I was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, and grew up for the most part in Rutherford, New Jersey, attending Montclair Academy for junior high and high school. For college I crossed the North River and spent four years at Columbia University in the City of New York, majoring in German literature and graduating in 1979; at Columbia my mentors were Joseph Bauke (German) and J.W. Smit (History). During my time at Columbia I started working at SPI, a board game company (complex historical simulations, for the most part war games), and started as full-time developer and designer there during my last year in college and on to the following winter. In the early summer of 1980 I moved to Leuven, Belgium, and there I studied for two years at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven. In the fall of 1982, I entered the graduate programme in Germanic Linguistics at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where my mentors were Jay Jasanoff and Frans van Coetsem. In the summer of 1987 I was back in Leuven to do research and for the academic year 1988-89 I had a Fulbright scholarship to do research on my dissertation with the guidance of Jan Goossens again at the KUL in Belgium. My dissertation (Cornell University, 1992) addressed two related issues: the development of umlaut in Germanic and the origins of the Dutch language, which — with its exceptionally limited development of umlaut — represents a key to our understanding of the umlaut process.
In October 1989 I moved to Chicago to take up the lonely job of linguist in a literature department, the then ‘Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures’, at the University of Chicago. I worked as a professor in that dysfunctional department (which at a certain point became hostile to medieval studies and the ‘minor’ Germanic languages, as well as Germanic linguistics), holding the position that Leonard Bloomfield once held, until Germanic linguistics was eliminated from the programme and the slot became one of many for ‘post-modern’ cultural studies. After that I remained at the UofC as a research associate and lecturer in the Department of Linguistics and the College for a long while.
Since 2004 my main focus of research has shifted to food history, though still always with strong ties to my linguistic training and interests. I attended the Oxford Symposium for the first time in 2005 and have become a regular there, attending and presenting at each Symposium since then. The bulk of my research in food history has focussed on the Mediterranean, from pre-history through classical and medieval times to the present, and on the Atlantic World, with a particular focus on culinary developments in the French colonies. Some common threads run through both my linguistic and culinary research, involving the cultures of the non-elite sectors of societies, including the rôles of slaves, from medieval times in the north of England and west of the Low Countries to Early Modern Louisiana and Haiti. The elites have written the literary works and the history and cook books — I like to look beneath and beyond them.