I don’t run with a foodie crowd, but I cheer them on. Food writers, chef-authors, food editors. They spin out our foodie dreams for us. But as the Anglophone world becomes more fashion-forward foodwise, the language of food becomes an ever more puzzling place. There isn’t a Chicago Manual of Culinary Style, though maybe there should be. If there were I’d turn to it for advice linguistic, culinary, and social.
My first food questions for a culinary grammarian: When we talk about foreign dishes, when should we deploy a foreign plural? When do we activate unfamiliar foreign forms?
I’ll stick with Italy, or at least the imaginary Italy that sings its siren call at the American table.
In my family, whose Italian branch was from two parts of the Mezzogiorno, pasta was called macaroni. I come from red-sauce people. When I got a bit older I learned to call it pasta.
Now older still, I find myself facing menus that offer me a choice of paste.
Paste. Looking over the menu I’m working hard to put library paste out of my mind. This must be a great place, I think—they even know that the plural of pasta is paste, not pastas.
I select, slightly resentfully, a raviolo. It is big. It comes on a big plate, surrounded by what I think of as premature vegetables. Wisps of fresh herbs crown the scrupulously plated, but ostentatiously single, pasta object. O why couldn’t there have been two so they could have been ravioli? I’m comfortable around ravioli.
A spago is a string (and the name of a very fancy restaurant). The word gets us spaghetti and, for the culinarily obsessed, spaghetto, which is what a single one would be. We’ve all seen them (or one of them); a single spaghetto is what a cartoon character inhales as one continuous strand. I’ve never seen a spaghetto on a menu. I don’t hope to, but I won’t be surprised if it’s out there, waiting for me.
Or consider the fava, that most delicious of small podded green foods. (Just try not to think of it as the vegetable Hannibal Lecter preferred with human liver and a nice Chianti.) The Italian plural for fava is fave, not favas. Of course it’s possible for an English speaker to order up fava beans, but the kitchen world has its own linguistic turns, and fave seems to be on the rise. Does the entree come with fava, fava beans, or fave? Will people start calling them faves to rhyme with “saves”?
Forget the vegetables. Picture yourself ordering a cappuccino for your date—but wait, make that one for yourself, too. Do you order two cappuccinos, two cappuccini, or go whole hog and throw out due cappuccini, per piacere? The last option would be lovely in Rome, Italy, and a bit pretentious in Rome, Ga.
Panini happen in the plural. If you like pressed sandwiches you may have found yourself ordering a panini, or tried, awkwardly to order a panino. Neither feels right. My weary solution, when I can remember it, is to order “one of the panini,” and hope that my server doesn’t ask me to confirm whether I meant “a mozzarella panini” or “a prosciutto panini.” It would be so tempting to add “And a Diet Cokes, too.”
Afterward your date wants exactly one sweet biscuit. You have to decide: Make that one biscotto (and maybe feel like a pretentious jerk) or one biscotti (hoping your companion is innocent of Romance language plurals). It’s easier to order “a plate of biscotti”—more expensive, but you avoid the linguistic trap.
De gustibus non est disputandum. Frankly, that’s always struck me as a pretty silly epigram. Of course we can argue about taste.
But food plurals and usages? Now that’s tricky stuff.
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