Eat Your Words, Really: ‘Words to Eat By’

It takes a special kind of nerd to be captivated by both linguistics and the history of food. Could this be you?

Well, does it interest you to know that our instinct to assume a dish with a French name will be sophisticated and sumptuous, while a dish with a German name will be hearty yet unrefined, has a history dating back more than 1,000 years? Or, ever wonder why an adult drinking a big glass of milk at a nice restaurant seems awfully strange, while sipping a latté is of the moment? Does the fact that English-speaking people use the word meat, even though flœsc (which became our “flesh”) was used for millennia, pique your curiosity?

If so, you are just the nerd that Ina Lipkowitz is writing for. And, as a literature lecturer at MIT, she is used to dealing with folks like you.

In Words to Eat By, Lipkowitz explores the history of five of the oldest words for food: apple, leek, milk, meat and bread. Her thesis is that despite mainstream America’s slavish adoration at the foot of all things French and Italian, what we really want, deep down, is a good ole pig pickin’. The proclivity to praise “gourmet” food but crave a hamburger has been bred into those of us of northern European descent since the B.C.s. And, according to Lipkowitz, this bias can be discerned in the words we use to talk about food.

Lipkowitz tells the story of the leek — which grows wild in northern Europe — as a way of showing the triumph of southern European cuisine, and its words, over the north. Instead of us considering onion a type of leek, we consider the leek a type of onion. The onion — a southern Europe native — needs to be cultivated, whereas the untamed leek grows without trying. This bolsters her point about how southerners felt the need to tame their food through cultivation and painstaking preparations, while northerners preferred simple servings based on what grew and lived around them. This same dichotomy persists today in how we view French food as fancy, and British food as basic pub fare (although don’t tell Heston Blumenthal).

Lipkowitz shows that apple was likely a generic word for all fruit in England, where it, and the berry, were the only native fruits. Although fruits were more bountiful in southern climes, there was a similar use of the term for apple (malum or pomum in Latin) as the basis for other fruit — hence potato in French is pomme de terre (“earth apple”) and in Italian tomatoes are pomodori (“golden apples”).

She then draws about her academic grounding in biblical literature to point out that the Genesis story never mentions an apple; instead God tells Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden. Why did apples become the forbidden fruit? One reason could be the general conflation between apples and all fruit. But Lipkowitz posits another theory. In Latin, there is a word that sounds very similar to malum and means evil — it is from this root that we get our words malice and malady.

Things are about to get even more interesting. There’s the question of timing — Why it is that the apple makes its appearance as the forbidden fruit in the early sixth century? Turns out this was around the time that the Pope began sending missionaries to the heathens up North, who revered apples in all sorts of pagan legends. As part of the Church’s efforts to undermine these pagan beliefs, the beloved apple was likely linked to sin for evermore.

It’s when Lipkowitz combines her deep knowledge of religion with her linguistic and culinary investigations that the book blossoms. These forays can sometimes seem like a bit tangential to her main thesis, but the overarching story of how a southern religion with key roles for grapes, olives and unleavened bread, and boasting 200 fast days where no meat, fish, eggs or daily could be eaten, confronted a pagan, apple-loving, dairy-dependent people in a place where grapes didn’t grow and bread was leavened by yeast from beer, is fascinating.

The story can ramble — an intellectual’s curiosity at work — and sometimes Lipkowitz repeats points with unremitting fervor. But I have little doubt that you linguistic food nerds will mind.

RATING 7 / 10