The language of food

by Ari Levaux

My English-Italian dictionary kept letting me down, just when I needed it the most – in front of menus in northern Italy last month. My Italian was good enough that I knew trofie was not truffle, as someone at the table had suggested, and to glean from the waiter that it was in fact a kind of local pasta. I had to order it to understand the narrow, twisted shape of the noodles.

Common food words like pasta, pesce, prosciutto and limoncello are easy enough to translate, but how does the novice find meaning in the likes of imbrogliata di carciofi? It turns out to be young, spiny, Ligurian artichokes fried gently in oil with garlic and parsley, then smothered with scrambled eggs and sprinkled with grated parmigiano. But good luck understanding the waiter’s attempts to explain that. The only thing I understood was parmigiano.

I recently acquired a book that would have made my Italian travels much more gastronomically satisfying. The Slow Food Dictionary to Regional Italian Cooking contains all the Italian food words that your pocket dictionary is too small to include – as well as some that are so obscure they probably wouldn’t make the cut even if space were no issue, such as roveja: “A small, wild legume with a dark brown, reddish or dark green skin, which has been grown for centuries, first records dating back to 1545. Grown on the high slopes of the Monti Sibillini, it used to be, along with lentils, one of the (Umbrian) staples. Though it has almost disappeared from the table, it is highly nutritious and an excellent ingredient in soups and on bread. Ground into flour, it can be used to make a type of polenta, which is traditionally served with anchovies.”

I find information like this good to know, even if I never get around to using it.

In addition to being essential to hungry travelers and enjoyable to armchair epicureans, the book is also an example of something that, in my perfect world, would exist everywhere.

Imagine a book along similar lines devoted to the vocabulary of regional American cuisines, or several volumes devoted to the culinary semantics of various regions of the U.S.

The deep South would hold particular interest for me. It’s the one part of the country where I’ve never spent any time, and I’m completely fascinated by the cuisine: a mix of African, Native American, French, Spanish and Caribbean. I would certainly devour a dictionary of southern food if I had one.

Ideally, such a volume would not only explain the words, but also give advice on where to find what they represent. In the town of Española in northern New Mexico, for example, there are places where you can find chicos – oven-dried sweet corn kernels – on the menu. I like them in soup, like posole, and baked with pinto beans.

The celebration of and obsession with regional cuisines and variations is a big part of what makes European food so interesting to me. Consider Opi ca’ nipitedda: “Bream with lesser calamint. Traditional recipe of the fishing village of Ognina (on-yeen-na) in the province of Catania. The fish are stewed in a covered pot with oil, onion, garlic, potatoes, sprigs of lesser calamint and water. Eaten with toasted, day-old bread. Sicily.”

When you eat a dish like this, you’re eating Sicilian culture and history, the sweat of shepherds gathering lesser calamint in the hills, of fishermen catching bream, and of farmers digging potatoes. You’re eating the years of trial and error that went into determining that the toast of day-old bread is best for this dish.

I’d never heard of lesser calamint, aka mountain mint or basil thyme. It’s named after the Greek Kalos, the fabled king of serpents whose glance was fatal. That doesn’t exactly make me want to put it on my fish, but the herb is widely known as a medicinal, and reportedly tastes like a cross between oregano and mint. Seeds are available online, and I’m going to try some.

Another herb I’d never heard of before flipping through this book is orapa, known as Good King Henry in English. Orapa is a relative to quinoa and lambsquarter, and is sometimes described as a perennial version of its close cousin spinach. In orapi e fagioli it’s cooked with beans, oil, garlic and chili pepper, and served with pieces of bread and grated pecorino Romano cheese. It’s also eaten in frittatas.

Since it does well in shade, Good King Henry sounds like a good candidate for a certain shaded dirt patch by our house. If we can get some going I’ll cook it with some pinto beans, and maybe some chicos, and see what happens. •



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