It’s all there in the words



As I sat on the upper level of the Huskisson, South Coast New South Wales, main drag, savouring my near perfect fish and chips – kingfish fillet pull-apart tender sleeved in light batter; chips as thick as my pinkie, firm, just crisp, deep yellow, with the merest film of oil – purchased at World Famous Fish and Chips (WFF&C), I wondered how Dan Jurafsky would riff on both the meal and the name of the shop.

I had by chance just finished reading Jurafsky’s The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu the perfect book for someone as enamoured of language as of food. Taking as his starting point the origins of tomato ketchup – both the product and the specificity of ‘tomato’ as descriptor- Jurafsky, brings his knowledge and skills as a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford University to interrogate the language of food in its many guises from names of dishes through menu descriptions and advertising spiel.

But this is not a clinical process, not least because Jurafsky has the happy knack of being an academic who can write engagingly, even when discussing what to non-statisticians are the arcane realms of multiple regression analysis. Jurafsky has a larger purpose. ‘The language of food’, he writes, ‘helps us understand the interconnectedness of civilizations and the vast globalization that happened, not recently, as we might think, but centuries or millennia ago, all brought together by the most basic human pursuit: finding something to eat…The words we use to talk about food are also a code that we can decipher to better understand the present.’

Jurafsky doesn’t say it directly, but he is engaged in a political act. With the rise of anti-immigration populist parties and the election of populist leaders in many Western nations the book is a timely reminder that migration – willing and enforced – has been a major force in the development of what some of those most vociferous against immigration would claim as their national dishes. Fish and chips is one of these. Boldly going into the heart of Islamophobia, Jurafsky begins with sickbay, the sweet and sour meat dish that was a favourite of the Persian king Khosrau I Anushirvan (501-579) – sik is Middle Persian for vinegar – which was then adopted by the Islamic Abbasid caliphate (the very use of that word, now so weighted). From here it spread through the Islamic world with a fish version appearing in a 13th century Egyptian cookbook and it is this variant that enters Mediterranean Europe as Catalan escabex, Sicilian schibbeci, Neapolitan scapece, Genoesescabeccio and, yes, you guessed it, to Spanish escabeche.

Ah, but you say, the classic British and Australian fish and chips is not based on vinegar cured fish but on battered, deep-fried fish, which may or may not be doused with vinegar post frying. Here’s where it gets quite fascinating. Jurafsky traces a variant of fish sikbaj where ‘the fish was first fried with or without crumbs or batter and then soaked in vinegar and onions’. It is yet another variant of this that ends up in Hannah Glasse’s 1796 British cookery book The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, here given as The Jews Way of preserving Salmon and all sorts of Fish.

But there still is more to this story of migration and acculturation. When in the 14th century Arabic cookbooks were translated into Latin, al-sikbaj was transcribed as assicpicium. When the dish is eaten cold, the vinegar broth becomes a jelly which we now call an aspic.

This is not the only food nor food term with its origins in the Arab world.  The fruit and flower syrups of the Arab and Persian world were called sharab – ‘drink’- from whence we get syrup and, when they were dried and powdered, sherbet.

And then there’s the name of the chippie and what it tells us. Jurafsky also looks at ‘the intersection of linguistics and economics’ demonstrating the encoding of class and snobbery in foodways. You won’t find ‘class’ in the Index, but it’s everywhere in his discussions of the language of menus and food marketing. For instance, Jurafsky and his colleagues did a count of words on menus from restaurants with different pricing. One finding, that ‘very expensive restaurants mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants’. WFF&C does make a small concession to origin – they do say when fish is locally caught. But they don’t detail just where in the Southern Pacific Ocean south of, oh, let’s say Sydney, and north of say the border with Victoria, ‘local’ is meant to indicate: for example, WFF&C does not say that the kingfish I chose was hand line caught in the warm current off the northern headland of Barungaba (which would get them points for the Indigenous name of the island, too). Nor does it give the lie to its air of localness by disclosing that its prawns come from Yamba and the mussels it sells already in their pickling liquid in a plastic sealable bucket come from nowhere on the South Coast. No, it only wants to tap the into the vague notion of merroir that will be attractive to cashed up visitors from Sydney looking for fish that hasn’t travelled many knots to get to the plate.

Jurafsky has a quite amusing chapter on the words used on potato chip bags, finding that for expensive brands ‘potato chips turn out to be a health food, at least in the special world inhabited by advertising copywriters’. WFF&C does not promote its offerings as healthy. It does offer a choice of grilling, frying or battering your fish, with the first of these popularly having a ‘healthier’ cache. This is language that matches buyer expectations with price point. What it can’t brag in terms of healthiness it makes up for in the bragging rights of its name – World Famous – without any visible evidence – photos of approving international tourists, listings in overseas online dining sites, celebrities of note snapped forking up their battered snapper. It is the sort of claim that many an inexpensive eatery will make in the absence of anything else it can say to compete with the more expensive nosheries a block up the road with the better view.

This is what I want from a book about foodways, that it leas me to think about them differently, critically, without at all losing the pleasure of eating.  If anything, the book left me wanting to go and eat my way through it, to follow the migration of the food, to be in on the marketing ploys, to investigate ‘what’s in a name’, and if nothing else to have some fabulous conversation starters the next time I eat fish and chips.

The Language of Food. A Linguist Reads the Menu. Dan Jurafsky. W.W. Norton and Company. 2014

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