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Eat Your Words May 30, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here, and no, this isn’t a comment directed at our friend Ben. It’s actually the title of a fun book I found yesterday at our local library. (Subtitle: “A Fascinating Look at the Language of Food”) The book tells all kinds of stories about how foods and food-related expressions got their names, most of which tally with what I know, which of course inclines me to trust the stuff I didn’t know, such as this entry about sardines:

“Why can’t you buy fresh sardines at the grocery store? The answer is surprising: Because a sardine is not a sardine until it is packed in a sardine can. Actually, there is no living fish called a sardine. Any one of twenty different species might end up as a canned sardine. The most common are young herring and pilchard. The name sardine comes from the island of Sardinia, where sardines were first canned in 1834.”

Who’d’a thunk? If you enjoy the origins of words, or obscure facts about food, look for Eat Your Words (by Charlotte Foltz Jones, Delacorte Press, 1999) at your local library. You’ll find the origins of expressions like “a baker’s dozen,” how words like canape and pie came to be associated with foods rather than their original meanings, and why a dish of ice cream and syrup came to be called a sundae. It’s fun!

Don’t be put off by the fact that this book is likely to be found in the children’s book section. What publishers are thinking when they assign books like Eat Your Words (especially with its vaguely disturbing Goreyesque illustrations by John O’Brien) to the children’s books category is beyond me. I don’t know if children would enjoy it, but I did, and I think you would, too!

Oh, and OFB, listen up.

          ‘Til next time,

                     Silence

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What the world eats. September 2, 2008

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Since our friend Ben and I already have more books than our little cottage, Hawk’s Haven, can hold, I’ve become a big fan of our public library. One of the fun things about the library is that you never know what they’ll be getting in. Last week, I found an amazing book on the new books shelf called What the World Eats. The authors had visited 25 families in 21 countries, recorded everything they ate for a week, and then, at week’s end, had taken a group photo of the family assembled with the entire week’s food (duplicated, obviously) spread out before them.

Seeing the lists and photos of the families and their food was fascinating, surprising, and sometimes heartrending. From a refugee family in Chad whose meagre food and water supply and limited food options meant a daily struggle for survival (their dietary staple was a weekly sack of some corn-soy amalgamation distributed by hunger organizations) to a whale hunter and his family in Greenland (polar bear and seal were other family favorites), the authors had chosen some amazing locations and families to profile.

Because the list is relatively short, I’m going to tell you all the countries where a family was profiled so you can see the diversity: Australia, Bhutan, Bosnia, Chad, China (urban and rural families), Ecuador, Egypt, France, Great Britain, Greenland, Guatemala, India, Japan, Kuwait, Mali, Mexico, Mongolia, the Philippines, Poland, Turkey, and the United States (white, black, and Hispanic families).

Besides the week’s food photos, you get to see the families shopping for, preparing, and eating their food. This could entail shopping at a hypermarche (super-supermarket) in France or urban China, or hauling produce and other staples many mountainous miles by pack horse (Ecuador) or snowy miles by dogsled (Greenland). A few recipes are included, though for my part, they’re more educational than tempting (Dong Family’s Pigskin Jelly; Aiysh, a congealed porridge popular in Chad and the Sudan; Greenlandic Seal Stew).

There are marvelous photos of open-air markets piled with local produce, and horrific photos of street food, including skewered scorpions and seahorses and roasted guinea pig. (There was a particularly memorable photo of one enterprising greenmarketer in Bhutan using his satellite dish as a solar dryer for chile peppers.) The authors give a brief sketch of each family’s lifestyle, occupations, and favorite foods.

Americans may be surprised at the number of extended families living (or at least eating) together, and the number of seemingly prosperous families who are apartment dwellers. One photoessay showed the kitchens and cooking areas of some of the families, and even the well-to-do families had galley kitchens that made the large, bright, open kitchen at our own little cottage look palatial. Other photoessays show fast food, fish, and meals.

The concept of fast food brings one concern of the authors to mind, and that is the globalization of food (and loss of traditional regional diversity) in general, and the global rise of fast food in particular. The book tracks how much fast food and prepared food is consumed by each family, and notes how many McDonald’s, KFCs, Pizza Huts, Burger Kings, and Dunkin Donuts are now in each country, as well as how much Coca-Cola and other empty-calorie junk food each family consumes.

There are plenty of other info-bites to help educate the reader: maps and stats of each country; the price, in U.S. dollars as well as local currency, for the week’s food (not surprisingly, the French family spent the most); price breakdowns by food categories, such as dairy and condiments, for each family; and global statistics, such as comparative population densities, urban population, overweight population, annual meat consumption, available daily caloric intake, life expectancy, and access to safe water.

I found this book incredibly interesting and educational. I learned a lot by reading it, and the learning was painless, since the information is condensed into photos, brief profiles, and concise statistical data. It was fascinating to me to look at each family’s week’s worth of food and think about which families I’d like to eat with. (And which ones I’d like to feed.) I think you’d find it worthwhile, too.

I also think this book should be required reading in schools, since it gives kids a very different way to look at how other kids live. It brings other parts of the world to life in a way no textbook could ever do. If you’re homeschooling your kids, I urge you to ask your local library to order a copy for you. Which brings me back to the beginning. If you haven’t been to a public library since you were a kid, I encourage you to head to your local library and check it out. A whole world of books, audiobooks, magazines, DVDs, videos, and CDs await you (along with computers and internet access, copiers, games, and many other amenities). And best of all, it’s free!

           ‘Til next time,

                    Silence