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Monday, March 19, 2012

Book Review: Words to Eat By

As with anything that people are passionate about, pizza generates a lot of debates. One of the perennial, and maybe silliest, debates, concerns what is, or is not, "pizza." This usually comes up in discussions of Chicago-style, deep dish pizza, but it also relates to any prepared food involving a bread-like base with one or more toppings (is a pita pizza, e.g., really pizza?).
There is, of course, no definitive answer to such questions. As much as we might like to think that words have black-and-white meanings, more often than not there's a gray area where reasonable people will disagree.
Still, words do matter, and that's particularly true of food. How many people who enjoy an occasional steak tartare would as willingly dig into "raw cow flesh"?
That connection between what we eat, and what we call it, is the underlying theme that drives Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, by Ina Lipkowitz. Lipkowitz, a literature professor at MIT with a concentration in biblical studies, examines, in some depth, five food categories, from a linguistic perspective: fruit (apples in particular), leeks, milk and dairy, meat, and bread.
The basic theme of Lipkowtiz's book is that the English language betrays a split cultural personality, between the language and heritage of the ancient Celtic and Germanic peoples who originally populated Northern Europe, and those of the Romans (and indirectly, their Greek forebears), who came later. That divide was echoed, and reinforced, centuries later, with the Norman invasion of Britain in the eleventh century.
The gist of this divide, according to Lipkowitz, is that the ancient Britons and Northern Europeans were not overly concerned with "preparing" food - in other words, with cooking - and that they tended to call food exactly what it was. Angles and Saxons ate flæsc (flesh); Normans ate meat.
Those kinds of terms also reflect what Lipkowitz describes as an inferiority complex among English speakers. We tend to think of Southern European and Mediterranean food (particularly French food) as superior to English, and by extension American, food. So - her theory goes - we're much more apt to order a cup of soupe a l'oignon than of the Scottish cock-a-leekie. And while we happily order a tarte aux pommes at our favorite fine-dining restaurant, at home we eat apple pie.
It all makes for interesting, if not necessarily compelling, reading. I can't say I agreed with all of Lipkowitz's assertions (and she does repeat the widely believed but false claim that Marie Antoinette uttered the phrase, "Let them eat cake"), but there is some fundamental truth to the notion that culinarily, we tend to be more impressed by French-sounding dishes. It's not that you can't find beef stew at a restaurant; it's that you're apt to find it at a "home cooking" type place, while boeuf Bourguignon shows up only at pricier, if not necessarily better, establishments.
Toward the end of the book, Lipkowitz recognizes that the pendulum has swung, a bit, in the other direction, as a subset of foodies strive to get back to what is perceived as "real," unadulterated food. But much of her text tends to be a variation of the same basic themes concerning the cultural divide evident in our culinary vocabulary. The premise is stated in the introduction, repeated in the five succeeding chapters, and recapitulated in the epilogue, which centers on the demise of Gourmet magazine.
If I have a complaint about this book, it's that repetitiveness. Lipkowitz writes well, and I found the etymology of our food-related words interesting, but after a while I began to weary of the reassertion, and reexamination, of the same fundamental ideas. While Words to Eat By is written at a level accessible by the average, non-specialist reader, then, I think it will mostly appeal to those with a particular combination of interests in food, cultural history, and linguistics.

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