Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ina Lipkowitz's "Words To Eat By"

Ina Lipkowitz is a Lecturer in MIT's Literature Department. Her research brings together her background in comparative literature and biblical studies with her interest in culinary history.

She applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, and reported the following:
I’m happy to report that Words To Eat By passes Ford Madox Ford’s test with flying colors. Page 99 presents a particularly fortuitous moment in the chapter “Leeks: Weeds or Vegetables?” It even sports a photo of a slender plant that, if you didn’t already know was a wild leek, you’d be far more likely to dismiss as a weed—especially when held up against the photo of the more familiar cultivated broad-leaved leek on the next page. Wondering when the wild leek was replaced by its cultivated variety, I consider the fuzzy distinction between weeds and vegetables. Tellingly, both our English word for vegetable and our assumption of what constitutes a vegetable derive from those master agriculturalists, the Romans. Not for us the foraged weodes of the Germanic-speaking peoples who once inhabited Britannia—and by weode, I mean both word and thing. In the contrast between the wild and the cultivated leek, we can see the vital collision of cultures at the heart of the book.

Drawing upon sources from Julius Caesar to Julia Child, Words to Eat By traces the stories of five of our most everyday foods and the names we know them by, highlighting the inextricable interweaving of what we put into our mouths and the sounds that come out of them. Although today we English speakers prefer sophisticated French and Italian food and their beautiful-sounding names—all of which derive from the Latin of the Roman conquerors—when we stay at home, the foods we cook and eat the most often, as well as the names we know them have remained staunchly Germanic: apples, leeks, milk, meat, and bread.

This split culinary personality is by no means a new phenomenon. From Caesar’s disparaging comments about the diet of the northern barbarians to the former French president Jacques Chirac’s joke at the expense of the English—“you can’t trust people who cook as badly as that”—we Northerners and English speakers have been the targets of derision for millennia. And we have so taken the barbs to heart that we have become our own worst enemies. We agree with Caesar and Chirac, we have made their attitudes our own, and we have come to prefer all things Italian and French. Yet the words that we English speakers have never stopped using to name our foods tell another story. As much as we may have been civilized over the centuries, we English speakers still eat with barbarian appetite.
Learn more about Words To Eat By at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue