Monday, July 12, 2010

Language and Food

The precision of the French language in describing the actions, equipment, and raw materials of the kitchen is unmatched, and it reflects their strong appreciation and understanding of food.

Consider the diagrams of pigs that show where the different cuts of pork come from on the animal.  The British, North Americans, and French all have traditional ways to divide the animal.  You'll notice that, on the French diagram, not only are more parts of the animal used, but where the British and North Americans discern only one cut of meat, the French often have many.  The part of the animal that we call the shoulder, or butt, forms at least three cuts in French cuisine, each with their own name: palette, épaul, and plat de côtes.  To the French gourmand, each section of the shoulder has distinct textures and flavours.  A discerning English-speaking diner might be able to detect these differences, and could probably come up with good descriptors as to their location ("the front part of the shoulder," "the back part," and so on), but the fact that we don't already have names for those unique parts shows that we don't consider it an important distinction.

The greatest showcase of the relationship between language and our appreciation of food is the word "fond".  It's a French word, so the "on" is nasal and the "d" is silent. Fond is the caramelized stuff that sticks to the bottom of a pan, especially when cooking meat.

Capturing fond is important to developing the flavour of a dish, especially when making stocks, sauces, and braised dishes.  When meat is seared in a stainless steel pan, fond will develop.  To reclaim the fond and its deep caramelized flavour, you must degalze your pan.  Simply add a liquid (wine, stock, even water) then scrape the bottom of the pan to release the fond, which will dissolve into the liquid.  This liquid is now gold, and almost as valuable as the meat itself.

Despite the transcending depth of flavour fond adds to a dish, there is no English word for this stuff.  Believe me, if there was, I would use it.  French words sound pretentious.  We should really invent a short, descriptive, Saxon word for fond.

The relationship between language and understanding is so intimate, it's hard to tell which is more accurate: we don't use fond in cooking, so we don't have a name for it; or we don't have a word for fond, and so we don't use it in our cooking.

To say that fond has been neglected in our culinary heritage is misleading, because there is actually an entire industry devoted to eliminating fond from our lives: the non-stick cookware racket.  The reason that we have non-stick cookware is that generations of housewives spent an appreciable part of their lives scrubbing fond from their pots when they could have simply deglazed, which would have made their food better and the dish-washing quicker.

And so when people ask, "What's so French about French onion soup?  It's just onions in beef stock.  It could just as easily be called English onion soup,"  I say that the answer is in the luxurious use of fond to develop the flavour of the onions.  If you caramelize onions over very low heat, a delicate fond will form .  If you shake or stir the pot so that the onions are pushed and pulled over the surface, the moisture from the onions will pick up the fond and clean the pot.  The secret to French onion soup is doing this again and again for several hours.  As English-speakers we owe our knowledge of the existence of fond to the French, so we should gracefully relinquish any claim to a decent onion soup.

Slow Food says that the primary way to preserve tradition and combat industrial food is taste education.  I propose that the foundation of "taste education" is giving people a precise, vivacious language with which to talk about food.  For instance, you don't need a sophisticated palette to detect tannins in wine, as they are a pronounced textural sensation.  The trouble is that people don't know that the granular mouthfeel of some red wines is a result of tannins, and end up using words that stifle conversation and understanding. (People often describe tannic wines as "dry," which is descriptive, but confusing, as in winespeak "dry" is the opposite of "sweet".)

It is almost never the case that someone lacks the faculties to detect a certain flavour, just a combination of their never having stopped to think about taste, and then not having an adequate arsenal of words to employ.


  1. You could always try learning Chinese. There's even different names for different parts of offal from different animals (oi).

    very insightful - I liked your last sentence the best. Sometimes there are flavours or tastes that I experience with "western" food, that I cannot describe or know the word for in English (and vice versa).

    Serving at a hotel one summer help me make a few connections between Chinese descriptions and the taste the chef would declare.

  2. An excellent discussion of the importance of language in understanding, describing, and appreciating food. I agree that English often seems to be lacking in terminology for these things; we tend to just hijack it from other languages. In this instance, at least "fond" isn't one of the more pretentious-sounding French words.

    It's amazing how vital a role language plays in eating and drinking. Incidentally, I've just written a related piece on wine clichés.

  3. Hamburger is an english word that the french steal, if it makes you feel any better. Oh no wait.

    When we do blind wine tastings with newbies, I find it confirms your claim: people experience things in roughly similar ways, but have vastly different capability or vocabulary to describe it.

  4. Michelle - I honestly know next to nothing about any Asian cuisine. All Happy, Good Buddy, and Steel Wheels: that's my experience of the orient.

    I've had a few chefs tell me that travelling and eating in Asia taught them more about balancing flavours than years of working in North America. It stands to reason that the Chinese would have a very descriptive food lexicon.

    Hi Mel - I like the piece on clichés, yours and the NY Times'. They're like if William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White critiqued wine labels.

    Kevin - Other great English food words, besides hamburger: frankfurter, wiener, and pilsner.

  5. Allan
    As a teacher of language and English literature, I found this post especially compelling. When you spoke of the intimate relationship you develop with your food through the language you use... it is the same with everything. And, as I was just at a French Market (Rue de Cler) and posted it yesterday - I made exactly the comment you made here. I understand the French language for kinds of meats but not for cuts. They looked completely different. And, before I get home to research them, here I am reading about this in such an eloquent post. And, then you spoke about fond. And, French onion soup. And non stick pans. And how our language isn't equipped as the French language is to deal with the complexities of the production of good food. I ate it all up. And, I think that it is sensible. Which language is older? The Latin or the Saxon languages? Rather... Latin seems to be at the root of so many of our words. Anyway, it doesn't matter. What matters is you have taught me the word fond (I used the word "caramelize" - but you are right - it describes the process, not the residue in the pan) And you made me think. And I love that.