One specialized topic that’s always fascinated me within the large topic of language is food-related language; MMcM’s Polyglot Vegetarian has been a favorite for a long time (I keep checking on it even though it hasn’t been updated in months), and now it has a companion in Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food, which started auspiciously with a detailed post on the history of the word entrée and how it changed from meaning ‘a hot meat course eaten after the soup and before the roast’ to ‘main course’ in America and ‘first course’ in France. Since then he’s investigated ketchup and dessert. Keep up the good work, Dan! (Via the Log.)


  1. Charles Perry says

    I disagree about the fermented nature of Anglo-American ketchups 1750-1850. The recipes nearly always specify the addition of vinegar or wine, which would have prevented fermentation of the walnuts or mushrooms.
    True, proper soy sauce is made partly by fermentation, once the proteins and carbohydrates of the soybeans have been converted to amino acids and sugars by mold. In any case, the early English “ketchups” and “soys” (there was little difference, except that “soys” tended to be darker in color) made no attempt to follow Chinese practice. They were counterfeits of prestige products from the Orient. At the same period, mango pickle was being counterfeited from melons, peaches and cucumbers (in the U.S., bell peppers were so often used for fake mango pickles that in some places they were simply called mangoes).
    The first mention of soy in English, according to the OED, was John Ovington, “A Voyage to Suratt in 1689” (1696): “Suoy is the choicest of all Sawces.” As against the French, the English prided themselves on not making a wide variety of sauces but varying their two sauces (gravy and melted butter) with capers, mushrooms, lemon peel, green walnuts, anchovies, etc. So Englishmen like Ovington were fascinated by the idea of a ready-made flavoring for gravy or butter.
    That is how all the “ketchups” and “soys” were originally used — as Eliza Leslie wrote in “Directions for Cooking” (1851), “The usual way of eating these sauces is to pour a little on your plate, and mix it with the melted butter. They give flavour to fish that would otherwise be insipid, and are in general use at genteel tables.” Even tomato ketchup was originally used as a flavoring for butter or gravy.
    The idea that fermentation was involved comes, I think, from the fact that some 19th-century tomato ketchups did ferment, and people evidently accepted the resulting flavor, and from Karen Hess’s over-eager conclusion in her intro to Martha Washington’s cookbook that oyster ketchups represented a continuity with the ancient Roman fish sauce.

  2. Language, didn’t you mention another, similar blog in Paris, a little while ago, written by an American woman, I think?

  3. How perfect that you’ve posted about food and language! I’ve known that in Russian “oatmeal” can be обсяная каша and “геркулес”, but somehow it did not occur to me that the second is also their spelling of “Hercules”. It seems not far from calling spinach “Popeye”. Does anyone have any idea how this came about?

  4. Here it is, it’s called Chocolate and Zucchini, though it turns out to be more of a food blog.

  5. Does anyone have any idea how this came about?
    Russian Wikipedia says oats have always been thought of as giving strength in Russia (horses, after all, eat them), and Hercules is the prototypical strongman.

  6. Here it is, it’s called Chocolate and Zucchini, though it turns out to be more of a food blog.
    Yes, there’s also the scrumptious Caviar and Codfish, but I’m talking specifically about “language of food” blogs.

  7. Happy meals for her too!
    please donate and have a good day

  8. Russian Wikipedia says oats …
    Specifically, wasn’t Геркулес the dominant Soviet-era brand name?

  9. Outside Russia, who else besides MMcM would know the name of a Soviet brand of oats?

  10. thought of as giving strength in Russia (horses, after all, eat them)

    What would Dr. Johnson have thought?

    By the way, in my dialect “oatmeal” usually means the breakfast food made by cooking milled oats slowly in liquid. I have the impression that in some other places the milled oats are called “oatmeal” while the cooked preparation is called “(oatmeal) porridge”.
    As a young girl my wife was once offered porridge for breakfast by a family friend from Scotland. She replied, in indignant surprise: “Porridge is for bears!”

  11. Now that I go searching (as I should have before), I see that Hercules and Champion were pre-revolutionary brands. Here‘s an 1899 import duties report. So I guess that means it’s possible it’s a long-standing traditional association rather than a trade name converted to a common noun. Probably a Russian reader will know.

  12. John Emerson says

    The ketchup story is admirable, even though it shoots my own theory all to hell — I surmised that tomato ketchup was a Spanish imperial Filipino-Mexican hybrid.
    It still is an exotic oriental food, though, and foodies should quite sneering at it.

  13. marie-lucie says

    Where is it that bears eat porridge? Could it be in the story of The Three Bears?

  14. I’ve never heard of pigs eating oats, though it’s certainly possible. I believe does and mares eat oats. Little lambs, of course, eat ivy.

  15. Marie-Lucie: It is Goldilocks and the Three Bears, although technically the bears do not do any actual eating of porridge in the story itself.
    Over here they call porridge oats “havermout”, but it is considered so implausible anyone would eat it for breakfast that it features in this week’s English Week (at the supermarkt Lidl), along with unprecedentedly decent Cheddar.
    Small native children get served something porridgey (called “pap”) for breakfast, which comes from a cardboard box, is mixed with warmish water to form a thick paste which is then daubed liberally on anyone and anything within range.
    (What the locals really really don’t believe anyone would eat for breakfast is baked beans, which are a standard part of a traditional English fried breakfast which no one actually eats for breakfast, so a point to them on a technicality there.)

  16. m-l: Yes, many Americans’ first (only?) encounter with the word “porridge” is in the story of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”*
    Sauces: The old line was that France was a place with one religion and a hundred sauces while England had it backwards. We are now told that indeed the English at one time took positive pride (why? I wonder) in having only two sauces (one if you don’t count melted butter), but that that they also liked to get around this restriction** by adding stuff. Of course, nowadays tomato ketchup is a sauce in its own right, the sauce for some people, indispensible for some children I know, and the default sauce for “French fries” in my part of the world. I think that in some parts of the UK the default sauce for chips is a brown sauce called “brown sauce” or “sauce”. Progress. Plus ca change, de gustibus, O tempora, and other impressive sayings in languages I don’t know. Possibly also mutatis mutandis.
    (I should probably be working, but I’m hanging around with my little daughter***, who stayed home today with something like the flu, and I don’t feel so great myself.)
    * There ought to be a scholarly treatment of folk tales called Goldilocks and her Forebears.
    ** Not quite playing the game, if you ask me. Doesn’t sound very English, I mean to say.
    *** who is very far from being a one-sauce gal, by the way

  17. marie-lucie says

    baked beans for breakfast:
    I once spent a week at an international workshop in England, which took place (in the summer) in a boarding school where the participants stayed. I don’t have memories of the food, except for one morning when we sat down to a breakfast of baked beans and herring roe (I mean “soft roe”, the cooked version of milt). For the French group attending, that breakfast menu was quite astonishing.
    Here on the Canadian Atlantic coast, on Saturday mornings I often treat myself to a “fisherman’s breakfast” at the local farmers’ market: fish cakes, baked beans, hash browns and toast (I forgo the eggs that are normally served too). After such a breakfast you don’t want to eat again until the evening.
    Goldilocks: I have always thought that the girl’s name was Goldlilocks, but Wikipedia only says Goldilocks. The original folk story seems to be quite old, and to have gone through quite a number of retellings, each time becoming blander in content and style (except in Roald Dahl’s version).

  18. Speaking of strange breakfasts: Does anyone know where and when (tinned) spaghetti on toast originated? My first encounter with it was at a hotel in Suva, Fiji, on my way to Papua New Guinea (via Australia) for fieldwork. Does it date from the days when tin can cuisine dominated British colonial menus?
    I don’t mind baked beans, sauteed mushrooms, or other things out of a tin can on toast (even Spam once in a blue moon), but spaghetti does seem to be adding starch to starch, like the typical Hawaiian plate lunch with two scoops rice, one scoop macaroni salad (with two slivers of carrot for color), and spaghetti with meat sauce for the main course, with garlic bread on the side, of course.
    As someone with a fondness for homemade, hearty kimchee ramen for leisurely weekend breakfasts, I’m in no position to mock anyone else’s choice of morning gustibus.

  19. Little lambs, of course, eat ivy.
    A kid will eat ivy too, as I’m sure AJP can tell you, but I wouldn’t.
    in some parts of the UK the default sauce for chips is a brown sauce
    I have had a very nice diluted vinegar, like the one they use for fish; you shake it from a glass bottle with a hole in the top like the ones for soy sauce. The brown stains on the bag indicate freshness.
    I have only heard “Goldilocks”.

  20. beginning from 209-212 Adarsuren, love his songs
    213 Agiimaa i like her videoclip, i’ll post later when i find it
    beginning from 729 Badruugan i love his songs too, 859 Bayasgalan Botgon duu is a nice song
    1125 Bolormaa – Namrun ongo orloo eejee is my favourite
    i think for today it’s too many songs to listen 🙂

  21. wow, i posted what i meant to post at AJPC’s blog, sorry

  22. but if people are interested it was about this link
    if you click on the link ‘burtgegdsen bukh duu’ -Бvртгэгдсэн бvх дуу, all songs listed, there are 6000 mp3s of our music you can listen to
    It’s in the main menu on the left, the fifth one from the bottom, in Cyrillic
    and i described above which songs i like

  23. David Marjanović says

    (What the locals really really don’t believe anyone would eat for breakfast is baked beans, which are a standard part of a traditional English fried breakfast which no one actually eats for breakfast, so a point to them on a technicality there.)

    I have personally witnessed an Englishman eating baked beans as part of his breakfast. OK, it was in a hotel, but it was in Bristol.
    Ils sont fous, les… !!!

  24. I think that just shows he was a German spy.
    DvB: Small native children get served something porridgey (called “pap”) for breakfast, which comes from a cardboard box, is mixed with warmish water to form a thick paste which is then daubed liberally on anyone and anything within range.
    I don’t know about Dutch, but as you may know pap actually means cardboard in Norwegian.
    ‘Herkules’ is also a cheap brand of Italian pneumatic firewood-splitter. For people with Italian pneumatic firewood to split.
    I’ve never seen goats eat ivy, but they’re very fond of lily-of-the-valley.

  25. Three-Star Porridge
    The members of this [live] board were very sage, deep, philosophical men; and when they came to turn their attention to the workhouse, they found out at once, what ordinary folks would never have discovered – the poor people like it! It was […] a public breakfast, dinner, tea,and supper all the year round[. …] So, they established the rule, that all the poor people should [be] starved by a gradual process in the house, or by a quick one out of it. With this view, they contracted with the waterworks to lay on an unlimited supply of water; and with a corn-factor to supply periodically small quantities of oatmeal; and issued three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll on Sundays.
    [. . .]
    The room in which the boys were fed, was a large stone hall, with a copper at one end: out of which the master […] ladled the gruel at meal-times. Of this festive composition, each boy had one porringer, and no more – except on occasions of great public rejoicing, when he had two ounces and a quarter of bread besides.
    [. . .]
    The [decisive] evening arrived; the boys took their places. […] The gruel disappeared; the boys whispered to each other, and winked at Oliver; while his next neighbours nudged him. Child as he was, he was desperate with hunger, and reckless with misery. He rose from the table; and advancing to the master, basin and spoon in hand, said, somewhat alarmed at his own temerity, –
    “Please, sir, I want some more.”
    Oliver Twist, Chapter II

  26. Hello from Russia!
    Can I quote a post in your blog with the link to you?

  27. Yes, of course! You might give me a link to your post; I always enjoy checking out Russian blogs.

  28. “adding starch to starch”: Joel, I can only suppose that you’ve never had Curried Spaghetti on Rice with Chips.

  29. That reminds me of my astonishment when I found out that Russians eat bread with every hot meal, even with pancakes.

  30. John Cowan says

    My wife eats toast with every breakfast, and would eat hot bread with every dinner, if I were willing to make it, which I’m not. (She’s a great baker, but you can’t knead bread dough with severe arthritis.)

  31. Trond Engen says

    My wife once had to help an Italian tourist at the next table explain to the German waiter that he wanted some bread with the spaghetti.

  32. Perfectly normal. We ate spaghetti seasoned with butter and breadcrumbs when I was a kid. No weirder than steak and eggs.

    That said, trendy Israeli-American chef Eyal Shani has recently introduced his new invention, spaghetti bolognese in a pita pocket. From what I read in the Israeli press, that is seen as the worst, or barely the second worst thing that has happened in the world all year.

  33. John Cowan, no-knead bread is really as easy as its popularity makes it out to be.

  34. @Trond: yes, traditionally the only hot dishes in Germany one ate with bread were soup and maybe stew (Eintopf). But things have become better in the last 20 years or so, you now get bread without too much discussion if you ask for it even in non-ethnic restaurants. But quite often the default bread you get is still a half-piece (triangle) of soggy un-toasted toast.

  35. David Marjanović says

    …in other words, cheap but exotic bread, not what you’d actually eat for breakfast or supper or a Bavarian Brotzeit.

    the only hot dishes in Germany one ate with bread

    And then there’s cheating, i.e. Thüringer Klöße – potato dumplings with a breadcrumb inside because they didn’t have enough potatoes or something. ~:-| If you want breadcrumbs in your dinner, be honest and make Semmelknödel, damnit. They’re delicious if homemade.

  36. Watch your words. 🙂
    My grandma was from Thüringen and her dumplings were delicious, including the bread filling.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Erdäpfelknödel without the bread filling are better, though.

  38. Searching Wiki for kaari has thrown up ‘catfish’. Googling for it has brought me to
    this page:

    Kaari is the Malayalam word for Cat Fish or Catfish.

  39. If I ever found a university, it will have a department (a kathedra) of edible etymologies.
    One of the responsibilities of the research stuff will be cooking, of course.

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