Monday, May 28, 2012

To Marceau, or Not to Marceau?

The other day on NPR I heard a blind man describing his attempt to orient himself in a strange room.  To familiarize himself with its layout, he related, “I Marcel Marceaued  the walls.”  This is the first time I had heard the name of the late, famed French mime used as a verb.

The reference, of course, is to one of Marceau’s famous routines in which he creates the illusion of a walled-in space by moving his flattened palms along an imaginary surface.  Although not a word was ever spoken during any of his performances, when he came offstage, Marceau was a ceaseless raconteur, as I learned in several après-show gabfests. He once said, “Never get a mime talking; he won't stop."

According to a cousin, Marceau spent his last years “lonely, ill, and broke.”  He died at a racetrack in Cahors in 2007 at the age of 84.  They say he went quietly.

Other names of individuals that have morphed into verbs include those of Marceau’s compatriot with whom he shared a name, François Marcel (marcel, “wave the hair with heated irons”), physician Franz Mesmer (mesmerize, “hypnotize”), jurist Robert Bork (bork, “discredit by an attack on character”), and John McAdam (macadamize, “pave a road with a small stones bound with cement”).  (The last is not the same as the botanist John Macadam, who discovered the macadamia nut.)

Another noted nut, the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, will never be a verb.  He’s much more suited to be an improper noun.  From under his favorite rock, he writes:

            I Marcel Marceaued a wall,
            And J. Edgar Hoovered a hall,
            And I trust you won’t scoff
            When you learn I showed off
            By Nolan Ryaning a ball.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Don’t Hold the Mayo!

Political commentator Ron Reagan (son of the Ronald Reagan) recently speculated on Mitt Romney’s potential Vice Presidential running mates, and characterized the possible choice of Ohio Senator Rob Portman as “Mayonnaise meets Tapioca.”  His point was that it would make an unexciting ticket of two bland white guys. 

Tapioca is a starchy food extracted from the root of the South American cassava plant.  Its name derives from word tipi'óka, in the language of the Tupí, an indigenous Brazilian people who also gave us the words jaguar, jacaranda, and carioca.

Mayonnaise is much harder to pin down.  Its ingredients are simple enough—oil, egg yolks, and vinegar—mixed to form an emulsion.  But the origin of the word has etymologists scratching their heads (not a pretty sight). 

The most common story is that it came from Port Mahon, capital of the Spanish island of Minorca, where the French defeated the British in 1756 during the Seven Years’ War.  To celebrate, the French commander, Armand de Vignerot du Plessis, organized a banquet, for which his chef planned a sauce of cream and eggs.  But, alas, there was no cream, so he substituted olive oil.  Voilà!  Sauce Mahonnaise, named for the seaport and later modified to Mayonnaise.

But there are problems with this theory. There is no contemporary verification that it happened, and the earliest record of the word mayonnaise in print is not until 1804—almost half a century after its supposed invention.  It’s odd that no one mentioned it in all that time.

Another view, championed by Larousse Gastronomique, is that the word is a corruption of moyeunaise, derived from Old French moyeu, which means “eggyolk.” 

Don’t care for that explanation?  OK, possibly it was originally called mayennaise, after Charles de Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, who reputedly insisted on finishing his meal of chicken with cold sauce before being defeated in the Battle of Arques in 1589.  But that’s an even longer lag before the word’s first appearance in print!

Going still further back in time, the 19th-century writer Pierre Lacam suggested that in 1459 a London woman named Annamarie Turcauht stumbled upon the condiment while trying to create a custard. Who she was or how Lacam knew about her is a mystery.

Yet another theory came from French chef Antonin Carème, who thought mayonnaise derived from the verb manier, “to stir.”

Grimod de la Reynière, a gourmand writing in 1808, surmised that the original name was actually sauce Bayonnaise, from the French town of Bayonne (famous for its ham).  Today Bayonnaise can mean a special kind of mayonnaise flavored with chili peppers.
In the immortal words of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou, “Hold the mayo and pass the mustard.” And now for some of his tartly flavored mortal words:
            Old Mitt Romney went to town,
            Riding on his pony,
            To find a V.P. of renown,
            Who’s only slightly phony.

            “The election will be nip-and-tuck,
            Therefore, my Number Two
            Must be someone who’ll bring me luck,
            Oh, how I wonder who!

            “No Sarah Palin do I seek,
            ‘You betchas’ don’t assuage me,
            And every time she tried to speak,
            She’d probably upstage me.

            “Rob Portman’s just like tapioca,
            Or is it mayonnaise?           
            I need a guy who’ll carioca,
            With moves like Tom DeLay’s.

            “That fellow, Marco Rubio--
            He’s very big in Florida,
            But he’s too much of a newbie, oh,
            Outside the Senate corridor.

            “The moderates have made a case
            For me to choose Mitch Daniels,
            But all those wing-nuts in my base,
            Would prefer my cocker spaniels.

            “Perhaps my man will be Paul Ryan,
            But I’m not sure how to judge it—
            Oh, he’s quite an up-and-coming lion,
            But he lugs around that budget!

            “I mustn’t overlook Chris Christie
            To be my running mate,
            He’s not easy to resist—he
            Pulls a lot of weight.

            But what if Democrats should thwart
            The best-laid plans of men?
            And suppose the vote winds up in court—
            Now who could help me then?

            “Aha!  I know the ideal guy,
            If shove should come to push--
            My choice is Jeb, for in a tie,
            You cannot beat a Bush!”


Monday, May 14, 2012

Pay the Two Dollars

The other day I said to a friend who was complaining about a 75-cent unspecified charge on his cell phone bill, “Just pay the two dollars.”  “What two dollars?” he replied, “it’s just 75 cents.” 
“Pay the two dollars” is an idiom once widely known, but now fallen into obscurity. It comes from an old vaudeville sketch by Willie and Eugene Howard in George White’s “Scandals of 1931."
The sketch commences on a New York subway. Willie is an inoffensive milquetoast, accompanied by a friend who is an aggressive and belligerent lawyer (which is, of course, a wildly improbable fictional creation.)
They argue, and Willie gets worked up and spits on the floor. The subway conductor points to a sign inidicating a $2.00 fine for spitting. Willie wishes to pay the fine, but the lawyer, as a matter of principle, will not let him.
Penalties escalate, as the lawyer unsuccessfully fights the fine and Willie pleads, "Let's pay the two dollars." But the lawyer is obsessed with vindication--and Willie is ultimately sentenced to death in the electric chair. The lawyer finally obtains a pardon for Willie, and as they return home on the subway, Willie denounces the lawyer for destroying his life. He becomes worked up again and inadvertently spits on the subway floor. Blackout.
"Pay the two dollars" became a catch-phrase meaning something like "Don't fight City Hall" or "Don't make a mountain out of a mole hill."

The sketch was re-created in the 1946 film Ziegfeld Follies by Victor Moore and Edward Arnold.

In Hitchcock's North by Northwest, Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is told jokingly by his mother (Jessie Royce Landis), "Pay the two dollars," after he futilely attempts to explain his kidnapping and win exoneration from a DWI charge.

Two dollars is on the high side of the estimated value of the collected works of the Bard of Buffalo Bayou. Here’s another of his 15-cent specials:

            Every time that someone hollers,
            “What can you buy for just two dollars?”
            I look on line and find with ease
            Two-dollar items just like these:

            Bottle opener key chains,
            Wooden model weather vanes,
            Ceramic custom coffee mugs,
            Rubbermaid two-gallon jugs,

            Mango-coconut lip balm,
            A fancy-schmancy card for mom,
            Three-packs of mini-writing pads,
            Children’s shorts in checks or plaids,

            Ninety-nine no-scent tea lights,
            Assorted tetrahedral kites,
            Harrods’ special Christmas crackers,
            The Colonel’s fresh grilled chicken snackers,

            A teeny-tiny picnic basket,
            A thermostatic housing gasket,
            Orchid-flavored Airwick candles,
            Multi-colored, salvaged sandals,

            American and other flags,
            Thirteen-gallon garbage bags,
            Tru-Turn blood-red snelled fishhooks,
            Old, remaindered Kindle books,

            One gallon “Gingrich gasoline,”
            A Game Role-Playing Magazine,
            Toddlers’, boys’, and girls’ tank tops,
            Plastic-handled toilet-mops,
            Nearly new young ladies’ skirts,
            Unused Herman Cain T-shirts,
            Five, or maybe six, bananas,
            Garish orange and green bandanas,

            A Chinese bathtub rubber duck,
            A flask of wine from two-buck Chuck,
            Large orders of McDonald’s fries—
            See how much two dollars buys!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Fig Newton? Darn Tootin’

The Fig Newton, as we have known it through several generations, is no more. Oh, they still make the mushy pastry wrapped around a fig paste, but it now has a brand-new package and a simplified name.  Nabisco, the Kraft Foods division that makes the iconic cookie, thinks it will attract more (and younger) customers simply as a “Newton,” even though it still contains the same doughy covering and figgy goo.  If figs are not your thing, however, you can get a Strawberry Newton or a Raspberry Newton instead.

Fig Newtons have been around since 1891, when they were first manufactured by the Kennedy Biscuit Works in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and named, for some unexplained reason, in honor of the nearby town of Newton.  Perhaps “Fig Cambridge” didn’t roll trippingly off the tongue. 

In 1991 the 100th anniversary was observed with an 8-foot Newton and a performance by pop/country singer Juice Newton (undoubtedly a far better choice than Wayne would have been).

The Fig Newton may be confused with, because it is very similar to, the Fig Newman—an organic version of the same product manufactured by the company founded by actor Paul Newman.

Boston Magazine has come up with a list of other cookies named for Massachusetts venues, including Pepperidge Farms’ chunky chocolate “Nantucket”; the “Boston Cracker” (one that has been split and puffed), the “Cape Cod” oatmeal-raisin cookie, the “Beacon Hill” (a chocolate meringue cookie), and the ever popular “Toll House” cookie, invented by a cook using Nestlé chocolate in 1937 at the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, which is a long way from Massachusetts, doesn’t give a fig about Newtons of any variety, including Sir Isaac.  He’d rather munch jelly rolls while strumming jazz tunes on his ukulele.  He writes as follows:

            What is it about a Fig Newton?
            It certainly isn’t its fizz.
            No, it’s duller than Vladimir Putin,
            Or an organic chemistry quiz.

            Compare one to an Oreo,
            And it tastes a bit like guano.
            It inspires no oratorio,
            Like a Pepperidge Farm Milano.
            Nutter Butter and Chips Ahoy,
            I cannot do without,
            Or Famous Amos, or Almond Joy,
            Or those treats from some little Girl Scout.

            Yet there’s something about a Fig Newton,
            But I can’t say e.g. or viz.
            Yes, there’s something, as sure as shootin’—
            But I haven’t a clue what it is.