One country’s or time’s commonplace is another’s obscurity.

Yesterday was the first time I’d heard of pulque, a fermented drink made with the sap of the agave cactus, or “maguey plant”. I was at the British Museum’s new Moctezuma exhibit, and it was occasionally mentioned as an exclusively ceremonial drink for priests and sacrificial victims among the Méxica (or Aztecs). It was served in elegant spherical pitchers with long necks, widely consumed among the nobles and priests of early sixteenth-century Méxica, but not the majority of the population. One such jug was on display, decorated in swirling black and red.

Post-conquest, its consumption grew, peaking in the nineteenth century. An entire industry, with dedicated trains and delivery services, revolved around this form of alcohol. A campaign for beer, as a “hygienic and modern” drink, finally succeeded in largely killing off the drink, its consumption declining over the last century. It is largely a poor and rural drink in Mexico these days, and demand is dying. From an eGullet commenter, here’s a (largely unappealing!) description of its consistency and taste, along with a recipe for its use in salsa.

Pulque is also known as octli. At the end of the exhibit, a recent excavation in Mexico City unearthed jewelery made in honor of “the goddess of pulque”. Not named on the label, she is Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey and thus, by extension, of pulque.


I first realized that “mango” might mean anything other than the fruit, Mangifera indica, when reading John and Karen Hess’s The Taste of America. This fascinating polemic – which is largely about why American food is bad – includes several chapters on the development of cookbooks in America. Amelia Simmons’s American Cookery (1796) includes the recipe “To Pickle or make Mangoes of Melons”. (This cookbook, the first one both written by an American and printed in America, is also available via Project Gutenberg.)

“Mango” became a generic word for pickled foods in England and America, at least, thanks to the major means by which mango-the-fruit journeyed from its areas of cultivation in India and South-East Asia. The OED’s earliest attested use of the word in this sense comes secondhand from Peter King quoting John Locke in his Life of Locke (1679) on the riches and varieties of London: “Mango and saio are two sorts of sauces brought from the East Indies.” Locke wrote that the worldly edible variety of London comes from Bermuda oranges, Cheshire cheese, and Colchester oysters, in addition to the East Indies. (p. 134)

A mango might be made with walnuts or cucumbers (1699), melons (1728), peaches (1845), musk-melon stuffed with horseradish (1859), or green peppers (1940). Although its earliest instances were English, by the last two centuries, it seems to have become purely an Americanism. (Now a very obscure one if it is still used at all.)

A mango may not be a pickle any more, but it is still, in the U.S., in Ohio and Indiana, a name for green peppers. Pickled Mangifera indica passed its name onto pickles more generically which, by 1948, had passed their name on to the most frequently-found version of them in the region, pickled green peppers; similarly, “pickles” have acquired the generic meaning of “pickled cucumbers” in the U.S. today.

Jerusalem artichoke

At first glance, the serving bowl held sausages, another meat in a feast of meats, platters or bowls of whole roasted quail or mutton with caper sauce. A closer look showed that the “sausages” were, in fact, the menu-promised Jerusalem artichokes, scrubbed but not skinned, rough and trailing roots. They were our one respite in that course from meat, meat, and more meat. The surfeit was the main feature, a Pepys-themed feast organized by Fergus Henderson for the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery.

The Jerusalem artichokes were not sausages, but neither are they from Jerusalem or artichokes. They are roots of a plant in the sunflower family, Helianthus tuberosus, and the Italian word for “sunflower” is “girasole”, which sounds somewhat like “Jerusalem” in English. (The alternate etymology, according to The Oxford Companion to Food is that it’s a misunderstanding of Terneuzen, the Dutch town, better known as the home port of one version of The Flying Dutchman, from which they were first imported to England.) They do taste somewhat artichoke-like, although the plants are not related.

Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes, are natives of the Americas, Peru originally, although the first European to document them was Samuel de Champlain, in Canada. Their French name, topinambur, preserves the name of a Brazilian tribe, the Topinambous, six of whose members were brought to France in 1613, along with their local crop.

In England, they are used, punningly, to make Palestine Soup, bacon optional, of which A.E. Housman, the poet, wrote, “I was however agreeably surprised by a Palestine soup which had not the faintest trace of artichoke.” (Letters, 14 Sept. 1929. Found via the OED.) Jerusalem artichokes are robust easy to grow, a fact not unrelated to why Samuel de Champlain found them in Canada. Their weed-like profligacy early on inspired Robert Grenville, puritan and Roundhead general, who, in A Discourse opening the nature of that Episcopacie which is exercised in England (I. vi 16), wrote that “Error being like the Jerusalem-Artichoake; plant it where you will, it overrunnes the ground and choakes the Heart.”


Hot caffeinated beverages, more than any other kind of food in fantasy worlds, come with made-up names. Kavage, from Elizabeth Vaughan‘s Dagger-Star (and her other work, apparently), is one of them. It’s the only word for a food or drink which doesn’t exist in our world, in a novel containing, among other foods, raisins, turnips, and saffron.

It’s made by boiling water in a small copper pot, and then putting beans into it. (Are they ground? It’s not mentioned.) Despite this, at one point in the novel (p. 180), in what is possibly an error in the text, a pot of tea arrives. Immediately afterward, everyone is drinking kavage from cups. Whatever it is, it can be over-brewed, and is a dark and bitter. (p. 107) It’s drunk in a mug, and frequently had in the morning.

As a caffeinated beverage word, kavage struck me as one of the least intuitive I’ve encountered, because the letters made me think of so many other things instead. (The tea/coffee confusion in the text didn’t help either.) I kept thinking it might be cognate with “cabbage”, or perhaps a relative of the Vanuatan pepper-family drink “kava”, or perhaps related to the French “cavage” (excavation, hollow). But it’s not. It’s one of the many names for caffeine in one the many worlds of fantasy.


A recurring theme at this weekend’s Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery was the way food words are passed off to other languages and acquire new meanings there. One of the more straightforward of these is “brioche”. In France – as, indeed, in most places – it is a yeast bread made with eggs and milk, with a richly golden brown crust. It is the baked good which Marie Antoinette supposedly mentioned when, in translation, she said, “Let them eat cake.”

In Italy, however, it means a kind of croissant, usually one filled with jam. It is a morning snack commonly available in bars and pastry shops. The dictionary at Garzanti Linguistica translates the French word “brioche” first as “(cuc.) brioche, brioscia (panino dolce di pasta lievitata con burro e uova)”. In other words, although it starts with “brioche”, it must elaborate further, calling it croissant-like before giving it a recipe for clarity. The definition for “brioscia”, in turn, explains that Italian croissants differ from French ones in both shape and type of dough.

Sicilian brioches are different again, more like the usual French ones, but with further locally-integral variations, such as candied lemon peel. (To be clear, there are variations on it in France too.) In Italian, it’s all good, so long as one likes sweet baked goods.

In French, colloquially, it’s also a word for stomach, as in, “prendre une brioche”, to get a potbelly. Another variant, from the Wiktionary, offers “avoir une brioche au four” as “to have a bun in the oven” in the English colloquial sense. Older dictionaries (1922, plus Garzanti Linguistica) have it as slang too: when masculine, it’s a “mistake”. Given its lack of presence in more modern sources, I wonder if it’s now old-fashioned and has died out. The current online Larousse dictionary doesn’t include it; nor do the first few slang dictionaries I checked.

The OED puts its earliest attested use in English at 1826, when, delightfully, in Mary Russell Mitford’s Our Village (Vol. II, p. 298) the narrator observes that her cousin “left it to my good senses to discover the merits of brioche and marrangles and eau de groseille”, beginning the process of teaching the twelve-year-old viewpoint character to find learning French a worthwhile project, and not a mistake at all.

*© S. Worthen 2009