Like a great many people who are interested in word histories, I’ve been playing with Google Lab’s new toy, Ngram Viewer, this week. It generates comparative graphs for words and phrases from across the corpus of books which Google has scanned in a given language, weighted for number of books in each historical period. It still has some problems from Google’s careless OCR’ing, but is, nevertheless, useful for general trends.

Looking through relative patterns in food words, one which stood out for me was the sharp rise in words for sweets and candies during the World Wars: in other words, people talked most about what they could least have, when rationed. “sugar”, proportionately, was discussed about twice as often in the late nineteen-teens as it is in books today. (See chocolate vs. sugar)

The same is true of “caramel”, whose towering heights of frequency came around 1915. The use of the word “caramel” had been generally on the rise since its earliest-known mention in 1725. The OED says it derives from the same word in French, cognate to similar words in Italian and Portugese: but from where it comes before that, they do not commit.

Scheler suggests that the Spanish represents Latin calamellus little tube, in reference to its tubular form; Mahn thinks it from medieval Latin cannamella sugar-cane: an Arabic source is conjectured by Littré.

Toffee, whose proportional heights were around 1730, has been eclipsed ever since. (See a longer-term toffee vs. caramel)

Martian madness

In the early 1970s, at Betsy Ballantine’s request, Anne McCaffrey coordinated a large number of science fiction authors in the publication of a cookbook, Cooking Out of This World. With a title and a cohort like that, one would logically expect a certain degree of science fiction-like cuisine within.

Instead, the book is largely a collection of minimalist or at least easy-and-inexpensive recipes, designed for the starving and cash-poor author or college student rather than as a science fictional exploration of food in its own right. There is, for example, a total lack of food pill recipes, that staple of unappetizing futures. None of the names of dishes are totally made up words.

At best, the recipes are named allusively rather than literally. A “tortilla saucer” is a minor fancy, since tortillas are approximately saucer shaped to begin with. “Deadline stew” is almost self-explanatory. “Cosmic minestrone” is a copious amount of minestrone made with earthly ingredients. Most of the recipes are named literally, such as “Fish steamed in wine”. As a general rule, I’m all in favor of clear labeling; but the lack of coinages is striking in a book written by science fiction authors, and makes me interested in knowing how typical this is or is not of fictional food in the late ’60s and early ’70s.

“Martian madness”, by Bob Shaw, is one of the few exceptions. It is not obvious to me, at least, what it is from its name alone. (Although I can safely say it’s not an iPhone app.) It is a dessert confection of crushed digestive biscuits, buttery chocolate sauce, rum, candied cherries, and icing, designed to look vaguely like Mars (cherries) surrounded by two dots of icing (moons) in space. It’s also so full of calories that its eater is better off in the fractional gravity of Mars than the heavier gravity of Earth after he or she has eaten it.

The other exceptions in the cookbook are mostly written by Ursula Le Guin, and tied to books I have not yet read. A sequel to the 1973 cookbook, Serve it Forth, was published in 1996.

liquorice water

Thomas More, in his Utopia, Book II, writes of the Utopian people,

They drink wine made of grapes, apple or pear cider, or simple water, which they sometimes mix with honey or liquorice, of which they have plenty. (From Logan and Adam’s 1989 Cambridge Texts series.)

In the original Latin: “Nam aut uuarum uinum bibunt, aut pomorum, pirorumue, aut denique aquam nonnunquam meram, saepe etiam, qua mel, aut glycyrizam incoxerint, cuius haud exiguam habent copiam.” Glycyrrhiza is still the genus name for the liquorice plant. It has the same Greek root as “glycerine”, meaning “sweet”.

This passage from Utopia is, as far as I know, is the first time I’ve heard of liquorice water.

It was a popular made-at-home drink in Scotland in the early twentieth century known as “sugarelly”. Liquorice root (not the modern candy) was infused into water. William, in the Just William books, apparently drinks it regularly. (A letter written by the books’ author, Richmal Crompton, gives a recipe.) The Egyptian drink Erk-soos is another variation on it.

The plant, more generally, is native to southeast Europe and the Middle East, and has been grown in Britain since at least the thirteenth century, when Henvry II taxed it. Several of Chaucer’s characters chew the root. See also, “The Licorice Fields of Pontefract”.) Liquorice seems to have been a ubiquitous sweetener and medicine in ancient Egypt and Greece and medieval England, at very least. It’s 50-150 times sweet than table sugar, writes Harold McGee in On Food and Cooking. (2004, p. 418)

As for liquorice water more specifically, however: given the lack of detail of food which Henry VIII’s erstwhile lord chancellor otherwise provides, it seems certain that he knew it as a common, healthful drink. Other than Utopia and the Just William books (a rare pairing!), I wonder if the drink shows up in any other works of literature?

*© S. Worthen 2009