O taste and say

Students of poetics and literary criticism should spend less time in the library and more time in the kitchen. If they did, they might be less inclined to fall prey to the fashionable superstition that meaning is arbitrary. One change in a recipe and you have a completely different dish. Confuse baking soda with baking powder and your quick bread may no longer be quite so quick.

Then there’s the relationship between eating and speaking, which is phenomenological as well as synaesthetic, and strikes me as eminently deserving of study. Sometimes the names of dishes can be as tasty as, or even tastier than, the dishes themselves. Why is this? Here are just a few examples that spring to mind:

Hoe cake

This came up at supper tonight, as we feasted on cornbread and Breton beans. Hoe cake is the ur-cornbread, and Dad was insisting that the name came from the fact that pioneer types used to cook it on the flat of a hoe or a shovel over a camp fire. Vrest Orton (Cooking With Wholegrains) bore him out, but this strikes me as a bit dubious. Folk etymology or not, though, a cake cooked on a hoe is an appealingly perverse and suggestive image. The name sticks in my mind like a hoe in a furrow: Hoe cake. Hoe cake. Hoe cake.

Buddha’s jewels

Chinese traditionally associate vegetarianism with Buddhism (though the Daoists have probably been doing it longer), so I guess the idea is that tofu meatballs get the Buddha’s stamp of approval. I’ve only made them once or twice, myself — if I want meatballs, I’ll get out the ground venison — but I can’t pass the recipe in the old Moosewood Cookbook without a chuckle. Sure, it’s got good assonance, but it’s the idea that appeals: Eat these grayish faux-meat soybean concoctions, and the fabled mystic power of the jewel in the lotus will be yours! (Wonder if there’s a tofu-based version of Rocky Mountain oysters?)

Baba ghannouj

I’m not the world’s biggest eggplant fan, but I use it a lot because I find the vegetable immensely appealing aesthetically, and I love olive oil, which it’s good at soaking up. But in the case of baba ghannouj, which doesn’t need olive oil, it’s the name I find most attractive. I like saying it in the broadest Appalachian accent I can muster: Bah bah guh NOOSH! Like this.
[audio:http://www.vianegativa.us/wp-content/uploads/2010/09/Baba-ghannouj-pronunciation.mp3|titles=Baba ghannouj]

Angry hot meat

That’s the name of a dish in this book of somewhat dumbed-down recipes from Sub-Saharan Africa that we picked up in the Smithsonian Museum bookstore years ago. I’m grateful to it for the idea of adding several tablespoons of peanut butter to a chili-flavored broth, which I’ve used in all manner of stews, even vegetarian ones. Were it not for the charisma of the name, “angry hot meat,” that idea probably wouldn’t have stuck. This is not just food, much less some inert commodity, it’s the flesh of another being. It’s something with spirit.

Pasta e fagioli

The Wikipedia says, “It is also called pasta fazool or pastafazool colloquially in the United states, arising from Italian-American (from Sicilian) slang.” I’d never heard that before, and don’t like it. I mean, I’d love the stuff either way — presuming there are good black olives in it — but the proper Italian pronunciation rolls off the tongue so well, why would you want to change it? Pastafazool sounds like a sneer, while pasta e fagioli sounds like the beginning of a prayer.

Key lime pie

This is one that doesn’t sound like it should exist outside of a poem. I am invariably disappointed by the real thing: good as it might be, it can never be as magical as the image the name conjures up. It would be better off, frankly, if it had a more prosaic name to lower expectations — something like cheese cake or banana streusel. I have never met a banana streusel I didn’t thoroughly enjoy.

Bubble and squeak

News that we were having bubble and squeak for supper always produced great excitement when we were kids. How could you not love such animated-sounding food, even if it was just cabbage, potatoes, and leftover pig meat? The Scottish equivalent, rumpledethumps, sounds ridiculous to my grown-up ears, but I’ll bet if I were five years old it would produce a similar squeal of joy — or at least a bubbling squeak.

Head cheese

We raised a pair of hogs each year for three years back in the 70s when I was a kid, and the first year Mom was so determined not to let any of it go to waste, she even made us eat the brains. Calling it head cheese was a stroke of genius. The Wikipedia claims that the brain is often left out, and that head cheese refers simply to a meat product made from the head meat of a calf or pig. Frankly, I don’t remember anything of Mom’s concoction now other than the name, which has such an elemental rightness to it. What is a cheese, after all, but a head gone wrong?

Blueberry buckle

This is another one that’s as fun to say as it is evocative. It’s part of a family of desserts with doughy toppings and strange names: buckles, cobblers, crisps and crumbles, betties and pandownies, sonkers, grunts and slumps. (I got all those from the Wikipedia, once again: the entry for Cobbler.) Grunt, buckle and slump might have a hidden connotative kinship as well: to me they each suggest the fate of a diner who succumbs to gluttony, barely able to communicate through mouthfuls of food and finally collapsing in defeat.

31 Comments


  1. I’ll see your pasta e fagioli and raise you spaghetti aglio, olio e peperoncino.

    Or how about the Welsh fruit bread, bara brith. Or Kentish huffkins. Or lardy cake.

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      1. There’s a whole world of British/Irish breads and cakes: Scots black buns, buttery rowies, pikelets, crumpets, parkin, farl.

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  2. Also: imam bayildi. Spanakopita. Mulligatawny soup. Sussex pond pudding.

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    1. These are all great ones! Thanks. I was hoping this post would spark comments such as yours. (To keep my own list short, I didn’t consult any of the cookbooks or recipe files I regularly use, working entirely from memory. Can’t believe I forgot mulligatawny, though!)

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    1. Wow on both counts. I bow to your superior Google-fu. And I’m glad to hear that the humble head cheese is alive and well in Newfoundland.

      The linked aricle is a masterpiece of historical investigation. For those too busy to read it, the gist of the argument is that there was a cooking implement called a hoe in the 17th-century southern colonies — essentially a long-handled griddle with a shape reminiscent of the blade of a garden hoe.

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      1. What can I say? I’m good at getting into other people’s heads. :)

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  3. Ah, head cheese. I’ve never tried it, but it was the (ahem) butt of many a joke when I worked in a deli in college. Most of those jokes revolved around the name not what it actually is. Pasta e fagioli has always been a favorite to say, though my favorite is chile relleno, which is also probably my favorite thing to eat, especially this time of year when the Hatch chilies are fresh.

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    1. Dude, that is so Texan! Sounds delicious, though I think a lot of Anglos are going to mess up that double l.

      At the diner I worked in after graduation, in State College, PA, the rarely-ordered menu item everyone but me made fun of was scrapple, a Pennsylvania German specialty. I love the stuff — even wrote an ode to it once. (Hmm. I see I managed to work “head cheese” into the opening lines!)

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  4. You gave me a few new ones: hoe cake and the jewels. I have long loved baba ghannouj and *always* have to say it out loud when I read it. Always. It’s cast a spell on me. I like to say it clipped & quick with a flourish spin-out on the “sh”, but I enjoyed your twanged lift quite a bit.

    Along the lines of the crumbled dessert is another of my favorites: trifle.

    Never having been an organ meat fan I have always looked at the deli slices of head cheese as something from an evil doctor’s mad experiment. I’m repulsed but can’t turn my eyes.

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    1. Deli head cheese is nothing like the ‘real’ thing, I’m afraid. Slice it into 1/2 inch slices and eat it cold, or melt it into a hot frying pan and pour it on bread like gravy. Even though I am a vegetarian, thinking about it makes my mouth water.

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    2. New blog meme: record yourself saying your favorite dishes!

      I’ve never had a trifle — didn’t know it was aught but mythical. Cool.

      “Organ meat” — now there’s a suggestive phrase.

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  5. Pasta e Fagoli is a favorite of mine, though usually for me it’s Progresso brand. Harry’s “imam bayildi” is another eggplant-and-olive-oil specialty, literally “the Imam fainted” (with various stories about the name). I’m fond of moussaka myself.

    Bubble-and-squeak is, of course, just the British version of “cook up the leftovers”. Anything can go in there….

    For Key lime pie, the “key” is to get real Key limes… the bottled juice just doesn’t cut it.

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    1. I’ve made it as “The Imam Fainted,” possibly out of Mollie Katzen’s Enchanted Brocolli Forest — can’t remember.

      I make a version of potato moussaka which is from a 60s recipe, and doubtless so far from any Greek template as to make a virtual mockery of the name. I fear my pronunciation of moussaka is a bastardization, too, but I’m not sure. It’s all Greek to me.

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  6. Fabulous! Now I wish I could share some weird Finnish names/foods. Ethnic cooking really is rich and strange in tastes and names.

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    1. There’s a Finnish oven pancake recipe I make a lot — it’s for carrots, but I adapt it for grated winter squash sometimes, too — but the name is too long to remember, so I just call it “Finnish oven pancake.”

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  7. Head cheese translates across the nations. Fromage de tête is considered a delicacy in those parts of France where they’ll happily tuck into calf’s hoof jelly and boiled udder.

    As for bubble-and-squeak, its main ingredients are potato and greens in a fry-up, but you can sling in carrots, parsnips, peas, beans and anything else that nowadays would otherwise go on the compost heap. It was a staple when I was a kid growing up through post-war rationing when chucking out anything edible brought memories of waste as a betrayal of democracy itself.

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    1. Fromage de tête is considered a delicacy in those parts of France where they’ll happily tuck into calf’s hoof jelly and boiled udder.

      Those must be the parts that Rabelais hailed from, I’m guessing. (And nobody understood the poetics of the supper table better than Rabelais!)

      I think the only greens my mother put in blubble-and-squeak were cabbage, but I’m not sure.

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  8. ok, I’m lowering the bar…velveeta, fritos, fanta, cheetohs, cheerios, bubblegum. music to my ears.

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  9. How about feijoada (fey-joh-ahda), delicious Brazilian black bean and meat stew – the name tastes like the dish. And puchero, the Paraguayan and Argentine barbecued beef. And foul medamas? Middle eastern white beans, not foul at all!

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    1. Feijoada I’ve made, but of course in my head I’m always mis-pronouncing it, doing the j Spanish-style. These other ones I don’t know, but “foul medamas” certainly sound intriguing!

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  10. You simply have to get a copy of Honey from a Weed by the late Patience Gray. It’s my desert Island cookery book, the one without which I’d be sunk. It’s less about recipes… though it has those too… than about ideas of food and life intertwined. Gray’s references are peasant and there’s much of meat, which is not at all my thing, being a vegetarian. But her capacity to instil in me a sense of passionate abandon with regard to food, invariably sends me racing into the garden to grab handfuls of herbs and greenery.

    I wouldn’t lightly recommend a cookery book… these things are far too specific to what a reader may gravitate toward in matters of taste… but this should be required reading for anyone with an interest in food. And really Dave, I think that she wrote it particularly with you in mind!!!

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    1. Thanks for that book recommendation, Clive — I’ve added it to my Amazon wish list. Sounds terrific!

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  11. Wonderful post and comments, I shall treasure your rendition of baba ganoush! an American friend says he thinks the Brits do everything they can to make food sound unattractive, with things like ‘spotted dick’ and ‘toad-in-the-hole’, but you’ve got some good ones there…

    Bubble-and-squeak I thought originated in Ireland where it’s called colcannon, which I think sounds quite lyrical and rhymes with the Broad Majestic Shannon. Though obviously cabbage is a staple there it’s sometimes made with boiled stinging nettles, which I’ve tried and which is excellent. I seem to remember also hearing there are various divinatory practices involving young girls putting it in their stockings, presumably not while they’re wearing them, but I forget the details.

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    1. Colcannon, properly seasoned and fried in butter to a brown crust on both sides, is one of the foods of heaven. Don’t mash the potatoes too much. It needs some ‘bite’. It’s the tradition to serve it with bacon if there’s any going, but I like it best topped with a fried egg and a garnish of Dijon mustard. Sex on a plate!

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      1. Anything involving fried mashed potatoes and bacon has got to be good… if not exactly nutritious. (My health-conscious hiking buddy and I have a pact to only eat bacon while camping. It helps get us out in the woods!)

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    2. Thanks for stopping by, Lucy. This comment thread has grown very informative indeed! “Stinging nettles” has to be about the least appealing name for a tasty dish.

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