The latest NY Times Sunday Magazine has a lively article by Jonathan Reynolds about a Scottish food historian named Alan Davidson, author of the Oxford Companion to Food. The story of how he became a food expert is intriguing (his wife asked him about the varieties of fish in Tunis, where they were living, and he couldn’t find anything in print, so he started investigating: “I found the whole business of identification of fish quite interesting”), and there are some nice quotes—eg, on the Jerusalem artichoke:
By 1621, the writer John Goodyer, revising Gerard’s Herbal, was writing: ‘which way soever they be dressed and eaten, they stir and cause a filthy loathsome stinking wind within the body, thereby causing the belly to be pained and tormented, and are a meat more fit for swine than men.’
But what inspired me to post an entry about it is this:
So do we need to know the three meanings of ”ratafia” (it’s a liqueur; it’s a macaroonlike cookie; it’s an essence of almond), the proper way to clean a potentially lethal blowfish (wear gloves; cut off the head and tail and dorsal fin; peel back the skin like a glove) and the meaning of poubelles de table (the dustbin for picking up detritus from the table)?
If it’s written with Davidsonian elan, yes.
I was only vaguely aware of ratafia, and am glad to have the meanings laid out for me. But I can only confirm two of them from independent sources; the OED says:
1 A cordial or liqueur flavoured with certain fruits or their kernels, usually almonds or peach-, apricot-, and cherry-kernels. Now applied esp. to a type of aperitif made from grape-juice and brandy.
2 A kind of cake or biscuit having the flavour of ratafia, or made to be eaten along with it.
[a. Fr. ratafia (17th c., Boileau), †ratafiat, of unknown origin (see Littré for conjectures).]
And the American Heritage:
1 A sweet cordial flavored with fruit kernels or almonds.
2 A biscuit flavored with ratafia.
[French, perhaps of West Indian Creole origin.]
But I suppose I’ll take Mr. Davidson’s word for the essence of almond. He seems to know this sort of thing.