Guest Post: From Field to Table

Ed Battistella’s greatest achievement, as far as I’m concerned, is that in 2012 he made up and posted a new English word every day on his Twitter account, @LiteraryAshland. In September of last year, he interviewed me about country living and book-writing for his blog, Welcome to Literary Ashland. Ed teaches at Southern Oregon University and is working on a book about the linguistics of apology.

From Field to Table

By Ed Battistella

Reading the section on animals in Get Your Pitchfork On (and especially the chicken idioms on page 136) got me to thinking about the way we refer to animals and food, and reminded me of this recipe for giblets from a 15th-century cookbook:

Take fayre garbagys of chykonys, as þe hed, þe fete, þe lyuerys, an þe gysowrys; washe hem clene, an caste hem in a fayre potte, and caste þer-to freysshe brothe of Beef or ellys of moton, an let it boyle; an a-lye it with brede, an ley on Pepir an Safroun, Maces, Clowys, an a lytil verious an salt, an serue forth in the maner as a Sewe.  *translation below

Recipes like this give us some clues to Middle English relationships with food and animals, and our own. The word for giblet was garbage, a precursor of Modern English, and in Old English (no e on Olde!). In Old English, mete meant food (as in sweetmeat, mincemeat and nutmeat) and the word flæsc (flesh) was used for animal-tissue food (check out your handy Oxford English Dictionary). And people ate animals, not meat: they ate picga (pig), sceap (sheep), cu (cow) and cíecen (chicken).

After the Norman Conquest of 1066, many French words were borrowed into English, resulting in the possibility of more than one way to say things. The French introduced words for the cooked forms of animals: pultrie (poultry), porc (pork), motoun (mutton), boef (beef), and veel (veal), as well as garbage and gysowrys, both meaning the edible entrails. The two levels of vocabulary allowed speakers of English to eventually separate the farm from the table—the cooked form of animals, the product, was rendered in French, while the field form was from Old English. But throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, boef and motoun were used as terms for the animals as well as for their meat (of flesh). The distinction between French terms for food and English terms for animals doesn’t get fully baked in until early Modern English (Shakespeare refers to the “flesh of Muttons, Beefes, or Goates” in the Merchant of Venice) and modern ranchers still sometimes refer to cattle as beef.

Bon appetit.

I love me some cíecen ... I mean pultrie ...

I love me some cíecen … I mean pultrie …

*Translation of above in Modern English: “Take good garbage of chickens, as the head, the feet, the livers, and the gizzards; wash them clean, and cast them in a good pot, and cast therein fresh beef broth or else (that) of mutton, and let it boil; and bind it with bread, and (add) pepper and saffron, maces, cloves, and a little verjuice and salt, and serve it forth in the manner as a broth.”

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