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Food is its Own Language

In a playful take on 'food writing,' Judith Tschann savors words for their sustenance.

Courtesy Judith Tschann

Judith Tschann (B.A. ’73) likes to nibble. This may explain why Tschann, a professor emerita of English language and literature at the University of Redlands in California, wrote her recent book Romaine Wasn’t Built in a Day: The Delightful History of Food Language. In a work that explores the rhythms of appetite from breakfast to nightcaps, she serves up snack-sized anecdotes about the origins of words that range from absinthe to zest.

“Food is never separate from family, culture, history, and religion. It infiltrates every aspect of our existence,” says the former U of M English and humanities major. “Food also has a playful aspect to it just as language does. We certainly don’t eat just for survival.”

For instance, absinthe, Tschann tells us, comes from apsinthion, the Greek word for wormwood, in which the green spirit is aged. Zec, the word from which zest is derived, is what French speakers call the membrane around walnut kernels.

Her playful book has a serious side—at least for word lovers eager to learn terms of art. Tschann reveals that mocha, cantaloupe, jalapeños, and martini are toponyms, words derived from the names of places such as al-Mukha in Yemen, Cantalupo near Rome, the Mexican city of Jalapa, and Martinez, California. Meanwhile, Caesar salad, the Reuben, and sandwich are eponyms, because they were named after people, namely a restaurateur, a deli owner or grocer (no one knows for sure), and an earl. Baby Ruth got its moniker from the baseball great, not Grover Cleveland’s daughter, according to Tschann. Orange, formerly the Arabic nāranj, is a back formation, caused when English speakers omitted the first letter.

One of Tschann’s favorite food-related words is zydeco, a corruption of the French haricot verts (green beans). They are found in the title of a Clifton Chenier song “Les Haricots [pronounced zydeco] Sont Pás Sales” (the beans aren’t salted), and zydeco became associated with the music genre. “In my mind it gives a new meaning to the idea of a stringed instrument,” she jokes.

Another favorite word is halibut. Butt was likely the word for flounder in the Middle Ages, she says, and haly meant holy. So, halibut was a fish for holy days.

Tschann adores the term amuse bouche, a small savory appetizer. “I like the idea that what gets your appetite going is something that amuses your mouth, rather than something that actually somehow literally makes you drool,” she says.

The soft-spoken Tschann admits that her “level of humor is about that of a 7-year-old.” She writes that “Pumpernickel comes from the early German pumper, ‘fart,’ and Nicholas, a ‘lout or bumpkin.’” Avocado hails from the central Mexican language Nahuatl. It means testicle (ahuacatl), as does nutmeg, which shares the Sanskrit root for scrotum. Vanilla derives from vagina, the Latin word for sheath or scabbard. Soufflé is French for something blown. It has the same root as flatulence.

Some word origins elude her linguistic legerdemain. The berry in raspberry was an Old English word, but “rasp-” is a mystery. Raspberry tart became a 19th-century euphemism for breaking wind, and a raspberry is now a derisive catcall. Hushpuppies, the fried Southern cornmeal treat, may have been crunchy bits thrown by weary hunters to hounds to hush them. “It probably worked,” writes Tschann. “Though as etymology goes, it’s more fanciful than factual.

“I do like to emphasize words’ ludic quality,” she says, quickly adding “That’s a fancy way of saying playful.”

Tschann admits that her "level of humor is about that of a 7-year-old." She writes that "Pumpernickle comes from the early German pumper, 'fart', and Nicholas, a 'lout or bumpkin.'"

Born in Northfield, Minnesota, and raised in Minneapolis, Tschann claims not to be a good cook, but brags she can make “a wicked potato frittata.” Most often she is content to serve as her husband’s sous-chef. “I love to read recipes. They promise a happy ending, which I don’t always manage to achieve,” she says. “It’s thrilling to see the rules, the steps to take.”

Tschann got turned on to words by her grandparents, who immigrated from Norway. Her grandfather told uproarious tales. When she was 8, his punchlines in his native tongue mystified her. “Wow, you can accomplish something by saying it in a different language,” she thought. Tschann also treasures her multilingual grandmother’s annotated Caesar’s Commentaries and keeps it in her study.

At Redlands Tschann often taught at a round oak table in the Browsing Room, a wood-paneled sanctuary whose stained-glass windows depict four of the pilgrims from the Canterbury Tales. Besides teaching linguistics, Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Chaucer, and Literature and Laughter, Tschann helmed the course Food in Lit.

Students read Water for Chocolate, Babette’s Feast, Tom Jones (“because of that scene in which he’s eating oysters”), and The Odyssey. Of Ulysses’ escape from the man-devouring Cyclops, she observes, “the marker of being civilized is that you cook your food and that you are a good host—you don’t eat your guests.”

Tschann, who says poet John Berryman made a “huge impression” on her during a yearlong U of M seminar, received the Mortarboard Teacher of the Year award in 2009, an honor for which her students nominated her. They enjoyed more than her teaching: Tschann often brought fruit, homemade cookies, and fresh baked doughnuts to class. “If you’re doing a Latin tutorial at 9 in the morning, it definitely helps to have a little sugar,” she says. “It seems if you’re metaphorically and literally breaking bread with others; it brings you together."

After teaching for 42 years at Redlands, where she was also English department chair, Tschann now has a slew of projects at hand. She is crafting short stories and a novel set in 13th-century England, and is also writing a follow-up to Romaine titled ’Tis Something, ’tis Nothing.

The topic? Punctuation. Like her food words book, it will be a mirthful romp, not a grammar guide. “The subject just sounds so dreadfully boring, but I think it’s fascinating,” she says. “Punctuation seems like nothing, but we can’t ignore it, because it adds to meaning.” After all, Tschann says, the Supreme Court once heard a case whose verdict hinged on whether or not quotation marks had been used properly.

As much as she loves the tiny marks that regulate sentences, Tschann does have a pet peeve about one of them. Apostrophes, the curlicues that signify a contraction or possession, are “a pain in the neck,” she says.

George Spencer is a freelance writer in North Carolina. 

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