"and/with/on its X"

« previous post | next post »

In "Believed ham", I asked

When did French-language menus start using possessive pronouns, in constructions like et ses/son/sa X "and its/their X", to describe secondary or accompanying ingredients? When did English-language menus start copying this construction? And is it as awkward and odd in French as it is (restaurant tradition aside) in English?

The picture, from a restaurant-reviewing blog, illustrates an "Onglet de black Angus avec ses frites" ("Black Angus hanger steak with its fries"). The only connection that the fries have with the steak is that they're served together — so in what sense are they "its" fries?

Of course, possessive pronouns, both in French and in English, are not limited to cases of literal possession or ownership. When a square-dance caller tells you to "swing your partner", the reference is to whoever happens to be on your right (if you're male) or on your left (if you're female) at that point in the evolution of the dance. A similar notion of arbitrary correspondence is involved in phrases like "the average distance between a galaxy and its nearest neighbor" or "on the shoulders of their predecessors".

But partner, neighbor, and precedessor are relational concepts, which express their correspondences as figurative possession: steak and soup are not. So I feel that there's something odd about the possessive in "onglet avec ses frites", or in "soupe de poissons avec sa rouille", or in a recipe for "Brochet de lorraine et sa mayonnaise" ("pike lorraine and its mayonnaise"), where the mayonnaise is just added at the end of the process ("… servir avec la mayonnaise" = "… serve with mayonnaise").

Here's a slightly more elaborate example from a restaurant review in French

Ensuite, le fameux oeuf poule de la ferme Carrus, littéralement « pourri » de truffe mélanosporum sur une purée de champignons et truffe blanche d’Italie, flanqué de sa briochine tiède et d’un cappuccino à boire

Then, the famous hen's egg from the Carrus farm, literally "rotted" (?) with black truffle on a puree of mushrooms and Italian white truffle, accompanied by its warm roll and a cappuccino to drink.

The author could have written "flanqué d'une briochine tiède" ("accompanied by a warm roll"), in parallel with the following "et d’un cappuccino à boire" ("and by a cappuccino to drink"). Why is the roll possessed but not the coffee? Because it's on the same plate? Because each egg gets its corresponding roll?

Similar constructions exist in the more elevated regions of English food-talk. As Rubrick noted in the comments on the earlier post, menus don't feature "fish and its chips" or "bangers and their mash", or a "cheeseburger and its fries". But here's Mimi Sheraton, "From haute cuisine to brasserie style", NYT 1/30/1981:

Worthwhile pates include the terrine of eel with its sauce Cressoniere, the pale and delicate terrine of sweetbreads sparked with lacy strands of blanched orange rind and the spicy terrine of truffled duck.

Or this dinner menu, which features an "Asparagus Cream Soup: With its Puff Pastry Dome", and a "Carribean [sic] Lobster Tail: Sautéed with Vanilla Pod, Served on its Bed of Carrot". Again, what special connection does the terrine of eel have to its sauce, or the lobster tail to its carrots, that would justify the possessive?

Mollymooly wondered

Is the "[main] avec son/sa/ses [garnish]" an extrapolation from "dans son jus"? The English near-equivalent "stewed in its own juice" is nowadays only ever used metaphorically. And "dans son jus" has its own metaphorical senses.

This makes sense to me (though "stewed in its own juice" is by no means always metaphorical these days). The French expression "cuit dans son jus" is certainly an old one — the 1694 Dictionnaire de l'Académie françoise has "Bœuf à la mode , C'est du bœuf assaisonné & cuit dans son jus."  And similarly, the recipe for boiling "spinage" in the Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary (1723) tells us to

Wash and drain your Spinage, put it into a Pot or Pipkin; then set the Pot into a Kettle of Water, and make it boil until the Spinage is soft, putting no Liquor to the Spinage, but let it stew in its own Juice.

And in The Workes of that Famous Chirurgion Ambrose Parey (1649) we learn that

I have prooved by experience, that the warts that grow on the hands, may bee cured by applying of Purslain beaten or stamp'd in its own juice.

But in such cases, the juice or jus indeed "belongs" to the meat or the vegetable. If Molly is right, this type of possession has been generalized in (the more pretentious registers of French and English) menu-speak to sauces whose origin is entirely unconnected to the materials they are applied to, and also to discrete objects that are simply placed beneath, on top of, or next to the featured ingredient.

So my question remains: When did this happen?

Update — Michaela Heinz, Le possessif en français: Aspects sémantiques et pragmatiques, 2003, has a section on "le style 'menu'". She notes that the first caricatured uses of such possessives seem to date from the 1970s. The fact that the style can be caricatured in French suggests that it has the same chichi tone in French as it does in English; and if the first caricatures don't appear until the 1970s, perhaps the construction itself is not a lot older than that.


  1. Steve Kass said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 9:06 pm

    The connection in the first examples you give of Y and its X, it seems to me, is that X "comes with" Y when you order Y from the menu.

    To say onglet avec ses frites in a photo caption is a parsimonious way of explaining that the fries in the picture come with the steak when you order the steak (dish) from the menu.

    Similarly, the warm briochine comes with the egg (dish) at l'Auberge du Vieux Puits, a visit to the restaurant's web site confirms, so it make sense to refer to the roll as "its" in the review. (L’oeuf poule Carrus “ourri” de truffes melanosporum sur une purée de champignons et truffe d’été, briochine tiède et cappuccino à boire. 65€)

    If X is included on the plate when you order Y, it seems clear, even helpful, to refer to Y's X if there could be a doubt as to whether a X "comes with" Y when you order the Y dish.

    Outside of a review or a caption, however – and particularly on a menu – this construction definitely strikes me as odd. And no, I don't know when it began.

  2. mgh said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

    "Without" sounds more normal to me than "with" — yelp has an example of "order a bowl of shrimp soup without its broth" and another site has "order a dish in India without its traditional dusting of fresh coriander", neither of which would have sounded pretentious or otherwise remarkable to me.

  3. Brett said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 10:38 pm

    I've seen this on some fancy menus, and I had always read it as intentionally affected, in an imitation of French. One would not normally write "sauce Cressoniere" in English, for example.

    The linked PDF menu has a number of errors that suggest it was not written by a native speaker of English, so I am cautious about drawing conclusions from its choices of phrasing.

  4. ShadowFox said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 10:39 pm

    Two points. First, I agree with Steve Kass (above)–the idea that X comes with its own Y is perfectly sensible and I was thinking of a similar phrase while I was reading the piece, but without the "comes". So, the phrase would be "pike pieces with their own mayonnaise" (meaning that each one is served garnished with mayonnaise) rather than "pike with its mayonnaise".

    Second, why are we so convinced that the French turn of phrase came first only to be copied in English? Consider the possibility of a similar phrase in English restaurant reviews. For example, "The soup was wonderful with its clear broth and large colorful lobster chunks" (totally made up, but realistic). This is fairly common in reviews, but normally would not appear in menus. As so many French restaurants cater to tourists, they may well have adopted what might have appeared as a common reviewer phrase to describe their own dishes.

  5. Steve Kass said,

    August 25, 2012 @ 10:48 pm

    I am not a linguist, but to put what I said before another way, it seems to me that in Onglet de black Angus avec ses frites, onglet is used in two ways: literally at first (to indicate the piece of meat in the photo), but then synecdochally (for the item on the menu) as the reference of ses.

    My French is not very idiomatic, and I may be overthinking now, but I suspect there are some interesting questions here regarding the use of articles. Does "the" suggest synecdoche in English? I would order this dish by saying "je voudrais l'onglet" or "I'd like the hangar steak," but if it came with a choice of soup or salad, I think one could omit the article only in English ("With salad, please." but "Avec la salade, s'il vous plaît.")

    Still, I don't know when steaks, especially nonsynecdochical ones, began having fries and sauces.

  6. Chris said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:21 am

    I think Steve Kass is essentially right in that the "dish and its possessions" expression means the dish "comes with" said possessions. I would venture one step further and say that it is also meant to imply that the possessions "go with" the dish. In my admittedly limited experience, it seems to occur most often when the possessed item is something that the French restaurant-goer would normally expect to accompany the dish. For example, "steak-frites" is just about the most stereotypically French culinary combination ever, so the frites naturally "go with" the steak. I suspect that it is this sense of belonging which originally gave rise to the construction, although of course it has since moved beyond such "natural" i.e. traditional pairings to become an assertion of "natural" affinity whether there is any tradition to it or not. So we get the eel and its sauce Cressionière.

    I wasn't hitherto aware that this construction had started appearing in English menus, and find the prospect alarming. I hope it's largely confined to translations and non-native efforts. It seems hard to imagine it catching on beyond that, although it is apparently considered odd even by the French, so who knows…

  7. Army1987 said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:31 am

    Of course, possessive pronouns, both in French and in English, are not limited to cases of literal possession or ownership. When a square-dance caller tells you to "swing your partner", the reference is to whoever happens to be on your right (if you're male) or on your left (if you're female) at that point in the evolution of the dance. A similar notion of arbitrary correspondence is involved in phrases like "the average distance between a galaxy and its nearest neighbor" or "on the shoulders of their predecessors".

    I don't think it's analogous. Nouns such as partner, neighbour or predecessor express a relationship between two things/people, so only make sense if you specify who/what someone/something is a partner/neighbour/predecessor of.

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:57 am

    There could be some answers in the following off-line article:

    Noailly, Michèle. 2001. Us et abus du déterminant possessif dans les cartes des restaurants français. In Le groupe nominal dans le texte spécialisé, ed. D. Banks. Paris: L'Harmattan, 165-75.

    In a limited sample of Norman restaurant menus the phenomenon appears to be rather recent.

    Champarnaud, F. 2006. La Haute-Normandie par le menu: baptêmes, communions, mariages, repas de fête (1967-2003). Annales de Normandie 56(1):67-92.

    [(myl) Thanks — this is very helpful! In particular, tracing citations to Noailly 2001 turned up Heinz 2003, quoted in an update to the original post.]

  9. Mike Briggs said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 5:15 am

    My French is not all that good, but I wonder if the possessive may be a way of avoiding what strikes me as the awkward juxtaposition of two prepositions in, for instance "avec de la mayonnaise."

    [(myl) I don't think that this is plausible. A quick search of news.google.fr turns 654 actual instances of "avec de|du", versus 673 actual instances of "avec son|sa|leur", most of which are things like "avec son fils" or "avec sa soeur".

    There doesn't seem to be any attempt to avoid things like "En cette rentrée, la formation revient avec de nouveaux titres d'une grande efficacité", or "Avec de grands risques pour les centaines de milliers de personnes qui vivent encore de manière précaire depuis le séisme de 2010".]

  10. GeorgeW said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 5:31 am

    I would propose that "its" refers to a combined dish. As an example, 'black Angus hanger steak and fries' is envisioned as a single dish of which the principal component is the steak.

  11. Theo Vosse said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 10:30 am

    I don't know when it happened, but I do know that colloquial Spanish has the same use of the possessive: "el pollo asado con su sal" (the roasted chicken with its salt), "la ternera en su punto" (the beef in its point; i.e. done just right).

    On the other hand, Spanish does not use the possessive in cases where English, Dutch and German would use them, such as "lava las manos" (wash the hands) or "la boca" (the mouth, i.e. "shut up").

  12. jf said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 10:36 am

    Count me as one in the camp for pure pretension. For those seeking to imagine some "combined dish" explanation, try ordering "bacon with its eggs" with a straight face. (Or should that be "eggs with its bacon?")

  13. Jay Livingston said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    I just Googled "calamar dans son encre," which sounds like a reasonable possessive. But one of the first links that came up was "Recette de Calamar à l'encre et son risotto."

  14. YM said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Google Books show avec ses pommes popping up all over a recent series of tour guides to regions of French ('Petit futé'). Maybe it's part of the new house style for the publisher? Avec sa sauce appears as early as 1996 (in Al dente. Tous les secrets de la vraie cuisine italienne) and in 1999 in Dictionnaire arabe tchadien-français. In these latter two it seems the early, literal sense.
    Frommer's Irreverent Guide to Chicago gets some mileage out of this: "It's the sort of place that serves truffle cream with its fries, roast apple in its carrot soup, grilled Vidalia onions with its foie gras, and 25-year-old balsamic vinegar with its liver."

    [(myl) In the Frommer's quote, the possessives seem to refer to the establishment rather than to the main dishes.]

  15. Steve Kass said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 12:50 pm

    jf: As one who imagines a "combined dish" explanation, I think you've missed the point of what that means.

    I wouldn't use these expressions when ordering – only when describing (as in a photo caption or a restaurant review), when it's helpful to indicate what comes with what. In any case, "bacon with its eggs" doesn't fit the pattern at all, which is [menu offering] and its [item included with the offering], not the reverse. "Bacon" is not a menu item that happens to include eggs. (The reverse is closer, but it would more likely be "Two eggs, any style," or "Eggs benedict." I've never seen "Eggs" as the full name of a menu item that includes bacon.

  16. YM said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    @myl: You're right, they were referring to the restaurant. Isn't it funny, though, how you could squint only a little, and all these items could pass as a parody of the French 'its' phnomenon?

  17. John Burgess said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 1:53 pm

    Perhaps I'm just a literalist foodie, but I understood the possessive construction to imply that the sauce, for example, included some element of the main dish. 'Avec son jus' makes perfect sense for a roast of meat. But so too would an aioli made with a touch of broth from the fish it accompanies.

    I'd be downright perturbed if I were served a dish where 'son/ses' meant only 'served with'.

  18. Lazar Taxon said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 2:13 pm

    @myl: Now I'm undecided between three different ways of reading the Frommer's quote: is it making fun of the "steak avec ses frites" French-style possessive, the overuse of first person plural possessives on menus ("enjoy our eggs with our sauce"), or simply the food combinations themselves?

  19. AntC said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:18 pm

    @mgh "without"

    Man: I'll have coffee without cream.
    Waiter: I'm sorry sir, we're out of cream.
    Man: Do you have milk?
    Waiter: Yes, sir.
    Man: Then I'll have coffee without milk.

    [I think from a Mae West movie?]

  20. YM said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

    @Lazar Taxon: I think Mark Liberman was right and I was wrong, since in all the Frommer instances the accompaniment comes first and the main dish (the semantic head, if you will) comes after the 'with'. In the French menu examples the main item comes first. I was misled by the 'truffle cream' in Frommer's first example, which I imagined to be some exotic dish, like crème brûlée. It's probably just truffle-flavored cream.

  21. Andy said,

    August 26, 2012 @ 10:44 pm

    "stewed in its own juices" reminds of a menu I once saw in Prague offering (in English) a serving of of pork "stewed in one's own juices". Juvenile I know, but also vaguely relevant (perhaps we can imagine an error creeping in a hypothetical translation journey from French to Czech to English, although I'm clutching at straws here)

  22. John F said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 4:01 am

    I can't read the article or the comments. That meat is raw, there's blood coming out of it. Blech.

  23. Mar Rojo said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 6:09 am

    And the Spanish have always had "Chiporones en su tinta" (squid cooked in their ink), though it's questionable whether the actual ink used belongs to the actual squid at the time of cooking. You can now buy squid ink in frozen packs at many Spanish supermarkets.

  24. Rob said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 9:19 am

    It's strange that French uses the possessive form for the chips that come with a steak, but not for a person's own limb, in, for example, "Je me suis blessé la jambe".

  25. boris said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 10:41 am

    I find the "Worthwhile pates include the terrine of eel with its sauce Cressoniere" unremarkable. I interpret "terrine of eel" as the menu item and "its sauce Cressoniere" as one of the attributes that makes it a "worthwhile pate" as in this article:
    "Jersey City, with all of its new apartments and luxe amenities, ‘has become a destination in its own right’".On the other hand, as a bare description on teh menu it sounds very strange.

  26. Peter Taylor said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

    @Theo Vosse, I don't think "la ternera en su punto" is the same construction, because the point is a property of the beef.

    I would also note that it should be translated "overcooked" rather than "done just right", but that's more subjective ;)

  27. Marc A. Pelletier said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 2:54 pm

    There is an actual proper use of the possessive in menu items (or food description in general) in french at least: when the accompaniment is a sub product or accessory of the preparation.

    "Dans son jus" is the obvious example; the thing is being served with its jus de cuisson – the cooking juices. Likewise, I have made a dish I call Crabe farci à l'étuvée servi sur sa feuille de nori where the sheet of nori envelops the other ingredients during cooking but is removed and trimmed and serves as a presentation bed on serving.

    I expect that most other uses of the possessive are little more than the trappings of a cargo cult.

  28. Greg Morrow said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 2:57 pm

    OK, we know that in French, the determinative/possessive carries most of the weight of specifying gender and number, the determinative is mandatory in a lot of cases where English would have 0. So that explains why "onglet avec X frites" instead of "onglet avec frites". But it doesn't explain why "ses" instead of "les" or "des".

    We know that French is one of the languages where body parts aren't posessed — "les cheveux" instead of "my hair". These are inalienable.

    Perhaps the possessive is used _because_ the side dish is alienable? To emphasize the connection?

  29. D.O. said,

    August 27, 2012 @ 5:15 pm

    Let me make a suggestion of the sorts so disliked by Prof. Liberman, that is one without a shred of even anecdotal evidence. The suggestion is that the reflexive pronoun stnads for roughly the word "matching". Thus "Onglet de black Angus avec ses frites" tries to convey the meaning that fries are especially good with Angus beef. And "brochet de lorraine et sa mayonnaise" means that it's not true that the restaurant happened to have some pike and some mayonnaise and just threw them together to feed the masses, no sir, they selected this mayonnaise particularly to go with this pike for their discerning clientele.

  30. AlexB said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 2:22 am

    Intuitively, I have always interpreted it in the way that D.O. suggested. However, I don't have any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise, for it as well.

  31. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 5:15 am

    (Reposted from an earlier thread)

    I've taken a look at the Spanish data with some peculiar results.

    The intrinsic possession construction you mention (“dans son jus”) is documented in Spanish at least since the late 19th century (“Zorzales albardados, en su jugo”, 1891), and it was quickly extended: CORDE has instances of “calamares en su tinta” (squids in ink sauce, probably the squids' own ink) from 1895, for example.

    However, there are much earlier instances of recipes labeled “en su salsa”, such as “pollos“ and “pabos (sic) en su salsa” in a 1611 cookbook. The data in CORDE are somewhat sparse, but it would be odd for this construction to be derived from “dans son jus”, given the huge chronological gap. And there is nothing in the recipe to suggest intrinsic possession:

    LOS Pollos asados pocas vezes se siruen con salsa, saluo si ay agraz. Para esta salsa tomarás los granos del agraz, y tendrás en vna sartén tozino frito en dados, que estén bien fritos, y sacarlos has fuera de la sartén, echarás los granos del agraz a freír, y darles has dos, o tres bueltas sobre el fuego, y no más; porque no se cuezan demasiado, y echarás açúcar y canela, y pimienta, y vn poco de vinagre, y assentarás los pollos sobre reuanadas de pan tostado, y echarás la salsa de agraz por encima. (Martínez Motiño, Francisco [1611] Arte de cozina, pastelería, vizcochería y conseruería. Madrid: Luis Sánchez, fol. 23V–24R

    Incidentally, this construction also occurs in definitely low-brow recipes and descriptions of traditional fare, especially in the Americas (e.g., “ceviche con su choclito”, although this may have a different origin, and is certainly irrelevant to the development of the construction in English.

  32. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 5:16 am

    Drat. Forgot to close the <blockquote> tag. The last paragraph in the above comment is mine, not Martínez Motiño's.

  33. Theo Vosse said,

    August 28, 2012 @ 6:24 am

    @Peter Taylor: you're right that "en su punto" is more of a property of the beef, although it is a pretty weird one; perhaps "garbanzos con su hierbabuena" would have been more appropriate. I wrote it down because it came to mind as part of the "food + its" construction, because I have never noticed it outside the context of food.

  34. Simon Gilman said,

    September 7, 2012 @ 10:49 am

    @ Mark

    I always assumed "soupe de poissons avec sa rouille" to be an acknowledgement that one of the ingredients of the rouille WAS the soup: hence, that one restaurant's rouille to accompany fish soup would taste differently from another's. Where this puts "ses frites" I couldn't possibly say.

RSS feed for comments on this post