Much Depends on Dinner


Reading Margaret Visser’s Much Depends on Dinner was like eating at a gourmet smorgasbord (not the kind with instant gravy);  it was like our church’s monthly Fellowship Feast: tables groaning with wonderful food and you only have. one. plate.  
Margaret Visser calls herself “an anthropologist of everyday life.”  She takes one dinner and examines all the items on the menu with the eyes of a classicist and an historian.  I found it fascinating reading.  Even though it was written in 1986 (and we’ve gone through a sea-change of ideas nutritionally since then), Visser’s concerns about monocultures and industrial agriculture ring true today.  The historical culture of these foods takes us around the world to every continent save Antartica. 

I found Visser’s focus on the “gender connotations” of specific food mildly bizarre; e.g. butter is feminine because it comes from milk, which is feminine.   

Here are some fun facts:   

Corn    the ultimate long shelf-life food, even centuries ago; plant is both male (tassels) and female (silks)

Salt     Salt is an edible rock – a contradiction in terms; it is both mined and harvested; it corrodes and preserves
Butter   Napolean III offered a prize for the invention of a cheap butter substitute after a cattle plague.

Chicken  From chicken-carving hierarchy (different pieces have status) to uniform chicken patties

Rice     It sustains half the world, but in North America the largest market is breakfast cereals and baby food.

Lettuce   Imperial (a word with undesirable connotations) lettuce changed its name to Iceberg: cold, clean, hard.

Olive Oil   Olives, the Ancient Roman’s “fast food”, fulfills two yearnings at once: sophistication and simplicity.

Lemon Juice  8 citrus fruits: oranges, lemons, mandarins, grapefruit, limes, pomelos, kumquats, citrons

Ice Cream   Häagen-Dazs name a fiction.  Meant to look Danish, but Danish has no umlaut.  Factory started in the Bronx…

And if you are a word lover, this book holds a treasury of word and phrase origins.  

• words from salt  saliva, salary, Salzburg (Salt Town), all the -wich towns are a place for salt: Sandwich, Northwich, etc.

dairy is from Middle English dey – a female servant

Schmalz is German for lard

Lettuce is from plural of the French laitue which come from Latin lactuca, “milky.”

• Our word oil comes from oliva the Latin word for olive.

Truck garden has nothing to do with a truck.  It is from the French “troquer” which means to barter or deal with small lots.  I’ve always been curious, and now I finally know. (Happy sighs) 


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