Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Food and Drink

Steering clear of that humble pie



"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 Caníbale 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.

About a million years ago, Shakespeare wrote a powerful description of such lily-livered weaksters in The Merchant of Venice:

How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false

As stairs of sand, wear yet upon their chins

The beards of Hercules and frowning Mars,

Who, inward search'd, have livers white as milk.

Try that out on your hipster, goateed friend next time he chickens out on the Couloir.

Brewer also explains the symbolism of various animals. Some of the ones we eat include salmon, which symbolize fecundity, courage and wisdom; the ostrich, which symbolizes stupidity; bees, which stand for diligence, sociability and wisdom; and ducks, which mean happiness and fidelity. If you're into deeper meanings, you might think twice before you choose an ostrich steak, say, over roast duck.

"Bully beef" isn't tough beef. The expression means tinned corned beef and comes from the French " boeuf bouilli ", or "boiled beef". And "jerked beef" or "jerk" or "jerky" isn't some snack for jerks; the term is a corruption of " echarqui " from the Quechua, a people of the central Andes, and means to cut into strips and dry in the sun.

"Hodgepodge" originally meant a medley or mixed dish of "bits and pieces" all cooked together - a variant of "hotchpotch," from the French " hochepot, " from " hocher " ("to shake") and " pot " ("pot"), a thick broth containing meat, vegetables and other mixed ingredients.

And Ebenezer can tell you, too, that there really was an Earl Grey, for whom the bergamot-scented tea is named. Charles Grey, the second Earl Grey, was given the tea recipe by a Chinese mandarin whose life was saved by a British diplomat.

As for being the "apple of your eye" that comes from an outdated notion that the pupil of your eye was a solid, round ball like an apple. The phrase, which makes an appearance in Deuteronomy in the Bible, came to mean any person or thing that is precious or much loved.

Now, that was easy as pie, right? which means it was agreeably uncomplicated. No way this refers to making a pie, which takes time and effort. No, according to Ebenezer, "easy as pie" refers to eating a pie, ideally a good one, much like "piece of cake."

Ideally, while reading this, you haven't been as soft as butter, meaning you were easily swayed, responding primarily to an emotional appeal.

My intent was to avoid being as dull as dishwater. (Actually, this used to be "dull as ditchwater," both types of water being stagnant and uninspiring, as opposed to the brightness and clarity of a running stream. The change to "dishwater" might have come about through mispronunciation.)

Plus I wanted to pique your curiosity and appeal to your rational understanding, by bringing you the crème de la crème - the choicest of what is already choice - which is what any good writer should do.

If I've failed, I hope you don't make me eat some humble pie, "humble" being a pun on "umble/s," the heart, liver and entrails of the deer the huntsmen and his fellows would eat in a pie while the lord and his family dined on venison at the high table.

In the meantime, let's eat, drink and be merry, a popular variant of the biblical exhortation, "Let us eat and drink; for to morrow we shall die" - a traditional saying of the ancient Egyptians. They would exhibit a skeleton to banquet guests to remind them how short life is.

Brewer, on the other hand, reminds us how connected to history we really are -cause enough for reflection and celebration, too.



Glenda Bartosh is an award-winning freelance writer who kills a lot of time meandering through Brewer's.