Thursday, March 25, 2010

Gee, My Shirt Smells Terrific!

Growing up, my parents thought I was anemic so they forced me to eat liver. It was (almost) enough to drive me to vegetarianism. My efforts to avoid eating the wretched meat were clever, but often ill-fated, the result of which was a confrontation where I was defiant and my folks were just plain livid. Oops, I did it again. Liver. Livid. Guess where I’m going with this?

Our IE root today is (s)leiә. (The ‘(s)’ means the s sound often gets lost in words downstream from the root.) It means blue or plum colored. The liver organ is strikingly plum colored or at least it was before I flushed it down the toilet. To be livid means that you are “yelling ‘til you’re blue in the face” or at least that’s how I remember the scolding* I got for flushing the liver down the toilet.

Want a word where the (s) hung aournd? Sloe gin is made from juniper berries which happen to be blue.

The last word to mention is lavender, a bluish or plum colored flower. Its name derives from its color, but there is an “association” with another word. When we want to wash our hands, we go to the lavatory (and use lava soap?). When we wash our clothes we go to the laundry. Laundry and lavatory derive from the IE root leu(ә), close to (s)leiә (blue), but very different meaning. Lavender often gets associated laundry because has long been popular to add the fragrant flower to the wash… which is why my t-shirt smells so good.

*We patched things up, I’m not anemic, and my mom is 95 and happily lives in my home today.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Corned Beef in My Cornucopia

At about age 14, I reported to our country doctor that I had an enflamed lymph node.  Dr. Grumpy looked back at me and said, “Why don’t you just say you have a swollen kernel?”  If I wasn’t such a mild, mannered, temperate, and thoughtful lad I would have shot back, “I don’t know Doc, why don’t we just call you a barber and pay you what you’re worth.”  Like I say, I would never have smarted off like that.  But every time I hear, "there’s a kernel of truth in every lie”, I get this funny feeling I need a haircut.

That said, I’m posting this in the shadow of St Patrick’s Day and I’ve got several pounds of corned beef out on the smoker.  I love me some corned beef.  A few years ago I even learned how to take a fresh brisket and make corned beef.  To my great surprise, the recipe calls for absolutely zero corn.  I wondered if country doc was responsible for this misnomer as well.

As most of us know, corn is actually called “maize” by the Central American natives who first cultivated it.  I don’t know nuthin about Aztec / Mayan etymologies so we’ll leave maize at maize.   As well as being an amateur physician, I was an inveterate etymologist early on.  I always thought Thanksgiving’s cornucopia was where the Native (North) Americans kept their veggies including that fabulous multi-colored corn.  Not so much.

So what’s up with “corn”? Let’s go back to my love of the savory Irish treat – corned beef. The recipe calls for a special variety of salt and pickling spices which is basically aromatic herbs and various kernels of… hey, did you notice that?  Kernels!  Corn derives from the IE root, gre-no which clearly refers to grain, specifically the business end of plant which consists of small seeds or kernels.  No maize is used in the preparation of corned beef, but I love the flavors those little spice kernels impart.

That clears up the corned beef controversy, but what about cornucopia and unicorns and let’s throw in my beloved trumpet (aka: cornet)?  If corn means kernel, what do all these other corns mean?  There is another IE root ker1 which means horn.  Does that make sense?  A cornucopia means “horn of plenty” (-copia as in copious, plenty).  A trumpet / cornet entered the orchestra as a humble horn.  Unicorn is a horse with… you get it.  By the way, rhinoceros and my beloved dinosaur, triceratops also feature horns on their head and in their names.

So, after Doc and I dealt with the swollen kernel, I asked him about this corn on my foot.

Epilogue:  Disappointed in my search for a great local deil with even greater corned beef sammiches, I am not left without options.  My motto is "cook what you like to eat" and I did!  For purists, a traditional corned beef is boiled, a pastrami is smoked.  However, traditional pastrami is cured with juniper berries (kernels of which I have none).  So, please allow me the privilege of introducing you to my hybrid exclusive Smoked Corned Beef Sammich on Perfect Panera Thick Sliced Rye.  Oh MY!!!!!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Italian, French, Mexican... Is There No Pirate Food Category?

Disclaimer: I am not a food paleontologist and by all observations I am an extremely amateur etymologist.  Here, in this post, I will prove my incompetency in both disciplines and likely muddy the waters altogether.

I love to travel and eat so I enjoy reading restaurant reviews.  When it suddenly dawned on me that I was not the only person in the world with these preferences, I began contributing my own reviews.  When the subject of barbeque arises there are always strong opinions voiced in all directions about what makes for the best bbq.  I have some experience on the subject, although again, I'm going to hide safely behind my claim of rock amateur, I mean rank amateur.

Since this is a blog about words and not food, I'm going to try and break down the origins of the word barbeque for us.  There is general agreement that "barbeque" is a term indigenous  to Central America (primarily Mexico) and the Caribbean Islands. Generally speaking, historic barbeque is most similar to the way whole hogs are prepared at a Hawaiian luau. Pit + Fire + Meat is the general formula.  Variations in amount of moisture, spices, time, heat, and meat types add to the diverse character of the genre.  Remember, we’re talking about aboriginal food preparation not the technical method for making crème brûlèe.  Barbeque methods evolved over time based on local preferences and local resources so it is really not plausible to say there is only one way to prepare barbeque.

The word “barbeque” derives from barbacoa – a word which is related to barber (a person who cuts hair and shaves beards). French, Spanish, and Italian all have words which refer to the beard with words beginning barb-.  How do we get from beards to burnt ends?  Unless you are grilling (which is NOT barbeque!), you want to keep the meat and the heat source at a reasonable distance from each other, typically by suspending the meat at some distance above the (rising) heat source.  I think it would be fair to define the origin of barbacoa as specifically referring to cooking meat slowly over an indirect heat source.  In the native home of the barbacoa, the preferred wood for separating the meat from the fire is the ficus barbata – commonly known as the Bearded Fig.  This wood is dense and somewhat heat resistant – great for standing strong between meat and fire.  The Spanish word for this tree is Los Barbadoes – from which Barbados* (an island in the Caribbean) gets its name.  Is this all coming together?  Barbeque is a 800-1000 year old word from south of the border that means throw some meat on a rack over a fire.

I spent my teen years in the Lone Star State and now feather my nest in the land of Sunflowers and Oz.  As for my personal eating and cooking style, I prefer a hybrid of Kansas City style BBQ spice and Texas BBQ sweet.  Texas is the northern apex of the Barbacoa Triangle.  In 1800s Texas, in the Hill Country to be specific, four worlds collided and brought us the delectable savor that we all argue about today.  Cutting the history lesson as short as possible, let’s weave these four strands together.  

  • First, Texas turns out to be a great place to raise cattle (before they were unceremoniously herded north on the Chisolm trail).  
  • Second, proximal to Mexico, Texas received significant food influences from its southwestern cousins (hence: Tex-Mex), although that whole Alamo thing didn’t help relationships. 
  • Third, proximal to the Gulf and Caribbean, Texas was the point of entry for many thousands of African slaves who often laid-over in the Caribbean Islands (before being herded unceremoniously to the Continent) and they brought those Caribbean food influences with them.  
  • Fourth and not to be overlooked, Texas strangely became a popular destination for large numbers of Germans who just happened to know a thing or two about meat preparation (and beer to go along with the bbq). Throw all these influences together and you have a “manifest destiny” that changed the culinary landscape of America. You could say, and some have said, that barbeque was born in Elgin, Luling, and Lockhart.
Now about that Pirate Food category… Barbacoa is the term deriving from the type of tree used to separate the meat from the heat. But there is another word that refers specifically to the rack of the barbado wood that the meat was placed on. That rack of wood was called a buccan and it lent its name to those festive young men who enjoyed a hearty, smoky meal followed by a wee bit o’ pillaging and piracy. Our beloved Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Pittsburg Pirates (nicknamed the Bucs - short for "buccaneer") are first and foremost BBQ enthusiasts and despicable humans second.  It's all true.

* The ficus barbata is featured on the Coat of Arms of Barbados. The ficus family is notable for the manner in which the trees drop "aerial roots" which look like beards. You see these beards dangling below the bottom limbs on the tree in the coat of arms. You also see a dolphin.

Friday, March 5, 2010

A Transient Feeling of Wounded Vanity

Until I decide otherwise, the title of this post is the best dictionary definition I've ever read. 

If you google "in a fit of pique" you'll find an odd assortment of rash things people did, wrote, or said at a moment of, well, "wounded vanity".  If you search "piqué" at clothing merchant Land's End, you'll find some lovely polo shirts made of an oh-so-soft fabric.  So w here do we go with this?  Does pique mean upset or soft?

You guessed it (you know me so well), it means neither.  To completely clarify matters, let's add in another variant: picante as in picante sauce - America's favorite condiment.  Did that help?  No?  Then let's add in another Mexican restaurant staple: pico de gallo.  Yes, that should clarify everything.

Let's get to work here.  Picante sauce and pico de gallo are made of similar ingredients (tomato, onion, peppers, yada yada yada).  Pico is chunkier than picante and is served as a topping or side to some dishes whereas picante sauce (aka: salsa) is a chip dip or condiment.  As far as I can tell, the main difference between the two is the size of component ingredients.  Remember the peppers?  What category do they fall into - spices.  And that's our first real clue.  Spice and picante and pico share a common core - pic.  I'll deal with the s- part of the story in another post.  And you're probably running out ahead of me, yes, pick and spike are also related words.

Now, at this point of the story, I usually bring in some obscure old word that some people, somewhere, thousands of years ago used and I demand that all the words are related because of that one word.  (We're really getting to know each other aren't we?)  Well, that's just what I'm going to do.  The IE root is (s)peik.  (Remember we'll deal with the mysterious s- later.)  Let's break down pico de gallo to understand this.  Do you remember any Spanish?  What does "gallo" mean?  Right, rooster.  What do you think pico refers to?  Pico is the beak (s/peik) of the rooster.  A beak is sharp, like a spike, like spicy foods.  Salsa picante or "piquant sauce" has a sharp, spikey taste thanks to those spices.  Just like a bird pecks at the ground with its sharp beak to find food, the spice in piquant foods pecks at your taste buds - hopefully in a pleasing way.

What about those polo shirts?  It has nothing to do with the oh-so-soft material the shirt is made from, but rather the process by which it is made.  Ever watch your mother knit or crochet?  What did she use to weave that oh-so-soft yarn together - hard, sharp spikes, needles.  The fabric is thus called piqué (pee-kay) in reference to the process.

Now, where the heck was I, oh yes, "a fit of pique" (pronounced: peek).  Let's say you're on a first date, you're trying to get to know the other person, but you don't have a lot invested in the relationship.  The date hasn't been going well anyway and then the other person hauls off and says something utterly rude / stupid / suggestive.  That's it.  Grab the water glass, drench the fool, and storm out "in a fit of pique".  Pique is a transient feeling of wounded vanity.  Your pride (vanity) feels like it got pecked by a rooster, jabbed with a knitting needle, yada yada yada.

It's all true.  I wouldn't make it up.