Monday, November 24, 2014

Food for Thought

Last week’s blog dealt with the origin of the word turkey, and this week the other foods that grace our Thanksgiving table have their turn.

Cranberry is a 17th-century word, adapted into American English from Low German kraanbere, which derived from the German word for “crane,” presumably because the stamens of the cranberry plant resemble the beaks of cranes. The German kraanbere was similar to the larger North American variety, also known as fenberries or mashwort. In New England cranberries were sometimes called bear-berries because bears devoured them greedily.

If you have sweet potato as a side dish, you’re really eating a redundancy, since the word potato really means “sweet potato” all by itself. It originated in the 1560s, derived from the Spanish patata, which was a corrupution of the Haitian Carib word batata, which is a sweet potato.  In the 1590s the name potato was extended to the white potato from Peru, which was regarded as a cheap and inferior substitute for the sweet variety.  The white potato was introduced to Ireland in 1565 and became indelibly linked with that country.

Similar to the sweet potato is the yam, which in the 1580s was known by the Spanish as an igname, from a West African language.  In African Fulani nyami means “to eat.”  By 1690 the word was shortened to yam in American and Jamaican English.

Finally, the pumpkin you may find in your pie is an alteration of pumpion, a word known in English in the 1540s, from the Middle French pompon and ultimately from Latin peponem and Greek pepon, or “melon.” The colloquial punkin is found by 1806.

Oh, one more thing: is that side dish made with bread, onions, celery, and sometimes rice, oysters, or chestnuts, properly called “dressing” or “stuffing”?  Logic would indicate that if it’s cooked inside the bird it’s “stuffing,” but if it’s cooked separately, it’s “dressing.” In fact, it’s a geographical distinction. In the South, where the dish is almost always made with cornbread, it’s always called “dressing,” whether inside or outside the bird. In the North and West, where it’s usually made with white bread, it’s called “stuffing.”

Now that you know where the names of your food come from, you can settle down and enjoy the feast. The Bard of Buffalo Bayou will be doing that as well, as soon as he finishes sampling his own concoctions--cranberry wine and sweet potato vodka.

            Thanksgiving is that special day
            We designate to say we’re grateful
            For morsels over which we’ll pray
            As soon as we have got our plate full.                       

            We’re thankful for our kin and kith,
            We’re also glad to have our health, 
            We’re grateful for the folks we’re with,
            And (if we’ve got it) for our wealth.

            We’re thankful for the U. S.A.,
            And for our Army and our Navy,
            But mostly thankful on this day
            For dressing laced with giblet gravy.            

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