I had a funny conversation recently with a foodie friend and there were a number of well-known expressions and sentiments we used that use food terms. That reaffirmed yet again for me just how much food is a part of our everyday lives – in ways we don’t even consider. Dare I say this is food for thought, or should I rather say you would do well to take this column with a grain of salt? (I think by now you see where I am going with this… )
I entitled this week’s column using that age-old phrase that has become the poster child for healthy living – and did you know that in Ancient Greece throwing an apple to a woman was a way to propose marriage? (If she caught it, it meant yes. That is one way you become the apple of someone’s eye…) When the expression about keeping doctors away became popular in the 19th century, they had no scientific way of knowing that apples were healthy but they saw the proof in the pudding. (Would that have been apple pudding, I wonder??) Bad apples made their way into expressions too, and I suppose you could argue that might have been due to Eve’s unfortunate experience but a more modern version is perhaps the more obvious truth – spoiling a good effort only takes one small token, whether it is one apple in a barrel or one party pooper in a bunch of folks.
The apple expressions are ones that we use all the time, but with the approach of the holiday season the phrase “nuttier than a fruitcake” also came to mind, which of course then brought on all sorts of derogatory comments about fruitcake. I thought the phrase was meant to ridicule the person, and since I am one of the very few people in the world who publicly claim to enjoy fruitcake, I took offense. Fruitcake does not even have that many nuts – maybe that is why we don’t call it nutcake! Just because something is not your cup of tea doesn’t mean it’s a recipe for disaster. Mind you, perhaps there was a crazy Christmas baker in history, for in the UK they have mincemeat, which is similar to fruitcake in its taste and ingredients and there if you say that someone is “as thick as mince” it also means they are not altogether there. (Or perhaps it was just partaking of the rum and/or brandy that the fruit soaked in that made them a bit out to lunch.)
Many idioms so seem to have a logical history to them, but there are others that seem even more elusive. Why would we care who brought home the bacon – wouldn’t we rather know who was bringing home the pork roast? (It comes from a small town in England that offered a side of bacon to any man who hadn’t quarreled with his wife for a year and a day. Even then, that was something to appreciate!) And when was the last time you tried to cut mustard? Well, if you had ever tried to cut down mustard stalks you would know how difficult it is, but if you have ever “cut” dried mustard with vinegar or water then you know too that there is a standard for getting a good final product. Aren’t you glad you know those things now?
In keeping with the fall season and the resurgence of comfort foods, I will finish with a phrase I found particularly intriguing: “Fine words butter no parsnips”. I looked up the background to this one and found that it dates back to 1639 when people often ate parsnips instead of potatoes. If you have tasted them before, you know that parsnips are a food that needs to be buttered (or otherwise glazed – alone, they are quite bitter). The phrase may contain the root of a broader idiom – “to butter someone up” – in that it means words are not the same as actions. You can butter someone up, but it does not necessarily mean you will convince them; only the real thing will do.
I hope this week’s column has allowed you to “go to bed less stupid” as Martin says; or to give you one more expression, you can now tell people that you didn’t just fall off a turnip truck!