The Language of Food

The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

Yet another recommendation from Marginal Revolution. Cowen is a hardcore foodie, so I wasn’t surprised to see a post on this. The backbone of the book is Jurafsky’s blog. I read a few posts on there and figured the book would be interesting. It turned out to be full (almost too full) of information about how certain food terms and traditions came to be. Each chapter starts with a story about how SF is the greatest city on earth and then proceeds to dump dense information on the topic.

1) The entree usually refers to the first dish in France but the main dish in America.

In the 16th century, the entree began as a meaty dish served near the beginning of a meal. Over time, the order of dishes changed. For example, in the 17th century, the soup became the first dish. In the 18th century, the “a la francaise” style featured two main courses with all dishes served at once and hors d’oeuvres on the outside edges of the table. By the 19th century, “a la russe” became common and diners used minutes, which would eventually turn into menus. All in all, the French ended up keeping the “first” sense of the entree while Americans went for the “meat” part.

2) Ceviche, fish and chips, and tempura all originated from a Persian dish.

By the end of the book, it would feel like every dish in every country originated in Persia. The first such case study is the sikbaj, a vinegar-heavy fish dish. Jurafsky tells the story of how the dish spread throughout the Muslim world and by pirates to Europe. When it reached Peru, it became ceviche. Likewise, the Jews in Europe brought it to England as fish and chips and the Portuguese brought it to Japan, resulting in tempura.

3) Ketchup originated from a Chinese sauce.

This one was the highlight of the book for me. I can’t believe I hadn’t made the connection for 22 years. Ketchup, sounded out in Cantonese, literally means tomato sauce. However, the story is not that straightforward. It began with the Fujianese and their fermented fish sauce, which in Fujianese is also pronounced ketchup. They eventually brought it to Southeast Asia. From there, the British brought it to Europe and thus to America. At this point, ketchup was still not necessarily tomato based. It was in America where the trend towards sweeter sauces brought about the tomato ketchup.

4) Toast (bread) and toast (celebratory drink) are related.

In England, before the 17th century, people would put pieces of toast in their drinks for flavor and warmth. Also, host ladies were¬†called the toasts of the party. Eventually, toast took on the meaning of “toasting” to the host lady.

5) Turkeys are called turkeys because of an intentional trade secret.

The Portuguese imported guinea fowls from West Africa through the Ottoman Empire. These birds came to be called a bunch of names, one of which was turkey. At the same time, they were bringing back what Americans now think of as turkeys from America (evidence of turkeys as far back as the Aztecs). These two types of birds were put together at a trading center in Antwerp. Because the Portuguese didn’t want others to know about where and what they traded, the birds got mixed up. Thus we have our turkey.

6) Negative differentiation means that we have more words to describe specific cases of “bad”.

All happy families are the same. All unhappy families are different.

7) A word analysis of potato chip bags revealed that each negative word on the bag is correlated with four more cents per ounce.

Deny you’re bad. Deny you’re unhealthy. Gluten-free. Fat-free. No trans fat. No taste. No fun.

8) Flour came from “fleur”.

Fleur used to mean the best of something. When applied to a kernel of wheat, the fleur, which became flour, was the white powder that you get by processing the endosperm, considered the best part.

9) Macarons vs Macaroons vs Macaroni

I’m not sure if reading the book or writing about this will help me remember, and I don’t think Jurafsky did a great job laying out the story. It all started with the¬†lauzinaj from – again – the Persians. This almond-based pastry would somehow evolve via two separate routes – pastry and pasta. The French standardized the modern day macaron (also macaroon in America). Separately, Jews popularized coconut macarons in America. Yes I’m still confused.

10) Ice cream flavors tend to use more back vowel sounds.

Front vowels like “i” and “e” as in Cheezits and back vowels like “o” and “a” as in Rocky Road convey different connotations. Thick and creamy ice cream is usually desired, so a lot of ice cream flavor names have more back vowels.

Overall, the best part of the book is the juxtaposition of the evolution of words and the evolution of food, especially how globalization has contributed to the spread of certain dishes. Now that one can virtually eat any cuisine in major cities around the world, what’s next for the language of food?

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