goujons

The second time I met the woman who is now my mother-in-law, we spent part of the weekend preparing a buffet dinner for a party. There were vegetables to chop for crudités, crisps to pour into bowls, cream to whip, pots to stir, and glazes to paint on. Late in the afternoon, the meat dishes were baked: sausages in pastry and the turkey goujons.

I don’t know that I had encountered the word “goujons” before, because that’s how I imprinted it: a type of preparation of turkey. The inclusion of the word “turkey” in their name implied there could be other kinds of goujons, such as chicken, or possibly beef. They were four or five inches long, erratically thin – an inch or so, breaded and baked.

Clearly, the word was a French import, if pronounced Englishly. I thought no more about it until yesterday.

Last year at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, Raymond Blanc was one of the chefs who organized a sumptuous feast for the conference attendees. He’s a friendly fellow, congenially, chatty, welcoming. We talked briefly over his book-signing session and briefly again when he came round in person to pour a gravy the kitchen staff had overlooked. I went home with his autobiography, A Taste of My Life, autographed.

Yesterday, I finally started reading it. His childhood was structured by the cultivation and preparation of food, from the acre of family land devoted to vegetables and fruit, to the hours spent helping his mother in the kitchen. He joined his older brothers in learning to hunt, and to fish.

And what did Raymond Blanc fish for as a young boy? Pike, trout, crayfish – and goujons. In my mind I see little turkey fish, swimming about in rural French streams.

Goujons, then, are “tiny fish that love sandy banks and shallow water with a gentle current”. Blanc recounts how his mother served them as fritters, “by quickly gutting the fish, flouring them and deep-frying them until brown and crispy”. They were served with lemon and mayonnaise. (p. 63) In other words, exactly like the turkey goujons in preparation, if not in substance.

Blanc clarifies that these fish are anglicized as “gudgeons”. They are a relative of the carp, and are indeed quite small. This webpage (“Get Hooked on Fishing”) tells me that the current record for largest gudgeon, also known as a goby, caught in the UK is a mere five ounces.

The word gudgeon was an English import by the fifteenth century. It did indeed come from Middle French, which owes its earlier roots to the Latin name for the fish, “gobio”, whose accusative form, “gobionem” is considered the shape which impressed itself into the French word. The species name, accordingly, is Gobio gobio.

But gudgeon wasn’t the version of the word I learned first. Goujon is also imported from French, rather more directly so, but used from its earliest instance in English to refer to the battered, deep-fried version. The OED has an instance of it in 1940, when Andre L. Simon’s Concise Encyclopedia of Gastronomy defined it as “fillets of sole cut up in strips, floured and fried”. The dictionary specifies that the word as a dish entered English through Louisiana French.

And so it continued, with sole, not little gudgeons, being the English fish of choice for use in goujoning, so to speak.

Turkey may be a relatively recent variant. Google Timeline Search has no mentions of “turkey goujons” before 2002. “Chicken goujons” gets us back to 1984, while beef, pork, duck, and goose variants return no hits. Hardly conclusive, but probably generally indicative at least.

Thus it is that the French word “goujon” has twice entered the English language, at least in the UK, firstly as a little fish, the gudgeon, and secondly as a breaded and deep-fried (or baked) little fish-shaped bit of meat.

I’m still thinking about those little turkey fish.


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*© S. Worthen 2009