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Book Review: Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language by Ina Lipkowitz

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Cuisine is so much more than the words we use to name our food. In Words to Eat By: Five Foods and the Culinary History of the English Language, author Ina Lipkowitz traces the history of five basic food types, which represent some of the oldest English foods:

  • 1. Fruits/Apples
  • 2. Leeks: Weed or Vegetable
  • 3. Milk//Dairy
  • 4. Meat
  • 5. Bread

Along the way you’ll be educated and entertained while browsing ancient recipes. If you’ve ever wondered about food names and the connection between food and language, you’ll enjoy this enlightened culinary linguistic tour.

Intrigued by the idea of tying culinary history to the English language, Lipkowitz dishes up hundreds of food facts you’ll devour. For example, a comment Julius Caesar made on an expedition to Britain in 55-54 BC, notes the Celts diet: “They live on milk and meat.”

The oldest known cookbook, Apicius’ De re coquinaria, (“On the subject of cooking,”) featured all the available fruits of the time, many of which are also mentioned in the Bible.

Those who enjoy roast pork might not want to read of pork’s likely history while eating dinner. Like many foods with an accidental start, an essay by Charles Lamb imagines that tasty pork was the result of a large fire in a pigsty.

While many of us have no problem being carnivores, others disdain meat if the subject on the plate it too close to its origin. That’s why duck a l’orange is usually not served in restaurants overlooking the duck pond.

Over the centuries, our tastes evolved as food, cooking methods, and global distribution expanded. The food industry has always worked to make food available, but also to make us want the food they have in large supply. That’s why we’ve recently seen the U.S. Food and Drug Administration rename the unwanted prune to a more appetizing name of ‘dried plums.’

Word lovers will appreciate Lipkowitz’s attention to the power of food words. The name of a food can either stir our desire or make us queasy, so many food names stem are derived from their melodic French and Italian names. Calamari in a trattoria sounds much more appealing than a pan of squid at home.

Words to Eat By offers a lively history and light-hearted look at English food and brings us to a bold new century when meat — real meat — is making a comeback. Grilled or roasted, Mediterranean or southern, good food is still appreciated and essential to our diets. Today’s heirloom crops and wild food movement, as opposed to agribusiness, takes us back to the root of the food movement, as it was centuries ago.

Bread, the one item in the book that is not directly found in nature, is now leavened with a combination of ‘agriculture and kitchen chemistry.’ It continues to find its place as the staff of life in most kitchens, despite the accidental history of the invention of leavened bread.

Historians, linguists and food lovers will enjoy every bite of this culinary delight.

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