One doesn’t learn from Mark Morton’s Cupboard Love: A Dictionary of Culinary Curiosities, how a salamander – an appliance for broiling found in restaurant kitchens – got its odd name. One does, however, learn almost everything else one might wish to know about the etymologies of strange culinary terms. And, like the rich goodies that tempt an opsomaniac – someone who, according to Morton, is overwhelmed by the desire to eat cookies, cakes, nuts, and chocolates – these definitions are irresistible.
Two elements make Cupboard Love so enjoyable. The first is Morton’s deftness for showing how the world is both contained literally, and literally contained, by words. Take goober, for example. It’s a common name for peanut in the U.S., from the West African nguba, as introduced into English by slaves. To etymologists, words are metaphorical nuts of history, but goober is also an actual nut name, thus Morton here delivers history, both figuratively and literally, in a nutshell. The second element is Morton’s wryly humorous, and often bawdy, approach to many of his subjects. For example, the fact that Aztecs used the same word – ahuacatl – for avocado and testicle, might be seen, Morton suggests, “as an attempt to impress or frighten neighbouring peoples.” Thus Cupboard Love is both education and entertainment, a welcome addition on the shelf next to other urbane food books such as Craig Claiborne’s Food Encyclopedia.
In his preface, Morton, a teacher at the University of Winnipeg, states that etymologists do what they do because it’s “darn fascinating.” Those who enjoy neither language nor food – the two great realms of the tongue – may not agree, but others will likely relish (from the Latin relaxare, meaning “to loosen”) the wonderfully rich, erudite, and thankfully non-fattening goodies in Cupboard Love.