I’m not generally one for reading in bed, but some books simply can’t be got at any other way. One such book is Gervase Markham’s The Well-Kept Kitchen, which Penguin has so conveniently/irritatingly extracted from the much longer English Housewife.
(It doesn’t really suffer for being an excerpt; I just suffer, personally, from revulsion (not too strong a word, not at all) when confronted with an abridged book—the hubris, the pride required for anyone, anywhere to imagine they know what I can do without in a book…! Never mind. I’m interested in this booklet for what it does contain.)
One of the most delightful aspects of reading olde-timey literature is its abundance of olde-timey words; I feel a particular fondness for archaic culinary terms and so delight in The Tempest for many reasons, but maybe most for one phrase near the end of the play:
You elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes, and groves,
And you that on the sands with printless foot
Do chase the ebbing Neptune, and do fly him
When he comes back; you demi-puppets that
By moonshine do the green sour ringlets make,
Whereof the ewe not bites; and you whose pastime
Is to make midnight mushrumps, that rejoice
To hear the solemn curfew; by whose aid,
Weak masters though you be, I have bedimmed
The noontide sun…
Mushrooms is a pretty good word, but its ancestor is clearly superior. That mushrooms might very well be the product of actual magic rather than an expression of mere nature or God is both appealing and obviously true, regardless of how you feel about these morsels. I think Shakespeare (or Prospero) saw a real mysterious power—not always either benign or divine—in food, in things growing in and of the earth, and in a way that’s hard to imagine now.
Now we can all pretty much buy anything, anywhere, regardless of the season. Remember when asparagus was available 6 days each year, and that was it? Previously hard to find food is now ultra-convenient if not always delectable (e.g., what the hell is wrong with tomatoes in the supermarket??), and that’s sad insofar as what’s convenient isn’t magical; when magic is taken for granted, it ceases to be magic.
(But well before asparagus was still as rare as a full solar eclipse, think of Marlowe’s Faustus damning himself by committing various vile blasphemies, calling up devils, tormenting monks…and bringing a pregnant lady grapes in winter.)
The archaisms I’m thinking about in relation to food are both material and etymological, and so I began reading Markham’s book to find delightful archaisms—and it began serving them forth before even before page 10. In a section devoted to merely listing which seeds housewives ought to sow and when, Markham celebrates the poetry of the pragmatic:
In March, the moon new, sow garlic, borage, bugloss, chervil, coriander, gourds, cresses, marjoram, white poppy, purslane, radish, sorrel, double marigolds, thyme, violets. At the full moon, aniseeds, bleets, skirrets, succory, fennel, apples of love, and marvelous apples. At the wane, artichokes, basil, blessed thistle, cole cabbage, white cole, green cole, citrons, cucumbers, hartshorn, samphire, spinach, gilly-flowers, hyssop, cabbage-lettuce, melons, muggets, onions, flower-gentle, burnet, leeks and savory.
The lyricism of locovorism, the beauty of a richly bursting backyard! Names like “marvelous apples” sound to me more like terms of affection than identification. I want to sink my teeth into all these juicy words, even when they refer to food I’ve never heard of and therefore have no sense of how they might taste.
I’ve tried to satisfy my curiosity about at least a few of these and what I’ve discovered is that half the time I actually do know what they are, and the other half I have no reference at all by which to imagine them; some tidbits:
Apples of love: Tomatoes or eggplants, naturally.
Marvelous apples: AKA balsam apples (which could be gourd-like plants, like bitter melons, with highly-coloured fruits or “apples”), or dessert apples. This terrible flavour contradiction is proof that subjectivity existed long before academics began wasting time wondering if people in the middle ages had a sense of self akin to our own, for nothing typifies humanity more than the ability to hold completely antithetical thoughts about one thing simultaneously. And how can using the same term to describe a bitter melon and a sweet dessert apple be anything other than this…?
Skirrets: Water parsnips. One hopes skirrets are not to parsnips what water chestnuts are to chestnuts—that is, pale, woody, and tasteless abominations smothered in disappointment.
Bleets: Wild spinaches!
Succory: I didn’t find the OED’s official definition for this at all illuminating, but T. Elyot (1548?) advises that “Cykorie or suckorie is lyke in operation to lettise”—good fodder for sallats, in other words.
Gilly-flowers: Cloves. You know what that means? That means apple pie, which is more proof that as long as we’ve been walking on two feet and using our faces to make mouth-words, we’ve aspired to be as awesome as apple pie. Which is pretty awesome.
I wonder if anyone has done real, solid research on the history of culinary language, how and why some names change (apples of love!) while others don’t; for example, the kale we all know and love so well now has been cultivated for many hundreds of years, the name changing only in spelling since the middle ages from “cale.”
But the strange hyper-regional differences that exist also fascinate…where I come from, what you probably all know as Nanaimo bars are called George. Yes, really; well, by at least 3-5 people I used to know. My half rhetorical, half real question still stands: How did we go from pastry coffins to pie crusts? From bleets to spinaches? A fruitless research project to end one’s days with, this, but a project as useful and noble as any other perhaps.