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Symposium-going, part 2

Saturday afternoon was all normal parallel sessions (three sets at a time). I didn't session-hop this time, but stuck with a trio on the language of menus, in part because it was chaired by a classicist, one of the papers was by a friendly person I'd chatted with the evening before, and another was given by a senior medievalist who's expanded in modern food research. One paper dealt with the Germanization of French menu language during the first World War, a fascinating example of how some intentionally-coined innovations survive and others are a flop. A graduate student in linguistics gave a paper on the language of Parisian restaurants' Valentine's Day menus; I found the raw evidence far more interesting than the actual conclusions, but it's a project that likely is much more interesting when presented in more than just highlights. I'd never before thought about the relationship between class of restaurant and whether or not it has a Valentine's Day promotion, however. The last paper of the set dealt with the developing use of French in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries on American menus, and the assumption that in French restaurants - unlike pretty much any other kind of restaurant in America - customers could read French. Or how menus would at least dress up their dishes with a "le" here and there, if nothing else.

I was on a roll with international food language, so from there, went to a pair of papers on the way words for dishes change throughout the MIddle East, from the voyages of schwarma to biryani to halwa and aubergine. I scribbled down a proverb from one of these, although not its provenance: "In Heaven, they dine on rice pilaf and apricots; in Hell, they eat bulgar wheat and tomatoes."

The third paper was on pepper. All kinds of pepper, but black pepper and long pepper most of all, and what exactly it is that "pepper" means and how it's been abused. The speaker had brought jars and jars of samples with her back from India for us to sample. This page in my notebook is a series of spaces and labels as I laid each peppercorn down before passing on the jar. "Sri Lankan: soft, a little spicy" or "Indonesian: warm, more like chiles". Long pepper was awkward to eat. Betel leaf was astonishly complex, even after eating four whole peppercorns. "Like limey bbq sauce", I wrote, but trying it again later, without the other fires, it was almost alcoholic, with a linger mintlikeness to it. My favorite was cubeb pepper, anisey and slightly sweet.