Daily Archives: December 6, 2010

carob, Carib

Ah, carob, with its pseudo-chocolately notes of and gold and beaches and anthropophagy and entomophagy… It has a sort of heavy thickness in my tasting of it,  perhaps from the echo of rubber, or perhaps just from my own experience of herbal teas and similar things made with its object, which doesn’t really substitute nicely for chocolate. Sort of, yes, but not really. Kind of rich and gross.

…Gold and beaches and anthropophagy and entomophagy? Well, OK, I’m cheating on two of those. You see, carob and its common collocation carob bean make me think of Carib and Caribbean (and, as it happens, vice-versa), a sunnier-tasting word, just because it makes one think of sun, water, and golden beaches. Carib is one version of a name for the people who were living in the Caribbean area when Columbus arrived. Other versions of the same word are Caniba, Caribe, and Galibi – those tip-of-the-tongue consonants shift dialectally (this happens in other parts of the world, too – various groups of the Sioux peoples are Lakota, Dakota, and Nakoda, for instance). Not that carib was what they called themselves, per se; the word was one they used to refer to manly virtues of bravery and daring – a “man’s man,” perhaps.

And did those virtues include eating other men’s men? Hmm… I’ll bite. The Caribs did have a reputation for athropophagy, though it seems to have come from a limited sphere – a ritual involving chewing on the flesh of one’s defeated enemies – and so this word in its various versions became associated with brute savagery (as with Shakespeare’s Caliban) and, well, cannibalism – yes, cannibal comes from the same word. Think of that – or don’t – next time you’re in the West Indies drinking a Carib beer. (Would this be a good time to point out that the word barbecue comes from the same region?)

By comparison, carob is pure gold, even if it does have that creepy echo of scarab. Not that it has anything to do with scarab… Locusts yes, scarabs no. You see, the Hebrew word for “carob” (haruv – yes, cognate; carob comes by way of Arabic kharrub) was also used to mean “locust”. This is why the thickener made from carob beans is often called locust bean gum.

Now that you know that etymology, wouldn’t you rather avoid entomophagy – wouldn’t you rather eat a bean pod than a bug? So much easier to catch, too. I know if I were living out in the wilderness I would go for the beans. And though John the Baptist is said to have dieted on bugs and wild honey, the bugs in question were locusts – which means that the locus of meaning may have been lost or misconstrued: ah, and beans to another cherished bit of the scriptural mythos. (Just tangentially, Luther didn’t actually eat worms, either.) By the way, when the prodigal son hungered after the pods he fed the pigs, they were probably carob too.

So this bean may not seem exactly exalted in the culinary realm. And yet its syrup is popular as a sweetener; it is so important to the economy of Cyprus that they call it Cyprus’s black gold. It gets better still, though: this lowly seed sets the standard for gold.

Oh, yes, that’s the solid truth! In Roman times, there was a coin called the solidus that was made with pure gold. It weighed a sixth of an ounce – or as much as 24 standard-sized carob seeds (which were a reference weight). The purity of gold came to be measured on this basis. Greek for carob seed was κερατιον keration, not actually from the Arabic kharrub but from the Greek word for “horn”. From keration came our word carat or karat (we may observe that this kind of carat can tend to be sticky); pure gold is 24-carat or 24-karat gold, while a metal that is only 50% gold is 12-karat or 12-carat.

We may also note that there are 144 standard-sized carob seeds to the ounce. That’s six solidi – and more than $1400 as of when I’m writing this. An ounce of gold could help make one rich… and one gross.

It would also pay for a nice Caribbean cruise. And the food on those ships is so nice.