Food & Drink » Glenda Bartosh on Food

Get Stuffed - Eating our words

Sussing out the food behind our thoughts



Gave my ankle a good twist this weekend. Grabbed the ice packs, threw the pillows on the sofa and turned into a real couch potato. Couch potato? Why not a couch turnip? Or a couch carrot – hey, carrots are pretty inert. So off I went on a true nerd-felt journey, looking for the tales behind the words from foodland we like to use. Good idea – everything on the boob tube was pretty lame anyway.

Boob tube? Turns out "couch potato" is a direct play on it, what with potatoes being plant tubers and all. Then there’s "hot potato", referring to a tricky or delicate situation needing to be handled with care, and that ain’t no small potatoes – something (or someone) of such little importance they’re like small potatoes, hardly worth the effort to peel them.

Well, as my English friend would say, doesn’t that take the cake – which alludes to the cakewalk, basis for a charming little Debussy piece and the name of an intricate, marching-line kind of dance originated by African-Americans in the southern US. Prize for the best dancer: a cake, item of long and noble provenance as a prize for various dance and athletic contests in a string of cultures going back to ancient Greece (the rare and exotic spices used to "spice up" said cakes were really the prized prize everyone was after).

On the other hand, "piece of cake" alludes to something as easily done as taking and eating a piece of cake. Ditto for "easy as pie", referring to the eating of same, certainly not the making – when was the last time you pulled out a rolling pin and made one from scratch?

Speaking of easing things along, if you think I’m stretching the truth here, guess you’ll take it all with a grain of salt – nice image for making something "hard to swallow" just a little more palatable. And while we’re salting things up, here are two expressions I think we kind of mush together in Canada.

Ever heard your old aunties and uncles call old Joe or Verla the salt of the earth? This is actually a Biblical reference from Matthew in which Christ told his disciples they were the "salt of the earth", meaning the worthiest or most perfectly chosen or elected. Then there’s the expression "old salt" for a crusty old sailor with years of experience and well-salted by the sea. I think our colloquial use of "salt of earth" has taken on a bit of the "old salt" and come to mean someone who is equal parts experienced and natural, sincere and down-to-earth.