Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language

Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language

by Ina Lipkowitz

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You may be what you eat, but you're also what you speak, and English food words tell a remarkable story about the evolution of our language and culinary history, revealing a vital collision of cultures alive and well from the time Caesar first arrived on British shores to the present day.

Words to Eat By explores the remarkable stories behind five of


You may be what you eat, but you're also what you speak, and English food words tell a remarkable story about the evolution of our language and culinary history, revealing a vital collision of cultures alive and well from the time Caesar first arrived on British shores to the present day.

Words to Eat By explores the remarkable stories behind five of our most basic food words, words which reveal fascinating aspects of the evolution of the English language and our powerful associations with certain foods. Using sources that vary from Roman histories and early translations of the Bible to Julia Child's recipes and Frank Bruni's restaurant reviews, Ina Lipkowitz shows how saturated with French and Italian names the English culinary vocabulary is, "from a la carte to zabaglione." But the words for our most basic foodstuffs -- bread, meat, milk, leek, and apple -- are still rooted in Old English and Words to Eat By reveals how exceptional these words and our associations with the foods are. As Lipkowitz says, "the resulting stories will make readers reconsider their appetites, the foods they eat, and the words they use to describe what they want for dinner, whether that dinner is cooked at home or ordered from the pages of a menu."

Contagious with information, this remarkable book pulls profound insights out of simple phenomena, offering an analysis of our culinary and linguistic heritage that is as accessible as it is enlightening.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In this winsome, delightful, and appetizing romp through the development of our language regarding food, Lipkowitz demonstrates that we often prefer to use words to describe food that will either help us forget exactly what we are eating ("foie gras" helps diners distance themselves from the fatted liver of a goose) or seduce us into thinking that the very exotic name of the food or brand will deliver a better product than a less exotic name. Focusing on five foods—apples, leeks, milk, meat, and bread—she harvests with gustatory delight the crops of words for each that have grown up over the years to sow in our minds the meaning of what we eat. For example, the ancestors of modern apples likely grew in the primeval forests of Kazakhstan and were hard little sour fruits (Malus sieversii). Lipkowitz, who teaches English at MIT, traces the cultivation and growth of apples up through the present day as well as the ways that language has grown and shifted to describe the sweet, tart fruit now found in local markets or grocery stores. Lipkowitz reminds us as well that the Latin word for fruit—fructus—means "to have pleasure" or "to enjoy," and throughout her splendid book, she encourages us to enjoy and to take pleasure in our food, in its simplest forms and in simplest terms. (July)
The Wall Street Journal

Words to Eat By abounds with...delicious historical detail. Ms. Lipkowitz...is an appealing mixture of scholar and foodie, and she has written a toothsome study of the relationship between English-speakers' culinary and linguistic heritage.The sum effect is a hymn to the comforting, honest pleasures of food and at the same time a perceptive account of the ways in which many of our tastes were determined hundreds and indeed thousands of years ago." The Wall Street Journal
The Boston Globe

...a lively blend of linguistics, culinary detail (including ancient recipes), religious and cultural works, and Lipkowitz's own vigorous inquiry....it's hard to imagine reading a menu quite the same way again after reading this elegant, thoughtful book.

...a delectable culinary sampler. This feast for foodies everywhere is chock-full of unexpectedly tasty tidbits of information in support of the author's premise that the manner in which we prepare, enjoy, and communicate about food speaks volumes about our cultural and linguistic heritage. Enjoy!
Ken Albala

Ever wonder about the origin and social life of food words and their ability to evoke powerful reactions, both positive and negative? Ina Lipkowitz takes us on a fascinating journey through the history of names for various foods and the reasons why some prevail in Northern European languages while others proliferate in the south; why some refer to the animal in the field and others to the food on the plate. Here is one delicious rumination for lovers of the gastronomic lexicon, ranging from apples and leeks to milk, beef and bread. Nothing less than an etymological feast.
author of An Edible History of Humanity and A Hist Tom Standage

Ina Lipkowitz's passion for food and language leaps off every page of Words to Eat By, as she lovingly dissects the relationship between the food that goes into our mouths and the words that come out. The combination of two such rich subjects means the result is packed with tasty morsels.
author of Eat My Words Janet Theophano

What an engaging book! Words to Eat By is not just for foodies; it is a lively account of the history of words and of our intersections with different cultures, so appropriate for any history lover. Lipkowitz's narrative is fascinating, reminding us that what we eat is shaped by attitude and imagination and the power of language. It is an important contribution to the literature of food and our relationship to the different cultural languages of the edible world.
author of Charlemagnes's Tablecloth and Caviar Nichola Fletcher

A thought-provoking book that savors the primordial stew of our language.
Kirkus Reviews

Lipkowitz (English/MIT) cuts through the flesh to expose the culinary history of five foods and how the five senses assisted their evolution in the English language.

The author engages readers in the introduction using an anecdote that demonstrates how our perception of words influences our appetites. Her initial response, as a New Yorker, when invited to a Labor-Day-Pig-Pickin' in North Carolina was one of repulsion. "What I saw on that sticky September afternoon was a big dead animal sprawled belly up across a huge metal barrel drum," she writes. "What I smelled, however wasn't bad in fact, it smelled good, very good." Lipkowitz goes on to explore the origins of apples, leeks, milk and dairy, meat and bread in a mix of culinary and linguistic history that ranges from the shores of the Roman Empire to the modern kitchen of celebrated chef David Chang. She forces readers to take a closer look at the verbfuror, meaning "to have pleasure" or "to enjoy" via Hieronymus Bosch's"The Garden of Earthly Delightsin her deft dissection of original sin and the temptation of the apple. She delves into the medicinal value of the leek and how Hippocrates prescribed what some might consider a stinky weed as a remedy for nosebleeds. Lipkowitz also examines how milk progressed, "from the Latin word for breast, mamma," to artisanal cheeses and crème fraiche. She also looks at why we prefer "tenderloins to entrails" and explores how bread made its way into the Lord's Prayer. Includes illustrations and a smattering of recipes adapted for the modern chef.

Brings a depth of historical and linguistic relevance to the table.

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Read an Excerpt

Fruit and Apples
“Dare to Say What You Call Apple”1
Infants sought the mother’s nipple as soon as born; and when grown, and able to feed themselves, run naturally to fruit.
—John Evelyn, Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets (1699)
The Apple. This useful fruit is mentioned in Holy Writ; and Homer describes it as valuable in his time. It was brought from the East by the Romans, who held it in the highest estimation.… The best varieties are natives of Asia, and have, by grafting them upon others, been introduced into Europe. The crab, found in our hedges, is the only variety indigenous to Britain; therefore, for the introduction of other kinds we are, no doubt, indebted to the Romans.
Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861)
England, you see, is much too far north for fruits to come to fullest flavor. Her grapes are anticlimaxes. Her apricots, apologies. So the British, long ago, learned to add the lost sun to her fruits through fire and coals. Hence she has given the world its best jams.
—Robert P. Tristram Coffin, “British Breakfast” (1948)
In one of the books I used to read to my children when they were still young enough to be read aloud to, a little girl enlists the help of a wise but prodigal rabbit in choosing a birthday gift for her mother. When she confesses that she can’t possibly afford the emeralds and rubies he suggested, he turns to Plan B: peas and spinach. “‘No,’ said the little girl. ‘We have those for dinner all the time.’” At last they resolve on a basket of fruit. “So she took her basket,” the story ends, “and she filled it with the green pears and the yellow bananas and the red apples and the blue grapes. It made a lovely present.”2 Obviously the story is meant to teach children about colors: rubies and apples are red, emeralds and pears are green. To my mind, though, it teaches another, equally important lesson. Fruit makes a better gift than vegetables. The book doesn’t have to tell us why because we already know. We like fruit better than vegetables. It’s sweeter. We don’t have to work for it. We don’t have to cook it. All we have to do is pick and eat. Fruit promises and delivers immediate gratification—how many things in life can that be said of? Even a child knows that fruit gives us a happiness all the cauliflowers, peas, spinach, and turnips in the world can never hope to match.
What neither the rabbit nor the little girl in the children’s book can possibly know, however, is that the very word they use to name all those pears, bananas, apples, and grapes had its origins in happiness. The Latin fructus, from which our own word gradually evolved, came to refer to fruit as years went by, but it began life as a form of the verb fruor, which meant “to have pleasure” or “to enjoy.” How appropriate is that? And fruit’s origins in happiness go further back still. Long before the Romans were around to enjoy their fructi and long before the Greeks who preceded them, there were people who spoke a language believed today to be the mother of somewhere between a third and a half of all the world’s languages. Greek, Latin, the Romance, Germanic, and Celtic languages, not to mention the Baltic, Slavic, Indian, and Iranian ones and many more, all trace back to that ancient tongue that linguists have painstakingly reconstructed and christened Proto-Indo-European.
Somewhere between 6000 and 4500 BC, linguists infer, these Proto-Indo-European-speaking people lived in a cold northern landlocked world, probably somewhere in the Eurasian steppes north of the Black Sea and as far east as Kazakhstan. Thus it was that they had a word for snow (sneigwh), but no name for the ocean. Of trees they knew the beech and the birch (bhago and bher g); of animals, the wolf and the bear (wlkwo and bher); of fruits, the apple and cherry (abel and ker). Just about the only sweetness (swad) these ancient people would have known would have come from honey or from fruit that was ripe and juicy. Lacking sugar—which wasn’t to become available until many centuries later—they would have early learned to treasure sweetness as a rare joy in a way that we Americans can hardly imagine today with our estimated average sugar consumption of more than 150 pounds per year. Who can be surprised, then, that bhrug, the Proto-Indo-European root word that lies behind fructus, and, consequently, behind fruit, referred to both agricultural produce and enjoyment? In its almost forgotten harvest metaphor, our modern phrase “to reap the benefits” suggests the same idea of fruitful enjoyment. Apparently, to both the early Proto-Indo-European peoples and to those of us who speak a language derived from theirs, fruit provides such an unsurpassable pleasure that its very name evokes happiness.
However much we may enjoy our eggplants, string beans, and rutabagas, they simply don’t give us the same effortless delight. Since the gustatory pleasure that beets and cabbages offer is far and away outstripped by their sheer ability to grow and even thrive under the toughest conditions, they received their name from the Latin vegere, “to animate,” which, in turn, traces back to the Proto-Indo-European weg, “to be strong, lively, or vigilant.” Our English wake up comes from that same ancient root. For centuries parents have been coaxing children to eat their peas and carrots so that they will grow up to be big and strong, but few of those parents realized that the very word vegetable is as closely related to vigilance as peas and carrots are to bodily vigor.
As parents have long realized, though, it’s a lot more fun to be happy than it is to be vigilant, and it’s a lot easier to get children to eat watermelon than spinach. No Popeye is needed to make them eat fruit.3 As the English writer and gardener John Evelyn astutely observed more than three centuries ago, children are naturally drawn to fruit. More recently, scientists have determined that we’re born preferring the sweetness of berries, grapes, and nectarines to turnips, radishes, and brussel sprouts because more often than not sweet foods provide the vitamin-rich nutrients and carbohydrates our bodies require without the bitterness that our species has been bred to associate with poison. But parents don’t need scientists to tell them why their children eat fruit. They eat it not because it’s good for them, but because it tastes so good.
I’m not as concerned with nutrition or the physiology of taste, however, as I am with the connections between our foods and the names we know them by, so it’s inevitable I would be struck by how wonderfully appropriate it is that our feelings about the sweet and savory plants we eat should be so beautifully mirrored in these names. I know of course that our preference for fruit has long been shared by people whose names for it don’t express their delight quite as neatly as our English one does. All you have to do is think of one of the first stories in the Bible. There’s absolutely no relationship in Hebrew between the words for fruit and pleasure, but it’s clear nonetheless that whoever wrote the story of the Garden of Eden liked fruit a whole lot more than vegetables: it’s not about forbidden vegetables, after all. There was no need to prevent Adam and Eve from eating the herbs of the field, but the writer knew just what he was up to when he had God test them by putting a particularly alluring fruit within easy arm’s reach and then telling them not to eat it.
The writer knew something else as well. Unlike fruit, most vegetables require work. Although we may fantasize about a seemingly endless succession of lazy days in Eden, vegetables needed to be tended even there. We might forget this fact, but it’s no fault of the fruit-loving writer who made it abundantly clear that even in Eden, the vegetable beds had to be nurtured: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Curious, then, that we so rarely see tidy rows of lettuces, leeks, and fennel in the thousands of Renaissance paintings depicting the flora of Eden. You have to look long and hard for a single image of a broad bean or a lettuce, but our museums are bursting at the seams with paintings of grapes, berries, figs, pomegranates, and apples. Obviously writers and painters over the centuries have long known what the wise rabbit and the little girl from the children’s book came to realize as they assembled their basket of bananas and pears. Not too many of us would risk expulsion and death for a cabbage and it’s a lot easier to believe that the wily serpent tempted Eve not with a rutabaga but with a juicy red apple ripe for the plucking from a low-hanging branch.
It’s for this reason that so many of our poems and paintings of paradise feature fruit rather than labor-intensive vegetables. There’s not a single turnip, beet, or other vegetable in Hieronymus Bosch’s masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights, but the Dutch master sure filled his canvas with fruit, most notably, gargantuan strawberries. In fact, the painting was originally registered under the title “The Picture with the Strawberry-Tree Fruits.” In an equally fruit-filled vision of Eden, the seventeenth-century English poet Andrew Marvell conjured up an omni-ripe paradise in which there was no need to even pick the apples, the grapes exploded themselves on the tongue, nectarines and peaches dangled from laden tree boughs, and fragrantly perfumed melons littered the landscape. Note that there’s not a single mention of a bean or a cabbage in this stanza from “The Garden”:
What wondrous life is this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarene, and curious peach,
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons, as I pass,
Ensnared with flowers, I fall on grass.
Whether their fruit words are etymologically related to happiness or not, people have just always seemed to prefer nectarines and peaches to lima beans and parsnips. The Bible certainly didn’t need the linguistic correspondence to know that fruit would be a lot harder to resist than herbs.
But the author of the Eden story had something very important in common with the Romans whose fructus so perfectly expressed their delight in dates and figs: they were both from the Mediterranean where the sun shines and all manner of fruit grows easily. Grapes, pomegranates, figs, citron, mulberries, elderberries, peaches, pears, quinces, and apricots are all featured in the oldest known cookbook, the first-century Roman gourmet Apicius’ De re coquinaria (On the subject of cooking).4 Many of the same fruits appear in the Bible as well. From the fig leaves that God sews into loincloths to cover the suddenly modest Adam and Eve to the grapes of wrath that will be trampled in the apocalyptic days to come, the biblical stories are veritable cornucopias of fruit.
When those fruit-obsessed Mediterranean peoples headed north, however—first the Romans to conquer the known world and later the Christians to convert that same known world—they brought with them not only their words but their sweet tooth as well. What even they, powerful as they were, weren’t able to bring was their balmy southern weather and bright meridian sunshine. If they wanted to dine the way they were used to dining or bless the way they were used to blessing, they had to bring their prized foods with them—or at least the knowledge of how to grow those foods so far up north—because when they arrived at the bleak and windswept shores at the very end of the world, what they discovered was a far cry from the cultivated gardens and orchards back home. About the only fruit they found was what botanists today call the Malus sylvestris—the humble little wild crab apple that existed before any grafting or horticultural improvement had transformed it into the large, sweet, juicy fruit that comes to mind today when we hear the word apple.
It is striking that of all the fruits Andrew Marvell named in his ode to Eden—apples, grapes (the less poetic way of saying “the luscious clusters of the vine”), nectarines, peaches, melons—only one is native to Britain: the apple. Perhaps it’s because of England’s lack of fruit that he had to imagine, rather than actually eat, those more exotically scented nectarines and peaches. One doesn’t need to be much of an expert to know that most fruits hail from sunny climates. The apricot, peach, plum, nectarine, cherry, and citrus all originated in the East. None of the fruits we so enjoy today—with two notable exceptions—is native to either England or its language. All owe their existence on British soil and their English names to other peoples, whether conquerors, traders, gardeners, or missionaries. Behind each of the names, then, lies a story of immigration.
Consider, for instance, the story of how the apricot made it to England and into our language. In Latin, it was a praecocum, literally, “the precocious one,” on account of its tendency to ripen before the peach or the plum. The Byzantine Greeks adapted the word as berikokken and the Arabs as birquq. By the time the Moors arrived in Spain, it had acquired the definite article al—thus, albirquq—and it is from the resulting Spanish albaricoque that the other European languages derive their names for the precocious fruit. In 1542, Henry VIII’s gardener, Jean Le Loup, introduced the fruit to England from Italy where it was called albercocco; its earliest English name, abrecock, was used into the eighteenth century. The modern -cot ending, finally, was borrowed from the French abricot, and the ap- beginning probably resulted from the mistaken belief that the word derived from the Latin apricus, “sunny.”5
Similarly meandering histories lie behind so many of the fruits we eat every day. The orange that provides the juice most of us drink each morning traces back through the French orange to the Spanish naranja to the Arabic naranj to the Persian narang and ultimately to the Sanskrit naranga. The lemon was brought to Europe in the thirteenth century by Crusaders on their return from the Holy Land, where it was called limah in Arabic. The quince comes to us from the Old French cooin, the Latin cotoneum and, more remotely still, from the Greek melon Kudonion, literally, “apple of Cydonia,” which is today’s Chania, a town in Crete known for its quince.
India, the Persian Gulf, the Greek Isles—sunny locations all. But as everyone knows, from the first-century Roman historian Tacitus, who described the typical English weather as “wretched, with its frequent rains and mists,” to the present-day tourist, the British Isles would be hard put to boast of cloudless climes and sunny skies.6 Neither, consequently, can they boast of fruit. Although its mild climate and rich soil were ideal for wheat—to such a degree that in the fourth century, Britain was known as the breadbasket of the Roman Empire—the island is rarely sunny enough to grow much fruit other than crab apples and wild berries. It stands to reason, then, that our word for the entire class of sweet plant foods should have come to us from Latin. In the first centuries of the Common Era, the Romans planted vineyards in southern England, thus inaugurating the British wine industry, which is still four hundred vineyards strong today. They even managed to get peach, plum, and fig trees to grow in enclosed gardens. No wonder that our names for these imported fruits echo Latin nomenclature: peach is a late adaptation of malum persicum, plum derives from prunum, and fig from ficus. The Romans were masterful gardeners, and they looked down imperiously at those unhorticultural northerners who, as Tacitus noted in his treatise on the tribes north of the Rhine, “do not plant orchards, fence meadows, or irrigate gardens.”7 Apparently the people who lived in Britain before the Romans arrived—the Celts—were content enough with their wild apples and berries, or at least they couldn’t have missed what they never knew. The Germanic people who took over the island from the Celts were similarly northern and consequently didn’t have much fruit either. They did have a word that referred to fruit, but it was entirely ousted by its Latin counterpart fructus and it has no contemporary English descendants whatsoever. Who today can even pronounce the strange-looking wæstm? On the other hand, we still use Anglo-Saxon names for the two fruits indigenous to England: the apple and the berry, barely changed from æppel and berie of more than fifteen hundred years ago.
Yet although the names look familiar, it isn’t entirely clear what they once referred to. Berie could have meant any small round juicy fruit. Grapes, for instance, which the Romans introduced to Britain, were known in Old English as winberige, literally, “wineberries.” And while æppel seems a straightforward enough word today, it very well might have been closer in meaning to our general term fruit than to the more specific designation apple; if one’s only tree fruit is the apple, one hardly needs to be very precise. Precision is a tricky word to use in the context of apples anyway, since unlike most other fruits and vegetables, they do not necessarily resemble their parents. Because apple blossoms can be fertilized only by the pollen of other apple varieties, wild apple trees (ones that have grown from seeds, that is) do not share the genetic structure of the mother tree. You simply never know what you’re going to get if you plant an apple seed and let nature run its course. Geneticists refer to this unpredictability as heterozygosity. Cultivated apple trees, on the other hand, are the result of the grafting process first developed by the ancient Chinese, who figured out how to replicate the features they most liked from a given fruit. The knowledge spread to the Greeks and later to the Romans, who concocted hundreds of varieties not originally found in nature. Today, apple blossoms are intentionally fertilized with selected pollen to produce fruit with exactly the qualities we like the most: sweetness and juiciness, size and color. Without such human intervention, “each tree would constitute its own distinct variety,” notes food writer Edward Behr.8 A millennium and a half ago in northern Europe, there was no human intervention whatsoever. Wild apples would have grown freely, and consequently there would have been an almost infinite variety of apples of all different sizes, colors, shapes, and tastes. What would have allowed a person who lived back then and who obviously knew nothing about genetics or binomial nomenclature the understanding to lump together under a single name this ping-pong-ball-sized hard green fruit with that grapefruit-sized soft red one? Short of some Platonic idea of apple, what could have accounted for the ability to recognize that two differently colored and sized tree fruits were one and the same species? No wonder the Old English æppel was such an ambiguous word, either exclusively designating members of the genus malus or, more largely, referring to any tree fruit at all.
But the word can be traced further back still; in fact, it has one of the most ancient fruit names in existence today. The region that is usually identified as the primordial home of the oldest known apple trees, modern-day Kazakhstan, is the same region linguists believe to be the home of those long-ago Proto-Indo-European peoples who brought their words with them as they dispersed to places as far-flung as India and Iceland. One such word sounds remarkably familiar to modern ears: abel. It lives on in many of today’s apple words: the German Apfel, the Danish æble, the Dutch appel, the Russian iablokaa, the Polish jablko, the Welsh afal, the Irish abal, the Cornish aval, and, of course, our own English apple. In many of the European languages, whether living or dead, apple words share the root letters ap, ab, af, or av from so many eons ago. Many, but not all—not those derived from Greek or Latin.
In the Mediterranean, apple words lack the a’s, b’s, p’s, and v’s of northern Europe. Instead, m and l dominate, as in the Greek melon, Latin malum, Italian mela, and Albanian molle. The southern names trace back to a different Proto-Indo-European root: melon. It’s easy for us to confuse the ancient melon with our modern word for cantaloupes, honeydews, and crenshaws, but all those millennia ago, it seems to have referred either to what we know as the apple, or, on the other hand, to any seed- or pit-bearing fruit. Ultimately we may never know precisely what melon once designated any more than we know what abel once referred to. Whether derived from the southern m and l sounds or from the northern ap, ab, af, and av sounds, apple words have always been fuzzy terms, virtually indistinguishable from the entire class of fruit. Fuzziness aside, however, they are and apparently always have been inextricably bound up with what we might call “fruitness.” Studies have shown that when asked to draw a picture of a house, most children will sketch a center-entrance, two-story colonial, even if they live in a ranch, a split-level, or a Cape Cod house. Apples are the colonials of the fruit world, so to speak, whether in the Mediterranean, where almost any new fruit was regarded as a type of melon, or in northern Europe, where the apple was about the only fruit able to survive. Without apples, we would of course have our other fruits, but we wouldn’t be calling them by the names we do. We’d still be eating melons, peaches, pomegranates, and pineapples, but we’d be calling them something else. I’ll explain.
One of the earliest written mentions of apples appears in Homer’s Odyssey, in the description of an island orchard on which the Greek hero Odysseus is washed ashore. The epic having been written in Greek, the word used was melon, which is usually translated as apple, but it might equally have referred to any other kind of tree fruit. It’s our historical vantage point that understands melon to mean apple. We know what the word evolved into—milon is apple in modern Greek—and so we transplant our own understanding back to Homer’s time. But we don’t really know what the blind bard had in mind. Nor do we know whether the legendary golden apples of the Hesperides were apples, at all, or whether it might have been oranges or quinces that waylaid the fleet-footed Atalanta as she raced to preserve her virginity. Perhaps the best we can do is think of the ancient Greek melon as an “apple-fruit” and call it a day.
The fuzziness of the Mediterranean m and l words explains why so many strange new fruits—and even sometimes vegetables—were given names based on them. In both Greek and Latin, for instance, melons were melopepon, literally, “ripe apple-fruit.” The Romans called the pomegranate a malum punicum, or Punic apple-fruit, and the peach a malum persicum, or Persian apple-fruit. As the centuries rolled by, malum persicum was shortened to persica, from which Italian derived its pesca, French its pêche, and English its peach—all traces of malum virtually invisible to the naked eye but still detectable with a powerful enough lens.
The same haziness applied to a later fruit word that entered Latin most likely from the language of the mysterious Etruscan people who lived in the area of today’s Tuscany. Pomum, obviously related to Pomona, the goddess of fruit trees, gardens, and orchards, entered the language after malum had already been firmly established as a leading fruit word.9 Once again, it’s easy to assume the word meant apple; after all, in today’s French pomme means precisely that and it’s clear where the French got their word. But originally, pomum had no such tidy reference. Pomona derived her name from all the fruits in the gardens and orchards she tended so lovingly, not from any one in particular. It was only later, after the fall of the Roman Empire, as we will see, that words shifted in meaning, with fructus becoming the general term, malum the more specific word used in southern Europe, and pomum the term favored up north. This is why today’s French pomme refers only to apples, rather than to peaches, plums, figs, apricots, and the like. No one today would expect a tarte aux pommes to be filled with anything else.
Centuries after this shift in meaning, unfamiliar fruits and vegetables were still being considered a type of apple-fruit and thus featured a malum, pomum, or apple somewhere in their names. When the Spanish encountered the Aztec vegetable-that-is-really-a-fruit, they shortened the indigenous name from the hard-to-pronounce xitomatl to tomate. When tomatoes arrived in Italy in 1544, they were hailed by the Italian herbalist Mattioli as mala aurea, golden apples.10 To the Italians today, tomatoes are still pomodori, golden apples, as eggplants are melanzana, apples of insanity, from the Latin mala insana. In English as well, the eggplant was once called a madde apple: folk wisdom held that the eggplant, a member of the very poisonous nightshade family of plants, would make the eater go mad. A French potato is a pomme de terre, “earth apple,” which is also the literal meaning of the Dutch aardappel, Icelandic jardepli, and Erdapfel, the name the Germans used before it was ousted by Kartoffel, based on the tuber’s fancied resemblance to a truffle, Trüffel or Tartuffel, derived from the Italian tartufolo. The Germans still call oranges Apfelsine, literally, “Chinese apples.” Or consider the pineapple, which has no botanical relationship whatsoever to the apple: when the exotic tropical fruit called anana in the Guarani language of Bolivia and southern Brazil arrived in Europe in the seventeenth century, the English fancied a resemblance to a pinecone and so dubbed the prickly thing a pineapple. Similarly, although the pomegranate is an entirely distinct species from the apple, the word literally means “seeded apple”; the Spanish name, granada, also refers to the fruit’s many seeds, or grains.
It’s often remarked that in Chinese, rice is such a staff of life that the word used to refer to it, fan, also means food. Everything else, whether chicken, pork, vegetables, or tofu is cai, literally, flavor or variety, but it’s fan that remains the indispensable necessity and primary sustenance of over a billion of the earth’s people. The same double reference applies to apple, and for the very same reason. It is all but impossible to distinguish the apple from our idea of fruitness.
Because the apple has for so long reigned supreme in the world of fruit, it has not only been planted more often than other species, but it’s been written about more often as well. As early as the second century BC, Cato the Elder’s De agri cultura (On farming) had detailed how to graft desirable cuttings onto hardy rootstock, thus ensuring that the resulting apples would be predictably and consistently larger, sweeter, and juicier than their wild forebears. The Romans loved few things as much as they did agriculture, but when they ventured north and west, they found a land that was uncultivated and where the only fruit that grew at all was just as nature intended it to be: wild. Enterprising and industrious as ever, they set to work clearing the land, enclosing gardens, and grafting their favorite imported species onto native roots. Thus it was that the Roman Malus pumila, the domesticated Mediterranean apple, was grafted onto M. sylvestris, the wild apple native to the British Isles, more like a hard little crab apple than anything we’d find at the store today. But of course M. sylvestris wasn’t called that at the time. It was known then by the same name (more or less) that it’s known by today in the Celtic regions of the country: aballo.
What happened when the two names ran headlong into one another? It wasn’t just a matter of two separate but equal fruits merging into a new entity, although merge they certainly did—into the forerunners of the apples we eat today. The tiny little blush-colored Lady Apples sometimes found in farmers’ markets date back to the ancient Romans, who engineered them in their quest to improve upon the vagaries of capricious nature by producing consistently sweet flesh. Now, it would be foolish to argue that food isn’t there to satisfy our hunger and please our taste buds, but it’s obviously about something more as well. What we eat says a lot about who we are. The Romans, for instance, were at their happiest transforming what they found in nature. Thanks be to whichever god or goddess it was who caused nature to yield its bounty, but it was the Romans who improved upon that bounty by their careful planting, grafting, tending, irrigating, and preserving. Wild fruit was made sweet and juicy, and, as we’ll see in later chapters, weeds were transformed into vegetables, raw milk was preserved into the wonders of cheese, and animal flesh became edible meat by the eminently civilizing rituals of sacrifice. The northerners, on the other hand, ate what they found—just as they found it. “They do not plant orchards, fence off meadows, or irrigate gardens,” Tacitus had written derisively in the first century. What could the food of such savages be but entirely natural—and it would be our mistake to assume “all natural” was the positive attribute in the world of the Romans that it is to us today. We may pay extra for “all natural” breakfast cereals and granola bars, but back then, “natural” was more or less on par with “uncivilized.” Northern food was thus both natural and uncivilized. “Their food is plain,” Tacitus summed up, “wild fruit, fresh game, and curdled milk. They satisfy their hunger without any elaborate cuisine or appetizers.” Tacitus didn’t write in English, however, but in Latin and the words he used for “wild fruit” were agrestia poma. Agresti meant wild, savage, or uncultivated, and poma, as I’ve explained, was a Latin word for fruit before fructus took over several centuries later. To a Roman, though, poma didn’t grow in the wild, but in pomaria, orchards, which were precisely what Tacitus noted the northerners knew nothing of (“they do not plant orchards [pomaria]”). The only thing those savage people, whether Celts or Germans, knew was the unimproved, uncivilized wild apple.
So what happened when the Mediterranean malum traveled to the apple-eating lands of the north and west? What happened when culture and nature collided?
In what is today’s France, the dialects that were spoken were gradually ousted by Latin, which is why today the French eat pommes and refer to their apples, pears, and cherries collectively as fruit. Surely it’s no coincidence that French food is almost universally acclaimed as the most sophisticated—read: transformed—cuisine in the world and the French language deemed resonantly beautiful. East of the Rhine and north of the Danube, on the other hand, the Germans remained by and large immune to Roman influence, clinging—again in the words of Tacitus—to their “forbidding landscapes and unpleasant climate—a country that is thankless to till.” For the most part, they clung to their native words as well, despite the Roman historian’s rather smug assurance that “instead of loathing the Latin language, they became eager to speak it effectively.”11 Thus in today’s Germany an apple is an Apfel as it was two millennia ago, and fruit has remained the equally Teutonic Obst.12 Again, it’s no coincidence that German cuisine has for so long suffered from comparison with France’s and that we’re so ready to caricature the language as a harsh and guttural cacophony of ich’s and ach’s.
It’s only in English, our resiliently healthy mutt of a language, that we hear both northern European and Latin words, apple and fruit. The story of why we hear both is the story of our linguistic and culinary inferiority complex as well, and it can be summed up in a single sentence: we English speakers may envy the French their tartes aux pommes, but we feel far cozier about our home-baked apple pies. When we dine out, we order tartes, galettes, and mille-feuilles, but when we celebrate our national holidays at home, the desserts we serve our friends and family are pies, whether, pumpkin, pecan, sweet potato, blueberry, or, of course, apple—and pie is a word that appears in no language other than English. Our split culinary personality is nothing new. It stretches back through the centuries, way back to the time those superior-in-every-way Romans first landed on the wild shores of the misty island known as Britannia.
When the Romans crossed into Britain, they had truly come to the end of the world. Beyond, in the words of Tacitus, was “nothing but waves and rocks … here where the world and all created things come to an end.” What could be expected of the savage people who painted their skin blue and lived in such a godforsaken place? The Greeks had called them Keltoi, which literally means “others,” and so they must have seemed to their Roman conquerors as well. Northern Europeans that they were, they subsisted on milk and meat and must have seemed utterly barbaric to Caesar and his legionnaires, who were used to feasting on delicacies such as minutal matianum, the oldest known recipe featuring apples. From Apicius’s first-century De re coquinaria, the dish features pork stewed with leeks, coriander, herbs, and spices in a sweet-and-sour broth, the sweetness coming from Matian apples, named after Gaius Matius, author of three cookbooks and a friend of Julius Caesar himself. The Celts wouldn’t even have recognized many of these ingredients—certainly not coriander or cumin, which were both native to the Mediterranean and weren’t introduced to Britain until the arrival of the Romans. Apples, though, even the blue-skinned warriors would have known very well.
In fact they so revered their indigenous wild aballos that their myths and legends were chock-full of them. Irish sagas frequently feature apples as the food that confers eternal youth. The people of the Sid, the legendary original inhabitants of Ireland, were recognized by the branches of apple trees they carried with them when they ushered the newly deceased to the Land of Eternal Youth. The most well known Celtic hero of them all, the legendary King Arthur himself, awaits his return to his ancestral kingdom on the Isle of Avalon, which means the Place of Apples. The Welsh poem Yr Afallenau, “The Apple Tree,” depicts the wizard Merlin standing in an apple orchard as he delivers his prophecies of the impending druidical overthrow of the Romans. “Sweet apple tree, sweet its branches, bearing precious fruit, famed as mine,” the first stanza opens. One of the most important days of the Celtic year was Samhain, literally, “summer’s end,” and many of its rituals involved apples. One in particular was the ancestor of our modern apple-bobbing contest. Today it’s all fun and games for costumed children at Halloween parties, but then, it was serious business: capturing a bobbing apple with one’s teeth symbolized the journey across the seas to the magic apple tree at the heart of the Celtic otherworld. Sagas told of heroes crossing the western sea to find this wondrous country, known in Britain as Avalon and in Ireland as Emhain Abhlach, similarly, the Place of Apples.
Minutal Matianum
Put in a saucepan oil, broth, finely chopped leeks, coriander, small tid-bits, cooked pork shoulder, cut into long strips including the skin, have everything equally half done. Add Matian apples cleaned, the core removed, slice lengthwise and cook them together: meanwhile crush pepper, cumin, green coriander, or seeds, mint, laser root, moistened with vinegar, honey and broth and a little reduced must, add to this the broth of the above morsels, vinegar to taste, boil, skim, bind strain over the morsels sprinkle with pepper and serve.13
Note: Laser seems to have been another name for the herb known to the Greeks as sylphium and to us as asafetida; must was freshly pressed fruit juice.
The classical mythology of the Mediterranean was as obsessed with the malum as the Celts were with their aballos, but with a notable difference. Down south, apples (for so, as we have seen, those malums have traditionally been identified over the centuries) were alluring and often fatal. The golden apples of the Hesperides, for instance, lured many would-be eaters to their death. Believed to confer immortality, they were hidden in a secret orchard guarded over by a never-sleeping, hundred-headed serpentine dragon twined around the base of the central apple tree. It was a golden apple that Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, tossed into a wedding to which she had not been invited. The words inscribed on it, “For the fairest,” led to the decadelong war in which untold thousands of Greeks and Trojans were hurled into Hades. It was a golden apple that caused the fleet-footed Atalanta to lose her race against her lusty suitor, not to mention her virginity, when she paused to pick up the distractingly alluring fruit he threw alongside their racecourse. In the south, the malum had long been a desired, but enticingly dangerous fruit.
When the Mediterranean malum traveled north with the Roman legions to the aballo-eating lands, the fruit was cultivated and improved in enclosed orchards into the Malus domesticus that we enjoy to this day, but the name that resulting new fruit was known by remained unchanged. However much the Celts must have enjoyed the sweeter and juicier malum, they were reluctant to relinquish their aballo, conjuring up, as it did, the rituals and festivities of Samhain and the misty island of Avalon. When the Romans abandoned the island in order to defend their capital, which was fast being overrun by the Huns, their apple nomenclature went with them, and so in the north and west of Britain—those far-lying outreaches where the return of Arthur from the mists of Avalon is still awaited—the ancient Celtic name for the legendary fruit has survived. In Cornish to this day, it’s called an aval, in Irish abal, in Welsh afal, in Gaelic ubhal, and in Breton aval.
As with so many foods, an apple by any other name simply did not taste the same.
It was only a few centuries later that the malum, rebaptized the pomum, traveled north once again, this time with the missionaries of the late fifth and early sixth centuries who sought to convert a confirmed apple-eating people to their own Mediterranean religion based on the olive and the grape. During those few centuries, the Germanic tribes had taken advantage of the Romans’ sudden departure to colonize the lushly fertile land for themselves. Their name for one of the few fruits they knew had evolved from the same Proto-Indo-European root as the Celtic aballo, and like their predecessors on the island, the Angles and Saxons held the fruit in enormous esteem. In their legends as well, the apple is the food of enlightenment and divine blessing. Their gods remained immortal only so long as they ate the apples of the goddess Idun; without them, even they would wither and die. One of the myths recounted in the Icelandic Prose Edda tells of the giant Thiazi who descended in the form of an eagle and stole away both Idun and her apples, after which the pantheon of Nordic gods was “much dismayed at Idun’s disappearance, and they soon grew old and grey-haired.”14 Aged and feeble they remained until they roused the energy needed to slay the giant and win back their apples of immortality. In Germanic epic poetry as well, apples guaranteed fertility. When Odin’s grandson King Rerir prayed for a son, the sign that his wish was about to be fulfilled was an apple dropped into his lap. The child born grew up to be Völsung, the ancestor of the heroes whose deeds are recounted in the Norse Völsungasaga and the Old German Nibelungenlied. In the middle of the great hall Völsung built for himself, he planted—what else?—a large apple tree.
It was these apple-loving Germanic people who forced the Celts to the outermost fringes of the island and who planted themselves firmly in the midst of the country, and it was these people whose language took root and flourished as Latin never had, despite the more than four centuries that the Romans had remained in control of Britannia. And so it is that today’s English speaker bites into an apple rather than a malum or a pomum. But an apple is not quite the same as its Mediterranean counterpart, at least not in imaginative association. The one is wild and uncultivated and confers fertility, immortality, and blessings of all sorts; the other is grafted, tended, and improved—not to mention sweet, tempting, and dangerous.
It was at just this time that the forbidden fruit of Eden was at last identified. Turned out that it was none other than the apple.
And yet not a single apple ever appears in the Genesis story, nor was the apple implicated in the Fall of Man before the southern religion moved north. It seems far more logical that Eve would have been tempted by a fig, a pomegranate, a quince, or some other fruit native to Mesopotamia. The clothing our first parents hastily stitched together to cover their nakedness is clearly identified as having been made from fig leaves, but on the far more important matter of the forbidden fruit, the biblical story remains oddly silent. We can’t even blame our confusion on ambiguity, because Hebrew had two distinct words for fruit and apple—p’ri and tapuach—and the word used in the Eden story is clearly p’ri.
The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit [p’ri] of the trees in the garden; but God said, “You shall not eat of the fruit [p’ri ] of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.”
For no obvious reason whatsoever, millions of people the world over have automatically assumed the forbidden fruit of Eden to have been an apple. In this, they are aided and abetted by thousands of paintings in which the biblical garden is more apple orchard than anything else. Hugo van der Goes’s The Fall of Man (c. 1470), for instance, shows an alabaster-skinned Eve, flanked by a scrawny-looking Adam and a four-limbed serpent with human face, reaching up to pluck a fruit that can in no way be confused with fig, pomegranate, or quince.
On the one hand, the assumption is easy to account for. When people think fruit, they all but invariably envision apples, which is why so many exotic new species have historically been considered a type of apple. It’s certainly possible to imagine that the same apple-fruit confusion that gave the pineapple, the pomme de terre, and the Apfelsine their names was responsible for pinning the blame for the Fall of Man on the blushingly innocent apple.
On the other hand, malum, one of the Latin names for apple, had an almost exact homonym. Pronounced with a long a, malum means apple; when the vowel is short, it means evil. It is from the short-voweled malum that we derive many of our nastiest English words, like malice, malevolent, malady, and malignant. Suddenly we’re in a better position to understand the connection between malice and apples and to appreciate all the myths and stories in which the apple’s apparent sweetness is used to tempt, seduce, and destroy. It’s no accident that the vainly jealous queen chooses an irresistible yet poisonous apple to tempt her too beautiful stepdaughter Snow White. The biblical story is by no means the only one in which the pleasure that the fruit promises comes with a hefty price tag. The Fall of Man, the fall of Troy, and the fall of Snow White can all be pinned on those nasty little apples.
Neither theory explains, however, why it was only after the Mediterranean malum had been shipped north, just about the time that Pope Gregory the Great was sending missionaries to England to convert the northern heathens to the Roman religion, that Eden’s fruit was at last declared to be the beloved northern apple. Why then?
In the early sixth century, a Roman poet living in the area then called Gaul used the Latin word pomum, which had traditionally meant “fruit,” in a far more restricted sense, apparently for the first time in print. The work was The Fall of Man, a poetic rendition of the Eden story, and in it Alcimus Ecdicius Avitus identified the precise fruit it was that grew in the middle of the garden.15 He called it a pomum:
But when the doomed woman’s fatal judgment settled on indulging that eternal hunger with the fruit of sin [criminis escam] and of satisfying the serpent by eating the food she took from him, she gave in to his treachery and, herself consumed, bit into the apple [pomum].16
Avitus was not only a poet but also an archbishop in Gaul. Today he’s remembered for his biblical epic, but back then he was better known for his tireless battle against the heresies that were threatening Christian orthodoxy. Seen in this light, Avitus’s poetic work takes on the same missionary zeal that inspired his prose. How better to convert the pagans than by convincing them that their sacred fruit didn’t confer the immortality they believed it to, but, quite the contrary, lured them with false, dangerous, and sinful knowledge? The strategy worked. Ever since Avitus’s epic, it’s been the apple that has tempted Eve and deprived both her and her unwitting spouse of eternal life in paradise. A seventh-century Old English translation of Genesis singles out the unfortunate fruit: God admonishes Adam, “Therefore shalt thou labour,… until that grim disease, which first thou tasted in the apple [æple], shall grip hard at thy heart.”17 And a thousand years later, it was still an apple that Eve longed for in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “To satisfy the sharp desire I had / Of tasting those fair Apples, I resolv’d / Not to defer.”18 To this day, it remains the apple that most of us believe to have grown on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It turns out that the identification of the apple as the forbidden fruit has very little to do with the Bible and not much to do with the near Latin homonyms malum-malum either, but instead everything to do with the conflicts that faced the Roman Church when it brought its Mediterranean religion to the lands of the Celts. Southern peoples had long been used to drinking and blessing their wine, whether according to the rules of the Bible or as the gift of Dionysus, the god of the vine. But what was to be done with a northern people whose foods were so very different, whose soil wouldn’t produce olives and vines, and whose longed-for paradise wasn’t Eden but a western isle of apple trees? What was to be done with a people who didn’t transform nature—whether by agricultural or spiritual means—but who, quite simply, ate it right off the tree? Such barbaric heathens needed to be civilized and converted. They needed to be taught to subdue nature rather than just eat it. No Roman strolled out into his vineyard to pop grapes into his mouth; he pressed them into wine instead. And no one at all plucks olives off trees as a midday snack; we brine or cure them before indulging. It’s no accident that one of the first stories in the Bible, Mediterranean book that it is, concerns the controlling of unruly physical appetites; nor is it an accident that the story took on special contours in northern Europe when the appetite in question turned out to be for an apple—wild, uncultivated, untransformed, and just as nature intended it to be.
Transporting a religion based on the grape and the olive to a hardy apple-loving people presented not only philosophical challenges but practical ones as well. How were the Christians even to procure the necessary foodstuffs so far from home? Olives flourished in the eastern Mediterranean, making the sacrament of extreme unction a convenient enough affair in Rome, but where was oil to be found for anointing the sick and dying in the north? If vines could scarcely be coaxed into growing in Britain, how was one to procure the wine necessary for communion, during which the faithful believed themselves to be drinking the blood of Christ? How were followers to perform the sacraments in such an inauspicious climate? From the moment of their arrival in Britain, the Romans had planted vineyards where they could, but even they had had to supplement their supply by importing amphorae from Gaul and the Iberian Peninsula. Wouldn’t it have been a whole lot easier and less expensive for the Roman Christians to have used the fermented juice of an indigenous fruit? After all, Jesus had chosen the common drink of his time and place. Had he been born in northern Europe, he might very well have held up a horn or beaker at the last supper and bid his followers drink ale or cider in his memory. Why couldn’t the common beverage of the northern climate do just as well as the wine of the Mediterranean? Why couldn’t the sacrament of Holy Communion be celebrated with cider pressed from one of the only fruits hardy enough to grow in Britain? Perhaps it was.
It wasn’t until as late as the sixteenth century that the Roman Church authoritatively decreed that the eucharistic element must be vinum de vite, wine of the grape, thereby forbidding the use of the fermented juice of any other fruit, including cider from apples and perry from pears—both northern fruits. The edict was issued at the Council of Trent. But Trent, or Trento, is in Italy where grapes are always at the ready. In fact, the council was convened to refute the claims and practices of the Protestant Reformation that had begun up north in Germany where neither olive oil nor vinum de vite was as easily procurable as in Italy. The same difficulty continued to bedevil English Christians until as late as the nineteenth century, when the Anglican Church was still resolutely insisting upon the precise nature of the liquid to be used during the Eucharist. In the 1888 Cautels of the Mass, the directions for the proper administration of the sacraments in the Episcopal Church, we read:
In respect to the matter of the Blood, see that it be not home-made, or wine so weak, that by no means it hath the nature of wine. It must not be water red from being strained through a cloth which has been steeped in red wine. It must not be vinegar, or wine at all corrupted; nor must it be claret, or wine made of mulberries or pomegranates; because they retain not the nature of wine.
An important note is added to the passage: “or a wine made from apples—perhaps cider.”19
Why forbid what’s never been attempted? Why would both the Roman and Anglican churches have had to frame their specifications so narrowly unless they were responding to local churches that did in fact make use of indigenous products rather than those imported from the Mediterranean? It seems entirely likely that British churches celebrated their communions with apple cider, the fermented juice of the fruit that had featured so prominently in both Celtic and Germanic myth and religion, the fruit that had inspired Merlin and assuaged the spirits of the deceased on the pre-Christian festival of Samhain. No wonder the Church came down so hard on the homegrown apple. If its Celtic associations alone weren’t enough to incriminate it, the fact that it had been identified as the very same fruit that had caused the expulsion from Eden would certainly have been more than enough to disqualify its juice from standing in for the vinum de vite, the wine of the grape that flourished in the warm southern Mediterranean sunshine.
At the coronation ceremony of the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelred II in 978, apples were specifically asked for as a blessing. Less than a century later, the Normans conquered England and brought with them the pommes for which Normandy is still famous to this day. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles that narrate the history of the Germanic people from the fifth to the twelfth century, the fatal encounter between the two contenders for the kingship took place at Apuldre, the older spelling of Appledore, a town on the northern coast of Devon. But Apuldre, appropriately enough in this fruit-filled context, was also the Old English word for apple tree.
Meantime Earl William came up from Normandy into Pevensey on the eve of St Michael’s mass; and soon after his landing was effected, they constructed a castle at the port of Hastings. This was then told to King Harold; and he gathered a large force, and came to meet him at the estuary of Apuldre.20
The chronicle drily relates the momentous end of the battle: “King Harold was killed … and the French remained masters of the field.” The victorious Normans went to work transforming the legal and ecclesiastical structures of the country over which they were now in control, which is why so many words heard in our English-speaking courts of law and churches come from French: judge, plaintiff, and defendant; priest, parish, and prayer. They also went to work transforming the language of food, but it seems that some words gave them a harder time than others, as we can see when we look to the written records of the period. Since the earliest English cookbooks appeared several centuries after the Norman Conquest, it’s not to them that we turn for evidence of changing food words. Instead we can look to various translations of the Bible, for it was not only the most often translated book of the time, but it also—conveniently for us—happens to be filled with stories about food.
In a pre-Norman translation of Genesis, for instance, the Hebrew word for fruit had been rendered by the now extinct and archaic-looking Old English wæstm. After the conquest, however, wæstm was replaced by the French fruyt: “We schulden not eate of the fruyt of the tre,” Eve tells the wily serpent. Obviously wæstm did not survive, perhaps because it was the Normans whom England had to thank for so many new fruits—and their names—including pears, peaches, quinces, cherries, and so many more. All were grown in France according to the grafting techniques and methods that the Romans had developed more than a thousand years earlier and all now made their way to the royal courts of England. Shortly after, with the return of the Crusaders from the Holy Land, the first citrus fruits appeared in England, and spice ships from southern Europe brought raisins, currants, prunes, figs, and dates from the eastern Mediterranean. Every one of these fruits today bears a French name. But not the apple, which had flourished in the north since time immemorial. Thus it is that the same version of the Bible in which Eve succumbed to the “fruyt of the tre,” has the besotted maiden in the Song of Songs comparing her lover to “an apple tre among the trees of wodis” and moaning to her attendants to “Cumpasse ye me with applis; for Y am sijk for loue.” Fruyt had by this time entirely eclipsed the older wæstm, but the Old English apple was never rechristened a Norman pomme. Duke William had a far easier time taking the throne from King Harold than he did taking the æppel from his new subjects.
Of course the apple might have survived because it was one of the only fruits known in Old English. There simply were no native words for pears, peaches, or cherries, so they couldn’t be called by any but foreign names. And yet history could have taken another course, as it did several centuries earlier—and of all places, in Normandy itself. To this day the northwestern coastal region of France is famous for its apples but they haven’t always been called pommes. Nor were the Normans themselves always French. The area owes its name to the “Northmen,” or Norsemen, to whom Charles the Simple gave the northwest part of his country in 911 in his attempt to put an end to their incessant raping and pillaging. The word for apple that those Northmen, whom we tend to refer to today as Vikings, would have used was the north Germanic epli, yet if you order a crêpe à la normande today, it will be filled not with eplis but pommes. When the Vikings traded their spears for plows and became Normans, they traded the epli for the pomme as well. Within the space of less than a century, the Normans had become French. But when the Anglo-Saxons merged with the Normans to become the English-speaking people we know today, unlike the Vikings, they held onto their apples.
Thus, in the pages of the first cookbook printed in England, The Forme of Cury, assembled in the 1390s by the French-speaking chefs of King Richard II, we find many foods that would never have appeared on Anglo-Saxon tables sitting cheek by jowl with the Old English staples of yore. Figs, raisins, and dates flavor a fishy sort of mincemeat pie called tart de brymlent, but the dish calls for good old-fashioned apples as well.
Tart de brymlent
Take fyges & raysouns, & waisshe hem in wyne, and grinde hem smale with apples & peres clene ypiked. Take hem up and cast hem in a pot wiþ wyne and sugur. Take calwar samoun ysode, oþer codlyng oþer haddok, & bray hem small, & do þerto white powdours & hoole spices & salt, & seeþ it. And whanne it is sode ynowz, take it up and do it in a vessel and lat it kele. Make a coffyn an ynche depe & do þe ƒars þerein. Plaunt it above with prunes damysyns: take þe stones out, and wiþ dates quartered rede and piked clene. And couere the coffyn, and bake it wel, and serue it forth.
Tart for Midlent
Take figs and raisins and wash them in wine. Grind them small with apples and pears picked clean. Take them up and cast them in a pot with wine and sugar. Take boiled young salmon or codling or haddock and chop them small and add white pepper and whole spices and salt. And seethe it. When it is boiled enough, take it up and put it in a vessel and let it cool. Make a coffin an inch deep and put the filling inside. Lay on top damson plums, with the stones taken out, and quartered dates, picked clean. Cover the coffin, bake it well, and serve it forth.21
Note: The whole spices would probably have included cinnamon sticks, black peppercorns, and cloves. “Coffin” was the standard way to refer to what we know as a pie shell.
The distinction between the elegant French nomenclature in the recipe’s title and the humble Germanic ingredients appears on virtually every page of the Forme of Cury. Another recipe makes the point even more clearly. A fairly standard feature in early English cookery books, apulmose (also spelled appulmoy, apple moyle, appilmose) was typically medieval in its blending of sweet and savory flavors: stewed apples were strained into a beef broth that was flavored with the common trinity of ginger, saffron, and pepper; the resulting soup was then thickened with bread. A meatless version for Lent and fast days replaced the broth with almond milk and olive oil.
For to make apulmose
Tak applys & seeþ hem and let hem kele, & after make hem þorwe a cloþ & do hem in a pot. & kast to þat mylk of almaundys, wyþ god broþ of buf in flesch dayes; do bred ymyed þereto. & þe fisch dayes, do þereto oyle of olyue, & do þereto sugur & coloure it with safroun, & strew þeron powder & serue it forþe.
To Make Soft Apples
Take apples, seethe them, let them cool, and after put them through a cloth and then into a pot. Add almond milk, with good beef broth on meat days, and minced bread. On fish days, add olive oil. Add sugar & color with saffron. Strew powder on and serve it forth.22
Note: The “powder” would probably have been a mixture of ginger, saffron, and pepper.
The unusual combination of flavors in this soup is rivaled by its equally unusual name. Apul is self-explanatory, and in its earliest written version, all the ingredients, with the sole exception of Buf, are called by their Old English names: applys, mylk, flesch, bred, fisch. Mose alone needs translating because, obviously, the word isn’t English. It’s the Old French for soft (mou or molle today). The king’s master chefs were savvy enough to know that “soft apples” sounded dangerously close to the unwanted scraps thrown to hungry swine; graced with the Norman mose, however, the dish was fit to set before the king.
Occasionally, apple dishes went entirely French. To call a sweetened rice pudding flavored with almonds, saffron, and apples pommys morles certainly makes it sound far more refined than the plain old English “soft apples.” But the two names mean exactly the same thing.
For to make pommys morles
Nym rys & bray hem wel, & temper hem up wyþ almaunde mylk & boyle yt. Nym applyn & pare hem & sher hem smal als dicis, & cast hem þereyn after þe boylyng, & cast sugur wyþal, & colowre yt wyþ safron & cast þereto pouder, & serue yt forthe.
To Make Soft Apples
Take rice, boil it well, add almond milk and boil it. Take apples, pare them, dice them and cast them therein after the boiling. Add sugar and color with saffron. Sprinkle with powder and serve it forth.23
What we see in these early cookery manuals is precisely the same inferiority complex, the same split personality that we English speakers still suffer from today. On the one hand, we assume that if it’s French it’s got to be better. Pommys morles sounded as superior to soft apples as tarte des pommes à la normande does today to an apple pie, even though in each case the ingredients are virtually identical. When it comes to the pear, the cherry, or the peach, neither Richard II’s chefs nor we have a choice but to use the names imported by the Romans and the Normans. But in the case of the ingredient itself, the apple, whose provenance stretches back through the millennia, the less sophisticated part of our food personality asserts itself. Despite our love of French cuisine and our reverence for toque-wearing chefs and pâtissiers, when it comes to our native apples, we English speakers have historically chosen to snub the snobs.
From the time the Romans first landed in Britannia to the cookery books that appeared more than a thousand years later, it was all but invariably assumed that if a foodstuff bore a Latin or French name, it was more civilized, more elegant, and just plain better than the very same food called by its local name. To this day, a tarte tatin sounds more sophisticated than an apple cobbler—but why? Are the ingredients so very different: apples, butter, flour, and sugar? Even though the upside-down tarte was created entirely by accident when Stéphanie Tatin realized she had forgotten about a bottom crust and cleverly salvaged the dessert by flipping it over onto a serving plate, it nonetheless exudes an aura of refinement that eludes the homespun cobblers, not to mention the crisps, crumbles, grunts, slumps, brown betties, pandowdies, and buckles beloved by speakers of English on both sides of the Atlantic.
Food names have long served as barometers of national solidarity. During World War I, suspicion of all things German resulted in a name change for the hamburger: suddenly it was a Salisbury steak. Similarly, when France protested the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Republican representatives Robert W. Ney and Walter B. Jones Jr. insisted that french fries and french toast be replaced by “freedom fries” and “freedom toast” on the menus of restaurants in the House of Representatives. What we call our food says a lot, not only about our preferences but about our allegiances as well, and apples are a prime example. Invading peoples have tried to impose their names, but one after another, they have gone down in defeat. The Celts refused to trade in their aballo for the Roman malum; the Anglo-Saxons shunned the Latin pomum and the Norman pomme, insisting on their æppel; and a few centuries later, English middle-class cooks fought back against the French chefs who were magisterially usurping their kitchens.
“I sing of food by British nurse design’d,” penned the seventeenth-century poet William King in mock-Homeric fashion in his Art of Making Puddings. Dipping his “swilling plume in fragrant cream,” he celebrated copious quantities of milk and butter in such English desserts as sackposset, oatmeal pudding, and the fanciful dessert of yesteryear known as hedgehog, on account of its characteristic almond spikes. But his noblest efforts of all went into the patriotic tribute called, appropriately, “Apple Pye.” Here is the first stanza:
Of all the delicates which Britons try
To please the palate or delight the eye,
Of all the sev’ral kinds of sumptuous fare,
There is none that can with applepie compare.24
Some fifty years later, King’s celebration of English food was echoed by a very unpoetic writer who stoutly mocked the francophile pretensions of her countrymen: “So much is the blind Folly of this Age, that they would rather be impos’d on by a French Booby, than give Encouragement to a good English Cook!” The words belong to Hannah Glasse, whose 1747 Art of Cookery Made Plain & Easy disdained the “high, polite Stile” of haute cuisine and dared to call French lardoons by their plain-English name, “little Pieces of Bacon.” By the same token, Glasse gave her recipes such no-nonsense names as “Apple fritters,” “Pupton of Apple,” “Apple Pudding,” and “Apple Pye.” Not a single pommes molles or tarte aux pommes is to be found in her collection.
Apple Fritters
Beat the Yolks of eight Eggs, the Whites of four well together, and strain them into a Pan; then take a Quart of Cream, make it as hot as you can bear your Finger in it, then put to it a quarter of a Pint of Sack, three quarters of a Pint of Ale, and make a Posset of it. When it is cool, put it to your Eggs, beating it well together, then put in Nutmeg, Ginger, Salt, and Flour to your liking. Your Batter should be pretty thick, then put in Pippins sliced or scraped, and fry them in a good deal of Butter, quick.25
Note: Sack was a fortified white wine from Spain or the Canary Islands; a sweet sherry is a modern substitute. A posset was a hot sweetened milk curdled with wine or ale.
On the other hand, a popular cookbook of the next century opens by advising its readers to imitate those with “greater culinary skill” so as to “remedy our own defects.” The writer was Eliza Acton and in her 1845 Modern Cookery for Private Families, she wondered “why … the English, as a people [are] more ignorant than their continental neighbours of so simple a matter as that of preparing [nourishment] for themselves.”26 Gone, consequently, are Hannah Glasse’s plain and easy names, replaced by the likes of Pommes au beurre (no more, no less than buttered apples) and Charlotte de Pommes (so much lovelier-sounding than a homegrown Apple Charlotte). The almond-spiked “trembling lump” that William King knew as hedgehog now makes its appearance as the elegantly foreign Suédoise.
Apple Hedge-Hog, or “Suédoise”
This dish is formed of apples, pared, cored without being divided and stewed tolerably tender in a light syrup. These are placed in a dish, after being well drained, and filled with apricot, or any other rich marmalade, and arranged in two or more layers, so as to give, when the whole is complete, the form shown in the engraving. The number required must depend on the size of the dish. From three to five pounds more must be stewed down into a smooth and dry marmalade, and with this all the spaces between them are to be filled up, and the whole area to be covered with it; an icing of two eggs, beaten to a very solid froth, and mixed with two heaped teaspoonsful of sugar, must then be spread evenly over the suédoise, fine sugar sifted on this, and spikes of blanched almonds, cut lengthwise, stuck over the entire surface: the dish is then to be placed in a moderate oven until the almonds are browned, but not too deeply, and the apples are hot through. It is not easy to give the required form with less than fifteen apples; eight of these may first be simmered in a syrup made with half a pint of water and six ounces of sugar, and the remainder may be thrown in after these are lifted out. Care must be taken to keep them firm. The marmalade should be sweet, and pleasantly flavoured with lemon.27
Like a fairy godmother waving her magic wand, Acton similarly transforms Apple Soup into Soupe à la Bourguignon. But what is a soupe à la bourguignon? An aromatic, winey, possibly vegetarian cousin to the well-loved boeuf à la bourguignon we’ve taught ourselves to cook from the pages of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Hardly. Turns out that it’s no more than Acton’s invented French name for the old medieval dish known as apulmos. It was the late English food writer Jane Grigson who revealed the act of prestidigitation. Bothered by Acton’s obvious love of all things French and skeptical of the dish’s French provenance, Grigson set to work and sleuthed out the earliest printed source of the medieval dish. “Although Miss Acton attributed it to Burgundy,” she concluded, “it does not appear in any French collections of Burgundian recipes. In the end I came across the original version, in a reprinted manuscript from the Bodleian Library at Oxford, of the beginning of the fifteenth century. It’s called Apple moys, or apple mush (from the French mol, meaning soft).”28
Apple Soup Soupe à la Bourguignon
Clear the fat from five pints of good mutton broth, bouillon, or shin of beef stock, and strain it through a fine sieve; add to it when it boils, a pound and a half of good cooking apples, and stew them down in it very softly to a smooth pulp; press the whole through a strainer, add a small teaspoonful of powdered ginger and plenty of pepper, simmer the soup for a couple of minutes, skim, and serve it very hot, accompanied by a dish of rice, boiled as for curries.29
Despite the long-standing love affair English speakers have had with all things French, when it comes down to basic home cooking, Cinderella’s magic coach becomes a pumpkin once more and the pommes aux beurre, suédoises, and soupes à la bourguignon are restored to their humbler status as buttered apples, hedgehogs, and apple soups. Thus in cookbooks with titles like Good Things in England, Food in England, and English Food, we read time and again sentiments that “French Cookery is, of course very good, but there has always been a great sameness about it,” and “English cooking is old-fashioned, because we like it that way.” Florence White, who decisively affirmed the first of these statements, recounted an amusing anecdote about the nineteenth-century foreign minister Lord Dudley, who refused to translate the name of his—and indeed England’s—favorite dessert by any other name.
The late Lord Dudley could not dine comfortably without an apple pie, as he insisted on calling it, contending that the term tart only applied to open pastry. Dining, when Foreign Secretary, at a grand dinner at Prince Esterhazy’s, he was terribly put out on finding that his favourite delicacy was wanting, and kept on murmuring pretty audibly, in his absent way: “God bless my soul! No apple pie.”30
Dorothy Hartley’s patriotism led her to open her 1954 Food in England with a sketch of English history from the time of the earliest Devonian cave dwellers, through the invasions of the Celts, Romans, Saxons, and Danes, ending with the Norman Conquest, when “the Saxon slave, resentfully lugging in the firewood, learnt the new name ‘mutton’ for his slaughtered sheep.”31 Among her dessert offerings are “Chaucer’s Roast Apples” (apples roasted with sugar candy and galingale syrup) and “Apple Tansy, medicinal” (a tansy was originally a purgative sort of porridge, useful in the days before modern laxatives), not to mention such standards as apple pasties and “Ancestral Apple Pie.”
Chaucer’s Roast Apples
Apples roasted with sugar candy and galingale syrup (a very delicate dish). Galingale is a lumpy spice, with the aroma of damask roses, usually to be got through a wine spicery. Peel the apples finely and set level on a platter. Stew the galingale root in enough water and honey to fill the platter. Drain over the apples, and bake gently; withdraw from the oven, and serve cold, scattered with crushed white sugar candy. They should look like frosted pink roses, in a syrup the colour of rose quartz.32
Such culinary patriotism reached its pinnacle in Jane Grigson’s 1974 English Food. Grigson denied the blue ribbon to French cuisine and spoke instead about the borrowing and adapting that have taken place since the dawn of time, or, at least, since the dawn of cooking.
No cookery book belongs exclusively to its country, or its region. Cooks borrow—and always have borrowed—and adapt through the centuries. Though the scale in either case isn’t exactly the same, this is as true, for example, of French cooking as of English cooking. We have borrowed from France. France borrowed from Italy direct and by way of Provence. The Romans borrowed from the Greeks, and the Greeks borrowed from the Egyptians and Persians. What each individual country does do is to give all the elements, borrowed or otherwise, something of a national character.33
Not a single apple recipe in Grigson’s history has a French name; instead we find a “Fretoure owt of lente” (fifteenth-century apple fritters) and an “English Apple and Raisin Pie,” which, in a fairly unprecedented turning of the tables, the renowned French chef Carême himself wasn’t too proud to include in his 1828 gastronomical classic, Le Cuisinier Parisien.
To this day we English speakers still rely on the ancient name that once referred to the wild crab apple even though we so obviously prefer the dizzying array of cultivated varieties, from the Aceymac to Zuccalmaglio’s Reinette. Apples—not malums, not pommes, but apples—are still, after all the centuries since the Romans brought literacy and agriculture to Britain, the most English of fruit. As Mrs. Beeton noted in her Book of Household Management almost a hundred and fifty years ago, “The most useful of all the British fruits is the apple, which is a native of Britain.” She added a surprisingly modern note: “apples grown in the vicinity of New York are universally admitted to be the finest of any.”34 Whether we agree with her appraisal or not, almost every schoolchild today knows that apples were the first fruit the English settlers brought with them to the shores of America. Long before Johnny Appleseed embarked on his legendary tree-planting mission throughout New England and the Midwest in the early nineteenth century, the earliest settlers were already planting orchards with seeds brought from the old country. Apple lore holds that the longest-lived apple tree in the United States was planted in 1647 by Peter Stuyvesant, the first governor of what was then called New Amsterdam, on the grounds of his Manhattan property near today’s Third Avenue and Thirteenth Street. Even though historical records prove it to have been a pear tree, people nonetheless imagine it to have been an apple tree, going so far as to suggest that New York owes its nickname, “The Big Apple,” to Stuyvesant’s tree.
Today it’s the apple that is the most American of fruits. We call the ones we love “the apple of our eye” and we croon to them, “Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me.” We speak of things that are “as American as apple pie.” Chevrolet’s catchy ad campaign could never have included a pear tart in its lyrical listing of American icons: “Baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet.” It’s an apple that keeps the doctor away and apples that grateful students leave for their teachers. Even the computer on which I am writing these words is adorned with an apple and bears the name of “Mac.” The pear, on the other hand, still strikes us as vaguely foreign, aristocratic, and Old World, with such varieties as Anjou (named after the French province) and Comice, whose full name is Doyenne du Comice. A pie (from the Middle English pye) can be filled with apples, but pears go into a tart (from the French tarte). A sliced apple demands a sharp Cheddar (whether English or Wisconsin), whereas a pear calls for a ripe Camembert or Roquefort. Fermented, the apple gives us cider, applejack, or Calvados, that specialty of Norse-settled Normandy; distilled with eau de vie, the pear becomes poire William.
“An apple a day,” the saying goes. Whether McIntosh, Red or Golden Delicious, or Granny Smith, the apple is without question the most comforting of fruits, the one whose name we could no more do without than those of our other staples, bread and milk. Even though the apples we eat are the products of grafting that was written about so authoritatively by the ancient Romans, and even though the Church so convincingly and permanently transformed the sacred apple of northern legend into the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, still our apple echoes the uncultivated Anglo-Saxon æppel and, even more remotely, the wild Celtic aballo.
But the conquerors did leave an imprint. Otherwise, why would the study of apples, and more generally of fruit, be known as pomology? Why would the Oxford English Dictionary call “a fruit of the apple kind or resembling an apple” a pome? Why would the apple-shaped balls filled with sweet-smelling aromatics once used to ward off infection be known as pomanders and the hair gel that once contained apple pectin be known as pomade? Because we English speakers, insecure in our rustic primitive northernness, prefer erudite-sounding Latin names for our scientific terminology and romantic French names for the products of our toilettes. No “appleology” for us, and certainly no “amber apple” or “apple ointment,” even though that’s all that pomanders (pommes d’ambre) and pomades amount to. When it comes to our refined vocabularies, we go French and Latin virtually every time. When it’s a matter of the foods we eat day in and day out, however, we put our feet down and insist on the names we have known them by for countless centuries, the names on which we have built our myths and even our religious beliefs. Inextricably entwined with our very conception of what fruit is all about, the apple has become second nature to us.
But what apple? The towering and precariously balanced pyramids of McIntoshes and Granny Smiths that inevitably await us as we wend our way through the produce sections of our supermarkets? Is this what the fruit of legend has been reduced to? A uniformly shiny orb that looks and tastes the same every single time? In reaction, a grassroots movement has arisen that’s been winning more and more adherents who seek to overthrow the pomological tyranny of our supermarkets and return to the way things used to be, when an almost inconceivable variety of apples were harvested by hand after long lazy days in the sun—rather than exposure to ethylene gas—had brought them to the perfect pitch of ripeness. Why limit ourselves to the same few predictable and engineered varieties when there’s a world of red, orange, yellow, brown, and even dark purple apples out there with names like Esopus Spitzenberg, Sheep’s Nose (also known as the Black Gilliflower), and Chenango Strawberry? Such locally grown and quirkily named heirloom apples have become all the rage as we try to throw off the yoke of agribusiness that has controlled our culinary choices for so long.
And yet the irony is that no matter how heirloom they are, such old-fashioned apples are nonetheless still the engineered products that have resulted from the grafting that dates back to the Romans, the Greeks, and, ultimately, the Chinese. If all human intervention were suddenly to come to an end and our carefully tended orchards left to fend for themselves, apples as we have known them since the days of antiquity would gradually revert to their truly natural state and become wild Malus sieversii once more, the sour little things indigenous to the Eurasian steppes where those ancient Proto-Indo-European peoples once called them abel. Closer to hawthorns and rosehips (to which they are botanically related) than to the fruit we have come to rely on, those eminently natural wild apples would make us cringe and pucker up. They’d make us long for the sweetness of cultivated fruit. However much we may claim today to prefer “all-natural” foods, as no Roman ever would have, we still want the sweetness that ancient horticultural expertise bequeathed to us. In short, we want our apples but, contradictory creatures that we are, we want to eat them too.

Copyright © 2011 by Ina Lipkowitz

Meet the Author

INA LIPKOWITZ teaches fiction and biblical studies in the literature department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previously, she has taught English, French, and German literature at Harvard University. Words to Eat By is her first book. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts.

Ina Lipkowitz teaches fiction and biblical studies in the literature department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Previously, she has taught English, French, and German literature at Harvard University. Words to Eat By was her first book. She lives in Winchester, Massachusetts.

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