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Is a side dish garnish?

Q: I believe a garnish on a plate of food is something like a sprig of parsley or a mint leaf.  But Jacques Pépin, on his show Essential Pépin, refers to vegetables (what I would call side dishes) as garnish for a meat dish. What’s up with this?

A: We checked eight standard dictionaries—three American and five British—and all of them define the culinary noun “garnish” the way you do, as a tidbit of food added for decoration or flavor.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.), for example, says garnish is an “ornamentation or embellishment, especially one added to a prepared food or drink for decoration or added flavor.”

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) defines the verb “garnish” as “to add decorative or savory touches to (food or drink).” M-W defines the noun as “something (as lemon wedges or parsley) used to garnish food or drink.”

We haven’t watched the public-television series Essential Pépin, but if Jacques Pépin is using the word “garnish” to refer to a side dish, he’s using it in a way that’s not customary today.

However, the word “garnish” may have once referred to a side dish, though that usage is now considered obsolete.

The Oxford English Dictionary, in its entry for the noun “garnish,” lists three citations from the mid-1600s under the subheading “? Side-dishes.”

Why the question mark? Well, the sense of “garnish” in all three citations isn’t all that clear. Here’s an example from Ovatio Carolina, an account of the lavish welcome that Charles I received on Nov. 25, 1641, from the Lord Mayor and other officials in London:

“At the South end whereof (two yards distance from the Table), was a Table of Garnish, of three yards square.” (That would be a lot of parsley, but maybe people were big on Petroselinum crispum in those days.)

When the noun “garnish” entered English in the 1400s, it referred to pewter vessels set out on a table, but that meaning is now obsolete.

In the early 1600s, it took on the sense of an embellishment or a decoration, as in this 1615 citation in the OED from The English House-Wife, Gervase Markham’s book about womanly virtues: “Adorn the person altogether without toyish garnishes, or the gloss of light colours.”

By the late 1600s, according to the dictionary, the word “garnish” was being used for “things placed round or added to a dish to improve its appearance at table.”

Here’s an example from Richard Leigh’s The Transproser Rehears’d (1673): “Your Text is all Margent, and not only all your Dishes, but your Garnish too is Pork.” (“Margent” is an obsolete version of “margin.”)

The noun “garnish,” as you may suspect, is derived from the verb “garnish,” which English adapted from Old French in the 1300s.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the earlier word “was originally a fairly utilitarian verb, meaning simply ‘fit out, equip, supply’ or ‘adorn.’ ”

Ayto says the verb is derived from the Old French word garnir (to equip or adorn), but its ultimate source is “presumably” an Indo-European base that also gave English the verb “warn.”

“The notion of ‘warning’ is preserved in the legal term garnishee, applied to someone who is served with a judicial warning not to pay their debt to anyone other than the person who is seeking repayment,” he adds.

Note: We wrote a post a few years ago about “garnishee” and the legal sense of the verb “garnish.”

Update (August 21, 2013): A reader has written to say that the French noun garniture can mean either “garnish” or “side dish,” which may explain Pépin’s usage.

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