July 31, 2010 12:32 am

The language of food

 
Abraham van Beyeren’s ‘Banquet’

Abraham van Beyeren’s ‘Banquet’ (1667)

There’s not much I won’t or can’t eat. I’ve eaten crocodile in Holland; barbied kangaroo at Uluru and mountain oysters in Wyoming. But tongue has always tested my gag reflex. Lambs’ tongues are a particular problem because, since they are pretty much the same size as our own, one stands a fair chance of biting the former rather than the latter. Given that tongues are dense with cell receptors (50 to 100 for each so-called bud), the experience can be acutely painful and bloody. But there’s another telling aspect to my lingophobia, which is to do with the separate, but connected, functions of the tongue that precludes the possibility of consumption. Biting one’s tongue is an act expressing pre-emptive remorse in the mouth. It’s the threat of damaging or mutilating that multi-tasking organ, the instrument of utterance and consumption, that is at the root (not to pun) of my tongue anxiety, I suppose. Do any of us really want to eat our own words?

La langue, the word and the idea, is, of course, a gastro-structuralist’s dream, especially when allied to the palate; though the connection between language and eating seems not to have occurred to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913), the founding father of modern linguistics who first posited a distinction between la langue (a system of language) and la parole (speech or individual utterances). Saussure never seems to have reflected on the fact that it is the elemental experience of taste, registered on the tongue’s cell receptors, which gives rise in the infant to sound communication; and that, further evolved, is the defining characteristic of what distinguishes humans from dumb beasts. Almost all of the nerve endings in a newborn are centralised in tongue and mouth, so that the former acts as an astonishingly precocious processor of information coming from the maternal breast and its milk. Babies use their tongues expressively to register difference of mood and wants. The infant sucks, generates a sound, and, in turn, that sound, learned as a signal to prompt parental attention, will cue up a feed: it is, you might say, a perfect feedback loop.

So does the lingo compulsion begin with mother’s milk? That as soon as we eat, we feel the need to make some noise about it, a sound that will end up as verbalisation and, eventually, writing. It’s certainly the case that we do seem culturally and socially wired for this connection, and that, while beasts roar with hunger or grunt with satisfaction, our own feeding process demands something more complex. It’s been, for example, a standard form of commentary by travellers, observing those whom they think of as relatively unsophisticated natives, to make a point of commenting on the savagery of eating in speed and silence, akin, they usually say, to animals. That at least was the view of the many travellers to the United States in the 19th century, especially the French and the English who, like Colonel Basil Hall, Fanny Trollope and Dickens, never passed up an opportunity to comment on the velocity and utter silence with which Americans, especially on the frontier, in river boats – but also in large taverns and hostelries – ate.

In contrast, the instinct to register relish through description and discussion has long been established as a protocol of civility. As soon as there are texts, there are food compulsions, not least in the Bible, which can fairly be characterised as food-obsessed, whether in the morphology of taboos, complicated distinctions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy between clean and unclean, but also in prophetic poetics. At almost every critical turning point of scriptural teleology, outcomes turn on food choices: the fruit that evicted men and women from Eden; the mess of pottage that disrupted the family hierarchy; the Singer of the Song’s pomegranate fixation – and on and on. (Much, as the anthropologist Margaret Visser would say, “depends on dinner”.) In culture, rather than nature, there is no eating, and perhaps no cooking, without talking and writing; the manner of utterance in speech and on the page bears a load of significance, whether in rhetorical spectacle (like television); the language manners of menus; or the growth of the vocalising habit in waiting staff which in the United States, perhaps to reverse that earlier reputation for taciturnity, has become a kind of social preaching often done by not-very-good performers.

A chosen diction carries with it a code of values about the nature of food and its preparation. The A-line decorum with which the heavily frocked Fanny Cradock presented her cooking lessons on television in the 1950s made it plain that they were meant for women who aspired to be epitomes of bourgeois propriety. At something like the opposite pole, a half-century later, Gordon Ramsay’s F Word compressing – let’s say it, and strip it of its coyness – sex and alimentation, f***ing and feeding, is a possibly over-strenuous way of proclaiming an earthy combative liberation from the culinary preciousness of haute cuisine.

It doesn’t take much prompting for any number of these gastrodialectics to come to mind. You can’t beat the pioneers of “Fooding”, the French journalists Alexandre Cammas and Emmanuel Rubin, for exploiting the implications of language to communicate their version of an eating and cooking revolution. The neologism of “fooding” is, of course, not accidental. Using franglais as the masthead of a gastronomic manifesto is a gesture comparable to the Italian futurist artist Marinetti’s choice of diction when he launched his attack on la cucina di nonna but perhaps even more aggressive. For “Fooding” – the shameless embrace of the snack, the brief concentrated hit of food before moving on to somewhere and something else, preferably from an absolutely different food culture – intentionally violates much of the holy writ of gastronomie: concentration, slowness, uniformity, coherence, meditative pleasure and even the hierarchy of courses beginning with savoury appetiser or hors d’oeuvre and ending with sweet dessert. And it is striking how much the lingo effect is crucial to the subversion. In 2004 Cammas and Rubin published Fooding, le Dico, a “dictionnaire totalement subjectif” where you’ll find potted biographies of the new heroes, such as Ferran Adrià of El Bulli and Victor Arguinzoniz – “Che Guevara du barbecue” – along with shout-outs to those who, like Anthony Bourdain, have at some point violated the protocols. (There are also entries on “crumble”, Duralex glass and “jerk chicken” (à consommer sans modération sur fond de steel bands déchaîné, au célèbre carnaval londonien de Notting Hill).

The overthrow of gastronomie for “fooding” is the most dramatic recent instance of a language act that is not just incidental to but inseparable from the constitution of a food universe. For it may be that we have now become too logorrhoeic for our own good, whether it’s the almost unimaginable proliferation of food journalism and cookbooks, the multiplication of television food programmes (I plead guilty as an occasional accomplice); the appalling habit (marked in the United States) of training waiting staff to deliver lengthy disquisitions and sermons on their specials – often, and inaccurately, with the personal pronoun attached (as in “my sea bass today comes with wild rice and a stuffing of celery root and rutabaga”). Then there is the menu itself – often a work of faux-literature minus any obligation to obey the basic rules of syntax. (I’ve made it my own rule of thumb – and I recommend it to you – never to order any item described with more than one verb.)

The sheer ubiquity and quantity of such food-wording has lowered the bar of quality to the point of almost complete exhaustion. There is however, another, older food-word culture which sees the experience of food as a way of illuminating human behaviour; to set out what exactly it is that humans do not only when they feed but when they register their feeding on the speaking tongue and the writing mind. What this language reaches for is, surely, a kind of verbal re-enactment; an act of translation from one sort of experience to the other, in the knowledge that much – perhaps the essence – will indeed be lost in translation, as indeed it is lost in comparable verbal exercises when we try to speak or write about music or sex, but without any diminution of the compulsion to try. And, sometimes, what happens in translation can have its own unmistakable richness. Take Z Guinaudeau’s wonderful recipe for mchoui [whole spit-roasted lamb] given to me by my friend, the cookbook writer Alice Sherwood: “Choose a young sheep, fat but not too big. Bsmillah. Plunge the knife into the carotid and let the blood spout out to the last drop. Wash the gash in the throat seven times. Make a hole with the point of the knife just above the knee joint of one of the back legs between flesh and skin. Put a stick through this hole and turning it round, start to loosen the skin. Through this opening blow till the air gets to the forelegs and makes them stick up. The sheep will then swell and stiffen as though it had been a long time in water ...”

 

What this passage does, it seems to me, is to succeed through the sheer clumsiness of translation. Put another way, the translation of the experience is owed to the mistranslation of the idiom. This rich description of what it is we do when we plant, harvest, slaughter, butcher, knead, bake, roast and consume ought not, of course, to be left to the inadvertent payload of inadequate translation. The strongest food writers aim exactly for that wraparound translation effect. But how to convey that socially inflected rich description without sounding like an anthropology seminar? The best writers embed their cookery – and their recipes – in remembered experience; part memoir, part re-enactment. And when I say embed, in Elizabeth David’s case, at least in the most prodigious of all her books, French Provincial Cooking (1960), this is literally true: in the layout of her best books, ingredients and cooking procedures are – deliberately, I’m quite sure – made to disappear inside the text of the essay in social recollection or the gastronomical archive. To get to, say, the wonderful passages on daubes you have to go via a quotation from Pierre Huguenin’s Les Meilleurs Recettes de Ma Pauvre Mère: “When we arrived at my grandmother’s dark kitchen on Sunday after Vespers it was lit by a ray of sunshine in which the dust and the flies were dancing and there was a sound like a little bubbling spring. It was a daube which since midday had been murmuring gently on the stove, giving out sweet smells which brought tears to your eyes ... ” The effect of David’s heaped remembrances is to turn any individual dish into a kind of archive of social experience. And it was this Proustian act of poetic fusion that first really got me and some of my generation cooking in the 1960s. What we felt truly translated in her paragraphs was remembered sensuality.

Which cues up and leaves the best for last, I suppose, the greatest food writer who has ever lived, or at least written in English: Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, whom even the authors of Le Dico revere for the sublimity of her prose. In MFK, Elizabeth David’s tendency to embed the recipe within memory, archive and ethnography became even more completely dissolved. You don’t, I think, really go to her for the recipes – I’m not sure I have ever actually cooked one. What you do go to her for is the exactly rendered experience of hunger, passion, devouring; and for a matchless, poetic talent. “Borderland”, a tiny essay, for instance, finds her in Strasbourg with her husband Al Fisher in February, in a freezing, “cramped dirty apartment across from the sad zoo, half full of animals and birds frozen too stiff even to make smells”. There is a recipe – of a sort – buried in this essay, but MFK sets up the bleakness of the place she’s in in order to introduce her “dish”, if we should call it that: “tangerine sections warmed on the radiator”. “My pleasure in them is subtle and voluptuous and quite inexplicable. I can only describe how they are prepared”, which she does with all kinds of details that have not a lot to do with the tangerine treatment, but everything to do with the material presence of the woman herself who is fingering them: “In the morning, in the soft sultry chamber, sit in the window peeling tangerines, three or four. Peel them gently, do not bruise them as you watch soldiers pass, and past the corner and over the canal towards the watched Rhine. Separate each plump little pregnant crescent ... tear delicately from the soft pile of sections each velvet string ... ” You are then supposed to lay out a newspaper on the hot radiator and lay the sections on them so that they plump up in the heat. They perfume the room. “The sections of tangerines are gone and I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl that crackles so tinnily, so ultimately under your teeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume. I cannot tell. There must be someone, though, who knows what I mean. Probably everyone does because of his own secret eatings.”

Here, next to nothing is lost in translation and, because of the perfect word-play, the shell crackling under one’s teeth like Chinese enamel followed by its opposite, the rush of cold pulp, we are, for a moment, in MFK’s body, indeed in her mouth. Which is as good a place as anywhere to end.

Extracted from ‘Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill and My Mother’ (Bodley Head, £20), published on August 5. Simon Schama is a contributing editor to the FT

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Fergus Henderson and the British blood and guts style

The widely acclaimed British chef Fergus Henderson opened St John restaurant, near Smithfield meat market in London, in 1994. His book ‘Nose to Tail Eating: A Kind of British Cooking’ (1999) celebrates using every part of an animal.

In Nose to Tail Eating Henderson tells us how to eat radishes at their peak. “Pile your intact radishes on to a plate and have beside them a bowl of coarse sea salt and the good butter.”

Now no one is in any danger of confusing a recipe written like this with anything written by the Eff-Chef Gordon Ramsay or Jamie Oliver. But there’s something about that insistent definite article – “the” good butter. What “the good butter” does sound like, very like, is John Evelyn’s 1699 treatise on salad, Acetaria, or, in fact, any cookbook from post-Baconian (no pun intended again) England of the 17th and pre-Romantic 18th century – Gervase Markham or Hannah Glasse. “Take a faire carp and scour him well,” etc. Henderson also offers aphorisms passed off as dispassionate culinary science and zoology: “Woodcock defecate before they fly, so they can be roasted with the guts in, which heightens the flavour.” (I bet it does.) The message not so deeply coded is that Henderson’s cooking is all about a return to the imagined English pastoral of Parson Woodforde or Squire Western, in which nature, slaughter and cooking, blood and guts, snout and tripe, were assumed elements in the native kitchen and table.

The journey away from fusion, faddism and fashion is meant, I think, as consolatory therapy for contaminated urbanism. “Even just writing this recipe down,” Henderson says of his fish pie, as if presenting himself as someone who, notwithstanding blood and guts, is prone to attacks of urban neuralgia, “its soothing qualities have quite restored me from the fragile state in which I was.” We don’t really need the confessional tone to make the pie; but we register it as a delineator of authorial personality: the poetic romantic butcher-cook seeking to reattach English cooking to its pre-industrial roots.

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