When I came across “aristology” in Julia Quinn’s To Catch An Heiress, I was momentarily surprised. How could I not have previously known a word meaning “the art or science of cooking and dining”? A mere 31,500 hits on Google reassured me it was, in fact, a word not in common circulation. Indeed, it has had a rather limited history of use, somewhat better known for its existence as an obscure word, beloved of vocabulary expansion programs, than actually much used in its own right.
Its first appearance was in 1835, when Thomas Walker published Aristology, or The Art of Dining. In it, he defines the term as his own coinage: “I call the art of dining Aristology, and those who study it, Aristologists.” Inasmuch as it could ever have been said to be popularized, a version of it was used in 1864 by Edward Abbot, whose cookbook, Cookery for the Many was labeled as “By an Australian Aristologist”. The book’s further distinction is that it was the first published Austrialian cookbook.
Mortimer Collins, the English novelist, is credited by the OED with first using the adjectival form, “aristological”. In Vol. 1, Ch. XV of Squire Silchester’s Whim (1873), he wrote,
You don’t get moor mutton with hot laver sauce every day. The author is inhibited by publishers and critics from aristological observations, or he would here describe a good Devonshire dinner. (pp. 191-2)
Fictionally, the word is best known from the name of a society, Ten for Aristology, investigated by Nero Wolfe in “Poison à la Carte”, a story in the Rex Stout collection, Three at Wolfe’s Door. (The full menu eaten in the story is available in The Nero Wolfe Cookbook.)
Quinn, in whose novel I ran across it, uses the word consciously as a vocabulary word, part of a “personal dictionary” of the book’s early nineteenth-century heroine. The character writes, “As a field of research and study, aristology is highly underrated.” (p. 280, intro to Ch. 18) I suspect the anachronism of its use in 1814 escaped the author.
We were in a village in the Colli Euganei, odd volcanic hills near Padua. Our host walked us up to the top of his back yard and plucked nespole from the laden tree. They were pale brown-purple, stiff shard-like teeth lining the gaping basin on one end, halfway between apple and rosehip. I recognized them, but it was several moments before my mother remembered that in English, they are called medlars.
The medlar was used in ancient Greek and Roman cooking. Chaucer mentioned them on a number of occasions, including in the Romance of the Rose, where they are included in a list of fruits. They were common in the English diet at least until the Victorian era, where recipes for them appear regularly. Although they can ripen on trees, they are more usually collected for maturing, or “bletting“. They are ripe when half-rotten.
This month’s Restaurant magazine has a special on them which, while trying to raise awareness of the fruit, emphasizes the degree to which they are still largely out-of-style. When the journalist was searching for suppliers to recommend, two of the could-have-been suppliers so dislike the fruit that they called it “one of the most disgusting things they’d ever tasted”. (Nov. 2009, p. 59) Presumably neither stocked them.
“Medlar” is an interesting word, but this is about the “nespola”, which, despite being Italian for the same fruit, appears in its own right in the OED. It does not appear in Merriam-Webster online, nor any of the other English dictionaries I casually checked; yet the OED thinks it occurs frequently enough in English, as an English word, to warrant an entry. Both “medlar” and “nespola” ultimately derive from the same root, the Latin mespilum.
Nespola entered as an English tourist, a direct import from the Italian. The oldest attested use of it in English, in a story called “Gianetto”, is translated: “Helen putting the finishing touches to a drawing she had been making of a great bunch of nespoli, or medlars; I myself lazily smoking, and reading a very stupid Italian novel”. The author of the 1875 article in the New York-based Littell’s Living Age (29 May 550) offers it as a foreign word, as ambiance.
The next several instances are unglossed by their sources. Their authors might be after ambiance, might assume the audience’s knowledge, or, possibly, medlars were already going out of fashion and the authors simply didn’t know if a translation was available in English. On the 29th of April, 1883, Lady Monkswell, in her Diary, notes “lemon trees in pots, trees of magnolia (not in flower) & nespola”. In 1910, Maude Howe, in Sicily in Shadow & in Sun (ix. 275), wrote of “the gorgeous dark green foliage of the nespoli, whose fruit ripens much later”. (“Nespoli” are medlar trees.) In 1928, Rose Macaulay, in Keeping up Appearances (iii.23), wrote, “She bought nespoli and cherries”, using the word for the tree interchangeably with that for the fruit.
An 1893 US Bureau of Manufactures report comments on an insect which lays its larvae into fruit: “the nespola, nectarine, and apricot suffer equally”. (Vol. 41, issue 148-151, p. 262). A University of California publication called My Garden (1999, p. 220) also uses it untranslated: “The nespola looks like an apricot, tastes something like a pomegranate, and contains three stones.”
The OED‘s most recent instance of “nespola”, from a review in The Indepedent (2000, 9 Dec.) of The River Café Cook Book Green, translates nespole (plural) as “Japanese medlars”, or loquats. Loquats used to be thought more closely related to medlars than they are known to be today. I wonder what the cookbook actually says.
The use of “nespola” in English is not, I suspect, an act of linguistic superiority so much as it is ignorance, as medlars have fallen gradually out of fashion and out of consciousness over the course of the past century. Without knowing the fruit and its traditional uses, the “nespola” is read in English as wholly exotic, its name untranslatable.
© S. Worthen 2009