good gravy. between putting this book down and losing it in my stacks to triumphantly finishing it after months and months of not knowing where it was only to have it be potentially compromised by the bedbug invasion which necessitated it be locked up in a bag for a month, it has now been over a year since i first picked this thing up and i am only now able to review it. and it’s not even 200 pages long. take out the pictures and the recipes, and it’s practically a magazine article.
i am the worst at reviewing.
but i really enjoyed this book, despite how long it took me to come to that conclusion. food and etymology are both inherently fascinating to me, and i still think with fondness of my undergrad etymology class and wish i’d studied it more in my academic career.
even though the book is brief, there’s a ton of useful information in it. for example, i finally learned why it’s called pain perdu. i mean, i knew the words meant “lost bread,” but for some reason i’d never made the (incredibly obvious) connection that you make it with bread that has gone stale. i always assumed it was “lost” under the rivers of butter and syrup i poured upon it.
there’s basically two different avenues explored here. one is tracing food through time and place and learning how it evolved into the food we know today, both in name and ingredients. the second focus is the one that really got my brain juices a-stirring, and it’s more about food and language with an advertising slant. one of the chapters focuses on the language used in menus throughout time and a mini-study on the relationship between the language used and the average price of the restaurant’s meals. so many subtle manipulations at play – the length and number of the words used, the use of french terms, the inclusion of the protein’s birthplace, the occurrence of “filler words,” the level of complicity the diner has in their own meal (i.e. – “your way” or “your choice.”) it’s fascinating stuff.
one of my assignments for library school was to research a local archive collection of my choosing and i chose the buttolph menu collection at the nypl. was i drawn to it because it had the word “butt” in it?? probably, but also because it was food-related, and i thought it would be really cool to handle old menus. the collection consists of more than 25,000 menus collected by the wonderfully eccentric miss frank e. buttolph, and it’s an amazing historical resource to study both menu design, menu writing, and the gustatory delights of the past. you can see the collection in digital form here.
so that chapter resonated with me even more for having had that experience.
there are other chapters in this vein covering the language used in junk-food advertising, the linguistic logic behind the names of things like “crackers” and “ice cream,” and how the words we use for certain kinds of foods mimic the way they feel in our mouths. (i will not say “mouthfeel.” i will not say “mouthfeel.”) and the most interesting (to me) chapter studies the words used in yelp reviews of restaurants, which looks at word-occurrence by gender, by type of restaurant, and by entrée vs dessert. the most revealing finding is that words with a sexual connotation: succulent, orgasmic, sumptuous, sensual, seductive – are most often applied to food at expensive restaurants while words with drug connotations: addictive, fix, “like crack”, “drug of choice” – are used for inexpensive foods; for guilty pleasures that we crave even though we know they are bad for us. and also that dessert and sushi are among the foods resulting in the most sexxytime words – again describing the way they feel in the mouth. and i still won’t say “mouthfeel.”
it’s fantastic stuff and very easy to read. there’s a bit too much of the personal anecdote dropped in, and it is very san francisco-centric, but there’s at least one entertaining, thought-provoking fact in each chapter, which is pretty good for a book about something as niche-y as food and linguistics.
and for all the instances of a groan-inducing pun:
The language of food helps us understand the interconnectedness of civilizations and the vast globalization that happened, not recently, as we might think, but centuries or millennia ago, all brought together by the most basic human pursuit: finding something good to eat. You might call it “EATymology.”
(you might, but you mustn’t.)
and the wide-eyed optimism:
I’d like to think that the lesson here is that we are all immigrants, that no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions. I guess we can only look forward to the day when the battles we fight are about nothing more significant than where to go for tacos.
there are some unexpected, appreciated connections. i mean, how often do you think tupac turns up in linguistic tomes?
Libations are still around too. Modern hiphop culture has a libationary tradition of “pouring one out” — tipping out malt liquor on the ground before drinking, to honor a friend or relative who has passed away – – described in songs like Tupac Shakur’s “Pour Out a Little Liquor.” (It’s especially appropriate that malt liquor, a fortified beer made by adding sugar before fermenting, is itself another descendent of shikaru.)
it’s definitely a good read for those of you who have an interest in the subject matter. you will learn about the connections and differences between macaroni, macaroons, and macarons and you will learn an awful lot about bread. and what “semantic bleaching” is. and why we use words of anglo-saxon origin for the animals we eat, like “pig,” “cow,” “hog,” “sow,” but words of french origin for the resulting meat: “veal,” “beef,” “pork.”
language is SO COOL!
stars cats rounded up for the really good parts.
oh my god – THAT’S where this book has been all this time!! resuming reading of it… NOW!