The Food Issue, with pesto

The Food Issue of The New Yorker (Nov. 21st), with lots of great writing about food, including a hilarious piece by Calvin Trillin on his experiences as a summer chef — Trillin should be declared a National Treasure — and a delightful “Talk of the Town” piece by Adam Gopnik on the Thanksgiving turkey and the turkey-eagle competition for national bird (with the turkey famously championed by Benjamin Franklin). From Gopnik (p. 46):

The phrase that Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson chose for the motto on the national seal, “E Pluribus Unum: — one out of many — was familiar to the founders from a popular British magazine of the day, but it likely derived from a recipe  found in a once famous poem often attributed to Virgil, “Moretum.” The poem describes a farmer making something rather like pesto: he pestles together cheese and garlic and herbs and oil, and sees that, though the whole is something quite new, each little green or cheesy bit doesn’t completely blend in but keeps its own character. Out of many, one — without betraying the many.

So the Thanksgiving meal should really be turkey with pesto — home-grown vanity and courage served with a pluralist topping.

A lovely image. And along the way, a connection between the pesto and pestle, which would come as no surprise to anyone who’s made pesto (I am such a person — I used to make a lot of pesto every fall, before frost could get the basil, though I used a food processor rather than a pestle) — but it turns out that, poetic though the association of the words is, they might not be etymologically related.

The OED3 (Dec. 2005) glosses the noun pesto as:

A sauce of crushed herbs (usually fresh basil leaves), nuts (usually pine nuts), cheese, garlic, and olive oil, typically served with pasta and particularly associated with the cookery of Liguria.

So far so good. On to the etymology:

< Italian regional (Liguria) pesto, pestu (1851 or earlier in this sense; apparently not recorded in dictionaries of standard Italian before the early 20th cent.), spec. use of Italian pesto mash, pulp (a1342), use as noun of pesto crushed, mashed, pounded (a1306 or earlier), probably < classical Latin pistum , past participle of pīnsere to pound, to crush … Compare Occitan pistou

Ok, ‘crushed, mashed, pounded’, probably from pīnsere. Now the noun pestle:

< Anglo-Norman and Middle French pestel (c1180 in Old French; also in Anglo-Norman as pestle and in Old French as pestal ; now regional) club-shaped instrument in a mortar (c1180), in Anglo-Norman also the fore-leg of an animal used as food (c1330 or earlier) < an unattested post-classical variant *pistellum … of classical Latin pistillum, pistillus (in post-classical Latin also pestillum, in undated glossaries, and pestellum, from the late 13th cent.) pounder, pestle < the stem of pīlum + -illus, -illum. In forms with -i- in the first syllable perhaps after the classical Latin word. Compare Old Occitan pestel, Italian pestello (1348–53 in obscene sense ‘penis’, second half of the 14th cent. in sense 1a; also as pistillo (a1498 or earlier, now literary)).

This isn’t easy to unravel, but the suggestion is that what underlies pestle is a phallic metaphor (with the ‘pounder, crusher’ sense developing from the use of phallic implements for pounding and crushing); compare the botanical noun pistil, from the same Latin source.

Then there’s the verb pestle (as in “pestles together cheese and garlic and …”). Apparently a verbing of the noun, and the OED attests the noun a bit before the verb, but it hedges on the source of the verb, suggesting either a verbing or a source in Anglo-Norman and Middle French pesteler ‘to pound, crush, mash’.

Whatever the history was, pesto and pestle are now associated in many people’s minds, thanks to similarities in both form and meaning. Sometimes etymology isn’t especially important.

3 Responses to “The Food Issue, with pesto”

  1. arnold zwicky Says:

    How could I have neglected Calvin Trillin’s proposal to make spaghetti carbonara the Thanksgiving dish? (Search on {Trillin Thanksgiving}.)

  2. Thanksgiving meals « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] holiday, known as Thanksgiving (or, sometimes, the Day Before Black Friday). I’ve already posted about Adam Gopnik’s suggestion that the centerpiece dish for the holiday should be turkey with […]

  3. More gay greens | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] I grew many different varieties of basil in my Columbus garden — but always lots of ordinary sweet basil, for making huge amounts of pesto (just before the first frost cut down the plants). On pesto, see this posting. […]

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