Ask The Language Lady

The journalist Dave Barry once wrote a weekly humor column for the Miami Herald.  Periodically he would do a column called “Ask Mr. Language Person”.  In these columns, he would answer alleged questions from readers (who I’m quite sure were totally fictitious).  For the purposes of this post, I’m slightly co-opting Dave’s title of Mr. Language Person, but all my examples are real.

First, from an ad seen on email: “Annette Funicello dies from symptoms of multiple sclerosis”.  Is that right?  Does a person die of the symptoms of a disease, or does one die of the disease?  Perhaps one always dies from the symptoms of a disease, since if a disease had no symptoms, you couldn’t die of it, could you?  The Language Lady confesses to being mystified about this one, and any help is welcome.

Most Grammar Nazis have particular pet peeves, such as the misuse of  the words “their”, “there”, and “they’re”.  Generally, The Language Lady (henceforth known as LL) just cringes and moves on, and has no particular abuse she singles out as being more or less acceptable.  Also, with auto-correct and auto-complete on cell phones and computers, even the most scrupulous Grammar Nazi can fall prey to misspelling and usage errors.  Correcting people who make mistakes is misplaced when it might not even have been the fault of the user, takes too much energy, and besides, it’s rude.

That said, LL corrected someone on Facebook in the last week or so.  In LL’s defense, here is the backstory.  A Facebook friend of a friend type of friend (as opposed to someone you actually know, who is also your friend on Facebook) took one of those quizzes, called something like “How Well Do You Actually Speak English?” and aced it.  In a comment, she remarked that she was especially proud of knowing when to use “who” versus “whom”.  LL was highly amused, since she already knew this person has it totally backwards.  In common speech, it actually would be very rare to use “whom”.

Last week, on a post by LL, this person misused “whom” and LL corrected her.  Was LL just in a particularly snarky mood that day?  It wasn’t the misuse that got on LL’s nerves, it was the bragging and being wrong.  LL forgets the content of that particular comment, but subsequently this person posted a photo of a crying child with the caption “This is my niece ‘Janie’, whom didn’t want her picture taken”.  (LL left well enough alone, having already been rude once.)

The end result is that this person is no longer speaking to LL, and here is the difference between this person and LL.  LL would much prefer to be corrected, rather than continuing to make a damn fool of herself repeatedly.

But this is the one that takes the cake:  also seen on Facebook, a post with the caption “Shameful.  Baby birds are ground up alive to make Hellmann’s mayonnaise”.  It’s accompanied by a drawing of baby chicks being forced into an open jar of Hellmann’s, with blood dripping from the mouth of the jar.  What this SAYS is that baby birds are an ingredient in Hellmann’s mayo.  Right?

What they MEANT is that an ingredient in mayonnaise is egg.  In an egg-producing operation, male chicks are useless, because well, they can’t lay eggs.  (Of course, a few must have escaped, since without male chickens, there would be no baby chicks, male  or female.)  Actually, of course, you have to keep some male chickens around, because hens get old and eventually stop laying eggs, so you have to have males to make new female chickens.  But for the most part, males are destroyed at birth.

In this case, The Language Lady learned something.  Not that ground-up male chicks are used in mayonnaise, but that it’s possible to sex baby chicks at birth.  Large operations use chick sexers.  (Q: “Hello, what do you do for a living?” A. “I’m a chick sexer for Hellmann’s.”)

In closing, The Language Lady would like to thank her readers, without whom she might be reduced to chick sexing, while slowly dying of the symptoms of bird flu.


The First Thanksgiving. Er, Sort Of.

The American holiday of Thanksgiving is this coming Thursday, and here in America we have a host of traditions about it, from the food to the story of the first one.  In fact, we have a lot of stories about a lot of things, some of which are outright myths (Paul Bunyan and Babe, the Blue Ox), some stories which may or may not be true (George Washington and the cherry tree), and the story of the first Thanksgiving, which we all learn as wee children.

Here’s how that story goes.  The Pilgrims came to America from England, in search of religious freedom.  They landed on Plymouth Rock, in Massachusetts, in 1620.  They were befriended by a Native American named Squanto, who taught them how to plant native plants such as corn, squash, and beans, and how to make the crops thrive by planting them with dead fish.  The next year, when it was time to harvest, they had their first Thanksgiving feast.  In drawings, this is usually depicted as the Pilgrims and their native American friends seated side by side at a long table, enjoying turkey and a bounty of other dishes.  And they all lived happily ever after.

So by coincidence, I’m reading the book “Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War” by Nathaniel Philbrick.  This is the third book by Philbrick I will have read.  The first was “In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex”, for which he won the National Book Award in 2000.  The second was “Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition”.  He’s written two others, one about the  battle of the Little Bighorn, and another about Bunker Hill.  I’m quite sure I’ll read them too.

The thing that used to confuse me the most about the Pilgrims was the religious freedom part.  When you look at the later history of the Pilgrims (take the Salem witch trials, for example), and indeed the history of our country to this day, religious freedom had nothing to do with it, except for their own.  They weren’t interested in religious freedom for everyone, just for themselves, because they were right, and everyone else was wrong.  Also only half, or slightly less than half of the “Pilgrims” were Separatists (from the Church of England), coming to America for religious freedom for themselves.  The rest were people coming for various reasons, including the hope of bettering themselves financially.  Plus, the Separatists didn’t live in England.  They’d already left and lived in Leiden, Holland.  They had to go back to England to board the Mayflower.  Some things they believed I wish we’d kept, such as a firm belief in the separation of church and state.  They thought marriage was a secular ceremony, not a religious one.  While they thought they were right, there’s been no mention of them attempting to “convert” their Native American friends…so there is in fact evidence of tolerance.  And that was a good move.

There actually is a big rock at Plymouth, but they didn’t “land” on it.  In fact, their first landing was at Cape Cod.

They did have ceremonies called “thanksgivings” on a regular basis, but the First Thanksgiving was more like a harvest feast.  There was a Squanto, and he apparently did teach them to plant corn, squash, and beans, using dead fish as fertilizer.  But there probably weren’t any turkeys on the menu.  The English were familiar with turkeys, they’d been imported to England long before, but the wild turkeys in America were very hard to catch.  Probably they had ducks, geese, and corn, squash and beans 🙂  But probably no fish.  They’d been farmers, and didn’t know how to fish.  It’s thought that the Native Americans brought some deer.  And they may have brought some fish too.  Let’s hope they had a dessert or two.  Maybe something with pumpkin or apples.  They could have sweetened them with honey or maybe maple syrup.

The long table is probably completely made up.  They barely had houses, much less furniture.

All in all, while the story has been simplified, much of it is true in essence.  Except for the part about living happily ever after.  After an auspicious beginning, things go to hell in a handbasket as far as relations between the settlers and the Native Americans.

It remains a good story.  They really were courageous and endured many hardships, both on the ship and in their first year in a strange land.  They had much to be thankful for…having food, having each other, having new friends, and surviving.  If parts of the story aren’t quite true, it’s still a good life to aspire to.


Cars and Country Music, Part II

I haven’t actually had that many cars in my life.  Sometimes I rode the bus, or a bike, or mooched rides from other people, or walked.

My first car ever was a used black VW Beetle, in 1967.  My father made the down payment, but I had to pay the monthly note which was between $30 and $35.  I fell on hard times, however, and my aunt advised me to park it in the parking lot of the bank, then call them and say “Here’s your car back”.  So I did.

My second car was a….used black VW Beetle.  Bought for me in cash by my then boyfriend…I think it cost about $300.  He did that because he was sick of picking me up after work so I could spend the night at his house.  I remember service station attendants (remember them?) repeatedly asking me if I’d like them to check the water, ha ha.  I actually fell for that the first time, what did I know?  Since I didn’t have to check the water, nobody ever told me I still had to check the oil.   One day, driving from the Tennessee River back to Memphis, it threw a rod.  Black smoke was boiling out everywhere.  I called a friend who towed me the last 50 miles back to Memphis…illegally, on a chain.  We were just lucky not to encounter the Highway Patrol.  Boyfriend person was not happy.  The car was, literally, toast.

Sadly, I don’t know of any country music songs featuring VW Beetles.

The next car I had, once I graduated from college and got a full-time job, was a Fiat 850 Spider convertible. One day, while driving to work in the rain, distracted, the car in front of me slammed on its brakes and so did I (this is before ABS, remember). I lost control of the car and it literally climbed a fire plug, pretty much gutting the underside of the car. I wasn’t hurt…just a little shaken up. It was next door to a school and all these little kids came running over saying, “You ain’t drunk, are you? ‘Cause if you are, you need to leave now. We won’t tell on you.” Well, it was 8:00 in the morning, and so far, I haven’t ever been drunk at that time of day, not that I’m ruling it out. My insurance company totaled the car, and even gave me credit for the brand new convertible top I’d just bought, which cost me $250. As a bonus, the motorcycle cop who responded was very cute. He gave me a ride to work, and we dated for a while afterwards.

I used the money I got from the insurance company and added more, and bought a brand new AMC Pacer. Stop laughing. I loved that car. It was my very first new car and my very first car with an automatic transmission, and my first American-made car. It was like driving in a soap bubble–you could see out 360 degrees. The first thing that happened was that the salesman absconded with my down payment (about $4,000 in cash). The dealer called just to inform me, because they knew I’d paid–they had all my paperwork and I also had a receipt. But perhaps that was an omen?

One day I was driving home from work (are you beginning to see a pattern here?) and the Pacer just…stopped. On an overpass. In rush-hour traffic. It wasn’t the oil–I’d learned my lesson–and there was no telltale black smoke. I thought I was going to die on that overpass. It was snowing that day. I had the tow truck take it to the parking lot of the grocery store across the street from my apartment, because my driveway had a steep incline they couldn’t make. I’ll never know what was wrong with the Pacer, because a couple of weeks later, once the snow cleared and I had saved a little money to get it to the shop, it was gone. As in, disappeared. I called the grocery and asked if they had had it towed, and they said no. So I called and made a police report, reporting it stolen. It was never found. But can you imagine? Stealing it would have required a tow truck. And who would want an AMC Pacer that much?

After a while, I bought a used Oldsmobile Omega for $1,500, and I have to tell you, I loved it too. It was sort of ugly, but it got me from Point A to Point B, at least until the transmission went out. I bought it from the first female car salesperson I’d ever met, and I just loved her. We exchanged Christmas cards for several years. And I bought another car from her later. And the insurance salesman she brought in for me was the brother of a guy I’d previously dated, and the cousin of another guy I’d previously dated. (Okay, don’t judge, it was very much a coincidence.) The insurance guy had fairly recently left the Memphis police department. When he was there, he was only one of two Jews in the department, the second being his aforementioned cousin. Several year later, he shot himself to death.

And finally, we come to a car celebrated in country music. Well, not the Omega, but the Oldsmobile. There are no country music songs about VW’s, Fiats, or AMC Pacers. But there should be.

I see I’m going to have to do a Part III, because we are only up to the 1980’s here. More car disasters await having their stories told.

That’s The Wrong Fork!

It came as a big surprise to me yesterday to learn that Emily Post wrote a cookbook.  And you too can have a copy of it (original 1951 version, in hardback) for $2.30 from Amazon.  (The shipping is probably twice that.)  The 1951 version may be the only version as far as I know; unlike The Joy of Cooking, which has several versions and has been updated through the years.

In my opinion, if you never have but one cookbook, it should be The Joy of Cooking.  It has every basic recipe you could (and should) know how to cook, and not only that, some fascinating reading about the properties of food (why and how do eggs work in recipes? How exactly do they make flour?) and directions for cleaning a duck from the feathers down, along with many other kinds of game.  It really could be the survivalists’ handbook.

I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, because suddenly I remembered my first Home Economics class.  At my high school, you could get three different types of diplomas:  basic, vocational, or college preparatory.  I was in college prep, and we had certain courses that were required–that was probably true of the other categories as well, but we didn’t fraternize much so I don’t know–but we had room for some electives.  My freshman year, I chose Home Ec.  And then I took it for two more years.

I was interested in cooking.  My father had taught me to cook a little bit (my mother was a disaster in that area) and I’ll never forget making my first apple pie under his supervision, which included a crust made from scratch.  Mostly I’ll never forget the feeling of amazement and accomplishment when I took it out of the oven.  People can actually eat this, and I made it!

Nothing compares to that first apple pie, unless it’s the first time I grew a tomato plant. I planted this! In the dirt!  And I can eat it! I was young once, and many things could surprise and delight me. It takes a little more these days.

But I remembered that my Home Ec I teacher, Mrs. Noland, was not just about learning to cook and sew. It was about etiquette at the table, and proper attire. She was the advisor to an all-girls “social club” I belonged to, and every year, we had an afternoon tea, I think to welcome new members. Hats and gloves required. Proper way to balance a saucer on your lap and hold a teacup. She was the height of sophistication in our little mountain town. That said, I don’t know why I was so surprised that Emily Post wrote a cookbook, since so much of etiquette revolves around eating.

Fast forward to when I was 21 as opposed to 14, and I was going to dinner with my then boyfriend at the home of a woman who was known to be an incredible cook. I mean, she had copies of Gourmet magazine lying around the house. Her husband was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and they were obviously experienced at entertaining. I was dying to go, but terrified. Literally trembling, afraid I would do something wrong at the table and expose myself for the rube I really was. My boyfriend said, don’t be afraid, just watch me. Use the fork I use. And that’s what I did, but I needn’t have worried. The hostess was so gracious, so good at making her guests feel comfortable, that I probably could have made a mistake and I never would have known it.

Mrs. Noland taught me some of the rules, but this hostess taught me the true meaning of etiquette. In the end, the rules are designed to make everyone feel comfortable and relaxed, and if you can’t do that, you’ve failed.

It’s been a long time since that Home Ec class and that dinner, but I still know how to hold a teacup.

Cars and Country Music, Part I

Go together like love and marriage, horse and carriage., as the song says, and I was reminded of just what a role cars (mostly trucks) play in country music.  Along with trains, Momma, and prison.

This is an experiment to see if I can get a video to play here on WordPress.

Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives

This is the title of a show on the Food Network.  Chef Guy Fieri travels around to various “hole-in-the-wall” restaurants all over the country, most of them suggested by viewers.  He tootles around in his signature cherry red convertible Camaro.  Like I believe that.  They are most certainly flying his car to whatever city he’s in, but it’s a good trademark, and Fieri is a lot of fun.  Each of these restaurants has some signature dish they do very well, and sometimes more than one.  Fieri has never met a food he doesn’t like 🙂

I think of the classic diner as a free-standing place, like an old railroad car that has been converted into a restaurant.  It’s very narrow, with a counter and stools on one side, and booths against the wall on the other. But there are also faux diners, mocked up to look like something from the 1950’s.  One such diner that I believe was in New Orleans had black and white tile linoleum floors, red and white checked table cloths, lots of chrome (light fixtures, stools) and servers dressed up in uniforms like they wore in the old sit-c0m “Alice”.  And complete with juke boxes playing Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis.

A couple of real diners are famous, such as the Whistle Stop Café in Juliette, Georgia.  It was made famous in the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes”. Maybe lesser known is the diner called the Northside Café, in Winterset, Iowa, featured in the movie “The Bridges of Madison County”. Until the movie was made, Winterset was best known as the birthplace of John Wayne. When I lived in Des Moines, I visited all the locations where the movie was made–the farmhouse, Winterset, all the bridges that were still standing. Every year they have a Covered Bridge Festival in Winterset, and I can say that one of my fondest memories is that this is where I saw my first and only demonstration of live polka.

Drive-Ins: When I think of drive-ins, I don’t really think of restaurants, although it was a revolutionary idea. I think of movies. When I was a child, my parents took me to the movies, always a western, and I always fell asleep before the end, after asking a million questions about what had just happened and what was going to happen next. As a teenager, we had a drive-in movie in our town, which I only went to once. It seemed to me that just being seen there was enough to trash your reputation. When I got ready to move to the big city of Memphis after graduation, several people expressed misgivings about the dangers of a city. I was like, “Are you kidding? At least there’s something to do there. Here, I’m in more danger going to the drive-in”.

Dives: I don’t think of dives as restaurants. I think of them as bars. Three in Memphis stand out for me: Peanuts, the Last Laugh, and The Daily Planet. Especially The Daily Planet. The owners were for some reason obsessed with Superman and Lois Lane and there were posters all over the bar of them. Both Peanuts and The Daily Planet had live music, and even the most amateur of live music in Memphis was a cut above what you usually see in bars.

But for the highest honor you could bestow on a dive bar…that goes to Vic’s Kangaroo Café in New Orleans. I’m amazed–I looked it up and it still exists, at 636 Tchoupitoulas St. It was across the street from my first office there. It was the after-work watering hole for me and my fellow managers. So many memories…like the time we took our boss there. He wasn’t much of a drinker, and after one or maybe two beers, he got offended by something someone said to him at the bar. We don’t know what it was, but our boss Fred was black, and he was the only black person in the bar. So pretty safe to assume it was something racial, or he assumed it was. I think being the only black person in the bar made him a little paranoid, and then you add alcohol to that…So Fred breaks a beer bottle on the bar, leaving shards of glass on the bar and a jagged weapon in his hand. We all surrounded him and marched him out of the bar, all the while shouting “Everything is OK! Really, he didn’t mean it! We’ll be back to clean up the glass! He’s leaving now! Please don’t call the police!”

I should write to Guy Fieri and tell him to check out Vic’s 🙂 They do have food. Every Friday they would do a crawfish boil on the sidewalk outside the front door. They had a popcorn machine that they added cayenne pepper to. I wasn’t able to breathe while they were popping it. I was there so much that eventually they would come to me and say, “We’re about to pop some more popcorn, wanna go outside?” Now there is the epitome of your friendly hometown dive bar.

What’s For Lunch?

Fellow blogger spencercourt, who became a real-life friend, followed by becoming a Facebook friend, started something this week.  spencercourt grew up in Manila, and attended a high school called, at that time, the American School.  The name subsequently changed to the International School.  He and fellow schoolmates of different graduating classes have a Facebook group called something like the AS/IS Club, and also have their own website.

By a strange coincidence, I have something similar.  I grew up in a small town in the mountains of North Carolina.  We don’t have a website, but we have two Facebook groups.  One is strictly for my graduating class.  We were the first graduating class from the new high school built in our town, and we feel pretty special because of it.  The other group is called “Remember Waynesville When…”.   People of all age groups post photos of Waynesville then and now, interesting bits of history, memories, etc.

So spencercourt asked an innocent question.  He asked if any of his AS/IS peeps remembered what they ate for lunch in high school, because he couldn’t remember. He could remember eating lunch almost every day at the Army Navy Club, but not what the food was.  He wanted to know what his fellow AS/IS folks remembered.

I suddenly realized that I couldn’t remember what we ate for lunch either, with one exception.  The rolls.  They were a type of yeast roll called a water roll.

So I asked the same innocent question on our “Remember When” group. Who remembers our school lunches, and specifically, who remembers the rolls? OMG, you would have thought I asked everyone to share their ideas on how to achieve world peace. People were coming out of the woodwork. EVERYBODY remembered the rolls.

One of the things I looked forward to were the replies to spencercourt’s question. It seemed to me that school lunches in the Philippines might be pretty exotic. Then it dawned on me that school lunches in the mountains of North Carolina might seem pretty exotic to people from the Philippines.

Many people remembered days when lunch was pinto beans, turnip greens, and cornbread. I remember having corn quite often as a vegetable, probably because corn was grown locally quite a bit. You think of corn as a crop grown in the endless flat fields of Illinois, Iowa, and Kansas, but if planted correctly, it grows just fine in the mountains too, just not as abundantly.

Besides the rolls, many people also remembered the peanut butter cookies. Apparently the government gave our schools free peanut butter and cheese. So we’ve gone on the hunt for the recipes for the rolls and the cookies from former lunchroom ladies.

One member of the “Remember” group is a former local politico (County Commissioner) turned reporter for the hometown newspaper. The discussion has reached the point where her editor said she should write a story about it for the paper.

She wondered how she could possibly do that, since she doesn’t cook. (She stores cups and saucers in her oven.) I told her she doesn’t play an instrument or sing in a bluegrass band either, but she regularly reports on that anyway. No difference.

Plus, I said she should treat it as history, not as a cooking article. School lunches have changed dramatically over the years since we got “homemade” rolls and peanut butter cookies for lunch in the school cafeteria.

Like I said, spencercourt started something.