“Portion Control” is a popular buzz-word in nutrition. It has a serious and somewhat quantitative sound as if it were recently discovered and transcends what it really means which is, of course, self-control. Self-control has been around for long time and has a poor history as a dieting strategy. Lip service is paid to how we no longer think that overeating means that you are a bad person but “portion control” is just the latest version of the moralistic approach to dieting; the sense of deprivation that accompanies traditional diets may be one of the greatest barriers to success. Getting away from this attitude is probably the main psychological benefit of low-carbohydrate diets. “Eat all the meat you want” sounds scary to the blue-stockings at the USDA but most people who actually use such diets know that the emphasis is on “want” and by removing the nagging, people usually find that they have very little desire to clean their plate and don’t eat any more meat than they ever did. Coupled with the satiety of fat and protein compared to carbohydrate, this is surely a major factor in the success of carbohydrate restriction. In the big comparison trials, the low-fat trials are constrained to fix calories while the low-carbohydrate group is allowed to eat ad-libitum, and the two groups usually come out about the same total calories.
On the other hand, there is an obvious benefit to having a lean and hungry feel if not look and, as Woody Allen might have put it: eating less is good if only for caloric reasons. So, one tactic in a low carbohydrate diet is to eat a small portion — say, one fried egg, a small hamburger — and then see if you are still hungry before having the second or third portion which while not forbidden, is also not required. The longer you wait between portions, the more satiety sets in.
The serious sound of “portion control” illustrates the importance of language in the food world. Brian Wansink has shown how people actually find that a fine wine re-bottled with an appellation d’origine contrôlée of North Dakota doesn’t taste very good. Evocative words, however meaningless in the context, are a great aid in pushing a food product. Who doesn’t prefer a rasher of bacon or creamery butter? And I have seen xanthan gum, a non-carbohydrate thickener described on food packages as “vegetable fiber” (accurate but it is such an effective thickener that you are unlikely to hit the USDA’s recommended daily intake in a lifetime).
Foreign words, especially on menus, are apt to carry an overtone of sophistication or of the exotic. The most ironic are the deserts that are almost always written as crème anglaise or zuppa inglese. Some of these words are new. People of my generation know that pasta and latte have only recently been introduced into English and are not always accepted by Italian-Americans (unless actually speaking Italian) or are used in a literal sense: having coffee in Little Italy, with a visitor from Seattle (could have been anyplace, really), she ordered a “latte,” and the waiter brought her a glass of milk.
It has always seemed to me that, if read with the right intonation, everything in Italian will sound like Dante. The late Vittorio Gassman — a great actor whom many of my generation will remember as the hapless boxer turned hapless burglar in “Big Deal on Madonna Street” — gives dramatic readings on YouTube of a restaurant menu and of the ingredients on a package of frollini (cookies).
The charm of the exotic sometimes back-fires. The close connection between your poo and your carbohydrate intake leads to the French for starch being fécule. Some translations of Brillat-Savarin render this as “fecula” leading one commenter on the internet to conclude “ooh, gross.”
One of the few odd facts that I have been unable to track down and verify on the internet is that menus in Ancient Rome were printed in Greek, the way English menus at banquets used to be printed in French. I have never been able to confirm this but my old friend, Paul Leopold, an actual expert in language and to whom I am indebted for those points on language in this post that are accurate, pointed out that Greek was, in general, used in Rome the way French was the world-wide language of sophistication until English became the Lingua Franca. (Franca is from Arabic and Greek meaning generally Western European rather than just French which I always thought). In Shakepeare’s Julius Caesar, Casca tells his fellow conspirators that Cicero spoke to the crowd in Greek and: “for mine own part, it was Greek to me” which was probably a joke even in Shakespeare’s time (if not Caesar’s).
“Portion control” illustrates the principle in English language that we use words derived from French or other latinate sources when we want to make them sound important, while we use Anglo-Saxon words for more straight-forward communication. “Exercise portion control” really means “don’t eat too much.”
English is really two languages. Anglo-Saxon, or old English is a Germanic language and essentially a foreign language to all but some English majors (On angynne gescheop God heofon and eorðan). (The original language of the British Isles was Celtic but the Saxons appear to have been the Nazis of the fourth century and chased the natives into the hills; Celtic words are mostly names of place and are otherwise rare, as Native American words are in the US). After the Norman Invasion (1066 and all that; the book of that name is a parody of English history ), the court spoke French while common folk spoke Anglo-Saxon. As the languages merged, one or another word from French or Anglo-Saxon became the common one. Middle English is definitely English (In the first made God of nought heuen and erth). It is said that that is why English has no genders (Dieu sei dank) because the genders for the same word in French or Anglo-Saxon were different. In any case, there are essentially two ways of saying everything in English and some sense of the original distinction remains: the more down-to-earth way derives from Anglo-Saxon while the more important sounding from French. I explain to my students that they thank their committee members in an email but are grateful to them in the submitted thesis.
In addition to “portion control,” I’m inclined to think that you “eat the cooking,” while I “dine on the cuisine,” and going back to my last post, “intention-to-treat” means “what I was hoping for.” Nutritionists tend to say that diets are high (hoch, Ger.) in fat, but alternatively, say that they are rich in whole grains. On the chance that this is interesting to you, I have included two accounts of a birthday feast, contrived by Paul Leopold, one derived from Anglo-Saxon and one from French (and other imported, largely latinate,) words. Bon appetit.
The same thing said with (A) Anglo-Saxon and (B) French vocabulary.
A. Yearly on his birthday, in the high hall built by his forefathers, hung with rich cloths and bright with shining silver and gold, His Highness the King was wont, in his happy mood, to bid kinsfolk, underlings and all dwellers in the neighborhood, from the right wealthy to the downright wretched, to sup heartily in his fellowship at a huge board which groaned mightily owing to the great weight it upheld of seemingly endless meat and drink.
B. At the annual commemoration of his nativity, in the exalted residence erected by his ancestors, adorned with precious textiles and refulgent with argentine and aureate splendor, His Majesty the Monarch was accustomed, in his jovial disposition, to invite relations, subordinates and all the inhabitants of the vicinity, from the exceeding prosperous to the abjectly indigent, cordially to dine in his company at an immense table which resonated powerfully by reason of the magnitude of the ponderosity it sustained of apparently infinite comestibles and beverages