or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

If That Don't Take The Biscuit

The nice thing about soups and stews is that it's easy to make enough for two days, and they almost always taste better after they've had an overnight in the fridge. Today is Day Two of the Christmas-dinner beef stew, and instead of stuffing, we're making biscuits. From scratch! None of this Bisquick for us*!

Unfortunately, we don't have any baking powder, but we do have the ingredients to make baking powder, for some reason, and the formula is as follows:

One tablespoonful of baking powder = 3/4 teaspoon baking soda, 3/4 teaspoon cornstarch and 1 1/2 teaspoons cream of tartar.

Naturally, I began to wonder why we call cream of tartar cream of tartar, and how it relates to tartar sauce and steak tartare, not to mention the tartar that forms on your teeth.

The third one I already knew: steak tartare is seasoned, finely minced or scraped beef, served raw, usually with a raw egg on top, and it got its name from the Tartar method of tenderizing meat, which was to slip a raw slab of it under the saddle so that by the time they'd finished riding to wherever they meant to go, the meat would be tenderized. It would also probably taste like an unwashed horse, but these were tough people, I take it. Steak tartare is, in fact, named after the Tartars.

What about tartar sauce? The Tartars don't sound like they were big fish eaters, and I can't really see them coming up with mayonnaise and then adding chopped pickles and capers to it. No, the use of mayonnaise makes me think that the French invented it, and, in fact, this is the case: they not only created tartar sauce, they used to serve it with, and you may have seen this coming, steak tartare, which, sensibly enough, is where the sauce got its name.

Now, the Persian word for a Tartar was Tatar; the Mediaeval Latin word, which was Tartarus and from which we (obviously) got our word, was influenced by the unrelated Tartarus, which was itself taken from the Greek "Tartaros", which was the lowest level of Hell. This gives us a pretty good idea of how European monks in the MIddle Ages viewed the Tatars.

I hope you're still following all this. It was a real slog for me, too.

One of the byproducts of the manufacture of wine is something called argol, which gets its name from Latin "argilla", "clay". Argol is a substance which forms on the sides of wine casks during fermentation: it can be scraped off and purified into potassium bitartrate, which is a form of tartaric acid. The Mediaeval Latin name for argol was "tartarum", which gave tartaric acid its name, and as gratifying as it would be to link all these words together, this one evidently comes from a different source, one not actually identified: "perhaps of Semitic origin", says the Online Etymology Dictionary, and the OED is no more certain. Oh, well: we can't win 'em all.

The tartar that forms on your teeth--also known as "calculus", which is to say "stone"--got its name from the tartar in wine casks, because it too forms spontaneously on a solid surface from a liquid and can likewise be scraped off.

*We're using the Cooking for Engineers recipe, and have you been to that website before? It's terrific: each recipe is sketched out in a mechanical diagram which shows you exactly what to use and exactly what to do with it. Enormously clever.


Post a Comment

<< Home