A word’s potential can be so great.
“Kishes of new potatoes” read a line in the menu for the Irish banquet at the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. If I ate more Irish food, I might have already known.
As was, it was a word of intrigue. Did it refer to its cooking method? The size of the new potatoes? Several definitions mentioned “gravel”, as least for the etymology of the word. How delightful! Perhaps kishes are gravel-sized lumps. It fit. As did the word’s current meaning in metallurgy, of carbon-rich graphic which forms on the surface of molten ore. When it was not an ancient Babylonian city.
But no. There’s nothing so metaphorical about the word, now that I’ve checked a dictionary. It’s straight out of the Irish language, and is a word for a basket. It’s a method of presentation.
Could it also be a unit of measurement? At least approximately? How many punnets to a kish? All baskets are not kishes, for, as Old Irish Life specifies, it is a “flat basket”. More specifically, they are flat baskets made of willows, as I note from the definition of “kish maker” as “a maker of willow baskets” from a list of old Scottish occupations.
Turf can be delivered in kishes, and poultry and fish can be delivered in kreels as well. Potatoes may be poured into a kish. A passage from Ireland: its scenery mentions “a kish and potato basket”, but I can’t tell if those are two things or one. In 1802, in Meath, 20 kishes of turf was worth £1. Its Irishness was such that in F.G. Trafford’s 1866 novel, Maxwell Drewitt, the titular character could say, “To the rice pot the Hindoo. The potato kish to the Irish.” (104)
But what about that passing mention of “kish maker” on a list of Scottish occupations? By some point, surely, “kish” became a loan-word from Irish more widely used in the British Isles; assuming its inclusion in this modern list is no error.
After a day of fast food, I was pining for plants. Rhetorically, I vowed to eat only vegetables the following day. “Broccoli for breakfast! Lettuce for lunch!” And then I stalled. I couldn’t think of a single vegetable beginning with D. Dill and dandelion leaves were not compelling options.
I was in the car at the time, but when I arrived at our destination, our host kindly got out her copy of The Complete Book of Vegetables to search out an answer. (There are several books by that name; I didn’t think at the time to check author and year.) That’s how I first heard of both dasheen and the doodhi gourd.
“Dasheen” is a name for the tubers of the taro plant, members of the Colocasia genus. I know taro; I’d never heard dasheen. The word seems to have originated as a creole version of the French phrase “de Chine”, that is, “from China”. In other words, like the turkey, it is a plant named for its supposed place of origin.
In French, the plant isn’t called “dechine”, however, in the same way that turkey is “dinde” (lit. “from India”); it’s called “taro” or, after its Latin name, “colocase”. Funnily enough, it would be more accurate to call taro “dinde” than it is to call it “dasheen”, since the root’s cultivation originated in India at least 7000 years ago, according to The Oxford Companion to Food. At least “dasheen” is not as wrong as “dinde”, since the turkey bird is from the Americas, an entirely different continent, while taro really has been cultivated in China, from sometime before 100 BCE.
The OED gives the earliest known use of “dasheen” as 1899, when it had long since been established in the Caribbean, as well as in the tropical parts of Central and South America. With the exception of my original source, the other reference sources I consulted all listed “dasheen” under “taro”, rather than vice versa. The name is widely used for the root vegetable in parts of the West Indies.
So: “Broccoli for breakfast, lettuce for lunch, and dasheen for dinner.” The Complete Book of Vegetables alleviated my alliterative lack even if, as a diet, it lacks a great deal.
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.”
© S. Worthen 2009