KICKSHAW.

Anyone interested in food, Paris, or just plain good writing should acquire a copy of A.J. Liebling’s Between Meals, a splendidly written reminiscence (first published in 1959) of his apprenticeship as a gourmand in the Paris of 1926-27, when he had just enough money to be able to eat out but not so much that he could order whatever he wanted; he considers this situation the indispensible prerequisite for an education:

The franc was at twenty-six to the dollar, and the researcher, if he had only a certain sum—say, six francs—to spend, soon established for himself whether, for example, a half bottle of Tavel supérieur, at three and a half francs, and braised beef heart and yellow turnips, at two and a half, gave him more or less pleasure than a contre-filet of beef, at five francs, and a half-bottle of ordinaire, at one franc.

I’m tempted to go on quoting that passage (you can read more here), but I’d wind up quoting the whole book, so I’ll move on to the sentence that inspired this entry. Liebling is describing the decline of French cuisine (one of the major themes of the book), which he exemplifies by means of a hotel in Mâcon whose toque-wearing proprietor “was sincerely a cook, but the axis of his culinary eye had shifted until he saw the main body of dinner as a perfunctory hors d’oeuvre to the sweets.” After a description of the “preliminary menu,” which “reminded me depressingly of the Hamburg-American line,” we get the payoff:

Then squads of assistants, also in toques, would begin to roll in trolleys of pastry and confectionery—vacherins, suissesses, mille-feuilles, meringues, îles-flottantes de Tante Marie, and hundreds of sugary kickshaws I was unable to identify.


This word kickshaw is wonderfully appropriate, not just because it means ‘a fancy food; a delicacy’ (second meaning: ‘a trinket; a gewgaw’), but because it’s a folk-etymologized borrowing of the French quelque-chose ‘something.’ The OED’s definition is more, shall we say, filling: “A fancy dish in cookery. (Chiefly with contemptuous force: A ‘something’ French, not one of the known ‘substantial English’ dishes.)” And I will leave you with the OED’s collection of citations, filled with fine English contempt for all things foreign; the three sections represent the development described in this introductory note:

The original Fr. spelling was frequent in the 17th c., but the commonest forms follow the pronunciation que’que chose formerly regarded as elegant, and still current in colloquial French. The word was sometimes correctly taken as sing., with plural -choses, etc.; more commonly it was treated as a pl., and a sing. kickshaw afterwards formed from it.

A 1598 Florio, Carabozzada, a kinde of daintie dish or quelque chose vsed in Italie. 1611 Cotgr., Fricandeaux, short, skinlesse, and daintie puddings, or Quelkchoses. 1612 Dekker If it be not good Wks. 1873 II. 285 Ile teach.. to make caudels, Iellies.. cowslip sallads, and kickchoses. 1642 Featly Dippers Dipt (1645) 199, I made bold to set on the board kicke-shoses, and variety of strange fruits. 1655 Moufet & Bennet Health’s Improv. (1746) 366 Over curious Cookery, making..quelque-choses of unsavoury.. Meat. 1655 E. Terry Voy. E. Ind. (1665) 408 With these quelque chose, was that entertainment made up. a.1656 Bp. Hall Rem. Wks. (1660) 4 Longing after fine quelque choices of new and artificial composition.
ß 1597 Shaks. 2 Hen. IV, vi. i. 29 (Qo. 1) A ioynt of Mutton, and any pretty little tinie Kick-shawes. 1621 Burton Anat. Mel. ii. iii. ii. (1651) 319 That scarce at first had course bread..must now feed on kickshoes and made dishes. 1709 Addison Tatler No. 148 p.10 That substantial English Dish banished in so ignominious a Manner, to make Way for French Kickshaws. 1824 Miss Mitford Village Ser. i. (1863) 195 The kickshaws were half raw, the solids were mere rags. 1874 Helps Soc. Press. xiii. 187 You have a nice cut of wholesome leg of mutton.. none of your made dishes and kickshaws.
Y 1674 tr. Scheffer’s Lapland xviii. 92 Another kickshaw that pleaseth them very much they make of Angelica. 1714 Macky Journ. Eng. (1724) II. xvi. 227 They go to a Cooks Shop, and ask for a Kickshaw. 1840 Thackeray G. Cruikshank (1869) 303 The Chef is instructing a kitchen-maid how to compound some rascally French kickshaw.
fig. 1653 Gauden Hierasp. 63 Dished up to the mode of Familistick hashes, and Socinians.. Keckshoes. 1659 Gauden Tears Ch. ii. xix. 204 Enough.. of these late Hashshes, Olives, and Queckshoes of Religion.

Comments

  1. but the commonest forms follow the pronunciation que’que chose formerly regarded as elegant, and still current in colloquial French.
    Keski va pas? Y’a kekchose?

  2. Well, looks like I killed that one off with my big dumb girl act. As you can perhaps intuit, it was so early that I forgot to put my alias on.
    So, to engage with the food part of it, at least a bit. Here are some searches I did within the book. (Which, incidentally, I found fascinating.)
    I’m probably dodging the point of affordability and the shift in fod-style fashion, but here are some entries that returned no hits:
    Langoustine.
    Fruits de mer.
    Coquilles.
    Seafood.
    Poisson. (Although there are 13 references to “fish”.) (And a single one to “truite”.)
    Huîtres. (13 references to “oysters”, but none to “belon”.)
    Homard au porto is denigrated (it’s a fashion thing, yes?), but la bonne charolaise is praised. (One of the worst steaks I’ve ever eaten, if indeed you could even call it a steak).
    Is that better at all? Very interesting way to read a book, in any event.

  3. You must remember that his taste is basically the taste of the pre-WWI era; he was dining in the ’20s in restaurants formed by that period. So yes, very different tastes. And I probably wouldn’t enjoy a lot of the meals he raves about. But I love the writing.

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