There is perhaps no bigger problem on Thanksgiving Day than coordinating the big meal.
From stressing over the perfect seating arrangement to timing a dozen different side dishes, the preparations are enough to wear out even the seasoned host. That's why we thought we'd have some fun with the more trivial matters that arise on this favorite American holiday — the language-related puzzles, debates and questions that pop up like the timer on a perfectly-cooked turkey. These tidbits may not prevent a dry bird, but they just might give you something juicy to talk about around the Thanksgiving table.
stuffing vs. dressing
People who study language have a reputation for being sticklers for detail. In this particular Thanksgiving debate, one side claims that the usually bread-based accompaniment to the turkey cannot properly be called stuffing unless it is cooked inside the bird itself. If it is not cooked inside the bird, but cooked in a casserole dish, you have to call this dish dressing.
When it comes to food, most of us think of the word dressing as limited to salad dressing. However, dressing has been used to refer to accompanying dishes and side platters since the early sixteenth century. Even if it takes a back seat to the poultry on Thanksgiving day, many people prefer a hearty stuffing or dressing to the turkey anyway, because a) turkey can easily turn out dry, and b) there is a lot of freedom to stuff the stuffing (or dressing) with everything from sausage to mushrooms to apples, and make it taste just about any way you like.
Now, aside from the disagreement on what to call the dish is the debate on how to cook it. If I were to decide based solely on the logic of the language mavens, I would side with the stuffing people, because for it to be stuffing it has to be stuffed into something. However, there is significant scientific evidence that cooking a stuffed bird can really be dangerous and lead to undercooking both the stuffing (which can have things you don't want to undercook in it like oysters), and the turkey itself. The potential for food poisoning trumps any commitment to linguistic verisimilitude in my book, so I side with those who say you can call it whatever you want, dressing or stuffing, but you should probably cook the elements separately and not technically stuff the bird with the stuffing. If it makes you feel better, you can always arrange the serving platter to look like the separately cooked stuffing is coming out of the turkey.
sweet potatoes vs. yams
People often don't know whether that scrumptious side dish or that delectable pie is made with sweet potatoes or yams. Yams and sweet potatoes are two entirely different tubers. Traditional American Thanksgiving recipes use sweet potatoes, although sweet potatoes are often mistakenly labeled with a little sticker that says "yam," which doesn't help matters much. True yams are from Africa, Asia, or the Caribbean, have rough outer husks and white flesh. Many of us who have been calling sweet potatoes yams for years have never had a real yam. With more "international" foods appearing in markets everywhere, it has become more likely that an average consumer might taste an authentic yam. Yet while they may be available in some produce aisles, they're probably not in your grandma's pie recipe just yet.
The word yam has an interesting history. English took it from either Spanish (igname) or Portuguese (inhame), but its linguistic roots are in West Africa. Several languages in that part of the world have words related to food that give us the "yam" sound: Fulani nyami means "to eat" and in Twi aniyam is the word for a type of yam.
This time of year is filled with not only special foods, but seasonal food terminology. The cornucopia, also known as the "horn of plenty," is an omnipresent symbol that reappears every November. "Horn of plenty" is the literal translation of the Latin cornu copiae. Copiae is the same root that gives us the English word copious, a word describing a large number or abundant supply.
You may make casseroles at other times of the year, as these one-dish baked comfort foods are usually easy to make and satisfying to eat. But the classic green bean casserole is a staple at many Thanksgiving celebrations. Casserole originally referred to the serving dish itself, not the food in the dish. The -role suffix is attached to Middle French casse, "pan," producing a diminutive, "small pan," like the relationship between the English pair book and booklet or drop and droplet.
Squash is the shortened version of a word from Narraganset, an Algonquian language, askutasquash, which literally means "the things that may be eaten raw." -Ash is a plural suffix in several Algonquian languages, and also shows up in the English word succotash.
Pumpkin is from Middle French pompom, ultimately from Greek pepon, "melon." If squash got its name from the fact that it can be eaten raw, the Greek pepon probably traces back to peptein, "to cook." The idea here is that a melon is ripe, and things that are ripe have been cooked by the sun.
Thanksgiving is a time of togetherness and comfort, and controversies like dressing vs. stuffing are are unlikely to ruin anyone's holiday, no matter how heated the discussion at the dinner table gets.
Have these "word-oeuvres" whet your appetite? If so, sink your teeth into this list of terms related to food and feasting: Eat Your Words.
Adam Cooper studied linguistics at Brandeis University and The University of Chicago. Since 2010, he has been working with The Endangered Language Alliance in New York City on documentation and preservation projects.Click here to read other articles by Adam Cooper
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