Anthony Buccini, PhD
Whether one prefers américaine or armoricaine is immaterial: both names are inappropriate and lack historical basis or even plausibility. — Alan Davidson
There are a great many famous dishes whose names defy legitimate historical or linguistic explanation. Of these, there are two primary sorts: 1) those with names that are in a basic sense completely transparent but, despite that superficial transparency, remain obscure, in that we have no idea why (and often also when and by whom) that name was applied to the dish; 2) those with names that from a linguistic standpoint are (or seem to be) opaque and resistant to linguistically sound etymologising. In previous publications I have proposed solutions to both kinds of problems and in my last presentation to the Culinary Historians of Chicago, I presented my views on three long-standing etymological puzzles connected to Atlantic World cuisines: of the second sort, jambalaya and congrí(s), seemingly exotic and opaque names of dishes, both of which have engendered a great deal of poorly reasoned etymological speculation; and of the first sort, Hopping John, a name of a dish comprised of thoroughly familiar words but with an apparently inscrutable historical/etymological connexion to the preparation it denotes. In that talk, I showed that: a)jambalaya derives its name directly from an Occitan dish of fowl offal brought to the French colony of Louisiana by colonists from Provence and Languedoc in the early eighteenth century; b) congrí(s) derives its name straightforwardly from the Haitian Creole adaptation of a French expression, la portion congrue, used in reference to the ration of beans added to boiled starches which represented a subsistence food for the abused slaves of Saint-Domingue; and c) I explained the Carolina Low Country’s term for their cow pea and rice dish as a jocular calque on the Colonial French/Creole jambalaya (au congrí) which denoted essentially the same dish – this calque must have arisen among bilingual African Americans in the linguistic contact zone between French and English in southern Alabama.
In this paper, I address the origins of a dish and its name which is thematically related to the just mentioned group of dishes and names. Here we have another instance of a superficially transparent name of a preparation that is most closely associated with France’s haute cuisine, namely, homard à l’américaine or, as it is also known, homard à l’amoricaine, that is, ‘lobster in the American style’ or ‘Armorican (Breton) style’. A great deal of ink has been spilt by food writers in efforts to explain this preparation’s moniker(s), though virtually all agree that the dish bears no real culinary affinity of any sort either to American or Breton cookery, as it necessarily features prominently the use of garlic, tomato, and typically also red pepper, as well as cognac, all ingredients whose regional use in France points to the cookery of the Midi, where these ingredients originate or were first nativised; for the great food historian Alan Davidson, this lobster preparation is unambiguously Mediterranean in nature and the two well-known names are simply inexplicable and even absurd misnomers. Other earlier food writers, including some very renowned professional chefs, recognising the seeming mismatch, felt emboldened to generate their own just-so stories for the invention of both the dish and its name in the context of restaurant kitchens, sometimes in very self-serving fashion: Indeed, among these we must count even the great Escoffier, who claimed the dish as his own.
A close inspection of both the name and the dish shows, however, that neither food historians such as Davidson nor the chefs who would claim to be the dish’s originators have properly considered the context out of which this lobster preparation really arose. I argue that the dish itself shows unambiguous connexions to America, though not to the America that has always come to mind in these discussions: the French words Amérique and américainhave since roughly the second third of the nineteenth century had as their primary colloquial reference the United States and persons and things pertaining thereto, but the primacy of those uses was a development following upon two historical events that occurred in the first decade of that century: 1) the rise of the United States as the largest and increasingly most important political and economic entity in North America (and significantly also one without its own simple adjectival form in French) and 2) France’s loss of her crown-jewel colony of Saint-Domingue as a result of the Haitian Revolution. Before these events, the primary colloquial reference of américain in French was to persons and things pertaining to that fabulously valuable and appallingly cruel slave colony, where alongside the developing culture of the enslaved there also flourished for a time a rich and culinarily sophisticated culture shared by the colony’s white colonists and gens de couleur.
I demonstrate here that homard à l’américaine was not merely ‘American’, i.e. Haitian, in its use of typical ingredients of French Creole cuisine but also by method, in its key use of a finishing sauce ultimately derived from the cookery of Haiti’s indigenous Taïno Indians. In considering the rise of the dish in various places in metropolitan France, I also explain the rationale behind the alternate name of the dish, à l’armoricaine. Finally, beyond the more specifically historical-culinary significance of the findings of my research here, I believe there are also some very interesting broader issues that come to the fore in this context, namely, the relationship between a dish and its name, the question of cultural appropriation and in connexion with these the legitimacy of individual chefs’ claims of propriety over dishes of popular or traditional origin, issues which I hope will be part of our discussion.
Anthony F. Buccini studied at Columbia University (B.A.) and Cornell University (Ph.D. 1992, Germanic Linguistics); he also studied and later conducted research as a Fulbright Scholar at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. He taught for many years in various capacities at the University of Chicago (Germanic Languages and Literatures, Linguistics, the College); his current research focusses on Mediterranean and Atlantic World foodways. Buccini is a two-time winner of the Sophie Coe Prize in Food History (2005, 2018).
Saturday, March 23, 2019 at 10 AM
Bethany Retirement Community
4950 North Ashland Avenue, Chicago 60640
(West of Clark Street, North of Lawrence Avenue)
Public transportation: Clark St. Bus Route 22 is nearby
Free Parking street parking and a parking lot (info on reverse side)
Free to Bethany Retirement Community residents. All are welcome!
This program is hosted by the Chicago Foodways Roundtable. To reserve, please e-mail: [email protected].