Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Review: Words to Eat By

I like reading in general, but I especially like narrative non-fiction that aims to teach me something I didn't know. When I received a clever pitch titled "Pork Chops Not Pig Chops," I had to bite (ha!). The book, Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language,is so much more than our finicky little preferences for "pork" vs. "pig"- covering ancient history, religious oppression, political rebellion, and the long-standing inferiority complex English speakers have had regarding Italian and French cooking.

Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

Words to Eat By identifies five common foods - apples, leeks, milk, meat and bread - and traces the origins of the words English speakers use for them, and how the word usage varies for both common and sophisticated uses for these items. Consistently, she finds that our ancestors clung to the Old English or Germanic ("low language") words to describe foods that frequently the conquering cultures disparaged as "barbaric," but adopted the French, Italian, or Latin-inspired ("high language") words to describe dishes that were more in line with class, privilege, and elitism. It continues to this day - consider Au Bon Pain, which can charge more for the same sandwich than a shop called Nice Bread, or foie gras which sounds much more appetizing than "fatty liver" (even though that's exactly what it means and is).

I learned something new from each section, and was both fascinated and horrified by the history I found there, particularly the religious history concerning food traditions and holidays and how adaptable the invaders were to transforming the local customs into ordained Church events, with all the control that would have afforded them. Here were some of my favorite tidbits:

Apple - Apples are one of the most cultivated foods on the planet. Apple trees must be germinated with the seeds from a different variety, so it's almost impossible for consistently tasty apples to be produced in nature. Left to their own devices, apples would all revert to producing tiny, sour crabapples in fairly short order.

Leek - Leeks are so closely related to onions and garlic that it's a huge wonder I don't much like them. I think maybe I've been doing not-great things with them, and I'm going to try some other recipes. I find leeks to have a very pungent and sharp flavor, when supposedly they are milder than onions.

Milk - The phrase "Milky Way Galaxy" is redundant. It is so named for the Greek myth of Hera, who was tricked into suckling her husband Zeus's child-from-a-mortal-mama. When she found out, she flung the baby from her breast and the resulting spray of milk can still be seen across the sky as our galaxy. The word galaxy comes from the Greek word gala, meaning milk.

Meat - The word we used to use was "flesh" but this was passed over for the less-connotative "meat". In addition to trying to downplay what the stuff actually is, we also change the name of the creatures we eat: pork vs. pig, beef vs. cow, veal vs. calf, and so on (no explanation, unfortunately, about why our poultry tends to retain their given names). There was a reporter once who obtained some healthy human meat (without violence) and cooked and ate it in the name of science, and it was astounding how absolutely horrifying that section was to read, and even to type out here - even referring to it as "meat" is weird, knowing  it came off a person.

Bread - The distinction between leavened and unleavened bread is made in many other languages and for many reasons, dating back to biblical times. The word "loaf" that we use to describe the shape of bread comes to us straight from the Middle Ages, when our English-speaking ancestors discovered that putting a bakery near a brewery tended to result in fluffy, tasty hlafs.

If I had to name one complaint about the book, I would say that it's a bit wordy in terms of reiterating the author's point about the English-speaker's inferiority complex regarding food and language. I was totally willing to buy in from page one, and her research easily convinced me by the second chapter - so I got a little annoyed at being reminded of her thesis so frequently.

Other than that, however, I really loved this book and will be recommending it to others I know who like their books with a little meat on the bone, as it were. I found myself inserting little "did you know?" comments in my emails all week as I read it, which is always a good sign. This book will go on my list of great food writing books as not dessert - fluffy, entertaining and soon forgotten - but as an entree - filling, nourishing, and with a good stick-to-your-bones staying power, along the lines of A History of the World in Six Glasses. Highly recommended.

I received a free digital copy of this book for review. This is no way affected my opinion of the contents.


  1. I think I may just add this to my list of books to read, although that bit about eating human meat is a little scary to think about.

    On another note, was the Princess Bride quote intentional? and I hope someone else picked up on it. (or maybe I've seen that movie too many times...)

    1. Well, that section was short, so I'd definitely add it to your to-read list!

      I should have instated a prize for anyone who recognized the Princess Bride line. There is no such thing as seeing that movie too many times...:)

  2. Interesting. I love words (and etymology), and I love food. I should probably check this out. I love to wonder about the origin of certain words, but I never thought about how that applies to food.

  3. That was a well written review and you made it sound like a fascinating book.

    P.S Have you ever made a leek, mushroom and chicken pie? It is one of my favourite winter dinners. Chicken and leek stroganoff and leek and potato pies are delicious too.


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