The language of food
The Italian language is fascinating and beautiful, but even more so for a food lover. Dialects and slang all add to the mix, making it even richer than what the basics cover. The brilliant Italian-American linguist Mario Pei knew a thing or two about this. The Roman-born, American-bred Columbia University Language Professor wrote over 50 books on the subject of language.
I experienced nothing short of an epiphany when I was reading something he had written in 1950 about the relationship between language and food:
“The countries that display the widest range of dialects are also the ones in which cookery assumes the most diversified forms; while the lands where dialectal differences are slight exhibit a certain monotony in their food. Italy appears very close to the top of the list among countries with a wide dialectal array, and correspondingly, the food of Italy is so diversified that the cuisine of one region is practically foreign to another.”
This last sentence could not be more true, even today, 60 years after that statement was written. Regional cooking is so diverse in Italy that what you find in one region (or even in one town) you may never see anywhere else on the peninsula. It can still be said that “Italian cuisine” does not exist. It is many cuisines.
Pellegrino Artusi’s (and later, also Ada Boni’s) attempts at bringing the country together via a cookbook in 1891 did wonders in terms of language – but it did not completely change the habits and preferences of Italian kitchens from region to region.
Although Artusi unsuccessfully tried to rename some of the country’s most important regional dishes to give them a more pan-Italian sound, such as “Tortellini all’Italiana” instead of agnolotti (Piedmonte’s national pasta dish) or “Zuppa Toscana di Magro alla Contadina” (a Lean Tuscan Soup, the peasant’s way) instead of ribollita, he was successful at changing the everyday words that were used by those in the kitchen.
The editor of the 1970 edition of Science in the Kitchen, Piero Camporesi, goes as far as to suggest that it was Artusi’s cookbook that helped bring the country and its diverse dialects together into one national language, that it did more than any politician could have done. Gillian Riley in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food paints this picture: “While the questione della lingua [question of language] was being debated by academics, innocent housewives throughout the land were consulting their ‘Artusi’ every day, and his literate, slightly colloquial, Florentine version of Tuscan… became reassuringly familiar.”
What he did change were common cookery words. In his cookbook, Artusi even has a glossary to explain the vernacular Tuscan words he uses throughout the recipes. Food words that non-Tuscans may not have been familiar with include the names of vegetables like bietola (silverbeet, which he notes are often known as erbe, herbs, in other places); strutto, lard or pig’s fat, he notes is known as nzogna in Naples; the word pietra, ‘stone’, is used to describe kidneys, which are also called rene, rognone or arnione in other parts of Italy. He lists kitchen utensils from the chopping board (spianatoia) to a wooden spoon (mestolo) by their Tuscan names and cuts of meat are described by their Tuscan versions as well – these words have remained in modern Italian language (although even then, my mother in law tends to use the dialect words from her Tuscan town of Fucecchio for the wooden spoon, the rumaiolo, instead of the mestolo which is used to rumare, stir, instead of mescolare – old habits die hard!).
In short, Artusi follows in the footsteps of Dante Alighieri and the other great writers of Florence by marking the Tuscan dialect as the national Italian language.
Language and food are so intertwined, especially in Italian, where the language even lends itself to the names of dishes. The more I look into the subject, the more I feel myself falling into a rabbit hole, where the glorious worlds of food and words – two of my favourite things – intermingle.
I love the connection between Italian verbs that describe the habits of eating and the name of a dish, such as pappare, to stuff oneself, where the Tuscan bread and tomato soup, pappa al pomodoro, gets its name (a pappa is also any soft and mushy food like baby food). Another favourite of mine is minestrare, the act of ladling out soup to your family, hence the word for that famous soup, minestrone. I suppose in English, this would be like the words ‘stuffing’ or ‘batter’ that come from verbs that describe what you’re doing but somehow the Italian words are much more poetic, and describe a habit and the culture more than just the physical act.
Many Italian foods are just very self-explanatory when you know their literal meaning, something that almost combines the recipe instructions in the name of the dish. Here are a few of my favourites:
- Biscotti means “twice cooked”, which is done to make them jaw-breakingly hard so that they stand up to being dipped in vin santo or coffee.
- Ribollita means “reboiled”, part of the necessity of reaching the desired consistency of this thick bread soup and partly the idea that you make a big pot of it and eat the leftovers the next day (when it’s even better)
- Ricotta means “re-cooked”: despite what many English-lanugage recipes out there will tell you, ricotta cannot be made without this part of the process – recooking leftover whey from making cheese. Mascarpone, by the way, means “ricotta” in Lombard dialect.
- Schiacciata means “squashed” or flattened” – this wonderful foccaccia is made by squashing the dough with the fingers, giving each loaf the characteristic pock-marked “fingerprint” of the baker.
- Pannacotta – “cooked cream” – enough said!
There are other words that give away an essential aspect of the dish, such as Tuscan gnudi, written and pronounced in the Tuscan accent of “gn” instead of simply “n”, for nudi or naked. You see, these delicate little balls of ricotta and spinach bound with egg are the traditional filling for ravioli but in Tuscany are often found without their clothes – the thin sheet of pasta that is usually wrapped around them.
Then there are the names of pasta, which would merit its very own article. It’s enough to say that the Italians have literally thousands of names for pasta of all shapes and sizes and even when you cut it down to actually the type of pasta (some have multiple names, depending on where you are) there are well over 100 types. Whether big tubes, priest-stranglers, bow ties, butterflies, little ears, badly cut, little worms, angels’ hair, big shells, little shells, little hats, elbows, snails, little stars or big lambs there’s no denying that the Italian language, like the collective imagination, is very visual.
Throughout its vast culinary history, Italy has been introduced to new and different foods and ingredients, which called for the adoption of foreign words into the language. Some of them go so far back that no one would even suspect it, such as basilico, basil, which comes directly from the Greek word for the ancient, aromatic and essential Mediterranean herb. Even the tomato today doesn’t seem like a foreign ingredient, but it’s a relative “newcomer” to Italy’s gastronomic scene, brought from the Americas by Christopher Columbus. Not having a name for it, it was given the name of another fruit, pomodoro, Latin for “golden apple.”
Some other words were brought in through trade routes and the melting-pot environments of port cities like Venice and Livorno. Baccalà, that beloved Venetian salted cod and Stoccafisso, the air-dried unsalted cod, are actually from Northern Europe (still today the best variety comes from Norway and is imported). The word baccalà comes from the Dutch word, kabeljaauw, while Stoccafisso is an italianisation of ‘stockfish’, which in turn uses the Dutch word for ‘sticks’, perhaps referring to the wooden racks on which that the fish are dried. Similarly, Livorno’s fish stew, Cacciucco, is argued to be Turkish in origin, from the word küçük, describing the small sizes of the mixture of rock fish traditionally used in the dish.
Some of my favourite Italian food words are the ones that were introduced from English, probably in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when English tourists flooded Italy on their Grand Tours to absorb the art and history. Many fell in love with Florence and stayed. Pellegrino Artusi’s cookbook of 1891 is littered with English recipes that he came across during the many years he spent living in Florence, like the one he says was given to him by an “English signora” (a biscuit recipe that was served to him for a very English afternoon tea). You can be sure that any proudly Florentine trattoria and bar menu will feature these classics: Bistecca Fiorentina, Florentine “beefsteak” – possibly the most famous dish of the city – or rosbiffe, also sometimes spelled rosbif – the wonderfully misspelled Italian adoption of the word “roast beef”.
A curious English word that has made its way into Italian is the word plumcake, a popular breakfast item (yes, they eat cake for breakfast). It’s got nothing to do with plums (in his recipe for it, in fact, Artusi accuses this name of being misleading) but I believe it is a simple case of Chinese-whispers: what the Italians call a plumcake is actually pound cake – a simple cake of exact proportions. In fact, the other word that Italians use less commonly for pound cake, quattro quarti, seems to come from the French quatre-quarts (famous in Breton). The name refers to the equal proportions of flour, butter, sugar and eggs (in English it’s known as pound cake because the traditional recipe calls for a pound of each ingredient).
Then, looking at it the other way around, Italians have done more than we think to contribute to the English language of food. Of course there is the obvious adoption of the words of Italian food products like prosciutto and ricotta or the names of dishes as simple as pizza or pasta that we have adopted into the every day English language.
The fact that we use Italian words for so many of our vegetables shows that Italy was way ahead of English-speaking countries in terms of the sheer variety and availability of vegetables that were grown, produced and eaten on a daily basis. As the world got smaller and vegetables travelled further, we took on the Italian names (although some of them, in British English for example, got stuck with the French names, such as aubergine and courgette). There are zucchini and broccoli, of course. But consider these unlikely ones that Professor Mario Pei points out in his introduction to the English translation of Ada Boni’s The Talisman of Happiness cookbook (the original was written in 1927, this English edition was printed in 1950):
Endive (indivia), celery (sedano), chicory (cicoria), kohlrabi (this name had always had me confused, but when you think of its Italian name and reference to cabbage, cavolo rapa, it all begins to make sense), Jerusalem artichoke – also known as a sunchoke, this plant is a species of sunflower that is actually native to North America. It took the Italians to lend us a name for it, another Chinese-whispers situation where girasole, Italian for sunflower, was mispronounced and ended up as “Jerusalem”.
An unusual one is artichoke. It comes from the Northern Italian word articiocco and although you can still call it that, it’s most commonly known now in Italian as carciofo (closer to its Latin name). It was introduced from Naples via Florence to the British in the sixteenth century, who anglicised the old name, articiocco.
But going back to where this discussion began, in the midst of Italy’s diverse regions, I will leave you with a personal note and another thing that Professor Mario Pei says in his introduction to Ada Boni’s Talisman that I want to scrawl across my kitchen wall: “Variety is the spice of life. Italy has infinite variety and infinite spice.”
In Italian, paese, the word for “town” is the same as that for “country”. Italy’s tendency to be so regionally segregated and to be so protective of this regionality is something that is really an extraordinarily beautiful thing. It is the reason why I love writing about regional Italian food and particularly the region that I called home for seven years. The idea of “Italian cuisine” is so often misunderstood and made worse by bad restaurants or unresearched cookbooks. Any visitor to Italy or lover of its food should cast aside any of these preconceived notions or stereotypes and enjoy this unique aspect of this stubbornly regional country, a place where you can travel from paese to paese and in a short amount of time experience something completely different – embrace the local history, the habits, the language and, most importantly, the local food.