Cultural Identity and the Language of Food
Food is integral to cultural identity and is as much a part of culture as religion and language. Indeed, some cultures elevate food to a level nearing, if not exceeding, the status of their religion. Because I love to cook, to combine flavors in a way that results in something unexpected and wonderful, this paper will discuss various words related to food. Not actual food words, but words surrounding food. Interesting words like “gastronomy” and “feast.” Often there is much symbolism related to these words; from the fundamental idea that to eat is to live to the possibility that there are religious connotations to the etymology of some of these words.
Given their reputation for affairs of the heart, as well as being the purveyors of cuisine, it is not surprising that many of our food words come from the French -- such as gastronomy, saute, banquet and garnish. “Gastronomy,” refers to the art or science of good eating. It comes from Greek French gastronomie, from Greek gastronomi, gastro-, + -nomi, -nomy. Its Indo-European root word, gras, (Shipley, 133) simply means to devour.
According to the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD), the word banquet has been fluctuating for a long time. The Old French word banquet, the likely source of our word, is derived from Old French banc, “bench,” ultimately of Germanic origin and originally from the Indo-European *bheg (Shipley, 31). The sense development in Old French goes from “little bench” to “meal taken on the family workbench” to “feast.” The AHD cites the English word banquet as first recorded in a work possibly composed before 1475 with reference to a feast held by the god Apollo, and it appears to have been used from the 15th to the 18th century to refer to the feasts of the powerful and the wealthy. Perhaps this association led a 19th-century newspaper editor to label the word “grandiloquent” because it was being appropriated by those lower down on the social scale. To garnish food at the banquet, one would decorate it with small colorful or savory items such as “garnished the fish with lemon.”
The lemon tree probably came from the north of India and reached the Mediterranean area towards the end of the 1st century C.E. The Oxford Companion to Food (OCF) tells us there was no Latin word for lemon and that the fruit was treated as a curiosity. The Arabs were responsible for cultivating the fruit and by the 4th century C.E., lemon orchards were in production in southern Europe. Arab traders introduced them to China where the name was li mung, clearly derived from the European term. During the Middle Ages, lemons were rare and expensive in Northern Europe but became plentiful enough in Italian kitchens by the late 16th century that they were commonly used as a garnish for fish. Lemons reached the New World, where there were no native citrus species, in 1493 and became established there within 20 years. It is ironic that the crews of the ships...