The Promised Land is defined by its frontiers and then by its abundant if basic food supply—“a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord’s Prayer deals with eternal truths, and with one practical request—for “our daily bread.” The pagan ancient Greeks, imagining the life of the immortals on Mount Olympus, provided for their sustenance—ambrosia and nectar, the food and drink of the gods.
The systematic study of the history of food is comparatively recent, but historians have already made impressive progress. This kind of history, like any other, requires evidence, and in the Middle East, the home of the most ancient civilizations known to history, such evidence is fortunately plentiful.* A major source of historical information consists of the actual words and names that we use to designate the foodstuffs that we eat and drink. In this, as in everything else, language is a primary and often very illuminating, though sometimes rather tricky, source of information. A few examples may suffice to illustrate the value and the pitfalls of verbal evidence. One is that familiar fruit, the orange: in English “orange,” from French orange, from Spanish naranja, from Arabic naranj, from Persian narang, which is of course related to the Hebrew etrog, from the Persian turung. An interesting term of Middle Eastern origin, traceable in various forms, designating citrus fruit.
But then we find something very puzzling. Most of the languages of Europe use a word of Persian origin to designate this fruit, but in the languages of the Middle East, in Turkish, in Persian, and in Arabic they call it Portugal. So why is the fruit which we in the West call by a Middle Eastern name called in the Middle East by the name of a West European country? This question, fortunately, is not difficult to answer. The narang is the small bitter orange, used for conserves, for flavoring, sometimes also for perfume and medicinal purposes. The sweet orange came from China and was unknown in the Middle East until it was brought by Portuguese merchants, who had picked it up in the Far East, brought it around the Cape, and then reexported it from Western Europe to the Middle East. The Germans got it right when they called it Apfelsin, the apple of China.
As for the peach, the English name comes from the French pèche, from Italian pesca, from Greek persica—referring to the “Persian fruit.” The Greek term also found its way into Hebrew in the form afarsek. This again is an instructive verbal route which one can retrace without too much difficulty.
Sometimes names can lead us astray. In the autumn of 1949 I was in Turkey, working in the Turkish state archives. This was just at the time when a new relationship was developing between the United States and Turkey, which culminated a couple of years later in the inclusion of Turkey in NATO. On Thanksgiving in 1949, President Truman, no doubt on the advice of his specialist advisers, thought…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.