Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Names Matter

To take Hannah Arendt slightly out of context, language not only expresses what feel but determines what we feel.  A prime example is food.  Especially in the modern age when most people don’t raise their one food or often don’t even see a live animal aside the zoo, the source animal and the food on the plate are completely distinct in the people’s mind.  Theoretically and, for some people, practically, the thought of eating that cute rabbit or lamb takes the appetite away.

The culinary solution is to linguistically avoid connection.  The first way is to more accidental and historical than intentional.  Due to class and language issue in Norman English, where the French-speaking Normans enjoyed the “fruit” of the labor of the Anglo-Saxon speaking locals, the animal and derived meat had different names.  Cows, lambs, and pigs produced beef, mutton, and pork, respectively.  To be fair, saying out loud that you would like half of a pound of cow sound today a bit crude.

A more purposeful vocabulary shift is the purposeful development of alternative vocabulary to make certain foods more palatable.  Some examples include venison, sweetbread, tripe, and sausage / hot dog.  In animal terms, that means eating wild meat, generally deer, brain, intestines, and garbage meat in an edible bag, respectively.  As for the latter, how many kids would enjoy a hot dog if they knew what really was in it?

Modern culinary literature, i.e. the art of making it almost it impossible to understand what you are going to order, emphasizes foreign words because they sound exotic and induce no image in diners’ minds  concerning what is the source of their protein.  It sound so adventurous (and accordingly expensive) to eat les fruits de mer, escargots, canard, or calamari, to name a few.  To those who are afraid to ask, those lucky people are about to eat shellfish, snails, duck, and squid.  How delicious!  (Actually, they are in my opinion, but, as they say in French and most languages, chacun á son gout or to each his own).

So, when you go to that fancy restaurant and struggle to understand what exactly you should order (and are afraid to ask, as Woody Allen would say), remember, it is sometimes better to bluff your way and confidently order that mysterious item.  You might discover that brains are really tasty, or maybe not.

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