July 14, 1997 12:00 PM

by Martha Barnette

After reading Martha Barnette’s amusing new book, listening to a waiter’s recitation of the day’s specials will never be the same. Baked pasta loses some of its appeal once we know that “lasagna” derives from the Greek word for “chamber pot,” just as “lobster” is related to the Latin for “locust.” Care for some vermicelli? No thanks, not after we learn the word means “little worms.”

Barnette’s compilation of “the unforgettable pictures and surprising tales tucked into the words that we put into our mouths every day” begins with foods named for their appearance, like the humble burrito with its donkey-like humped back. Then there are the dishes with religious roots: cappuccino from the drab gray or brown robes worn by Capuchin friars. A section about foods that commemorate individuals reveals that Napoleon bears a culinary connection not only to the flaky pastries that carry his name but also to beef Wellington, which honors the British duke who defeated him.

Barnette makes us realize how much of history and world culture is concentrated in the delicacies that appear on our plate. Ladyfingers will be savored by anyone with a fondness for food and a passion for language. (Times, $20)

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