Language learning du jour number 1: Delicacy is very often preceded by the words It’s considered a.
Life learning du jour number 1: When someone says of something “It’s considered a delicacy,” the odds are pretty good that it’s something that you would not find in your local deli – and that you probably can’t imagine stomaching.
Corollary suspicion: Some people in some places call things delicacies just to see who they can get to eat them.
Life learning du jour number 2: When people have to eat something exceptional due to force of circumstance for long enough, a certain culinary Stockholm syndrome develops and they come to love it. See haggis and retsina.
Googlefacts du jour: If you Google “considered a delicacy” you find the following things declared to be considered delicacies:
spider monkey meat
prime grade USDA beef
sea turtle meat
And that’s just the first two pages. On page 3 of the results I get a link to a PopCrunch article, “12 of the Most Disgusting Delicacies,” which I was going to list here but I would actually lose readers permanently. And some of them would actually lose their dinners permanently.
And yet people eat these things. And enjoy them. Apparently.
Do some of the things in the list seem a bit out of place? Prime grade USDA beef, perhaps? Quite disgusting to many a vegetarian. (“I’ll have yours, then,” is my usual response, but…) Some people love horse meat, but apparently Brits are shocked at the idea of eating it. Caviar? Have you seen Tom Hanks reacting to it in the movie Big? And how about Maine lobster? They used to be considered sea garbage, bottom-feeders. And even now not everyone likes them. My wife calls them disgusting sea insects. The whole phrase, every time, in place of the word lobsters. And usually accompanied by a shudder.
So I’ll have hers, then, of course. But I grew up in Alberta, where they serve lobster in restaurants all neatly filleted and set on top of the shell. In New England, you’re expected to don a bib and rip freshly boiled lobsters apart with your bare hands, which is messy – and there’s this gross green goop that comes out of the middle. Someone will inevitably school you: “That’s called the tomalley. It’s considered a delicacy.”
Meaning you’re supposed to pretend you’re not disgusted by it.
I am a bit of an adventuresome eater, to be sure. When I was eating with some friends in Puebla, Mexico, there was a dish made with maguey worms on the menu. I considered ordering it until I was told by the young woman whose presence was motivating mine there that if I did, I was eating at another table and they didn’t know me.
But everyone draws a line somewhere. And on the other side of that line, pretty much all those horrid things you would never dream of eating are “considered a delicacy” somewhere.
So evidently they’re considered delicacies because they will leave your stomach feeling mighty delicate.
Why, in fact, are foods that some people consider great treats (at least supposedly) and are willing to pay a lot of money for (because of their rarity, which may be the real motivating factor) called delicacies? Delicacy is, after all, the state of being delicate, or a thing that is delicate. The word itself has a certain delicacy on the tongue, touching off the tip and then licking and crackling and hissing – sounds and senses of many an exquisite dining experience, to be sure, but that’s not enough.
In fact, it’s because delicate had many more senses originally than it generally has now. The Latin source, delicatus (or, depending on gender, delicata or delicatum), meant ‘alluring, charming, tender, dainty’ – all those positively delicious traits that are often associated with both fine food and attractive women. In modern usage, it is mainly the ‘fine, dainty, fragile’ senses that have persisted. But the word delicacy has retained the ‘exquisite fineness, delightfulness’ sense much more.
It’s almost surprising, really, given our historic association of fine dining with the French, that we’re not using a directly French version of this Latinate word. The French word is délicatesse, and it’s rarely used in English. But, as it happens, German and Dutch borrowed it. The German/Dutch plural form of the word was then used to name an establishment that sold fine foods: German Delikatessen, Dutch delicatessen. We usually call such a place a deli for short.
So next time someone offers you worms, or eyeballs, or chicken feet, or sea insects, if you don’t feel like eating them, you can opt for pastrami. You’re covered. It’s a delicacy.