Twice a month, legendary bartender/chef/restaurant insider Dave Mau pops by Stick A Fork In It to chime in about a random OC food or drink musing of his choice. Enjoy!
It’s no secret that the last year has been a tough one for me. Tough by third world standards? Probably not. Tough by mine? Affirmative. It’s been a time of growth and reflection that landed me in Palm Springs, Chefing at a pretty well regarded shop with a solid crew, despite some geographical challenges. It’s taught me a lot of humility – that seems to be the theme recently – and it’s turned me from a food writer-photographer/desk-bound executive chef back to slugging out in the belly of the kitchen. It’s helped sharpen my painfully rusty skills and, slowly but surely, I’m getting my knife hand back. At my advanced chronological age I never thought I’d pack up my dog, knife roll and bag of tricks to venture off into the personal and professional unknown far from the safety of my well-engineered cocoon here in the OC.
Hell has, indeed, frozen over apparently.
In the course of this journey I decided to volunteer at a local high school in their culinary arts program, hanging with the kids and sharing my screwball approach to things. It’s in the spirit of paying it forward and connecting with the local food community. For only the second time in my half century on this planet, I’m the new guy in town and it seems like a smart move on a number of fronts.
The facility is great, a fairly new build with all the bells and whistles. Those kids keep the place as clean as an operating room and, all in, it’s almost as well-equipped as the kitchens my Chef buddies at Disneyland get to utilize. It’s run by Mary Oliver Trimmins, a spry woman who defies the laws of time by being as energetic as any newbie Kindergarten teacher despite her years, and she runs those kids ragged – but in the good sense of the word. It’s her way or the highway and she is as adept at teaching proper restaurant procedures as she is dispensing valuable life lessons that extend far beyond the coral-colored walls of the school.
During the course of conversation with her and one of her equally well-qualified compatriots, we discussed the merits of the pronunciation of their program there – and I’m not taking about how to spit out “La Quinta.” It was about the word “culinary” and the subtleties of its pronunciation. It made me want to chime in publicly about it and, to be perfectly honest, I needed a break from penning my grand opus about the proper way to build a burger. That is also a journey that is teaching me humility.
I’m pretty unconventional and, in general, could give two fucks about propriety. That goes for the rules of pronunciation of this particular word. I say “kewlinary”, like some valley girl from the 80’s says “ewwwwww” when she sees someone barf. I have a few chef buddies who do it too, although I doubt I could get them to admit that out loud – much less in print – but they do it. And don’t forget, we pronounce “chef” with a soft “ch” not like “chair” – unless you’re Cheech Marin, in which case all bets are off.
But first, let’s take a little stroll down memory lane and flash back to my high school Latin. The word “culinary” itself is based on the Latin word for a clay cookstove or kitchen, culina, which also may or may not have different pronunciations based upon which side of the fence you fall on concerning Ciceronian Latin. There wasn’t a lot of audio recording going on back then so the debate continues in a most heated fashion amongst the mongers of a dead language – at least in the spoken sense. “Culina” itself is rooted in the the word “coquere” which means “to cook” and sounds suspiciously French to me. The words “concoct” and “precocious” are also based on this word and have landed in our modern vernacular. So flash forward 2000 years and here we are.
Contrary to popular belief, both pronunciations are considered okay, despite the earnest protestations of my more erudite compatriots in the biz. Certainly the classical pronunciation is the sermo nobilus of the restaurant world and all the associated gentry are well aware of the finery of its usage. My litmus test for all things linguistic concerning the king’s english rely upon the 1956 Oxford dictionary – the stonehenge of phonemic reference. It designates both pronunciations as appropriate, unlike “cumin”, which had the singular enunciation of “KUM-in”-which just sounds dirty to me. If I was saying it on TV or at a snobby cooking demo I’d say “Koo-min,” but in the midst of a rush while I’m doubling back making chili verde its “Kew-min” as a default setting.
So what’s the difference and when can you use this trashy, alternative to the classic pronunciation? It’s like learning photography, a subject near and dear to my heart. When I was studying it they handed you the most stripped-down, janky manual film (gasp!) camera and showed you the basics of aperture, ISO, shutter speed and exposure. All lessons in life should be taught this way. If you have paid your dues and have it halfway figured out, I think it’s okay to show your SoCal/OC/West Coast roots and say “kewlinary.” It’s a little endearing, actually. It’s not a bad thing but, if you’re looking to impress, fit in, or just seem more continental, then use the proper pronunciation – that’s fine too. It’s apples to oranges to me. But on the face of things, “kewlinary” seems to roll off someone’s tongue all the better on a hot HB afternoon with a gyoto in one hand and a bong in the other.
“Kuh-luh-ner-ee” or “Kyoo-luh-ner-ee?” Let’s call the whole thing off. But maybe there’s a place for this linguistic mutt in the “culinary” world no matter how you pronounce it.
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Chef, writer, bartender, photographer and overall bearer of mirth.