Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

Steering clear of that humble pie

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"Hey, baby, you're the apple of my eye!"

"Oh, really? Well, that should be easy as pie, given I'm such a honey."

Using food as metaphor is a piece of cake and about as old as, well, the hills. In fact, it's so common we pretty much take such expressions for granted.

Food and the many activities surrounding the preparation, cleanup and the gathering thereof are as ancient as time itself. Even if the food gathering today happens in grocery stores and cleanup means getting the deli containers into the right recycle bin, we continue to use food-related phrases to express ourselves, often in highly emotional contexts, just as our ancestors have for eons.

Whatever age you are, one of the most illuminating and entertaining things you can do to learn about food metaphors or otherwise, is to browse through a copy of Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable . It was first compiled by Dr. Ebenezer Cobham Brewer. And here you thought "Ebenezer" was just some weird, made-up name for the cranky guy in the black and white Christmas movie.

But our Ebenezer of interest here was born in 1810, the son of a Norwich schoolmaster. A law graduate from Cambridge, his first major work, A Guide To Science - much like a successful Tweet if I might jump a few hundred years of culture - generated so much follow-up conversation that Ebenezer started tracking all the comments and questions. Eventually these became the first Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable , which went on to sell 100,000 copies - a runaway bestseller in 1870.

You don't have to buy a copy to enjoy it today. Whistler Public Library has the millennium edition, edited by Adrian Room, so you can check it out, literally, for easy browsing at home in an easy chair. They also have the 2006 edition of Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable as a reference copy, but I prefer the former for drilling down into history and churning up irresistible bits.

"Every page contains some gem," says the Daily Telegraph about Brewer's Dictionary . After years of random page turning, I'd say every page holds at least a couple of gems for getting behind the scenes of everything from the Doomsday Book (really, it was called the Domesday Book) to Donald Duck.

Case in point: "You lily-livered #@!x#< !" howls pepped-up Protagonist to cowardly Antagonist in an episode of the aforementioned Mr. Duck or Wile E. Coyote.

Not that we still classify human livers under "edibles" per se, but the CanĂ­bale people indigenous to the West Indies once did, as did a host of other cannibalistic peoples. As for "lily-livered", it alludes to the whiteness of lilies while playing on the earlier form, "white-livered", which, as Brewer explains, stems from the old notion that the livers of cowards were bloodless.

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