Thursday, August 21, 2008

Food for thought


As I mentioned in a previous entry, every Dick Francis novel features a different profession. In Dead Heat, Francis with his son and co-author Felix delve into the highly competitive world of the restaurant business. And it’s a business that delights the Word Nerd. Here’s an example: In the novel, when chef Max Moreton goes to his upscale restaurant in Newmarket to supervise the evening meal, he goes straight into the kitchen. But the kind of food he prepares at the Hay Net is likely to be termed “fine cuisine.” Now I know enough French to know that just across the Channel from England cuisine means first and foremost “kitchen.” Fine kitchen? So what’s the difference? The French word cuisine, of course, sound a lot fancier to our English ears than the more home-grown Anglo Saxon word, kitchen (cycene). Is this because French culture is so highly esteemed? It’s more than that. It’s all about conquest.

In 1066, when the French baron William of Normandy conquered Anglo Saxon England, he and his band of warlike brothers brought over a French court to run things in the country they called Britain (or,Bretaigne). Naturally the now-lowly Anglo Saxons would have to learn a soup├žon of French if they wanted to do business with the new rulers. And as the two worlds collided, a new, love-child language would be born—Middle English (of Chaucer’s day) that would later grow up to be our very own Modern English. In the mean time, back in the 11th century, when the French lords and ladies were hungry, they ordered beef (le boeuf), pork (le porc) and mutton (le mouton) from la cuisine, while, back in the kitchen, the Anglo Saxon servants cooked cow (cu), swine (swin) and sheep (sceap).

One wonders: Would they have said “Bon Appetit” back then? Probably not. They didn’t even have forks in those days.

—Tom

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