Friday, May 28, 2010

A meal by any other name

Cartoon from Punch 26 September 1951
English is supposed to be a very rich language so why don't we have more words to describe eating – or at least eating events? Breakfast for example describes the first meal of the day but to say that you have just had breakfast, or indeed that you have just finished breakfasting doesn't give any clue as to what you might have eaten. Similarly lunch, or luncheon in its original form, is usually taken these days to mean the meal taken in the middle of the day. Lunch could be anything from a three course meal to a sandwich. Dinner commonly refers to the main meal of the day so dinner could be lunch but lunch could never be dinner. In other words you could eat your main meal at lunch time but your evening meal could never be called lunch, although you might call it supper. Supper is a word that doesn't seem to be used very much but I understand it to mean a light meal taken in the evening but again this could be anything from cheese on toast or a bowl of soup to a pasta dish.
I don't know enough about other languages to know whether other cultures have more definitive terms which describe not just when but what is eaten. Yum cha as I understand it describes the whole event of eating dim sum but does the term imply when the food is eaten? And what then is Greek Yum Cha which one restaurant proudly advertises? Tapas refers to the way the food is presented rather than any specific food stuff and, as bar food, is available whenever bars are open. Perhaps terms like merenda or merienda (an outdoor meal, a shared meal, a snack during the working day) hold more specific meaning, a clear idea of not just what might be eaten but when, for those who use them.

This ruminating was partly prompted by trying to write a review of Nigel Slater's Tender Volume 1 and thinking about why he might have come up with such an odd title. Briefly Tender is the diary of Slater's experiences with growing vegetables in his London garden with recipe ideas for using them. Why not Nigel Slater's book of the Vegetable Patch or Real Vegie​s? And given that Mr Slater is someone who chooses his words carefully he would not have happened upon tender by accident. As it turns out it is in fact an almost perfect word to use to describe both his relationship with the food he grows and cooks and his role in the garden.
A tender (noun) is a person who tends or waits on another; a person who attends or has charge of something - in this case the tender of the vegetable patch. A tender is also an offer of anything for acceptance, as in the author offering his ideas and observations to his readers.
Tender (adjective) describes something soft or delicate or soft or delicate in texture or consistency, easily broken, cut, compressed ,chewed etc; something needing protection, not hardy – which describes the state of the young vegetables as they grow and often also the cooked vegetable .
Someone who is tender is gentle or sensitive towards or about others, kind, loving, mild, affectionate; careful of the welfare or integrity of people and things, as in the tender loving care Slater lavishes on both his garden and his cooking. And of course he writes tenderly and affectionately too.
As a verb tender means to be affected, softened as in to become tender or make tender – as in cooking. A tenderer is a person or thing which makes something tender – so a cook is a tenderer.
To tender also means to hold forth, to offer, to present for approval, as in to tender an apology or perhaps to tender a book for approval or use.

Do you imagine Nigel lay awake at night thinking about all these connections? I wouldn't put it past him! Anyone who can call a recipe idea 'Squeaking spinach, sizzling bacon', who talks about dishes bubbling 'enticingly', whose ingredients become 'acquainted' and who eats 'supper' regularly and often obviously spends a good deal of his time thinking about the subtleties and meaning of the words he uses.

Read my review of Tender for The Gastronomer's Bookshelf  here.

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