Saturday, November 28, 2009

Invasion of the Tartars

Thanksgiving morning, my mom sent me to the grocery store. She had been tasked with making lemon pie but realized that she lacked cream of tartar, an ingredient that makes the difference between good, fluffy lemon pie and sucky, flat lemon pie. So I went and picked it up from that swarming zoo of a supermarket, all the while wondering why this particular item was called cream, since it’s a powder, and why it’s called tartar, since it has apparently nothing to do with the seafood sauce or raw beef

The internet, as always, has explained it all. Drop dead, Clarissa.

According to Merriam-Webster, cream of tartar is a salt, so why it gets to be known as a cream is a complete mystery to me. (Full disclosure: I took Physics AP to pass out of high school chemistry, so there’s much about chemical classifications that I don’t understand. Most of these are cooking-related, like why baking soda gets to be a soda.) This particular sense of the word tartar comes from a term that the Online Etymology Dictionary traces back to the Greek word tartaron, meaning “a substance encrusting the sides of wine casks.” According to Merriam-Webster, there’s essentially no difference between this byproduct of fermenting grape juice, sometimes known as bitartae of potash, and the product now sold as cream of tartar. And it makes sense that cream of tartar is a wine byproduct that helps pastries rise, since yeast, which is also used to turn baking one-stories into high-rises, is an integral part of winemaking.

Also, if you think about it, the notion of crud accumulating where it’s not supposed to also works for dental tartar. It should be no surprise, then, that the two words share the same etymology.

So what’s the deal with tartar sauce? The soundalike has no relation, in either the verbal or culinary senses. The sauce — defined by Urban Dictionary as “the gay version of mayonnaise” — seems to come from the Tartars, who inhabited Tartary, the region that once spanned the region between the Caspian Sea, the Ural Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. (These people, now known as the Tatars, survive today. Charles Bronson was apparently one, so good for him.) According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the term Tartar originated in the fourteenth century in reference to the hordes of Ghengis Khan — which included some people now known as Tatars, but lots of others as well. The Mongols themselves allegedly called themselves the Tata, though the resulting term Tartar may have been influenced by the Latin Tartarus, “hell,” presumably by the way they conducted themselves. By the seventeenth century, the term could just refer to a “savage, rough, irascible person.” Regardless, the pickles-and-mayonnaise recipe seems to be historically tied to Turkish people and not Mongolians.

Sometimes spelled tartare sauce, the phrase is first recorded in French, which also gives us tartare in the sense of steak tartare, “highly seasoned ground beef eaten raw.” Curious, then, that the legacy of the Tatar people would be seafood sauce and raw steak, but it’s more than a lot of people can claim. Also good to know: the sauce and the steak have no connection with dental crud.

Food and words, previously:

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