 peaks each? The mind wobbles, to quote Kelly Bundy, over such weighty matters.

But to those of us who do not so much eat to live as live to eat, this really is important stuff. We gorge ourselves on the manna--or is it ambrosia? (no, according to p. 66, it is, in fact, manna)--of food trivia. And after gorging, we gourmands are recommended to always have an emetic (p. 11) to help avoid the perils of indigestion. Don't worry, I had to look that up, too. It means something to make you throw up. Think of the Roman vomitoriums or high school. Eat, purge, eat.

That may not be such a bad idea when it comes to being served giant water bugs. We're told that they actually taste a lot like Gorgonzola cheese (p. 61), but that one can never really know if one is getting a fresh water bug or not. A better choice, perhaps, would be monkeys, iguanas or armadillos, all of which purportedly taste something like rabbit. Baby wasps, if you like scrambled eggs, go down pretty easy, according to Schott's descriptions of various odd and exotic foods.

Ack.

All of this Miscellany wackiness arose from a humorous Christmas card that Schott, a professional photographer with a "shockingly short career in advertising," created a few years ago to effusive response from friends. From 16 pages originally, the cards became increasingly bulky with odd and humorous anecdotes. The first book, Schott's Original Miscellany, has become an international bestseller, leading to the current food and drink compendium.

What's so amusing about the book is that, unlike the usual top 10 or record-breaking lists, there is no rhyme or reason to the collection. It is purposely idiosyncratic in its disorder. A schematic of the Last Supper is followed by a description of Chinese bird's nest soup, followed by the maximum refrigerator and freezer storage times for various foodstuffs. (That live lobster in your fridge is only gonna last two to three days, buddy.) It's a bit like walking through the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum; you're constantly amazed at the absurdity of it all, while vacillating between fascination and repulsion.

Among the Miscellany's great news is that when visiting England, you can get corn, along with tuna, on your Domino's Pizza (p. 101). The Japanese, it seems, prefer squid to arrive atop their 30-minutes-or-less slices, while the French go for a little crème fraîche with their super-stuffed crust. Avoid poisoned mushrooms as a topping (you can identify them on p. 142), which are almost as deadly as fugu, the toxic blowfish (p. 138).

Hey, did you know that, contrary to popular belief, Britney Spear's concert dressing room is not required by contract to contain a bag of pork rinds and spray cheese? In fact, her rider stipulates instead a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos and one box of Altoids. One can never be too careful about having fresh breath while stealing the father of some poor girl's newborn baby, especially after eating Cool Ranch Doritos (p. 146). As for the spray cheese? That's stipulated in ZZ Top's contract. The flavor, apparently, is at the host's discretion, though I can personally vouch for the bacon and cheddar.

I don't want to give away too much about Schott's Food and Drink Miscellany, mainly because meandering through the pages and discovering the menagerie of food trivia is the real fun of the book. I will, however, reveal that you can read the complete 1870 menu of the Christmas Day dinner served at Voisin's in Paris.

Suffice it to say that during that winter, things got pretty economically tough at the local zoo and the keepers were forced to sell the animals off to the highest bidder--which happened to be Voisin's.

Hey, you don't see roast camel and cats on just every menu.

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From the September 15-21, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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