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Words You Can Eat

LADY FINGERS AND NUN'S TUMMIES: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names.\o7 By Martha Barnette\f7 .\o7 Times Books: 214 pp., $20\f7

May 04, 1997|GENE BLUESTEIN | Gene Bluestein is English professor emeritus at Cal State Fresno. His most recent book is "Poplore: Folk and Pop in American Culture" (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994)

In an earlier work, "A Garden of Words," Martha Barnette provided a fascinating study of what can be called "ethnobotany," the folklore of flowers and plants. Now, in a tour de force, she has expanded her vision to discover the sources of the names of foods: foods named for what they look like, foods named for their religious associations and mystical traditions, foods named by mistake, foods named for people and places and foods named for what's done to them and for what they do to us. In short, "Lady Fingers and Nun's Tummies: A Lighthearted Look at How Foods Got Their Names" is a sometimes ribald and always intriguing study of the folklore behind the names of foods.

Barnette often begins with a familiar word and shows us its hidden meaning. Pumpernickel bread, for example, is derived from the German for "devil fart." Pumpern means "to fart" and nickel means "devil" or "goblin." The idea is that this dark bread is coarse enough "to produce outbursts of flatulence as powerful as those of the Devil himself."

The pope has his own connections with food names. The fatty rectal bump on a fowl is often known as the "pope's nose." This is the subject of some conversation in James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." Other literary sources include a reference to the "pope's eye," considered a great delicacy by some diners. Samuel Johnson was puzzled by the term "pope's eye," which he defined as "the gland surrounded by fat in the middle of the thigh: why so called I know not."

Barnette takes a somewhat esoteric term and follows it through its changes and transformations. Passion fruit, which sounds like a sexy term, actually refers to the torture and crucifixion of Jesus. "Passion" connoted suffering "deriving from the Latin stem 'pass'--meaning 'to suffer.' " This is also the source of the word that means someone who is ill, a patient. When we mean to say we are suffering with someone, we use the term "compassion." Ultimately "passion" came to mean strong feelings connected with sex, love, joy or anger.

Sometimes a word is divinely inspired. "Chocolate" comes from the Aztec word xocolatl. It literally meant "bitter water." "The source of cocoa and chocolate is the tropical tree called Theabroma," closely related to words such as "theology," "polytheism" and "pantheon." Actually, "the scientific name theobroma literally means 'food of the gods,' as chocolate lovers everywhere will confirm."

Many people know that the turkey is an American bird. But not as many are aware of Benjamin Franklin's proposal to appoint it the national bird and put its image on the American flag. He insisted that the eagle is "of bad moral character," while the turkey is "a much more respectable bird and withal a true original native of America." His comment brings to mind the comment of a Native American comic that it's a good thing Columbus wasn't searching for Turkey when he encountered the aborigines. "Otherwise," he quipped "we would be known today as Native American Turkeys."

Barnette doesn't belabor the point, but her research reveals a vast multicultural smorgasbord of our culinary delights that runs from Native Americans and Aztecs to almost all the countries of North America and South America as well as those of Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

She doesn't miss such Yiddish words as bubkes (or bupkes), the word that means "something trifling" related to the Russian for "small beans" and the Yiddish for "goat turd." And tsimmes, which originally meant a "stew" or "casserole." But its mixture of ingredients "proved to be an irresistible metaphor for any confused situation or fuss as in 'Why are you making such a tsimmes over everything?' "

There are some examples of tribes named for what they eat--or apparently eat. The name "Mohawk" is derived from an Algonquian term meaning "they eat animate things." The name of the Adirondack tribe, "Hatirontaks," coined sneeringly by the Mohawks, means "they eat trees." The Dakotas called the Winnebago by a term that apparently meant "fish eaters." And the Natchitoches have a name that "means either 'chestnut eaters' or 'papaw eaters.' "

The Hebrew words "beth" and "lechem" provided the name Bethlehem, meaning "house of bread." Ultimately it came to mean "crazed confusion and uproar" when an English hospital was converted to an asylum for the insane and spawned the words "Bethlem" and "Bedlem." And finally "bedlam" came to mean crazed noisiness and clamor.

The name "Chicago" derives from an American Indian term that means "place that stinks of wild onions." Chicago also gave its name to various types of food. It's a slang term for "pineapple" as in "Chicago sundae," a dessert featuring this fruit. In the Midwest, a jelly doughnut is called a Chicago. In Germany, the name Berliner is applied to a jelly-filled pastry as well as to a person who lives in Berlin. This led to some laughs when John F. Kennedy stated in 1963, "Ich bin ein Berliner."

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