Food names, and plant names too

Some background for a posting on Italian names for pizza. It’s about the names for food, with some parallels to common names for plants.

Note 1. There’s an important distinction between (conceptual) categories and names / labels, though the distinction can sometimes be ignored. But the fact is that there are unlabeled taxons, quite a few in certain conceptual domains. For these I have used all-caps designations or have devised my own labels, like dipspread in the domain of food and leafy green in the domain of plants (borrowed from the domain of food).

Note 2. There are fairly elaborate taxonomies, of several sorts, in both domains, with accompanying labels. For plants, there is the (originally) Linnaean taxonomy, now taken to mirror evolutionary history; and another technical taxonomy based on history of plant growth and serving horticultural purposes — associated with terms like annual, biennial, perennial; and forb, herb ‘any seed-bearing plant that does not have a woody stem and dies down to the ground after flowering’ (NOAD2), and the like.

Plus an everyday taxonomy based on the characteristic use of plants for human purposes (where, for instance, one taxon has the label herb ‘any plant with leaves, seeds, or flowers used for flavoring, food, medicine, or perfume’ (NOAD2)). So some of the labels are technical terms, while others are ordinary-language terms, and there is, alas, a certain amount of traffic back and forth between the two systems of terminology. In particular, the common names of some plants are taken directly from the Linnaean nomenclature, as with forsythia / Forsythia.

In the domain of food, there is in many cases nothing that corresponds to the Linnaean taxonomy and its associated labels, though sometimes — with names of wines and cheeses, what can be sold as ice cream, and so on — governmental authorities (the E.U., U.S. agencies, etc.) regulate nomenclature. But ordinary language tends to pay no attention to these strictures.

The major complexity in the food world is that there there are two different domains of referents up for categorization and labeling:

(a) foodstuffs — like specific cheeses, and at a higher level, CHEESE, and at a still higher level, DAIRY; or specific kinds of fish (flesh), and at a higher level, FISH (flesh), and at a still higher level, SEAFOOD, and at a still higher level ANIMAL PROTEIN

and (b) food preparations — again ranging over many levels: from relatively high levels (roast, sandwich, salad, soup, cake) down to very specific preparations (crown roast of lamb, grilled cheese sandwich, submarine sandwich, New England clam chowder, German chocolate cake, hot fudge sundae, pasta marinara)

Note 3. Both in the plant domain and in the food domain, different common names are used (in different places or by different social groups) for what is essentially the same thing.

In the plant world, we see things like belladonna lily, Jersey lily, naked lady, naked ladies, pink naked ladies, amarillo, Easter lily, March lily for Amaryllis belladonna. (See this posting.)

And in the food world, we have the well-known profusion of local names sub, submarine sandwich, Italian sandwich, hoagie, grinder, etc.

Note 4. Conversely, in both domains, the same common name is used (in different places or by different social groups) for different things. Easter lily can be the name of an actual lily, Lilium longiflorum, or (as just noted) a name for Amaryllis belladonna.

And in the food world, marinara sauce has to have seafood in it if you’re in Australia, but not if you’re anywhere else in the world. In the rest of the world, marinara sauce is consistent with seafood, but doesn’t require it; you can order pasta with clam marinara  sauce, a.k.a. pasta with red clam sauce. (See this posting.)

(That is, outside of Australia, marinara sauce is unmarked with respect to seafood. Other food names specifically exclude certain ingredients: black coffee excludes cream or milk.)

Variation for some food preparations is quite considerable, and can be subject to extraordinarily strong opinions (as with Australian marinara sauce, where some outsiders shout that the Australians are just wrong.)

Along these lines, consider chili. From Wikipedia:

Chili con carne …, commonly known in American English as simply “chili”, is a spicy stew containing chili peppers, meat (usually beef), and often tomatoes and beans. Other seasonings may include garlic, onions, and cumin. Variations, both geographic and personal, involve different types of meat and ingredients. Recipes provoke disputes among aficionados, some of whom insist that the word “chili” applies only to the basic dish, without beans and tomatoes.

Note 5. Food names that are neutral with respect to certain ingredients allow for an enormous profusion of subtypes.

But sometimes there is no fully neutral variety of a food preparation. This is the case for sundae in the U.S. From Wikipedia:

The original sundae consists of vanilla ice cream topped with a flavored sauce or syrup, whipped cream, and a maraschino cherry. Classic sundaes are typically named after the canned or bottled flavored syrup employed in the recipe: cherry sundae, chocolate sundae, strawberry sundae, raspberry sundae, etc.

… Fresh fruit sundaes include named variations such as the strawberry, peach, raspberry, blueberry, blackberry, and mixed fruit sundaes.

… Heated-sauce sundaes are those in which the flavored sauce or syrup is heated before being poured over the ice cream [hot fudge, caramel, turtle, butterscotch, etc. sundaes]

The topping has to be stipulated. You can’t just order a sundae.

Similarly, if you’re in Vienna, you can’t just order eine Tasse Kaffee; that would be like ordering “a plate of food”. In many places in the U.S., in contrast, you can order “a cup of coffee”, and you’ll get the house coffee.

Note 6. Some named food preparations are quite specific about ingredients, while others are neutral in many respects, and allow for the stipulation of ingredients. Here’s a nice contrast from the Palo Alto Creamery, which offers 3-egg omelettes and scrambles on their breakfast menu. You get a choice of style of preparation (omelette or scramble) and of three items from the list:

Ham, Mushrooms, Hobbs’ Bacon, Sausage, Green Chilies, Cream Cheese, Chicken Sausage, Tomatoes, Green Onion, Avocado, Sour Cream, Spinach, Chicken, Cheddar Cheese, Swiss Cheese, Goat Cheese, American Cheese, Jack Cheese (from their menu)

That’s a construct-your-own alternative. But then there are three fully prespecified alternatives:

Cajun Scramble: Spicy Cajun sausage, bell peppers, onions & spices

Chevre Omelette: Herbed goat cheese, mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, and basil

Northwest Scramble: Smoked salmon, dill cream cheese, red onions, capers, and tomatoes

(My grand-daughter and I are both fond of the Northwest Scrambled.

Many restaurants that offer pizzas have menu items of both types: choose deep-dish or thin crust, and assemble your own package of ingredients from a big list; or choose a named specialty, say Thai chicken deep-dish or Jamaican jerk chicken thin crust.

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