Sunday, August 3, 2014

Tea if by Sea

Picture by @docentjoyce
We drink a lot of tea in San Francisco—I guess you should expect no less for a city originally named Yerba Buena, after a local wild herb in the mint family (Satureja douglasii, shown to the right) used as an herbal tea.

One local tradition is yum cha, 'drink tea' in Cantonese, the Chinese name for a mid-morning spent lingering over pots of tea with friends or family. Yum cha is invariably accompanied by dim sum: steamed shrimp dumplings, Malaysian-style steamed spice cakes, braised tofu skins stuffed with vegetables, pork siumai dumplings topped with fish roe. But the tea is what defines the ritual: bright chrysanthemum, elegant Iron Goddess of Mercy, or the most classic San Francisco yum cha tea: dark earthy bo lei (pu'er in Mandarin). Bo lei is from the subtropical hills of Yunnan just on the border with Myanmar, and unlike green or black teas, is fermented microbially as it ages.

Colder tea pleasures include the tasty iced chai (shown left) that you can find at all the big chain cafes, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, or ginger, or the Taiwanese bubble tea served with tapioca balls and huge straws out in the Sunset and Richmond.

For a more British tea tradition there's afternoon tea at the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel, where people have been meeting for a hundred years for tea sandwiches and scones and lemon curd, or the many cozy English tea rooms scattered around the city. Alternatively, there's the teahouse at the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, built by Japanese landscape architect Makoto Hagiwara in the early 20th century, where tourists and locals drink powdered green matcha under the cherry blossoms.

If you prefer to eat your tea, there's yet another option: the refreshing laphet toke, the Burmese tea leaf salad that is the signature dish of the growing number of popular Burmese restaurants like Burma Superstar. Laphet toke, often called the national dish of Myanmar, is a stimulating caffeinated Burmese dish, served at the end of a meal, or at celebrations, made with fermented tea leaves (laphet in Burmese), dried shrimp, yellow peas, peanuts, sesame and crisp fried garlic. For the recipe, check out Naomi Duguid's fantastic Burma: Rivers of Flavor.

But tea is even more than a delicious beverage or refreshing salad. These tea words ("tea", "cha", "chai", "matcha", "laphet") are players in an unusual linguistic story, in which two differing pronunciations of a word reflect the two ways that Europe and Asia have traded over the last 500 years: by land or by sea.

The story begins where the far southwest of China's Yunnan province meets northeastern Burma and Thailand, somewhere between the Mekong, Irawaddy, and Salween rivers. The tea plant, camellia sinensis, is native to a wide area that includes this region, and it was probably somewhere near here that it was domesticated. A number of linguistic groups arrived in this region very early, first speakers of Mon-Khmer (a proto-language that is the ancestor of Cambodian, Vietnamese and many smaller languages scattered around southeast Asia), and then Tibeto-Burman (the family that includes Burmese) and Tai-Kadai (the ancestor of Thai and other smaller languages). Tea plays many important roles in this region; as a beverage, a salad, a ritual item, and regional groups in northern Laos or Thailand even ferment tea leaves in bamboo tubes, sprinkle them with salt and chew them like plugs of chewing tobacco.

An old map showing some tea regions at the border of Yunnan and Burma, including the area where the Mon-Khmer language Palaung is spoken as well as the town of Pu'er.

Victor H. Mair and Erling Hoh postulate in their terrific The True History of Tea (check out Appendix C which has the linguistic details) that the earliest Mon-Khmer used a word like *la (the * means a word in a hypothetical proto-language) to mean 'tea' or 'leaf'. As other groups like the Tibeto-Burmans moved into the area, they borrowed *la; that's the origin of the la ('tea/leaf') in Burmese tea laphet. Mair and Hoh postulate that early Chinese speakers borrowed the word *la too as they immigrated south into Yunnan, and over time *la changed to *lra and then, by sometime around 500 CE, the Middle Chinese form *dra.

For the next thousand years, tea culture and the word for tea developed in China. Tea slowly spread to neighboring countries, as the early Chinese powdered tea traditions ritualized in the matcha of the Japanese tea ceremony and yak-butter tea became a staple in Tibet. As the Chinese language diversified, words for tea began to diversify as well, becoming cha in Mandarin and Cantonese and te in the Southern Min dialect spoken in Fujian and Taiwan.

Roughly around the turn of the 17th century, tea began to spread around the globe, and languages around the world borrowed the word from Chinese, in two distinct forms. Some languages have a word starting with "t" like our tea (and German Tee and Spanish ), while others have a word starting with "ch" like cha in Japanese and Portuguese, or chai in Russian, Mongolian, and Hindi.

Why these languages with these two forms? Below I've shown the same data plotted on a map showing Eurasia and parts of Africa, with all the forms beginning with the sound "ch" in red and the forms starting with "t" in blue. I've extracted this map from a more complete map in WALS, the monumental World Atlas of Language Structure Online, from the chapter on tea written by Östen Dahl.

Red dots are words from "cha"; blue dots are words from "te"; grey dots are others. From Östen Dahl's chapter and map in WALS.

The red dots mark languages with words with initial "ch" or similar derivations from Mandarin or Cantonese "cha". These include countries neighboring China like Korea, Tibet, and Vietnam, who got tea directly from China, as well as forms like chai with a final -i. In my dialect of North American English the word "chai" means masala chai—tea spiced with spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and ginger, generally with milk. In lots of languages, however, it's the basic word for "tea": Central Asian and Middle Eastern languages like Arabic, Azerbaijani, Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Mongolian, Pashto, Persian, Tajik, Tatar, Turkish, and Turkmen, European languages like Albanian, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Chechen, Georgian, Slovene, Russian, and Ukranian, and South Asian languages like Hindi or Urdu. Geographically, the word chai covers what Mair and Hoh call:

"a wide band that runs across the center of Eurasia, from the eastern steppe to eastern Europe and Southwest Asia".

You can probably think of something else that ran in a band across Eurasia a thousand years ago: horses ridden by Ghenghis Khan and his armies. In the 13th century Khan led a united army of Mongol tribes that conquered China and most of central Asia, and subjugated large parts of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. It was the Mongolian empire that strengthened and extended the Silk Road, the first global networks of commerce that link Europe and Asia, and which were the caravan routes by which China traded tea with its neighbors. As is suggested by a comparison of the list of languages above with the map below showing the Empire's maximal extent, the Mongol Empire and the various Persian/Turkic empires correspond neatly to the range of the word chai.

Image from Wikimedia

By the way, it's Persian, according to Mair and Hoh, that is the likely source of the final -i in chai; Persian nouns ending in long have alternative forms ending in -i. Both before and after the Mongol empire, West, Central, and South Asia have been dominated by a variety of empires (the Ghaznavids, Timurids, Ottomans and Mughals) that merged Turkic and Persian elements and used Persian as a lingua franca; indeed Persian languages like Tajiki and Dari are still spoken in Central Asia. The very first written mention of tea in Europe in 1559 is as Chiai, with an -i, by the Venetian travel writer Ramusio describing the Persian traveler Chaggi Memet, underlined in the excerpt below:

The original can be read at the Internet Archive

The second group of languages describes tea with a word pronounced something like "tey"—the way our English word tea used to be pronounced. This group includes western European languages like French (thé), Spanish (), Italian (), and Dutch, German, Danish, Swedish, Welsh, Irish, and Hungarian. And, mysteriously, the very much non-European languages Indonesian and Malay.

The source of these "t" words is te, the word for tea in Southern Min, a Chinese dialect (or language, depending on your definition) of 46 million speakers, spoken in Fujian and Guangdong provinces and in Taiwan. This is the dialect from which we get the word ketchup. Southern Min-speaking Chinese settled throughout Southeast Asia, — explaining the word teh in Indonesian and Malay — and traded tea to the Dutch in the early 1600s in Dutch colonies like Batavia (modern Jakarta) and also in Xiamen, the port city in Fujian where trade took place between China and Europe. As with "ketchup", we don't know if the Dutch got the word "tea" from Xiamen directly or, perhaps more likely, from those ethnic Chinese communities on Java.

Dutch ships off the coast of Batavia (modern Jakarta), 1681 from this original

In any case the Dutch brought tea by ship to Europe and the word also spread from Dutch to French and English and other Western European languages. By the middle of the 17th century, the word, prounced "tey", arrived in England. just in the nick of time to catch the very tail end of the great English Vowel Shift, in which all English "ey" vowels turned to "ee", and so within 50 years as the vowel shift completed, the word settled on its modern pronunciation "tee". Tea began as an exotic luxury for the rich but in England it soon became more popular than beer and the subject of international intrigue (see Sarah Rose's For All the Tea in China for the story of Scottish botanist Robert Fortune sneaking in disguise into China in 1848 to steal tea plants.)

The map below shows the chai/tea isogloss dividing Europe, with languages in the west using words like "tea" and languages in the east using words like "chai".

In other words "tea" comes from the seafaring Fujianese and spread west by sea while "chai" comes from the landlocked west and north of China and spread west by land across Central Asia, to South Asia and Eastern Europe.

How your language pronounces the common word for the leaves of camellia sinensis thus depends on whether its earlier speakers traded with China by land or by sea— chai if by land, tea if by sea. And the common descent of tea, cha, chai, and la from one ancient protoword *la reminds us that we humans also belong to one family. Tea offers us a history of international relations (from the 17th century back to early human movements) in every cup.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Potato Chips

The political season is well upon us and that means a lot of politicians talking about strugglin' and rollin' up our sleeves, especially when speaking to working class audiences. Since the pioneering work of sociolinguists like Bill Labov, linguists have studied the ways we chose variants, like "-in" to project a working class authenticity but "-ing" to project an educated or professional persona (see some lovely posts on political aspects of -in/-ing by my friends Mark Liberman, Geoff Nunberg, and Julie Sedivy).

Photograph by Stephanie Shih.
Used by permission
This use of linguistic variables to mark identity and authenticity occurs in the language of food as well. Josh Freedman, a young political researcher, was an even younger freshman in my Language of Food seminar at Stanford four years ago when he became interested in how the language of food advertising reflects socio-economic class. Josh's idea led to a collaboration that you can read about in detail in the latest issue of the journal Gastronomica. Stephanie Shih's lovely photo above gives you the intuition; below is a quick sketch of our results.

Josh and I looked at 12 bags of potato chips, 6 more expensive (Boulder, Dirty, Kettle Brand, Popchips, Terra, Season's, averaging 68 cents per ounce) and 6 less expensive (Hawaiian, Herr's, Lays, Tim's, Utz, and Wise, averaging 40 cents per ounce). We coded up all the advertising text from the back of the chips and then examined how the words differed between the two classes of chips.

What factors characterized expensive chips? You may be surprised to learn that potato chips are a health food; almost all chips (expensive or not) emphasized the healthiness of their products by using phrases like "low fat", "healthier", "no cholesterol", or "lowest sodium level". But these health-related claims occur on expensive chips 6 times as often as on inexpensive chips (6 times per bag versus once per bag). This difference in health language is not, as far as we can tell, due to actual differences in the chips. No chips in our sample contain trans fats, but only 2 out of the 6 inexpensive chips talk about it. By contrast, every one of the 6 expensive chips mentions the lack of trans fats.

Expensive chips also turn out to be much more natural. Phrases such as "natural", "real", or "nothing artificial" are 2.5 times more likely to be mentioned on expensive bags (7 times on each expensive bag but under 3 times on each inexpensive bag).

Finally, expensive chips are 5 times more likely to distinguish themselves from other chips, using comparative phrases like "less fat than other leading brands", "best in America", "in a class of their own". or "a crunchy bite you won't find in any other chip". Where text on the inexpensive chips focuses on the chips themselves, ads for expensive chips emphasize their differences from "lesser" chips.

Another way to differentiate is to use negative markers, words like "never", "not", or "no" ("never fried", "we don't wash out the natural potato flavor", "no wiping your greasy chip hand on your jeans"). Negation emphasizes bad qualities that a chip does not have, subtly suggesting that other brands have this bad quality. To get a more fine-grained analysis, we also regressed the number of negative words against the price. We found that a bag of potato chips costs 4 cents more per ounce for every additional negative word on the bag.

In his famous book "Distinction", sociologist Pierre Bourdieu showed that our position in society heavily influences our tastes, whether in food, music, film, or art. He argues that "hip" or "fashionable" tastes are just a away for the upper class to display their high status, to distinguish themselves from other classes. Taste, says Bourdieu, is "first and foremost... negation... of the tastes of others". The fact that expensive chip advertising is full of comparison (less fat, finest potatoes) and negation (not, no, never, don't) suggests that Bourdieu is right, that the notion of upper class taste in food advertising is defined by contrast with tastes of other classes; what it is to be upper class is to be not working class.

What characterizes inexpensive chip advertising? Text on these chips tend to use simpler sentences and simpler words, with writing and vocabulary on average at the 8th grade level (as computed by the standard Flesch-Kincaid test that measures the length of sentences and words). The advertising on expensive chips is written at the 10th-11th grade level; here's a sample sentence from an expensive chip:

"We use totally natural ingredients, hand-rake every batch, and test chips at every stage of preparation to ensure quality and taste."

Notice the simpler grammar and vocabulary in this sample from an inexpensive chip:

"What gives our chips their exceptional great taste? It's no secret. It's the way they're made!"

This difference in language between the two classes of chips is a reflection of what one of the original Mad Men, David Ogilvy, said back in 1963 in Confessions of an Advertising Man:

Don't use high-falutin words for the non-high-falutin audience.

Finally, Josh and I looked at words related to authenticity. Authenticity has become an obsession in our society, a fact that is not lost on marketers for whom, the New York Times recently noted, "the exultation of the 'authentic' reaches near-hilarious heights". Authenticity comes in many flavors. We talked above about products being "natural" or "real"; a product is also more authentic if it is grounded in family or American traditions. We looked at this kind of traditional authenticity, measuring mentions of tradition ("family recipe"), the founding or founder of a company ("our founder..."), or mentions of America or American locations ("the great Pacific Northwest").

Mentions of tradition occurred more than twice as often on inexpensive chips. Our linear regression showed that every time a family or an American locale is mentioned, the price per ounce of the chips drops 10 cents. The inexpensive chips thus represent a model of authenticity rooted in family traditions and family-run companies, and set in regional locations throughout America.

For the upper class, by contrast, being authentic means being natural, using quality natural ingredients and avoiding artificial ingredients, preservatives, and so on. Words like artificial or fake are used solely in the expensive chip advertising. Even though most of the inexpensive chips also contain no preservatives, this fact is only mentioned in expensive chip advertising. This emphasis on authentic food as natural and non-artificial is prevalent in the popular press as well in books like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, which contains rules for avoiding what Pollan calls "imitation foods" :


Of course we all want to be special, and live an authentic life, whether we draw our metaphors from nature or from tradition. These models of natural versus traditional authenticity are part of our national dialogue, two of the many ways of framing that make up our ongoing conversation about who we are. The red state and blue state models of our nation are deeply inscribed in our collective discussion-- written on the back of every bag of potato chips.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Ice Cream

The San Francisco midsummer fog was late in coming this year, which means Janet and I got a fantastic view of the July 4th fireworks (legal and not-strictly-legal) from the top of Bernal Hill. Hot days are rare in San Francisco, so random strangers have been smiling at each other on Mission Street and the lines are extra-long on the sidewalks in front of the ice creameries.

You may not be aware of the close relationships among these summer phenomena. Ice cream was invented by modifying a technology originally discovered for fireworks. And the way ice creams flavors are named turns out to have a surprising relationship with the evolutionary origin of the human smile.

Ice cream has always been popular in San Francisco; Swensons, Double Rainbow, and It's It were all founded here, and Rocky Road ice cream was invented across the bay in Oakland during the Great Depression. Prices are not Depression-era at the latest upscale creameries, though, where you'd be lucky to walk away with a pint of ice cream for less than seven dollars. At Smitten, in Hayes Valley, for example, they'll make your ice cream fresh when you order it, freezing it with liquid nitrogen. At other places the selling point is the the unusual flavors (or their interesting names). At Humphry Slocombe you can get foie gras, pink grapfefruit tarragon, or strawberry black olive. Bi-Rite Creamery will happily sell you honey lavender, balsamic strawberry, and salted caramel. Mitchell's specializes in Filipino and other tropical flavors, including halo halo, lucuma, ube (purple yam), and avocado. And Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous seems to keep running out of their latest hip flavor, orange blossom.

Well, actually, it turns out that orange blossom is not a newfangled flavor. Orange blossom is, in fact, the original ice cream flavor, appearing in the earliest recipes by the mid 1600's, the period when ice cream was invented. Ice cream was served in the Restoration court of Charles II as early as 1671, and food scholar Elizabeth David gives us what may be the English royal recipe, handwritten in Grace Countess Granville's Receipt Book by the 1680's:

The Ice Creame
Take a fine pan Like a pudding pan ½ a ¼ of a yard deep, and the bredth of a Trencher; take your Creame & sweeton it wth Sugar and 3 spoonfulls of Orrange flower water, & fill yor pan ¾ full...

By about 1696, a later edition of La Varenne's cookbook suggests using fresh orange flowers:

You must take sweet cream, and put thererto handfuls of powdered sugar, and take petals of Orange Flowers and mince them small, and put them in your Cream, and if you have no fresh Orange Flowers you must take candied, with a drop of good Orange Flower water...

And by 1700 other ice cream flavors were developed as well, including pumpkin, chocolate, and lemon, as well as a plethora of early sorbets: sour cherry, cardamom, coriander-lemon, and strawberry.

Where did these flavors come from? The use of orange flower should give you a clue: the historical roots of ice cream and sorbet, like many of our modern foods, lie in the Muslim world.

Fruit syrups, and the refereshing drinks made from mixing them with water, are called sherbet in Turkish and sharbat in Persian, from Arabic sharbah, from shariba `to drink'. These chilled (but not frozen) drinks have been popular throughoutt the Ottoman, Arab, and Persian worlds continuously since the Middle Ages. On the left is a Gül Şerbeti (rose sherbet) from a modern Turkish cookbook; and Claudia Roden talks nostalgically of the sharbat of Egypt, flavored with lemon, rose, violet, tamarind, mulberry, raisin, or liquorice.

By the 16th century Italian and French travelers had brought back words of these Turkish sherbets. In one of the earliest mentions of the word in Europe, the French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1553 described sherbets in Istanbul made of figs, plums, apricots, and raisins. Thirsty passers-by would buy a glass of syrup from wandering sellers or stands, mixed with water and chilled with ice. But by 1615 sherbets were still unavailable in Europe; here's an excerpt from a letter an Italian traveler sent home in 1615 from Constantinople, from Elizabeth David's lovely book "Harvest of the Cold Months":

scerbet, a certain composition which they make... of sugar, lemon juice, seasonings of fruit and flowers and other ingredients, something like the conserves and marmalades of Naples; when they want to drink, they put some of this composition in a jug of water...

These sherbets were the source of the fruit ices that we now call sorbets. But the Ottoman drinks (and the modern Middle Eastern ones as well) were not frozen; they were cooled with ice or snow just like modern lemonade. People had been putting ice and snow into drinks to cool them for over 4000 years, but freezing sweetened fruit juice or cream requires a much lower temperature than just ice can achieve.

So where did the idea and the technology for freezing arise? Obviously liquid nitrogen, the darling freezing technology of modernist cuisine, was not available in the 16th century.

The insight came from fireworks. In the 9th century, during the Tang dynasty, the Chinese first realized that saltpeter (potassium nitrate) could be mixed with sulpher and coal to create the explosive mixture we now call gunpowder. Gunpowder was quickly adopted by the Muslim world, where potassium nitrate was called Chinese snow in Arabic and Chinese salt in Persian.

But it was in the Arab world rather than China that the processing of purifying and refining potassium nitrate was perfected, and it was here in Damascus that it was discovered, probably by the Damascus physician Ibn Abī Uṣaybi'a, in his 1242 History of Medicine ("Uyūn al-ānbā")) (although he credits a lost work from an earlier Muslim physician, Ibn Bakhtawayh, from 1029), that saltpeter had refrigerating properties: when potassium nitrate (saltpeter) is added to water, it chills the water. Dissolving salts like potassium nitrate (KNO3) in water breaks the bonds between the ions, drawing heat from the surrounding water. This endothermic reaction, the basis of the modern cold pack shown to the right, can drop the temperature of the water enough to freeze pure water, although not low enough to freeze fruit ices or ice cream.

By the early 16th century this discovery was widely used in Muslim India to chill water for drinking. At this time most of what is today northern and central India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, as well as parts of Afghanistan, was ruled by the Mughal emperor Akbar the Great. The Mughals were originally Turkic speakers from central Asia, and the royal line that conquered Delhi traced their descent from Genghis Khan (Mughal was the Persian word for Mongol), but had adopted the Persian language and culture. By the time of Akbar, the Persian-speaking court at Agra was a center for the arts, architecture and literature. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata were translated from Sanskrit to Persian during this period, and Akbar's keen interest in painting and architecture led to the development of styles of art that mixed Persian, Hindu, and European forms. Like many places where scientific and culinary innovation and mixing flourished (Moorish Spain, early Norman Sicily), Akbar's reign was a beacon of relative religious tolerance, in which the tax on non-Muslims was eliminated and other religions were allowed self-government. Agra (and his later court in Lahore) were steamy hot, and drinks were cooled by spinning a long-necked flask in saltpeter-water. Here's a 1596 description from the Ain I Akbari:

One sér of water is then put into a goglet of pewter, or silver, or any other such metal, and the mouth closed. Then two and a half sérs of saltpetre are thrown into a vessel, together with five sérs of water, and in this mixture the goglet is stirred about for a quarter of an hour, when the water in the goglet will become cold.

Very quickly this idea of using saltpeter to cool water was adopted in Italy. Blas Villafranca, a Spanish physician working in Rome published the idea in 1550, saying that this saltpeter bath had become the common method of cooling wine in Rome. On the left is his picture of the method, showing a bulbous flask clearly adapted from the Indian flasks above; the shape makes it easy to speed up the cooling by turning the bottle in the cold bath.

In 1589 the next step in ice cream technology was taken by the Neapolitan Giambattista Della Porta. In the 2nd edition of his "Magia Naturalis" he experimented with adding saltpeter to snow rather than to water. The result successfully froze watered wine. Della Porta's combination was a happy accident; it was not saltpeter's endothermic reaction with water that caused cooling when mixed with ice, but a completely different chemical property. Adding a solute (anything will do) lowers the freezing point of water, by interfering with the crystal structure of the ice. Adding salt or potassium chloride slowly draws water out from its chrysal mixture, and since the freezing point is lowered, turns into a salty slush. The phase shift from solid to liquid takes energy (another endothermic reaction), resulting in an even colder freezing brine that reaches -20 degrees C, easily cold enough to freeze ice cream or fruit ices.

Sometime between 1615 and 1650, the Neapolitans combined the liquid Ottoman sherbets with the newly invented saltpeter-and-ice freezing method, resulting in a new food: frozen sherbets or frozen sorbets. The idea of freezing other liquids like milks and custards soon followed. We don't have any of these early Italian recipes, the way we have early English and French recipes, but evidence for the Italian innovation comes from contemporary French ice cream makers who discussed learning their recipes from Italy. Soon afterwards the Italians also figured out that common salt worked better than saltpeter for freezing (salt is a smaller molecule than saltpeter; the smaller the molecule, the more ions from each gram of solute interferes with freezing); by 1665 the English chemist Robert Boyle said that ice and common salt was the method "much employ'd" in Italy to chill drinks and fruit.

By the 1700s European languages had settled on names for the new invention, with the Ottoman sherbet now redefined as a frozen fruit ice rather than just a fruit syrup, and the words for ice cream mostly based on words meaning "ice" or "frozen" (Eis, glace, gelato, etc.).

As for the names of the flavors, mostly they are just the names of the ingredients ("chocolate", "strawberry", "orange blossom", and so on). We commonly assume that such flavor names are purely descriptive, and that factors like the sounds of the names should have no bearing on how the ice cream tastes. To paraphrase Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet:

What's in a name? that which we call a rose sherbet
By any other name would smell as sweet;

Juliet was roughly correct; the sounds (or "phones") that make up a word don't generally tell you what the word means. By 500 BC Plato (in the Cratylus) and the Chinese linguist Xunzi of the Chinese Warring States period had figured out that the relationship between sound and meaning is usually arbitrary. A moment's thought makes it clear why this must be true: different languages have totally different sounds for the same concept, and languages only have around fifty or so phones, and obviously have a lot more ideas to express than fifty.

But it turns out that research over the last century has shown that Shakespeare was wrong; sometimes the sounds of a name do influence how people perceive ice cream. The phenomenon of sounds carrying meaning is called "sound symbolism". Sound symbolism has been most deeply studied with vowels, and in particular the difference between two classes of vowels, front vowels and back vowels, which are named depending on the position of the tongue. The vowels i (the vowel in the words cheese or bean) and ɪ (the phonetics symbol is a small capital I, pronounced as in mint or slim) are front vowels. because they are made by holding the tongue high up in the front part of the mouth. The picture to the left shows a very schematic cutaway of the head, showing the lips and teeth on the left, and the tongue high up toward the front of the mouth.

By contrast, the vowel ɑ (as in large, pod, or on) is a low back vowel; this sound is made by holding the tongue lower in the back part of the mouth; other back vowels are o (as in cold) and ɔ (as in the word pour or my mother's New York pronunciation of ought). The picture to the right shows a very schematic tongue position for these vowels; lower in general, and more toward the back of the throat.

A number of studies over the last 100 years or so have shown that front vowels in many languages tend to be used in words that refer to small, thin, light things, and back vowels in words that refer to big, fat, heavy things. It's not always true, but it's a tendency that you can see in any of the stressed vowels in words like little, teeny or itsy-bitsy (all front vowels) versus humongous or gargantuan (back vowels). Or the i vowel in Spanish chico (front vowel meaning small) versus gordo (back vowel meaning fat). Or French petit (front vowel) versus grand (back vowel).

In one marketing study, for example, Richard Klink created pairs of made-up product brand names that were identical except for having front vowels or back vowels: nidax (front vowel) verus nodax (back vowel), or detal (front vowel) versus dutal (back vowel). For a number of hypothetical products, he asked people which seemed bigger or smaller, or heavier or lighter, with questions like:

Which brand of laptop seems bigger; Detal or Dutal?
Which brand of vacuum cleaner seems heavier, Keffi or Kuffi?
Which brand of ketchup seems thicker, Nellen or Nullen?
Which brand of beer seems darker, Esab or Usab?

In each case, the participants in the study tended to choose the product named by back vowels (dutal, nodax) as the larger, heavier, thicker, darker product. Similar studies have been conducted in various other languages.

The fact that consumers think of brand names with back vowels as heavy, thick, richer products suggests that they might prefer to name ice cream with back vowels, since ice cream is a product whose whole purpose is to be heavy and rich.

Indeed, it turns out that people seem to (at least mildly) prefer ice creams that are named with back vowels. In a study in the Journal of Consumer Research Eric Yorkston and Geeta Menon had participants read a press release describing a new ice cream about to be released. Half the participants read a version where the ice cream was called "Frish" (front vowel) and the other half read a version where it was called "Frosh" (back vowel), but the press release was otherwise identical. Asked their opinions of this (still hypothetical) ice cream, the "Frosh" people rated it as smoother, creamier, and richer than the "Frish" people, and were more likely to say they would buy it. The participants were even more influenced by the vowels if they were simultanously distracted by performing some other task, suggesting that their response to the vowels was automatic, at a non-conscious level.

If people subconsciously think of ice cream names with back vowels as richer and creamier, it suggests that actual ice cream brands or flavors might also use back vowels. So I ran what Mark Liberman calls a Breakfast Experiment™; a quick experiment using some easy-to-access language data. My hypothesis was that we would see more back vowels in names of actual ice cream brands or flavors. Furthermore, if front vowels indeed indicate thin, small, light , we should expect more front vowels in foods that supposed to be thin and light, like crackers.

To test the hypothesis I downloaded two lists of food names from the web. One was a list of 81 ice cream flavors that I constructed by including every flavor sold by either Haagen Dazs or Ben & Jerry's. The second was a list of 592 cracker brands from a dieting website. For each list, I counted the total number of front vowels (i, ɪ, ɛ,e,æ) and the total number of back vowels (details of the study are here). The result, shown in the table to the right, is that ice creams names indeed have more back vowels and cracker names have more front vowels.

Here are some examples of stressed back vowels in ice cream names:

Rocky Road, Jamoca Almond Fudge, Chocolate, Caramel, Cookie Dough, Coconut

And here are samples of the many cracker names with front vowels; note the extraordinary number of ɪ vowels:

Cheese Nips, Cheez It, Wheat Thins, Pretzel thins, Ritz, Krispy, Triscuit, Thin Crisps, Cheese Crisps, Chicken in a Biskit, Snack sticks, Toasted chips, Ritz bits

Of course there are exceptions: vanilla, the orange blossom of our day, has an ɪ. But most of the front vowels in ice cream flavors tend to be the names of small thin ingredients in the ice cream: (thin mint, chip, peanut brittle).

So what's going on? Why are front vowels associated with small, thin, light things, and back vowels with big, solid, heavy things?

The most widely accepted theory, called the Frequency Code, suggests that low frequencies (low pitch) and high frequencies (high pitch) are associated with particular meanings. The frequency code was developed by linguist John Ohala (my old phonetics professor!), extending work by Eugene Morton of the Smithsonian.

Morton noticed that mammals and birds tend to use low-frequency (deeper) sounds when they are aggressive or hostile, but use higher-freqeuncy (higher-pitched) sounds when frightened, appeasing, or friendly. Since larger animals naturally make deeper sounds (the roar of lions) and smaller animals naturally make high-pitched sounds (the tweet of birds), Morton's idea is that animals try to appear larger when they are competing or aggressive, but try to appear smaller and less threatening when they are trying to be friendly or appeasing.

Morton and Ohala thus suggest that humans instinctively associate the pitch of sounds with size. It turns out that front vowels like ɪ and i are higher-pitched in a particular way than back vowels ɑ and o. All vowels are composed of different frequency resonances. When the tongue is high and in the front of the mouth, it creates a small cavity in front of the tongue. Small cavities cause higher-pitched resonances (the smaller the space for vibration, the shorter the wavelength, hence the higher the frequency). One particular resonance (called the second formant) is much higher for front vowels and lower for back vowels.

Thus the frequency code suggests that front vowels are associated with small, thin, things, and back vowels with big heavy things because front vowels have higher pitched resonances, and we instinctively associate higher pitch with smaller things.

This link of high pitch with deference or friendliness may also explain the origin of the smile, which is similarly associated with appeasing or friendly behavior. The way we make a smile is by retracting the corners of the mouth. Animals like monkeys also retract the corners of their mouths to express submission (Ohala's figure (a) on the right), and use the opposite facial expression, which Ohala calls the "o-face" in which the corners of the mouth are drawn forward with the lips possibly protruding (figure (b) on the right), to indicate aggression. Retracting the corners of the mouth shrinks the size of the front cavity in the mouth, just like the vowels ɪ or i. In fact, the similarity in mouth position between smiling and the vowel i explains why we say "cheese" when we take pictures; i is the smiling vowel.

Ohala's theory is thus that smiling evolved when mammals were in competitive situations, as a way to make the voice sound more high-pitched, so as it make the smiler appear smaller and less aggressive, and hence friendlier.

Of course even if Ohala is right about the ancient evolutionary origin of the smile, smiling in humans has evolved into a means of expressing many shades of enjoyment and other emotional meanings, just as back vowels have become part of a rich and beautiful system for expressing complex meanings by combining sounds into words.

Something similarly beautiful was created as saltpeter and snow, sherbet and salt, were passed along and extended from the Chinese to the Arabs to the Mughals to the Neapolitans, to create the sweet lusciousness of ice cream. And it's a nice thought that saltpeter, applied originally to war, became the key hundreds of years later to inventing something that makes us all smile on a hot summer day.

Ice cream, anyone?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Macaroons, Macarons, and Macaroni

It's a beautiful spring day here in San Francisco. The wild garlic is blooming, the top of Bernal Hill is covered in fennel, and everyone is celebrating spring. The stores are full of marshmallow peeps for Easter, Janet's family just swept her grandparents' grave for the Qingming Festival, the Persian New Year Festival, Nowruz, just passed, and my family is getting ready for Passover, which means it's time for coconut macaroons, shown above.

Photograph by Stephanie Shih.
Used by permission
The city is also full of another, trendier, macaroon right now: the Parisian macaron. Shown at right are Stephanie Shih's Grapefruit-White Chocolate macarons. As even the Wall Street Journal is pointing out, Parisian macaroons are everywhere, from fancy patisseries to Trader Joes, and San Francisco, never a place to miss out on a trend, even has macaron delivery.

Of course, fads, whether modern or historical, are not confined just to desserts. In fashion, there was a trend amoung rich young hipsters in 18th century England to wear outlandish hair styles (very tall powdered wigs with tiny caps on top) and affected clothing (shown below). They were called Macaronis, likely because on their travels in Italy they acquired a taste for pasta (maccheroni is a generic word for pasta in Italian). The song Yankee Doodle, written around this time to poke fun at the tattered colonial troops, mocks a disheveled "Yankee" soldier whose attempt to look sharp was to "stick a feather in his hat and call it macaroni".

"Yankee Doodle" was appropriated by the revolutionary troops, and the song quickly became popular, no different than modern trends like the 1995 dance song "La Macarena" by the Spanish band Los Del Río, which almost instantly had millions of drunk people in discos around the world awkwardly waving their arms around their body.

But I digress. What are the antecedents of the macaron trend? Were coconut macaroons the original? Or did they derive instead from the Parisian macaron?

It turns out that both are new fads, invented around 1900 by modifying the original almond cookie called macaroon in English or macaron in French. From the Larousse Gastronomique:

Macaroon: A small, round biscuit (cookie), crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites. Macaroons are sometimes flavoured with coffee, chocolate, nuts, or fruit and then joined together in pairs.

The original macaroons (or macarons), then, are almond meringue cookies; exactly what are called amaretti or ricciarelli in Italian or amarguillos in Spanish, and shown on the right. The Parisian macaron is a sandwich cookie that joins two macarons with a filling, while the coconut macaroon replaces the ground almonds with shredded coconut.

But it turns out that all of these: macarons, macaroni, coconut macaroons, and perhaps even the Macarena, have the same origin, rooted in the great meetings of the Islamic and Christian culinary traditions in the Middle Ages.

One tradition is the rich repertoire of sweets that originated in Zoroastrian Persia. One of these was called fālūdhaj, a honey and starch candy eaten by the Sassanid kings of Persia to celebrate the Persian new year, Nowrūz.

Like sikbāj and other other pre-Islamic Persian foods, fālūdhaj was adapted by the chefs of the Muslim Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad, and a number of nut and sugar confections developed: fālūdhaj and lausinaj, made of almonds and sugar, and fustuqiyya (or muqarrada, meaning `cut-up' or `clipped') made of pistachios and sugar. The recipes appear throughout the 13th century Muslim world, from the Andalusian Manuscrito Anonimo in the west to the Kitāb al-Tabīkh, (The Book of Dishes) in the east. Here's a recipe from the latter, from Charles Perry's English translation:

Fālūdhaj: Take a pound of sugar and a third of a pound of almonds and pound them fine together... Take a third of a pound of sugar, dissolve it with half an ounce of rose-water on a quiet fire, then take it up. When it has cooled off, throw the pounded sugar and almonds on it and knead them with it.... .... [The paste is then wrapped in dough and soaked in sesame oil and rose-water syrup]

Another important food of the Islamic world was pasta, called itriyya in 10th century Arabic. Dough products were also eaten in the Greek and Roman worlds. A kind of fritter dish made from sheets of fried dough called lagana dated back to the 1st century BC, and there were many gruels such as a Byzantine Greek gruel called makaria (μακαρία), from the Greek makarios (μακάριος) 'blessed', eaten as a funeral food.

These two food traditions came together on the island of Sicily. The Romans had planted durum wheat, and made Sicily a breadbasked of their Empire. The Byzantine period brought the Greek language and Orthodoxy. The Arabs landed in 827 and made Palermo the second largest city in the world, introducing paper to Europe, and bringing sugar cane, pistachios, lemons, rice, and oranges. By 1072 the Normans had conquered Sicily (and England), and for a brief period the rule of Roger I and Roger II of Sicily was an experiment in mutual tolerance, at least compared to the rest of Europe; Greek, Arabic, and Latin were all official languages, government officials were drawn from all three cultures and Muslims and Jews were governed by their own laws. Above and right is the Cathedral of Monreale, showing its beautiful combination of Norman, Byzantine and Arab styles.

Sicily is also where modern durum wheat pasta was developed. By 1154, Muhammad al-Idrisi, the Moroccan-born geographer of king Roger II, describes Sicily as an important center of pasta (itriyya), exported throughout the Mediterranean world, to both Muslim and Christian countries. (The myth that Marco Polo introduced pasta to Italy from China was invented in the 1920's in the Minnesota Macaroni Journal; By the time Polo returned from China in 1296, pasta had been a major export commodity for well over a century.) By 1200 pasta had branched out of Sicily. Even in France, Jewish documents, like the The Siddur Rashi, attributed to the 11th French scholar Rashi, use the word vermiseles, derived via old French vermeseil from Italian vermicelli, to describe dough boiled as pasta or fried in fritters.

Photo © 2007 Ben Fink.
Within a hundred years or so the Yiddish word vermiseles has morphed to germizelli or vremzel, and finally to the modern form of the word, chremsel, which still describes a dough fritter, by now a sweet matso-meal pancake (shown above from Arthur Schwartz's Jewish Home Cooking: Yiddish Recipes Revisted) that is eaten at Passover.

The modern word "macaroni/macaroon" (maccarruni in its original Sicilian form, maccherone in standard Italian) first appears in writing in 1279, and is quickly used for both meanings. Alas, we just don't know where it comes from. Arabic is likely; Italian food scholar Anna Martellotti suggests that it comes from the pistachio marzipan muqarrada mentioned above and Clifford Wright suggests a different Arabic etymology from a Tunisian word. Others (including the OED) suggest it may come from the Greek makaria funeral gruel, or perhaps from the Italian dialect word maccare, meaning 'to crush'. But none of these etymologies are universally accepted, and we may never know.

What most scholars seem to agree on is that the ancestor of macaroon or macaroni was a word used in various languages (French, Catalan, and to some extent English and Italian) for two distinct foods, both made of a paste with rose water and egg whites and sweet spices: one a kind of marzipan (almond paste with rose water, egg whites, and sugar) and the other a kind of gnocchi (flour paste with rose water, egg whites, no sugar).

The earliest mentions of the word refer to pasta. Boccaccio in his Decameron (around 1350) talks about macaroni as a kind of hand-cut dumpling or gnocchi eaten with butter and cheese. Pasta came very quickly with the Normans from Sicily to England, and the first extant recipe for macaroni turns out to appear in the first cookbook in English, Forme of Cury, shown above and below:

Makerouns. Take and make a thynne foyle of dowh, and kerue it on peces, and cast hym on boillyng water & seeþ it wele. Take chese and grate it and butter imelte, cast bynethen and aboven as losyns.
[Make a thin sheet of dough, and cut it in pieces and place them in boiling water; boil well. Take cheese and grate it, and melted butter, and arrange below and above like lasagne.]

By 1465 the word maccherone in Italy had many regional meanings, but one of them was the tubular pasta with cheese that a modern 8-year-old would recognize, although with the addition of rose water and "sweet spices". Here's Maestro Martino of Como's Libro de Arte Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) (ca. 1465). recipe for

Sicilian Macaroni

Take some very white flour and make a dough using egg whites and rose water... then shape it into long, thin sticks, the size of your palm and as thin as hay. Then take an iron rod as long as your palm or longer, and as thin as string, and place it on top of each stick, and then roll with both hands over a table; then remove the iron rod and the macaroni will be perforated in the middle..... cook them in water or meat broth; and place them on platters with generous quantities of grated cheese, fresh butter, and sweet spices.

These recipes are quickly translated, and by 1505 this recipe appears in French, in Lyons, under the name macarons en potaige. But pasta never caught on in England and France, and by a few hundred years later seems to have disappeared. Only in the 18th century did eating macaroni became first an exotic habit of British dandys, and then eventually a more widely popular food in both England and America.

Simultaneously with the expansion of pasta out of Sicily and around Europe in the late Middle Ages, various dishes based on almond paste also started to appear. The most popular almond paste dish in Europe was marzipan, made of almond paste, sugar, rose water, and sometimes egg whites. The word marzipan first appeared in Italian, in 1343, as marzapane, and in English in 1516 as marchpane. Food historians generally believe that the name comes from the Arabic (and Persian) word mauthaban, which described the boxes or jars that this kind of candy was imported in, and indeed the earliest uses of the word marzipan seems to refer to a pastry casing with a marzipan filling. Here's a recipe (without egg whites) for the filling from Martino's s Art of Cooking:

Marzipan. Peel the almonds well and crush... When you crush them, wet them with a bit of rose water so that they do not purge their oil. ...take an equal weight of sugar as of almonds... and add also an ounce or two of good rose water; and incorporate all these things together well...

Marzipan very early became a food eaten for celebrations at Christmas and Easter, and was often produced by convents, including the convent of San Clemente in Toledo, Spain, and the convent of the Martorana in Palermo, Sicily, shown at right.

Then somewhere perhaps between 1450 and 1650 a version of baked marzipan that is much lighter, with more eggwhites, began to appear in France, Italy and possibly Spain. This new baked marzipan generally had only 3 or 4 ingredients: almonds, sugar, egg whites, and sometimes rose water or orange blossom water.

In France, the word macaron is used for this food (as well as for the pasta). In Italy, where the word maccherone by now only means pasta, these new lighter marzipan cookies had various names. In Sienna they were called marzapanetti, 'little marzipans', in Lombardy they were called amaretti, `little bitters', because they were made with bitter almonds. A name referring to bitter almonds was also used in Spain, or at least it was by the following century, where the 1780 edition of the Real Academia Española's "Diccionario de la lengua castellana" tells us that this cookie was called amargo `bitter', or later amarguillo `little bitter', a name that is still used. The same cookie is also popular in modern Turkey, where it is called Acıbadem kurabiyesi, 'bitter almond cookie', and Alan Davidson tells us that many macaroon-like almond cookies are eaten throughout the Maghreb.

We can't be absolutely certain whether this new lighter, baked version of marzipan had been created in Sicily (or elsewhere in Italy) and then spread to France, Spain and Turkey, or whether it was France or Spain was the original source. Alternatively, the idea of making a puffy baked marzipan might have developed in different regions independently, a possibility that is consistent with the widely different macaroon traditions that exist in different regions of both Italy and France. In Italy, there are different traditions for dry amaretti (like amaretti di Saronno, above), soft amaretti (amaretti morbidi) which have a higher quantity of water and may contain honey, and others like the dry bruti ma buoni (ugly but good), which are rough lumps with pieces of hazelnuts or almonds, or the soft ricciarelli (above) which are traditionally oval-shaped and have orange peel or zest and sometimes honey. In France, the Larousse Gastronomique mentions both crisp (macarons croquants) and soft macaroons (macarons moelleux, and diverse recipes from many regions, including Amiens, Melun, Montmorillion, Nancy, and Niorts. In Cormery, for example, batter is piped into a circle (right) resulting in a donut shape after baking (below).

Convents and monasteries like Cormery Abbey were instrumental in the preservation and transmission of recipes for sweets like macaroons. The Larousse Gastronomique tells us that by the eighteenth century macaroons were a specialty of a number of convents and their recipes were quickly commercialized; in Nancy two sisters left the convent of the Holy Sacrament and started Maison des Soeurs Macarons, while in Saint-Emilion, Cindy Meyers' lovely article in Gastronomica tells us , the Fabrique de Macarons Blanchez bakery sells macarons according to the "Authentic Macaron Recipe of the Old Nuns of Saint-Emilion".

The macaron doesn't appear in print, however, until 1552, in Rabelais, in passing. Shortly thereafter, the first English language recipe in 1611 defines the English word "macaroon" as derived from the French "macaron" which are

"compounded of Sugar, Almonds, Rosewater, and Muske, pounded together and baked with a gentle fire".

The earliest complete recipe is in English, in Martha Washington's BOOKE of COOKERY, a manuscript handwritten in England sometime in the 17th century (Karen Hess suggests that it is a fair copy of an original written well before the 1650s) that Martha Washington's family brought with them to the new world:


Take a pound & halfe of almonds, blanch & beat them very small in a stone morter with rosewater. put to them a pound of sugar, & ye whites of 4 eggs, & beat ym together. & put in 2 grayns of muske ground with a spoonfull or 2 of rose water. beat ym together till yr oven is as hot as for manchet, then put them on wafers & set them in on A plat. after a while, take them out. [yn when] yr oven is cool, set [ym in] againe & dry ym ...

The Washington macaroon, with its rose water and muske, is a medieval recipe redolent of its Arab sources. Even as this recipe was being written, however, modern French cuisine began to evolve out of its medieval antecedents, replacing imported medieval spices with local herbs. The chef who was most important in guiding this transition was La Varenne, and the first completely modern recipe for macaroons comes from his famous 1651 cookbook, The French Cook, in which he eliminates the orange water and rose water from the earlier recipes:


Get a pound of shelled almonds, set them to soak in some cool water and wash them until the water is clear; drain them. Grind them in a mortar moistening them with three egg whites instead of orange blossom water, and adding in four ounces of powdered sugar. Make your paste which on paper you cut in the shape of a macaroon, then cook it, but be careful not to give it too hot a fire. When cooked, take it out of the oven and put it away in a warm, dry place.

For the next few centuries, from 1650 to 1900, the word macaroon meant this recipe of La Varenne's, defined above by the modern Larousse Gastronomique as a "small, round cookie, crunchy outside and soft inside, made with ground almonds, sugar and egg whites."

Then two things happened around the turn of the last century, one in France and one in America. The French innnovation was related to the fact that macaroons and amaretti were often sold in pairs with the flat sides together. A new recipe added a filling in between the two, an innovation that is often credited to the famous Parisian pastry shop and tea salon Ladurée. From their web site:

Pierre Desfontaines, second cousin of Louis Ernest Ladurée, who at the beginning of the 20th century first thought of taking two macaroon shells and joining them with a delicious ganache filling.

The second innovation happened in America only a few years before Desfontaines added ganache to his macarons, and was linked to the new fad for coconut. Coconut palms had been introduced to Florida in the 1880s, and efficient methods had just been developed for processing shredded coconut for baking. Everyone was making the hip new desserts from this period: coconut cream pie, coconut custard, and ambrosia (in its original form: oranges, powdered sugar, and shredded coconut). Recipes for another of these trendy new coconut innovations, coconut macaroons, appear at about this time, especially in Jewish cookbooks. Here's the recipe from the first Jewish cookbook in America, Esther Levy's 1871 Jewish Cookery Book, in which the almond paste is simply replaced by grated coconut (cocoanut):

COCOANUT MACAROONS - To one grated cocoanut add its weight in sugar, and the white of one egg, beaten to a snow; stir it well, and cook a little; then wet your hands and mould it into small oval cakes; grease a paper and lay them on; bake in a gentle oven.

In these Jewish cookbooks macaroons often appear in the Passover section. Since flour (except in the form of matzah) cannot be eaten during Passover, macaroons are kosher for Passover. By the late 1930's or early 1940's, Alan Adler of Aron Streit Inc. tells me, Streit's began to sell coconut macaroons for the Jewish Passover market, and coconut became the best-selling macaroons for both Streit's and Manischewitz.

Streits sells coconut macaroons only at Passover time, making them (and chremsel) only the most recent in a long chain of springtime treats, preceded by the Easter marzipan lambs and simnel cakes of Europe and all the way back to the honey pastries eaten for the Persian New Year by the Zoroastrian Persians. And it's nice to know that the link with spring continues; this spring Miette's, our local confiserie in Hayes Valley, is offering macaron happy hour. A dollar each, from 5-7pm. Maybe I'll see you there?

Oh, I almost forgot to mention The Macarena. The song got its name from the eponymous region of Seville, which itself is named from the old Arabic word for the gate to that region of the city, Bab–al-Makrin. The gate was named for a village called Makrin or Makrina outside the gate, which was probably named for some landowner named Macarius, from the same Greek word makarios, μακάριος, 'blessed', that gave us the funeral gruel that is one possible source of the word macaroon.

Or possibly not. Whichever it is, I wish you all a lovely spring full of delicious treats.