It is time for us to talk about junk food – and if you need any convincing that the English language is a dynamic, ever-evolving thing – constantly co-opting old words to new uses, then here is the evidence.
‘Junk food’ is modern food with a ubiquity and popularity far beyond what it deserves on the basis of its nutritional value – Yes?. It is usually high in calories, fat, salt and/or sugar, and low in fibre and vitamins. It has the apparent virtues of cheapness, convenience, and availability. It is is ‘fast’ to prepare and eat, and ‘fast’ to consume - meaning that it bypasses the satiety centre in your brain, leaving you (the purchaser) wanting more a short time later. It not only has no inherent health-giving properties, it is actively blamed for causing the obesity, heart disease, and diabetes epidemics.
‘Junk’ is a generic word for rubbish, right? Let us to the Oxford English Dictionary for confirmation of our assumption.
It turns out that we are correct, but only from a relatively recent perspective. The word junk is in the uncomfortably, intriguingly, large cohort of words with ‘obscure origins’. In medieval times it apparently referred to prickly rushes, similar to those used for making mattresses; it also referred (in a predominantly seafaring sense) to old, damaged rope (I do wonder if that is where our phrase ‘money for old rope’ comes from, but I digress.)
By the eighteenth century ‘junk’ had another nautical meaning. ‘Junk’, or ‘salt junk’ was the inevitable, indestructible, salt beef (or ‘salt horse’, to use another less than affectionate term) that was the mainstay of the sailors’ diet. The supporting quotation used by the OED for this usage comes from the novelist Tobias Smollett, who gave ‘… old junk, pork-slush, or stinking stock-fish … ’ as a metaphor for something of poor value.
By the mid-nineteenth century ‘junk’ had extended to include anything of poor quality or low value. It was not for another century (into the 1970’s) that it was specifically applied to food.
But the plot thickens here. There is one other old food-related meaning of the word ‘junk’. According to the Dictionary of Obsolete and Provincial English: Containing Words from the English Writers (By Thomas Wright, 1857) in the South it could mean (1) A lump, and in Gloucestershire it was (2) A favorite dish. Unfortunately I have been unable (so far) to find out any more about this favourite Gloucestershire dish called ‘junk’, as Mr. Wright’s attribution is the only one which pops up.
Mr. Wright’s book gives another example of the creative use of language – at least, that is how I interpret the dish he describes as Lumpy-Jumms (from the North), which will function as our ‘recipe’ for the day. I really don’t know anything else about this dish - I have found no other references at all – but it seems to me that it might be an example of adding value to a food of necessity, or perhaps a culinary error, by glorifying it with its own name. The cook who perhaps under-boiled the oatmeal dumplings was in a similar situation to the one who forgot to reheat the soup, so served it chilled (one of the explanatory myths about vichyssoise), or more recently to the one who underbaked the chocolate puddings and served them with magnificently molten centres. What to do? Pre-empt the complaints or comments, and serve a ‘new’ dish, of course!
A dish made of oatmeal, sprinkled with water, and boiled in lumps of about the size of a nut, which, when eaten, are found to be dry meal in the inside. North.
Quotation for the Day.
Luck is like having a rice dumpling fly into your mouth.
I came across a usage once (late Middle Ages) where the name of the rushes was transferred to a woven container for a fresh cheese or milk dish ( which has come to us, I thnk, as junket).
I can't recall the source off-hand, alas. Right now I'm a bit busy with things other than food history, because my new novel has just come out. If I remember when I'm in research mode, I'll see if I can find you that odd reference.
Karen Hess had something about transitions of this idea in one of her works.
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