Watching What You EatApril 23, 2012
By Hugh Rawson
“Man is what he eats,” according to the nineteenth-century German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach – but may not want to know too much about the origin of what’s being eaten.
One of the most common ways of maintaining willful blindness is to translate English words for foods into French ones. In part, this is a tribute to the general admiration for that nation’s culinary expertise. But it also has the great advantage for English-speaking diners of blurring one’s mental image of what is being served up for their consumption.
Take filet mignon, for example. This translates literally as “delicate” or “dainty slice.” In actuality, though, as pointed out by semanticist S. I. Hayakawa, “finest quality filet mignon” is just another way of saying “first-class piece of dead cow.” Which tastes better to you?
Filet mignon is a relatively new entrant into English. The first citation of the term in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from 1906. Thanks to the digitization of older books and newspapers during recent years, it is not difficult now to find examples of the term from the early nineteenth century. Still, in 1886, it was used infrequently enough that a cook-book author felt the need to pause and explain it: “The Filet Mignon is the fillet that lies under the saddle, and often called in English the ‘Alderman’s walk.’”
Other basically French terms for animals on the plate, as opposed to animals on the hoof, are much older, dating to the centuries just after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. Thus, pigs and swine go by their Old English names in the farmyard but appear as pork (from the French porc) on the menu; sheep turn into mutton (mouton); oxen, bulls, and cows become beef (boeuf); deer are brought to the dinner table as venison (venaison), and no one ever goes to a butcher and asks for a shoulder of calf rather than veal (veau). Some American meat-packers pack goat, but they sell it as Frenchified chevon (from chèvre), and horse has been marketed in the United States as chevalene (from cheval). Then there is fat liver paste, which diners find more appetizing when presented as paté de fois gras (paté, pie or pasty, + fois, liver, + gras, fat). Snails, of course, taste better when presented as escargots. So do brains when disguised as cervelle.
Many other foods have been prettied up without resorting to French. Thus, the diner who sees sweetbreads on a menu should be ready and willing to eat such organs of a calf or other animal as the pancreas, also called the stomach sweetbread, and the thymus gland, or throat sweetbread. Rugged westerners may dine on prairie oysters, mountain oysters, and Rocky Mountain oysters, none of which come from the sea; they are by-words for testicles. Local variations on this theme include Chicago oysters, which are pigs’ testicles, and Cincinnati oysters, which are pigs’ feet.
Pretentious restaurants sometimes list Salisbury steak on their menus, but if you order it, you’ll get something that looks and tastes remarkably like hamburger. The Salisbury honors a nineteenth-century food faddist, Dr. J. H. Salisbury, who urged people to improve their health by eating hamburger three times a day, but his name for the dish was popularized during World War I when patriotic Americans tried to remove hamburger and other Germanic words from their vocabularies. Hamburger was not the only casualty: sauerkraut became liberty cabbage, frankfurters were sold more often as hot dogs, and German toast was dropped as an alternate name for French toast.
Political activity on the menu has been reduced over the years. The National Association of Meat Merchants rejected a proposal toward the outset of World War II to change hamburger to defense steak, and créme Gauloise was never widely adopted as a substitute for vichyssoise (a Frenchified name for cold potato soup, a dish that was actually created and first served at the Ritz Carlton Hotel in New York City). More recently, anger at the French for failing to support the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 led some restaurants (including government cafeterias in Washington) to change french fries to freedom fries but this seems to have been a passing fancy. Liberty dressing for French dressing also proved to be short-lived.
Meanwhile, diners must continue to beware of hamburger‘s many disguises, among them: Bifteck à la Cuisinart, chopped steak, entrecote haché grillé, fried steak, Swiss steak, and Wisconsin cutlet, which is another name for a cheeseburger. Frankfurters are sometimes called tube steaks. Variety meats is a generalization that hides such particulars as kidneys, liver, and tongue.
Many fish also have finer names on the menu than they do when swimming. Not many fish eaters are likely to order blowfish or dogfish when they could ask for rock salmon or sea squab (or, better yet, chicken of the sea). And South African rock lobster tail certainly has a more appetizing ring than South African crayfish tail, which is what it really is.
Of course, English speakers are not the only ones to give animals new names when describing them on menus. In Israel, where observant Jews are not supposed to even say pig, let alone eat the animal’s flesh, four-legged, curly-tailed penguins that go oink-oink have been raised semi-surreptitiously on some kibbutzim; in restaurants, they may be served as white meat or white steak.
And in China, where people have eaten dogs for thousands of years, the standard euphemism in restaurants is fragrant meat. Older men, in particular, favor this dish because it is thought to increase sexual potency, but they have plenty of company. More than 15,000 dogs are said to have been consumed during the 10-day Yulin, Shaanxi food fair in 2011. Not knowing of this ancient culinary custom, the family of General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, who had presented a prize pedigree dog in 1896 to a visiting statesman, Li Hung-Chang, were taken aback by his thank-you note: “As I am advanced in age, I usually take little food. Therefore, I have been able to take a very small portion of your delicious meat which, indeed, has given me great gratification.”