Words To Eat By

The surprising stories behind our food names

A New Viking Invasion?

Where have all the foodies gone? Apparently they've headed north.

In October, 2009, the New York Times stunned the world with its report that Gourmet, "a magazine of almost biblical status," was closing up shop. Just a few months ago, it once again announced the end of an era: the celebrated Spanish chef Ferran Adrià's "El Bulli, currently the most influential restaurant in the world, will serve its last dinner on July 30."

Where have all the foodies gone? Apparently they've headed north. According to food writer Julie Moskin's article "New Nordic Cuisine Draws Disciples" (New York Times, August 23, 2011), they're heading to, of all places, an old warehouse-turned-restaurant on a Cophenhagen waterfront. It name, noma, was created by combining nordisk and mad, Danish for "food." Its website proudly declares that "noma is not about olive oil, foie gras, sun-dried tomatoes, and black olives."

So what's on the menu? Icelandic skyr curd and Greenland musk ox, reindeer, and moose. "Where others use wine . . . we consistently use beers and ales." And just such a restaurant has been voted the best in the world for two years running. All evidence suggests that the era of haute cuisine, imported gourmet ingredients, and molecular gastronomy has sung its swan song.

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If the ingredients aren't shocking enough to those accustomed to the glories of French cuisine, then just consider this: in 2006, René Redzepi, head-chef of noma, announced that English, not French, would be the language used in his kitchen. "We were cooking crème brûlée with Danish cream and sugar," he remarked, "but it was still crème brûlée." His comment can refer both to the dessert itself, French through and through even when made with Nordic ingredients, and to the name. Why does "burnt cream" sound so wrong to us? And why not just serve a good old-fashioned Kærnemælkskoldskål,  a traditional Danish buttermilk dessert also made with eggs, sugar, cream, and vanilla?

The northern chef's stand against imported Mediterranean foods and against French as the default language places him in the forefront of  a revolution currently being waged against culinary attitudes and words that have held sway for hundred of years. For millennia, in fact—from the time Julius Caesar first stepped onto northern soil and commented derisively on the local diet: "They do not practice agriculture, and the majority of their food consists of milk, cheese, and meat." Caesar's observation was the first on record to highlight the difference between the grain- and vegetable-based Mediterranean Diet and the protein- and dairy-rich diet of the northern hunter-gatherers who found food (like ox, reindeer, and moose) in nature and ate it as little transformed as possible.

Being Roman, Caesar used Latin words, of course, not the English ones I cited a moment ago, and it was his Latin words that gave rise to French, the universal language of gastronomy. No Germanic language—whether English, German, or Danish—has ever enjoyed the status that French does in the kitchen. Somehow Kalv og ærter just doesn't have the same ring as Veau aux petits pois.

Why not? Because history is written by the victors, and so are cookbooks. When the French-speaking Normans crossed the Channel and conquered England in 1066, they took control not only of the country, but also of the kitchens. Uninspired by  the root vegetables and meager fruits they found, they imported fresh foods and replaced Anglo-Saxon pit-boiled and spit-roasted haunches with the exotically-spiced and heavily-sauced concoctions they preferred. The earliest "English" cookbooks are chockfull of recipes with French names, many of which can rightly be seen as the 14th century's forerunner of haute cuisine and Ferran Adrià's molecular gastronomy.

The supremacy of French and Italian food has gone virtually unchallenged from the days of Julius Caesar to those of Julia Child—otherwise known, appropriately in this context, as the "French Chef." But lately the rumblings and groundswells heralding a change in attitudes toward what we eat have been getting louder and stronger. A new generation of cooks (not "chefs," but cooks) and foodies is eroding the conservative attitudes of yore. Weeds are being sold at Whole Foods and foragers are on the payroll of top restaurants. The French Le Fooding movement publishes an anti-Michelin restaurant guide that recommends the likes of Chipotle Mexican Grill and McDonald's. And now noma's Mad Foodcamp is educating cooks around the world to treat food, not in the most sophisticated way possible, but in the most traditional way possible.

"We've been busy exploring the Nordic regions discovering outstanding foods," writes Redzepi: "Icelandic skyr curd, halibut, Greenland musk ox, berries, and water." There's both poetic justice and a sweet revenge to the fact that for the first time, the world's top restaurant should be celebrating Northern foods called by their rightful Germanic names.

 

 

 

Ina Lipkowitz, Ph.D., is a lecturer at MIT and the author of Words To Eat By: Five Foods and a Culinary History of the English Language.

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