By Cathy Erway
[I’m a fan of Cathy Erway, the Brooklyn-based food writer who writes the blog, Not Eating Out in New York and is the author of The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove. She hosts the weekly podcast, Let's Eat In, on Heritage Radio Network, and is the proud watchkeeper of many rooftop plants and some chickens. – mb]
A friend of mine is learning to play piano. As his left hand hesitated on the keys, I shared a quick method of reading the sheet music, recalled from childhood lessons: “All cows eat grass.” From the bottom up, the notes in between the spaces on the bass clef are A-C-E-G. Knowing the phrase, you could talk your way up the staff until you had identified the correct note to hit. Only, it struck me right then how incorrect the acronym has become.
Not all cows eat grass nowadays. More commonly, they eat corn. Cows have not been evolved to digest corn, but it’s become the basic feed of industrial agriculture livestock. And, most of that corn has been genetically modified.
What else is new? I began to ponder the other folksy adages and expressions we have. Many of them have to do with nature (“there’s a silver lining to every cloud”). Well, nature has changed abundantly over time, and our relationship with it has, too. So instead of “all cows eat grass,” what would a more current equation for that be? I thought I’d rework this, and some others. Here’s a more twenty-first century reading of the bass clef: “All Cows Eat GMOs” (omit the M-O if you’re trying to read music, of course).
Old saying: “The cream always rises to the top”
Hydrogenated vegetable oil-based products like CoolWhip, CoffeeMate, margarine and the stuff inside “creme” sandwich cookies have replaced a vast portion of our dairy foods over the last few decades. Why, I’m still not sure. But they’re factory-emulsified, so nothing rises to the top. They don’t even have any dairy in them, besides.
New saying: “Real cream sinks to the bottom in sales.”
Old saying: “And all this, for peanuts!”
Peanuts are no longer terribly cheap, as the saying would suggest. There was a moment in American history that catapulted the peanut to a commodity crop from its being virtually unheard-of. It’s pretty fascinating, and the man responsible for it was an ingenious scientist, George Washington Carver, whose work in seeking out alternative crops to soil-depleting monocultured cotton, and in leveraging farmers in the depressed South with them, might be remembered fondly today. In any case, this saying speaks to a time when the peanut was a popular cheap snack, but now it’s touted as health food, and pretty pricey instead. Peanut oil is not as commonly used in foods as “vegetable oil” – which is mostly corn oil. Shelled or whole, roasted or raw, peanuts are plenty more expensive than corn oil-fried snack chips, even ones with extensive additives in their ingredients.
New saying: “And all this, for Cheetos!”
Old saying: “Out to lunch”
This re-imagining may be very specific to NYC, as I don’t know too many professionals who leave their desk for lunch break unless it’s for business, or it’s a sunny day in Bryant Park. Even then, these folks don’t seem like they’re very much “out to lunch” – meaning, slow, blissfully ignorant, a little dazed and confused. They’re talking on cellphones and chomping down salads as fast as they can.
But, we all need to space out sometimes. I have a feeling that’s what many people do when they sit in restaurants on the weekends getting drunk on bloody marys beside their toddlers.
New saying: “Out to brunch”
Old saying: “This device is a lemon!”
A lemon used to refer to a dud, inspired by the fact that it’s too sour to eat, unlike other citrus fruits. But if the lemon is such a disappointment of a food, then how come it’s so popular as a seasoning today? A quick search in Epicurious finds 4,420 matches for the word “lemon” amongst its recipes. Conversely, the apple, which we all know we should eat once a day, has 999. Granted, this is only in published recipes, and it’s only one site in which to search those. But I think we get the point. Lemons stand a high place in the culinary palette, used in far more kitchens today now than ever. They’re very desirable, even though they’re pretty expensive at fifty cents a fruit in non-local (yet very lemon-loving) locales like New York.
New saying: “This device is a lemon… it works great!”
Old saying: “The meat of the matter”
Meaning, the substantial part. The most toothsome, meaningful, important bit. While many of us still feel that this is very true – that meat commands the highest place in any given course – I’ve been un-training my palate to think very differently. And I have a feeling I’m not alone here. Meat is great, don’t get me wrong. But does it, necessarily, always need be on the plate? When there are less expensive and more agriculturally efficient alternatives, like beans, that are so often pushed to the side? Saved for a rainy day in a Tuscan peasant-style soup? Nearly forgotten about (I’m not sure the last time I saw a non-meat protein like beans on a menu of restaurant entrees)? On the other hand, “full of beans” is a folksy idiom meaning to be energetic and enthusiastic. That’s the way I’d rather be to having a “meat-hangover,” a newer phenomenon.
New saying: “The beans of the matter”
I’ve only touched on some of these terms. What are some others that could be revamped?