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:
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.
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?)
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.
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.
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?
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.