Delicious linguistics “The Language of Food”

It’s not so often that a book significantly changes the way I look at the world. But that’s just how I feel about Dan Jurafsky’s book “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu.” After reading it, I can’t look at a menu or a bag of potato chips without thinking about how the language reflects the price of the food. I can’t go to Baskin-Robbins without noticing the vowels in the flavor names and thinking about the connection between sherbet and syrup or the role of gunpowder in the invention of ice cream. And I can’t get through a meal without sharing at least one etymological tidbit about the food served.

Over homemade ceviche (inspired by the book), I informed incredulous guests that ceviche, fish and chips, tempura, aspic and escabeche are all descendents of sikbaj, a sweet-and-sour beef dish favored by ancient Persian royalty, transported around the world and transformed (and renamed) by merchants, sailors and missionaries. When someone mentioned “Yankee Doodle,” I explained why he “stuck a feather in his cap and called it macaroni” (long story) and added, “Have you ever wondered why macarons, macaroons and macaroni sound so similar?” At a Mexican restaurant: “Salsa, sausage, sauce and salad all come from the word ‘salt!’ ” As my daughter dipped her fries in ketchup: “Did you know that ketchup is a Chinese word for ‘fish sauce?’ ” And when someone asked for jam: “I just learned that marmalade comes from the Portuguese word for ‘quince.’ ”

But Jurafsky’s book is more than a collection of fun facts about etymology and cuisine. It also teaches us about cultural contact: We have so many similar-sounding words for various foods because the foods — and their names — were borrowed into British or American cuisine at different times from different cultures, sometimes based on the eclectic tastes of upper-class trendsetters. Jurafsky sums up the process of culinary and linguistic borrowing and change on the last page: “Each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisine: macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbaj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just as the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal’s obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails” (p. 189).

Jurafsky is the perfect person to write this book. A professor of linguistics at Stanford and recipient of a 2002 MacArthur Fellowship, he has been teaching and blogging about the language of food for several years. He brings to the table an impressive knowledge of linguistics and food history, unrivaled skill to analyze large data sets and an engaging writing style. He enriches his historical and linguistic narratives with anecdotes from his personal experiences eating in China, Malaysia, the Basque country of Spain, his adopted hometown of San Francisco and his grandmothers’ Yiddish-inflected New York kitchens.

Not surprisingly, readers are treated to Jurafsky’s childhood reminiscences of whitefish, stuffed cabbage, corned beef and Passover macaroons. But elements of Jewish interest are also peppered throughout the historical narratives. A 10th-century Jewish merchant brings sikbaj from China to Oman, a 13th-century Jewish apothecary in Cairo gives us a recipe for rhubarb syrup (using the Arabic word sharab, which, through Latin translation, became English for “syrup”), and in the 19th century, fried fish was a specialty of the London Jewish community, eventually to become the fish and chips Brits know and love. We learn about biblical Hebrew libations, Yiddish descriptions of drunkenness, and Rashi’s use of a word like “vermicelli” (related to the Yiddish word chremsel). After reading the book, I got the sense Jurafsky could write an additional book on the language of Jewish food.

In short, “The Language of Food” makes a great present for foodies, history buffs and language enthusiasts. Just one caveat: Do not attempt to digest this information on an empty stomach. You will come away hungry — not just for the delicacies described in the book, but also for more of Jurafsky’s brilliant and accessible analysis. 

Sarah Bunin Benor, associate professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion and adjunct associate professor of linguistics at USC, wrote the book “Becoming Frum: How Newcomers Learn the Language and Culture of Orthodox Judaism.”