The Language of Food.

A NY Times story by Jennifer Schuessler (thanks for the link, Bonnie!) draws attention to a new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky, a linguistics professor at Stanford, which sounds fascinating:

In his book, Mr. Jurafsky traces the gradual fading of French as the lingua franca of “fancy” American restaurants. “Entree” has gone all but extinct at the high end, though there are some holdouts like “jus,” used at Root & Bone to describe the silky chicken gravy served alongside “Grandma Daisy’s Angel Biscuits,” dipping-sauce style.

The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes. “Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,” he said. “You can expect your customer to know what it is.”

It also mentions Jurafsky’s blog The Language of Food, apparently newly revived after several years’ hiatus (which gives me hope for MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian); I’ve added it to my RSS feed and am hoping for more discussions like this from the latest post, Tea if by Sea:

The story begins where the far southwest of China’s Yunnan province meets northeastern Burma and Thailand, somewhere between the Mekong, Irawaddy, and Salween rivers. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is native to a wide area that includes this region, and it was probably somewhere near here that it was domesticated. A number of linguistic groups arrived in this region very early, first speakers of Mon-Khmer (a proto-language that is the ancestor of Cambodian, Vietnamese and many smaller languages scattered around southeast Asia), and then Tibeto-Burman (the family that includes Burmese) and Tai-Kadai (the ancestor of Thai and other smaller languages). Tea plays many important roles in this region; as a beverage, a salad, a ritual item, and regional groups in northern Laos or Thailand even ferment tea leaves in bamboo tubes, sprinkle them with salt and chew them like plugs of chewing tobacco.

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean ‘tea’ or ‘leaf’. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that’s the origin of the la (‘tea/leaf’) in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.

For the next thousand years, tea culture and the word for tea developed in China. Tea slowly spread to neighboring countries, as the early Chinese powdered tea traditions ritualized in the matcha of the Japanese tea ceremony and yak-butter tea became a staple in Tibet. As the Chinese language diversified, words for tea began to diversify as well, becoming cha in Mandarin and Cantonese and te in the Southern Min dialect spoken in Fujian and Taiwan.

Roughly around the turn of the 17th century, tea began to spread around the globe, and languages around the world borrowed the word from Chinese, in two distinct forms. Some languages have a word starting with “t” like our tea (and German Tee and Spanish ), while others have a word starting with “ch” like cha in Japanese and Portuguese, or chai in Russian, Mongolian, and Hindi.

There are even maps, which gives bonus points as far as I’m concerned.

Comments

  1. ” Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,”

    Really? I even speak Italian, and I have no idea what a “Southern Peach Caprese” on a menu is supposed to be. “Caprese” simply means “from Capri”. In the food world I thought it was associated with the traditional Neapolitan dish of mozarella, tomatoes, basil and oil. None of which is fried or oozing. What is the metaphor meant to be? Are American gourmands understanding “Caprese” to mean “a combination of fruit and cheese”?

  2. And all this time I thought “caprese” meant “goat cheese”!

  3. Stefan Holm says:

    Names and origins of food is illusory. Recently I read an article about the dishes served at the nowadays myriads of ‘exotic’ restaurants we can choose. They are said to be a proof of our multi-cultural society and the influence from immigrants. The author however showed that practically none of these dishes are original but has passed through New York City, where they have been conformed to western palate.

    Most people who have visited the alleged countries of origin (outside the tourist centers) can verify this. Like my younger son’s friend who after a holiday abroad in a somewhat heedless way stated that Greek food tastes better in Sweden than in Greece. O, sancta simplicitas!

  4. I too was struck by the statement about “Caprese.” The Caprese salad is pretty well known, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen “Caprese” used in any generalized sense. Nor could I see any obvious similarity, except the presence of cheese, between the standard salad and the described peach dish.

  5. I was perplexed by the Caprese thing too, but I figured it was just that I was out of touch with the contemporary dining-out world. Glad to know it’s not just me!

  6. @ Ø :

    Goat cheese in Italian is caprino. Pull that out next time you’re hanging with foodies.

  7. As I like to point out, ris de veau à la financière is not the smile of a calf prepared by a female banker. I have even seen it (as Dr. Google will confirm) written riz de veau etc., which I suppose would be a veal dish with rice. (There is also à la Robespierre, which has sliced sweetbreads.)

    For me, one of the delights of summer is boiled sweet corn with butter and salt, eaten with mozzarella, grape tomatoes sliced in half, and il pesto (keeping oneself in fresh basil is just too hard).

  8. I would expect Jurafsky to know it’s Camellia sinensis, not camellia. If one’s pedantic enough to reach for botanical nomenclature, one should be aware that generic names are always capitalised.

    The Caprese issue becomes clearer when looking at fuller descriptions of the dish, which make clear that the Southern Peach thingamajig still involves tomatos and basil. Apparently, the idea is that anything containing those two ingredients and some sort of cheese qualifies.

    The language of food seems to be getting attention these days; besides Jurafsky’s, I’ve seen two other books recently:

    Szatrowski, P. E. (Ed.). (2014). Language and Food: verbal and nonverbal experiences. Amsterdam: John Benjamins
    Gerhardt, C., Frobenius, M., & Hucklenbroich-Ley, S. (Eds.) (2013). Culinary linguistics: the chef’s special. Amsterdam: John Benjamins

  9. O,

    “Caprese” refers to being from Capri, so it is only indirectly a reference to goat anything. An Insalata Caprese has mozzarella , tomatoes and basil, oil, vinegar, salt and pepper and nothing else. It doesn’t have goat cheese and it sure as hell doesn’t have molten pimento cheese. Ewwwwwwww.

    “The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes. “Caprese has become such a common word, we can now use it as a metaphor for something else,” he said. “You can expect your customer to know what it is.”

    ” “The “Southern Peach Caprese,” on the other hand, built around an oozing ball of fried pimento cheese, testified to Italian food’s rising fortunes.”

    How do they figure that? That mess testifies as much to Cantonese food’s rising fortunes – which is to say, not at all.

    Peaches and fried pimento cheese? Why does Southern cooking have to be such slop? I blame the English.

  10. If you want your dish to be greasy and to contain peaches, then what else can you call it but Southern?

  11. I would expect Jurafsky to know it’s Camellia sinensis, not camellia. If one’s pedantic enough to reach for botanical nomenclature, one should be aware that generic names are always capitalised.

    Yes, that bothered me too; I had to stop myself from silently correcting it when I copied the passage.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    ^ I was going to say!

  13. Like my younger son’s friend who after a holiday abroad in a somewhat heedless way stated that Greek food tastes better in Sweden than in Greece. O, sancta simplicitas!

    Ah, the Via Necligens! I have spent many happy holidays there complaining about the food in an Irish bar better than any New York can offer. (I certainly pity the fools who think Irish bars have anything to do with Ireland.) You’d think somebody in Italy would be able to make a decent pizza! And the muck they pass off as “spaghetti bolognese”!

  14. Peaches and fried pimento cheese? Why does Southern cooking have to be such slop? I blame the English.

    We make slop ? I was horrified to find at a Thanksgiving dinner in Connecticut that the vegetables with the turkey included sweet potatoes mashed with marshmallows. Ewwwwwww ….to coin a phrase.

  15. No discussion of language and food would be complete without reference to the “Detroit Rule:”

    http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=2774#comic

  16. The elucidation of the nature of “Southern Peach Caprese” reminded me of the menu of the Frog and Peach restaurant.

  17. sorry, there was supposed to be a link in there:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7fY-M41FGzI

  18. Stefan Holm says:

    the Detroit Rule

    Is that the reason why Homard à l’armoricaine sometimes is incorrectly called Homard à l’americaine. marie-lucie may reveal the details but l’armoricaine in cooking seems to mean ‘from Brittany’, while most references to the word itself is about a particular race of bovine.

    Unfortunately my (Swedish translation) of ‘La cuisine familiale et pratique’ by H.P. Pellaprat from 1959 with ‘all’ the basic recipes of traditional French cooking about ‘Homard à l’armoricaine’ says:

    Hot lobster dishes appertain to the higher art of cooking and don’t belong in this book. After all he gives such a hot lobster recipe: ‘Homard à la New-Burg’, in which he though comments further about ‘l’armoricaine’ that it’s a little too complicated in this context, more so as the recipe demands the lobster to be killed and dismembered before the preparation, which hardly can be a pleasant thing for a housewife in general :-)

    Besides that, with its 498 recipes this is the best cookbook I’ve ever had.

  19. Looking at rhe OED, “cha”, via the Portuguese, and “tay”, via the Dutch, fought it out in English until at least the middle of the 17th century: there’s an essay to be written on why the Dutch won that war. Of course, “cha” re-entered British English via Hindi and British Army slang to become the working class “cup o’ char”, and now that’s effectively vanished along with charladies (who are nothing to do with tea, but “chore” ladies), it’s back again as “chai”.

  20. The Detroit Rule can be overcome by pronouncing it [dəˈtwɑ], though perhaps that is de trop.

  21. Stephen Bruce says:

    But for the true snob, it would be Détroit, [detʀwɑ].

    In Belgium steak tartare is called filet américain, but which is far from something that most Americans would find acceptable: raw ground beef with a raw egg on top.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    And the muck they pass off as “spaghetti bolognese”!

    Has got to be better than what the Germans pass off as “Spag(h)etti alla Carbonara”.

  23. The best spaghetti carbonara I ever had, oddly enough, was in Argos, Greece. (I’ve never been to Italy.)

  24. [detʀwɑ]

    Yes, but it wouldn’t be as punny.

  25. Paul,
    “We make slop ? I was horrified to find at a Thanksgiving dinner in Connecticut that the vegetables with the turkey included sweet potatoes mashed with marshmallows. Ewwwwwww ….to coin a phrase.”

    I echo the Ewwww. The more you do to sweet potatoes, the less wonderful they are. The exception it make is sweet potato pie (see, I can be discerning), where the potatoes require some minimal assistance to become pie filling.

    Mordor begins at the Rockies…..

    “”We make slop ?”

    Paula Dean.

    I rest my case.

    John,
    “For me, one of the delights of summer is boiled sweet corn with butter and salt, eaten with mozzarella, grape tomatoes sliced in half, and il pesto (keeping oneself in fresh basil is just too hard).”

    That sounds sublime. And for the record, pesto as a dressing makes a better salad than raw chopped raw basil.

  26. The more you do to sweet potatoes, the less wonderful they are

    Ditto! But whenever I serve “garnet yams” sweet potatoes just grilled whole, someone would mention Cool Whip and Thanksgiving 🙂

    (As an aside, for me, the most economic way to feed US guests off the grill turned out to be to put emphasis on the sweet stuff like yams and fruit)

  27. Mordor begins at the Rockies

    Perhaps. But on which side?

  28. “Perhaps. But on which side?”

    Mordor lies to the east, in darkness. It is a land polluted by abuse and by searing, toxic fire. The air is filled with the stink of rust and burnt slag.

    IOW, Youngstown.

    Dmitry,

    The key with any sweet potato is slow, slow roasting. It takes time and you need to keep the temperature within a range that allows the enzymes to deactivate whatever it is that tastes a little sour in them. It doesn’t matter whether it is red garnets, yellow ones or the plain white ones. It’s true even for the purple ones.

    “(As an aside, for me, the most economic way to feed US guests off the grill turned out to be to put emphasis on the sweet stuff like yams and fruit)”

    We have a relative who comes out here from somewhere in New York State, and she says she “can take about three days of all this green food” and then she’s done.

  29. It turns out that the secret to keeping oneself in fresh basil is to resist the (American) urge to keep it in the refrigerator, where it turns black and slimy. If left out, it’s fine.

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