English food words tell a remarkable story about the evolution of our language and culinary history, revealing a collision of cultures from the time Caesar first arrived on British shores to the present day.Words to Eat By explores the stories behind five of our most basic food words, words which reveal our powerful associations with certain foods. Using sources that range from Roman histories to Julia Child's recipes, Ina Lipkowitz shows how saturated with French and Italian names the English culinary vocabulary is. But the words for our most basic foodstuffs--bread, milk, leek, meat, and apple--are still rooted in Old English. Words to Eat By will make readers reconsider the foods they eat and the words they use to describe them. Brimming with information, this book offers an analysis of our culinary and linguistic heritage that is as accessible as it is enlightening.
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St. Martin's Press
July 01, 2011
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Excerpt from Words to Eat By by Ina Lipkowitz
Fruit and Apples
"Dare to Say What You Call Apple"1
Infants sought the mother's nipple as soon as born; and when grown, and able to feed themselves, run naturally to fruit.
--John Evelyn, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699)
The Apple. This useful fruit is mentioned in Holy Writ; and Homer describes it as valuable in his time. It was brought from the East by the Romans, who held it in the highest estimation.... The best varieties are natives of Asia, and have, by grafting them upon others, been introduced into Europe. The crab, found in our hedges, is the only variety indigenous to Britain; therefore, for the introduction of other kinds we are, no doubt, indebted to the Romans.
--Beeton's Book of Household Management (1861)
England, you see, is much too far north for fruits to come to fullest flavor. Her grapes are anticlimaxes. Her apricots, apologies. So the British, long ago, learned to add the lost sun to her fruits through fire and coals. Hence she has given the world its best jams.
--Robert P. Tristram Coffin, "British Breakfast" (1948)
THE JOY OF FRUIT
In one of the books I used to read to my children when they were still young enough to be read aloud to, a little girl enlists the help of a wise but prodigal rabbit in choosing a birthday gift for her mother. When she confesses that she can't possibly afford the emeralds and rubies he suggested, he turns to Plan B: peas and spinach. "'No,' said the little girl. 'We have those for dinner all the time.'" At last they resolve on a basket of fruit. "So she took her basket," the story ends, "and she filled it with the green pears and the yellow bananas and the red apples and the blue grapes. It made a lovely present."2 Obviously the story is meant to teach children about colors: rubies and apples are red, emeralds and pears are green. To my mind, though, it teaches another, equally important lesson. Fruit makes a better gift than vegetables. The book doesn't have to tell us why because we already know. We like fruit better than vegetables. It's sweeter. We don't have to work for it. We don't have to cook it. All we have to do is pick and eat. Fruit promises and delivers immediate gratification--how many things in life can that be said of? Even a child knows that fruit gives us a happiness all the cauliflowers, peas, spinach, and turnips in the world can never hope to match.
What neither the rabbit nor the little girl in the children's book can possibly know, however, is that the very word they use to name all those pears, bananas, apples, and grapes had its origins in happiness. The Latin fructus, from which our own word gradually evolved, came to refer to fruit as years went by, but it began life as a form of the verb fruor, which meant "to have pleasure" or "to enjoy." How appropriate is that? And fruit's origins in happiness go further back still. Long before the Romans were around to enjoy their fructi and long before the Greeks who preceded them, there were people who spoke a language believed today to be the mother of somewhere between a third and a half of all the world's languages. Greek, Latin, the Romance, Germanic, and Celtic languages, not to mention the Baltic, Slavic, Indian, and Iranian ones and many more, all trace back to that ancient tongue that linguists have painstakingly reconstructed and christened Proto-Indo-European.
Somewhere between 6000 and 4500 BC, linguists infer, these Proto-Indo-European-speaking people lived in a cold northern landlocked world, probably somewhere in the Eurasian steppes north of the Black Sea and as far east as Kazakhstan. Thus it was that they had a word for snow (sneigwh), but no name for the ocean. Of trees they knew the beech and the birch (bhago and bher g); of animals, the wolf and the bear (wlkwo and bher); of fruits, the apple and cherry (abel and ker). Just about the only sweetness (swad) these ancient people would have known would have come from honey or from fruit that was ripe and juicy. Lacking sugar--which wasn't to become available until many centuries later--they would have early learned to treasure sweetness as a rare joy in a way that we Americans can hardly imagine today with our estimated average sugar consumption of more than 150 pounds per year. Who can be surprised, then, that bhrug, the Proto-Indo-European root word that lies behind fructus, and, consequently, behind fruit, referred to both agricultural produce and enjoyment? In its almost forgotten harvest metaphor, our modern phrase "to reap the benefits" suggests the same idea of fruitful enjoyment. Apparently, to both the early Proto-Indo-European peoples and to those of us who speak a language derived from theirs, fruit provides such an unsurpassable pleasure that its very name evokes happiness.
However much we may enjoy our eggplants, string beans, and rutabagas, they simply don't give us the same effortless delight. Since the gustatory pleasure that beets and cabbages offer is far and away outstripped by their sheer ability to grow and even thrive under the toughest conditions, they received their name from the Latin vegere, "to animate," which, in turn, traces back to the Proto-Indo-European weg, "to be strong, lively, or vigilant." Our English wake up comes from that same ancient root. For centuries parents have been coaxing children to eat their peas and carrots so that they will grow up to be big and strong, but few of those parents realized that the very word vegetable is as closely related to vigilance as peas and carrots are to bodily vigor.
As parents have long realized, though, it's a lot more fun to be happy than it is to be vigilant, and it's a lot easier to get children to eat watermelon than spinach. No Popeye is needed to make them eat fruit.3 As the English writer and gardener John Evelyn astutely observed more than three centuries ago, children are naturally drawn to fruit. More recently, scientists have determined that we're born preferring the sweetness of berries, grapes, and nectarines to turnips, radishes, and brussel sprouts because more often than not sweet foods provide the vitamin-rich nutrients and carbohydrates our bodies require without the bitterness that our species has been bred to associate with poison. But parents don't need scientists to tell them why their children eat fruit. They eat it not because it's good for them, but because it tastes so good.
I'm not as concerned with nutrition or the physiology of taste, however, as I am with the connections between our foods and the names we know them by, so it's inevitable I would be struck by how wonderfully appropriate it is that our feelings about the sweet and savory plants we eat should be so beautifully mirrored in these names. I know of course that our preference for fruit has long been shared by people whose names for it don't express their delight quite as neatly as our English one does. All you have to do is think of one of the first stories in the Bible. There's absolutely no relationship in Hebrew between the words for fruit and pleasure, but it's clear nonetheless that whoever wrote the story of the Garden of Eden liked fruit a whole lot more than vegetables: it's not about forbidden vegetables, after all. There was no need to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the herbs of the field, but the writer knew just what he was up to when he had God test them by putting a particularly alluring fruit within easy arm's reach and then telling them not to eat it.
The writer knew something else as well. Unlike fruit, most vegetables require work. Although we may fantasize about a seemingly endless succession of lazy days in Eden, vegetables needed to be tended even there. We might forget this fact, but it's no fault of the fruit-loving writer who made it abundantly clear that even in Eden, the vegetable beds had to be nurtured: "The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it." Curious, then, that we so rarely see tidy rows of lettuces, leeks, and fennel in the thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting the flora of Eden. You have to look long and hard for a single image of a broad bean or a lettuce, but our museums are bursting at the seams with paintings of grapes, berries, figs, pomegranates, and apples. Obviously writers and painters over the centuries have long known what the wise rabbit and the little girl from the children's book came to realize as they assembled their basket of bananas and pears. Not too many of us would risk expulsion and death for a cabbage and it's a lot easier to believe that the wily serpent tempted Eve not with a rutabaga but with a juicy red apple ripe for the plucking from a low-hanging branch.
It's for this reason that so many of our poems and paintings of paradise feature fruit rather than labor-intensive vegetables. There's not a single turnip, beet, or other vegetable in Hieronymus Bosch's masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, but the Dutch master sure filled his canvas with fruit, most notably, gargantuan strawberries. In fact, the painting was originally registered under the title "The Picture with the Strawberry-Tree Fruits." In an equally fruit-filled vision of Eden, the seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell conjured up an omni-ripe paradise in which there was no need to even pick the apples, the grapes exploded themselves on the tongue, nectarines and peaches dangled from laden tree boughs, and fragrantly perfumed melons littered the landscape. Note that there's not a single mention of a bean or a cabbage in this stanza from "The Garden":
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarene, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Whether their fruit words are etymologically related to happiness or not, people have just always seemed to prefer nectarines and peaches to lima beans and parsnips. The Bible certainly didn't need the linguistic correspondence to know that fruit would be a lot harder to resist than herbs.
But the author of the Eden story had something very important in common with the Romans whose fructus so perfectly expressed their delight in dates and figs: they were both from the Mediterranean where the sun shines and all manner of fruit grows easily. Grapes, pomegranates, figs, citron, mulberries, elderberries, peaches, pears, quinces, and apricots are all featured in the oldest known cookbook, the first-century Roman gourmet Apicius' De re coquinaria (On the subject of cooking).4 Many of the same fruits appear in the Bible as well. From the fig leaves that God sews into loincloths to cover the suddenly modest Adam and Eve to the grapes of wrath that will be trampled in the apocalyptic days to come, the biblical stories are veritable cornucopias of fruit.
When those fruit-obsessed Mediterranean peoples headed north, however--first the Romans to conquer the known world and later the Christians to convert that same known world--they brought with them not only their words but their sweet tooth as well. What even they, powerful as they were, weren't able to bring was their balmy southern weather and bright meridian sunshine. If they wanted to dine the way they were used to dining or bless the way they were used to blessing, they had to bring their prized foods with them--or at least the knowledge of how to grow those foods so far up north--because when they arrived at the bleak and windswept shores at the very end of the world, what they discovered was a far cry from the cultivated gardens and orchards back home. About the only fruit they found was what botanists today call the Malus sylvestris--the humble little wild crab apple that existed before any grafting or horticultural improvement had transformed it into the large, sweet, juicy fruit that comes to mind today when we hear the word apple.
It is striking that of all the fruits Andrew Marvell named in his ode to Eden--apples, grapes (the less poetic way of saying "the luscious clusters of the vine"), nectarines, peaches, melons--only one is native to Britain: the apple. Perhaps it's because of England's lack of fruit that he had to imagine, rather than actually eat, those more exotically scented nectarines and peaches. One doesn't need to be much of an expert to know that most fruits hail from sunny climates. The apricot, peach, plum, nectarine, cherry, and citrus all originated in the East. None of the fruits we so enjoy today--with two notable exceptions--is native to either England or its language. All owe their existence on British soil and their English names to other peoples, whether conquerors, traders, gardeners, or missionaries. Behind each of the names, then, lies a story of immigration.
Consider, for instance, the story of how the apricot made it to England and into our language. In Latin, it was a praecocum, literally, "the precocious one," on account of its tendency to ripen before the peach or the plum. The Byzantine Greeks adapted the word as berikokken and the Arabs as birquq. By the time the Moors arrived in Spain, it had acquired the definite article al--thus, albirquq--and it is from the resulting Spanish albaricoque that the other European languages derive their names for the precocious fruit. In 1542, Henry VIII's gardener, Jean Le Loup, introduced the fruit to England from Italy where it was called albercocco; its earliest English name, abrecock, was used into the eighteenth century. The modern -cot ending, finally, was borrowed from the French abricot, and the ap- beginning probably resulted from the mistaken belief that the word derived from the Latin apricus, "sunny."5
Similarly meandering histories lie behind so many of the fruits we eat every day. The orange that provides the juice most of us drink each morning traces back through the French orange to the Spanish naranja to the Arabic naranj to the Persian narang and ultimately to the Sanskrit naranga. The lemon was brought to Europe in the thirteenth century by Crusaders on their return from the Holy Land, where it was called limah in Arabic. The quince comes to us from the Old French cooin, the Latin cotoneum and, more remotely still, from the Greek melon Kudonion, literally, "apple of Cydonia," which is today's Chania, a town in Crete known for its quince.
India, the Persian Gulf, the Greek Isles--sunny locations all. But as everyone knows, from the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, who described the typical English weather as "wretched, with its frequent rains and mists," to the present-day tourist, the British Isles would be hard put to boast of cloudless climes and sunny skies.6 Neither, consequently, can they boast of fruit. Although its mild climate and rich soil were ideal for wheat--to such a degree that in the fourth century, Britain was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire--the island is rarely sunny enough to grow much fruit other than crab apples and wild berries. It stands to reason, then, that our word for the entire class of sweet plant foods should have come to us from Latin. In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Romans planted vineyards in southern England, thus inaugurating the British wine industry, which is still four hundred vineyards strong today. They even managed to get peach, plum, and fig trees to grow in enclosed gardens. No wonder that our names for these imported fruits echo Latin nomenclature: peach is a late adaptation of malum persicum, plum derives from prunum, and fig from ficus. The Romans were masterful gardeners, and they looked down imperiously at those unhorticultural northerners who, as Tacitus noted in his treatise on the tribes north of the Rhine, "do not plant orchards, fence meadows, or irrigate gardens."7 Apparently the people who lived in Britain before the Romans arrived--the Celts--were content enough with their wild apples and berries, or at least they couldn't have missed what they never knew. The Germanic people who took over the island from the Celts were similarly northern and consequently didn't have much fruit either. They did have a word that referred to fruit, but it was entirely ousted by its Latin counterpart fructus and it has no contemporary English descendants whatsoever. Who today can even pronounce the strange-looking westm, On the other hand, we still use Anglo-Saxon names for the two fruits indigenous to England: the apple and the berry, barely changed from aeppel and berie of more than fifteen hundred years ago.
Yet although the names look familiar, it isn't entirely clear what they once referred to. Berie could have meant any small round juicy fruit. Grapes, for instance, which the Romans introduced to Britain, were known in Old English as winberige, literally, "wineberries." And while aeppel seems a straightforward enough word today, it very well might have been closer in meaning to our general term fruit than to the more specific designation apple; if one's only tree fruit is the apple, one hardly needs to be very precise. Precision is a tricky word to use in the context of apples anyway, since unlike most other fruits and vegetables, they do not necessarily resemble their parents. Because apple blossoms can be fertilized only by the pollen of other apple varieties, wild apple trees (ones that have grown from seeds, that is) do not share the genetic structure of the mother tree. You simply never know what you're going to get if you plant an apple seed and let nature run its course. Geneticists refer to this unpredictability as heterozygosity. Cultivated apple trees, on the other hand, are the result of the grafting process first developed by the ancient Chinese, who figured out how to replicate the features they most liked from a given fruit. The knowledge spread to the Greeks and later to the Romans, who concocted hundreds of varieties not originally found in nature. Today, apple blossoms are intentionally fertilized with selected pollen to produce fruit with exactly the qualities we like the most: sweetness and juiciness, size and color. Without such human intervention, "each tree would constitute its own distinct variety," notes food writer Edward Behr.8 A millennium and a half ago in northern Europe, there was no human intervention whatsoever. Wild apples would have grown freely, and consequently there would have been an almost infinite variety of apples of all different sizes, colors, shapes, and tastes. What would have allowed a person who lived back then and who obviously knew nothing about genetics or binomial nomenclature the understanding to lump together under a single name this ping-pong-ball-sized hard green fruit with that grapefruit-sized soft red one? Short of some Platonic idea of apple, what could have accounted for the ability to recognize that two differently colored and sized tree fruits were one and the same species? No wonder the Old English aeppel was such an ambiguous word, either exclusively designating members of the genus malus or, more largely, referring to any tree fruit at all.
But the word can be traced further back still; in fact, it has one of the most ancient fruit names in existence today. The region that is usually identified as the primordial home of the oldest known apple trees, modern-day Kazakhstan, is the same region linguists believe to be the home of those long-ago Proto-Indo-European peoples who brought their words with them as they dispersed to places as far-flung as India and Iceland. One such word sounds remarkably familiar to modern ears: abel. It lives on in many of today's apple words: the German Apfel, the Danish aeble, the Dutch appel, the Russian iablokaa, the Polish jablko, the Welsh afal, the Irish abal, the Cornish aval, and, of course, our own English apple. In many of the European languages, whether living or dead, apple words share the root letters ap, ab, af, or av from so many eons ago. Many, but not all--not those derived from Greek or Latin.
In the Mediterranean, apple words lack the a's, b's, p's, and v's of northern Europe. Instead, m and l dominate, as in the Greek melon, Latin malum, Italian mela, and Albanian molle. The southern names trace back to a different Proto-Indo-European root: melon. It's easy for us to confuse the ancient melon with our modern word for cantaloupes, honeydews, and crenshaws, but all those millennia ago, it seems to have referred either to what we know as the apple, or, on the other hand, to any seed- or pit-bearing fruit. Ultimately we may never know precisely what melon once designated any more than we know what abel once referred to. Whether derived from the southern m and l sounds or from the northern ap, ab, af, and av sounds, apple words have always been fuzzy terms, virtually indistinguishable from the entire class of fruit. Fuzziness aside, however, they are and apparently always have been inextricably bound up with what we might call "fruitness." Studies have shown that when asked to draw a picture of a house, most children will sketch a center-entrance, two-story colonial, even if they live in a ranch, a split-level, or a Cape Cod house. Apples are the colonials of the fruit world, so to speak, whether in the Mediterranean, where almost any new fruit was regarded as a type of melon, or in northern Europe, where the apple was about the only fruit able to survive. Without apples, we would of course have our other fruits, but we wouldn't be calling them by the names we do. We'd still be eating melons, peaches, pomegranates, and pineapples, but we'd be calling them something else. I'll explain.
One of the earliest written mentions of apples appears in Homer's Odyssey, in the description of an island orchard on which the Greek hero Odysseus is washed ashore. The epic having been written in Greek, the word used was melon, which is usually translated as apple, but it might equally have referred to any other kind of tree fruit. It's our historical vantage point that understands melon to mean apple. We know what the word evolved into--milon is apple in modern Greek--and so we transplant our own understanding back to Homer's time. But we don't really know what the blind bard had in mind. Nor do we know whether the legendary golden apples of the Hesperides were apples, at all, or whether it might have been oranges or quinces that waylaid the fleet-footed Atalanta as she raced to preserve her virginity. Perhaps the best we can do is think of the ancient Greek melon as an "apple-fruit" and call it a day.
The fuzziness of the Mediterranean m and l words explains why so many strange new fruits--and even sometimes vegetables--were given names based on them. In both Greek and Latin, for instance, melons were melopepon, literally, "ripe apple-fruit." The Romans called the pomegranate a malum punicum, or Punic apple-fruit, and the peach a malum persicum, or Persian apple-fruit. As the centuries rolled by, malum persicum was shortened to persica, from which Italian derived its pesca, French its peche, and English its peach--all traces of malum virtually invisible to the naked eye but still detectable with a powerful enough lens.
The same haziness applied to a later fruit word that entered Latin most likely from the language of the mysterious Etruscan people who lived in the area of today's Tuscany. Pomum, obviously related to Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and orchards, entered the language after malum had already been firmly established as a leading fruit word.9 Once again, it's easy to assume the word meant apple; after all, in today's French pomme means precisely that and it's clear where the French got their word. But originally, pomum had no such tidy reference. Pomona derived her name from all the fruits in the gardens and orchards she tended so lovingly, not from any one in particular.