Tuesday, 12 August 2008

De Factoid the Second: Tracing the Sauce

It seems that in the history of our gastric-existence a word, more than any other, has haunted man. I say 'man' in the strictest sense of gender, for to women the word holds no dark power and falls easily to their forks, fat-free ethics and dietary points schemes. The word is question, gentlemen, is salad. Often found lying limp and beaten on top of a burger in a last ditch attempt to trick us into five-a-day or as a piece of parsley perched as bewildered as a lost mountaineer atop your medium-rare sirloin mountain; the salad has for many years been overlooked, shunned and downright feared. So shunned in fact that at some point in our hungry history the mother tongue (or more likely father tongue) favoured an entirely different word, and accompaniment, at the ancestral table.

Salad as a word comes, as one would expect, from the salad-munching Mediterranean. The root of the world, however, belies the health nature of the modern dish. The Roman and the Ancient Greek salads differed dramatically from what one may partake in today and usually consisted of an assortment of raw, chopped root vegetables served with Herba Salata. From the Vulgar Latin (that is the Latin spoken by the people – not rude Latin words like cunnilingus) Herba Salata translates as ‘salted herb’, with the latter part of the phrase garnishing the English tongue (through French) with the modern word. There certainly wasn’t any chicken in Caesar’s actual salad.

So it’s the drizzle, not the green, which produced the word ‘salad’. Salad and getting one’s greens are also associated pretty closely elsewhere in the Roman world, as a ‘salary’ comes from the Roman military habit of paying their soldiers wages (in part) with the expensive commodity sal – salt. The word ‘green’ in reference to money is far more recent, most probably connected to the colour of the American Dollar ($), but the U.S., sal and salads are not our main concern. The notion of eating raw vegetables drizzled in other smaller raw things has only fairly recently entered the British concept of ‘the edible’. Our food was boiled until bland and flavour – if such an indulgence was to be taken – was added afterwards. Ours was not so much the drizzle as the dollop. And sal became the source of another far more complimentary word: sauce.

Sauce is another culinary term shipped over and lapped-up by French tongues post-1066 with exactly the same roots (and root veggies) as salad. The word comes from that same sal and probably developed from Latin salsus (salted) into our sauce through the word salsa (the same Latin word salsus, but with a feminine ending) – it seems women, even in ancient Rome, have always preferred the healthier option. To claim someone is a ‘bit of a savoury character’ comes from the same ‘savoury’ root as the salad dressing and to claim that a Salsa dance is ‘a bit saucy’ is not only a good pun but also a pretty accurate translation. Our word sauce then is the truer linguistic descendent of those ancient dressing drizzlers, and tastes better with chips. So lads, next time the missus tells you to eat more salad, reach for the sauce with confidence.

In De Factoid the Third: Owt in the Frying Pan – I’ll be looking at the historic and cultural roots of the Great British fry-up.


ENNYMAN said...

I enjoyed the description of your site alongside the blog entries. esp this summing up: "If history is a banquet and the proof is in the pudding, then let's eat."

Certainly the scope of your topic is vast enough to produce plenty to chew on.

Best to you

Adam James Nall said...

Thank you, Ennyman.