Deconstruction of a Name, Part 1


It’s a compound word, which means two separate word entities work together to become greater than the sum of its parts.  A cup is a thing, a board is a thing, and a cupboard is yet a third thing.  Two ingredients, three separate symbols.  Which is always the goal, really.  A good recipe becomes greater than the sum of its ingredients.  A good piece of writing becomes greater than the sum of its components.

It is also an Old English word, a string of etymology that reverberates with a down-home, earthy flavor of myth.  Like Beowulf.  If you remember from senior year English, “beo” means bee in Old English, and “wulf” means wolf.  And a “bee wolf” is a bear.  Again, out of two ingredients comes three distinct things, four if you count the hero Beowulf himself.  And, I guess we should- he was definitely a bee wolf when you consider how much mead they were throwing back in the old wooden, communal dining hall, and that mead is made from fermented honey.


A cupboard has doors that open.  Behind these doors are shelves that store food and other eating-related paraphernalia.  Somewhere along the way, the cupboard became a down-home mythical portal to strange worlds for me, a bit like the wardrobe in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  Items found in the cupboard are heavy with story, memory, myth, fact, science, taste, travel.  All of the best bits of life.  It could be my cupboard or your cupboard.  It could be any cupboard.

Random sampling of story-heavy cupboard items. Tomato, dried rose buds, black peppercorns, ginger, and my cast iron skillet.


Take pepper, for instance.  When I read Tastes of Paradise by Wolfgang Schivelbusch a decade and a half ago, I had no idea how profoundly it would change the way I see and understand the world.  It’s not just that something that has become so mundane to us was once so precious.  Black gold, they called it, and at it’s height of value pepper was worth more than gold.  And it’s not just that we used to consume our most valuable commodities with our bodies instead of with our cars.  It’s that the face of the world, our atlas, our history, was driven by the social need for pepper.  Good taste and social status was actually tasted.  With mouths.  Columbus was financed because he promised spices.  The hunger for pepper turned the two dimensional European map into the three dimensional globe.


Here’s a nice bit of Schivelbusch for you:


Spices as a link to Paradise, and the vision of Paradise as a real place somewhere in the East- their source- fascinated the medieval imagination.


We no longer need to look for a route the East to find material for our modern imaginations, although I very do.  We just need to open our cupboards, and look for the stories.