Peppernut Day

Having tackled the Christmas season as a whole, Sandra Boynton examines one specific day: on FB yesterday, with “A helpful tip on National Pfeffernüsse Day” (December 23rd):


On peppernuts. And on the recipe register (here: Recipe Object Omission in roll thoroughly in confectioners’ sugar).

(Hat tip to Susan Fischer.)

Background: In my posting yesterday, “For the season: from fish to moose, penguin intervention”, #1 is a Boynton take-off on the Christmas carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” (that’s the “from fish to moose” part).  On from there to peppernuts (always called Pfeffernüsse (well, Feffernusse, with /U/ in the second part) in the piece of Germanic America I grew up in).

Peppernuts the foodstuff. From Wikipedia:

Pfeffernüsse are tiny spice cookies, popular as a holiday treat in Germany, Denmark, and The Netherlands, as well as among ethnic Mennonites in North America. They are called pepernoten in Dutch (plural), päpanät in Plautdietsch, pfeffernuesse or peppernuts in English, and pebernødder in Danish.

While the exact origin of the cookie is uncertain, the traditional Dutch belief links the pepernoten to the feast of Sinterklaas, celebrated on 5 December or 6 December in The Netherlands and 6 December in Germany and Belgium. This is when children receive gifts from St. Nicholas, who is partially the inspiration for the Santa Claus tradition. In Germany, the pfeffernuss is more closely associated with Christmas. The cookie has been part of European yuletide celebrations since the 1850s.

The name peppernut (Pfeffernüsse, pebernød etc.) does not mean it contains nuts, though some varieties do. The cookies are roughly the size of nuts and can be eaten by the handful, which may account for the name. [flags for discussion below: a resembloid compound, of the Resemblance relation type]

Throughout the years, the popularity of the pfeffernüsse has caused many bakers to create their own recipes. Though recipes differ, all contain aromatic spices – most commonly cinnamon, cloves, mace, nutmeg, cardamom, and anise. Some variations are dusted with powdered sugar, though that is not a traditional ingredient. Molasses and honey are also used to sweeten the cookies.

For the dough, most versions still use 19th century ingredients such as potassium carbonate and ammonium carbonate as leavening agents to get the sticky and dense consistency of the original mixture. It is then either kneaded by hand or through the use of an electric mixer.

A peppernut gallery:

(#2) Little plain peppernuts

(#3) Peppernuts dusted with powdered sugar

(#4) Iced peppernuts

They get larger as they get more serious; by #4 they have clearly crossed the line from COOKIE to CAKE in the domain of food categories.

Peppernut the N + N compound. N1 PEPPER + N2 NUT.

First, it’s non-subsective: resembloid instead. A peppernut is not a nut, but resembles one (in size, shape, and crunchiness).

Then, the semantic relationship between the referents of the modifier N1 and the head N2: not Source, not Agent/Subject or Patient/Object, not Use, and so on, but Resemblance: the referent of N2 (the cookie) resembles in some way — in this case, by being spicy in taste and smell — the referent of N1 (black pepper).

On to recipes. From my 4/17/16  posting “The fish are biting” (initially about an ambiguity in the interpretation of the verb bite in The fish are biting), on different ways in which a verb can occur without an overt direct object following it, in particular Definite Object Omission in recipes (ROO, or “recipe object omission”) and medicine-bottle instructions (and instructions for assembly), with the referent of the omitted object supplied from context. Recipe examples are often homophonous with “absolute intransitive” occurrences of the very same verb, as here:

absolute intransitive roll: Want to get all sticky? Roll in confectioner’s sugar for a few minutes.

roll with ROO: Take the cooled cookies, and roll ___ in confectioner’s sugar. (The underlines mark the position of the omitted direct object.)

(I know, “ROO and roll”. Try not to think of it.) The ROO example has an omitted direct object, referring to the cooled cookies mentioned in the preceding clause; outside of the recipe register, this meaning would have to be expressed with an overt definite direct object:

roll without ROO: Take the cooled cookies, and roll them (or: the cooled cookies) in confectioner’s sugar.

For the verb roll, omission of a definite direct object is not generally possible; it’s an instruction-register thing. So that when the example is wrenched from its recipe context, you’re likely to take that roll to be an absolute intransitive. Laughter ensues.

(Note: there’s a pretty fair literature on the syntax of the recipe register, in English and a number of other languages — a little bit of it from me and a lot encouraged by me. It would be nice to have an annotated bibliograpy on this material (much of it in out-of-the-way places), but it would take quite a lot of work to assemble one.)

One Response to “Peppernut Day”

  1. Robert Coren Says:

    Every year at this time (in this case, yesterday, Dec. 24), we make Rum Balls from the recipe in the Settlement Cookbook. The last sentence of that recipe is, verbatim, “Then roll in confectioner’s sugar”.

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