Speak pipe

22.1.09

language of food love

When I first heard the cooking term meaning "to cut thin strips or shreds of vegetables" (literal translation: "made of rags"), I had to say it out loud. And then again. And then once more.

Chiffonade. Shihf-uh-NAHD. What a lovely sounding word.

Alone, it could make a person want to rush out and buy a head of escarole, just to keep it in one's aural memory.

Only a wordsmith who likes to cook could be so moved, I suppose. But then, words and food consume much of my waking hours - and happen to be two of my favorite things.

Chiffonade is far from the only pretty-sounding food word, words that seem to roll off your tongue in soothing notes. I'd put all of these in the same category:

Fromage. Aubergine. Baba ghannouj. Quinoa. Vichyssoise. Bechamel.

Froh-MAHZH. Oh-behr-ZHEEN. Bah-bah gha-NOOSH. KEEN-wah. Vihsh-ee-SWAHZ. Bay-shah-MEHL.

Whisper one of these in your loved one's ear and she'll melt in your arms. Name your firstborn after one of them and you'll be forgiven the bold departure. (Well, maybe not for Vichyssoise. . . . )

All in the name of fun, I've compiled a few random musings on words and food. (See 4G for the meanings of select words mentioned below.)

Silly-sounding food words. These words are all fun to say out loud. Try it . . . with exaggerated enunciation. I guarantee you'll feel better.

Syllabub. Blini. Fricassee.

Huitlacoche (wheet-lah-KOH-chay). Jicama (HIC-uh-muh; think hiccup). Moussaka.

Ratatouille (ra-tuh-TOO-ee or ra-tuh-TWEE - you pick). Frittata. Tzatziki. Saganaki ("Opa!").

Commonly misspelled food words. Spelling snobs live for the chance to show they can spell words like these.

Bouillabaisse (don't forget that first "i"). Hors d'oeuvre (just memorize it). Smorgasbord (not "board").

Muffuletta (two Fs, two TTs, two Us). Parmigiano (an I, not an A, follows the M). Sarsaparilla (two Rs, four As).

Turmeric (two Rs). Sherbet (no second R).

Don't confuse these. Some pairs of food words sound just enough alike to make you stop and think before you cook.

Cannelloni / cannellini (the first is a pasta, the second a bean). Enoki / gnocchi (a delicate mushroom and a small Italian dumpling). Ragout / ragu (a thick French stew and a northern Italian meat sauce).

Chamomile / Camembert (a soothing tea and a French cheese). Kedgeree / kimchee (an English breakfast dish with smoked fish and Korean fermented cabbage). Mulligan stew / mulligatawny soup (a catchall "hobo" stew of meat and vegetables and a highly seasoned soup from south India).

Pepperoni / pepperoncini (a beloved pizza sausage and an antipasto pepper).

How do you pronounce it? People worry far too much about sounding uncultured.

Bruschetta: Say it either way, broo-SKEH-tah or broo-SHEH-tah. Crepe: likewise, KREHP or KRAYP will do. Geoduck (GOO-ee duhk). Worcestershire (WOOS-tuhr-shuhr). Herb (the Brits pronounce the H; it's OK).

Get it right. Don't mix languages, please!

It's amandine (as in green beans amandine), not almondine.

Call it beef burgundy or boeuf bourguignon, but not beef bourguignon.

Speaking of beef . . . How it is that in English, we have different words for the animal and the meat?

Blame the French.

The Norman Conquest in 1066 brought the words mouton (sheep), porc (pig) and boeuf (ox) across the Channel. At the table, the French nobility who settled on the island used these same words for the meat put before them, which in time morphed into mutton, pork and beef. Likewise, the French word veneson, meaning "the game we just hunted," came to mean deer meat.

But in the pastures, fields and barns, the English words for the animals prevailed. Thus the linguistic duality.

(It is not, as some charge, a carnivore-led conspiracy to emotionally separate the animal from the food.)

What is it, anyway?

Nougat: Admit it, you don't know, either. You just know it's in some of your favorite candy bars.

Offal: And to many people it is just that. Likewise the ill-named "sweetbreads."

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Got a favorite food word to pronounce, spell, mix up or despise? Or a word you need defined? Any other food word trivia you'd care to share?

Shoot me an e-mail at nstohs@journalsentinel.com.

What do they mean?
Here are a few words from today's First Course column and their meanings, just in case any were unfamiliar:

Fromage: French for cheese.

Aubergine: French for eggplant. The British also use it.

Baba ghannouj: A Middle Eastern spread of pureed eggplant, tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon juice.

Quinoa: A high-protein grain of South American origin.

Vichyssoise: A rich and creamy potato-leek soup, served cold.

Bechamel: White sauce, made from stirring milk into a butter-flour roux.

Syllabub: A rich, frothy drink of milk and wine, sugar and spices, originating in Old England.

Blini: Russian yeast-raised pancakes traditionally made with buckwheat flour.

Fricassee: A chunky chicken-vegetable stew.

Huitlacoche: A corn fungus that some consider a delicacy. Also called corn smut.

Jicama: A large root vegetable with brown skin and white crisp flesh.

Moussaka: A Greek dish of eggplant and ground lamb or beef.

Ratatouille: A Provençal dish of mixed vegetables simmered in olive oil.

Frittata: An Italian omelet.

Tzatziki: A cooling Greek condiment with a base of yogurt and cucumber.

Saganaki: A popular Greek appetizer in which kasseri cheese is fried and often flamed in brandy.

Bouillabaisse: A seafood stew from Provence.

Muffuletta: A hero-style sandwich popular in New Orleans.

Sarsaparilla: We picture saloons because this flavor usually is associated with a carbonated drink popular in the mid-1800s. Originally derived from the roots of the tropical smilax vines, but now an artificial flavor only.

Geoduck: A large, funny-looking soft-shell clam from the Pacific Northwest.

Nougat: A confection made with sugar or honey, roasted nuts and sometimes chopped candied fruit. It can be white or brown, soft or crunchy, with egg whites or without. Snickers, Milky Way, Three Musketeers and Baby Ruth all use a form of nougat.

Offal: British term for variety meats, animal innards and extremities used in cooking, including (but not limited to) brains, kidneys, stomach, tongue and tail.

Sweetbreads: The thymus glands and pancreas of young animals. Yes, people eat these, some diners with relish.

Paraphrased from "Food Lover's Companion" (third edition) by Sharon Tyler Herbst (Barron's, 2001)

Not so tasty
As with any category of lingo, some food words have been used so much, in so many contexts, that they've lost their meaning. Here are a few that are already there or that may be headed for that status.

Words that have lost their meaning.

Gourmet: A label as meaningless as liberal and conservative, I'd say. What is gourmet food to one person is everyday fare to another.

Natural: Where does "natural" food end and "unnatural" food begin? The FDA gave up; it has no clear official definition of the word. We should, too. (If you must have one, think "minimally processed.")

Tasty: I would hope so. After all, if a food has no taste, what's the point? What you really need to know is whether it tastes good.

Overused words.

Decadent: Yeah, yeah, it's rich and packed with fat and calories. I get it. I shouldn't eat it. I'm going to anyway.

Iconic: If it's truly iconic (Oreos, Twinkies, the hot dog), we all know it. Is there really a need to point it out?

Deathly imagery: This includes the phrase "to die for" and recipes whose titles begin with "Death by" or "Killer."

Foodie: Ack! Am I one? Are you one? If foodie means food snob, I hope not. If it means I like food, well, who doesn't? If it implies a groupie-like obsession with food, I hope I'm not so one-dimensional. If it means "gourmet . . . " see above.

Kid-friendly: Aside from that whole baby goat objection, I guess I'd have to defer to the experts - children - before daring to label any food as such. What do adults know?

On the watch list.

Local: A noble goal that is harder to achieve in practice, and with defining benchmarks that are all over the map . . . literally.

Sustainable: Likewise vague. What exactly are we sustaining? Arable land? Animal species? The family farm? Human life? All of the above, I think, but context is critical here.

Artisanal: Artisanal food generally refers to products made in small batches by highly skilled craftsmen. Cheese, chocolate, gin, bread . . . these and many more such products are now available, and in high demand. That's fine, as long as everyone's honest. Unfortunately, it's too easy to slap this word on a label or in an ad.

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