Monday, January 30, 2012

Things I Find Fascinating: Chopped Liver And Other Food Clichés

Most of us, whether we're aware of it or not, use a plethora of oddball clichés on an everyday basis. But do we really know what they mean? Of course, we know what we mean by them, but do we really know where these phrases and sayings come from? Probably not, in most cases. Do we really care? Probably not, in most cases. But I care. At least enough to write a blog post about it. Today's focus is on food-related clichés. Some are widely in use, and some you don't hear quite as often as you used to in the past. But here they are nonetheless:

1)  A Dollar To A Donut – Have you ever heard or perhaps uttered the phrase "I'll bet you a dollar to a donut that..." What the heck does that mean? Well, according to, "Dollars to Donuts is a faux bet in which one person agrees to put up the same amount of dollars to another person's donuts in a bet (where a donut is considered to be worth much less than a dollar). Betting someone dollars to donuts is a rhetorical device that indicates that the person is confident in the outcome of an event; [however], it does not usually involve an actual bet with actual payoffs (either in dollars or in donuts)."

Well, that explains it much better than I ever could. But why donuts? Not really sure. Previous versions of the cliché include "dollars to buttons" and "dollars to dumplings." Apparently, someone tried to change it to "dollars to cobwebs" at some point, but that didn't really catch on too well. These days, a donut is probably worth a dollar or more, depending on where you buy it. Shoot, these days even a dollar isn't worth a dollar anymore. Maybe the phrase should be changed to "I'll bet you a dollar to a dollar..."

2)   Happy As A Clam – This one is a tad confusing. How can a clam be happy? It's a clam. It doesn't really have feelings, and if it did, why would be it happy? Its primary purpose in life is to be killed and eaten by humans and other carnivorous creatures. Now, when I'm eating fried clam strips at a seafood restaurant, I'm usually feeling pretty happy (unless they're overcooked and taste rubbery). But I'm fairly certain that the clam isn't too happy about being eaten. So where does this come from?

Well, apparently the phrase is a truncated version of the saying "happy as a clam at high tide". The thought behind this is that at high tide the clam is not only buried beneath the sand, but is also beneath the water. Therefore, it's harder for the clam to be dug up and eaten at high tide, and thus the clam is perceived to be "happy". Makes perfect sense when you think about it. Just don't think about it too hard. Because clams don't have feelings. They may be disappointed when they are dug up and may halfheartedly try to escape (rarely successfully), but that's instinct, not feelings.

3)  Are You Chicken? – This phrase is often used tauntingly to question the degree of another person's fear or apprehension. The origin of the word "chicken" to mean "afraid" is unclear. Some think it reflects the skittish nature of chickens in general. If you run toward a chicken, it will likely be unsure what to do, perceive you as a threat, and run quickly in the opposite direction. Whether this is actual fear or merely survival instinct is irrelevant – the chicken appears to be afraid of you and acts accordingly.

Another theory concerning the origin of the synonymy of chickens and cowardice is the story of "Chicken Little" from the popular children's book series. Chicken Little ran around proclaiming that "the sky is falling! the sky is falling!" because of one seemingly insignificant event involving a falling acorn.

Whichever origin is correct, if the question "Are you chicken?" is ever posed to you, the answer you would hopefully give in reply is "no". Unless you really are chicken. To which, if I may respectfully add, "Bock! Bock! Bock!"

There are lots of other great chicken clichés I could have used here, including "running around like a chicken with its head cut off" (which as we've seen before can be quite interesting and lucrative if handled improperly), "don't count your chickens before they're hatched", and "waking up with the chickens". But I had to pick just one, so there you go.

4)  Take (It) With A Grain Of Salt – This oft-used phrase means to cautiously accept what someone is telling you, while maintaining a degree of skepticism about its truth. The origin for this phrase, which goes quite a ways back, is best described by the historian Pliny, in his Naturalis Historia (ca. 77 A.D.):

"After the defeat of that mighty monarch, Mithridates, Gnaeus Pompeius found in his private cabinet a recipe for an antidote in his own handwriting; it was to the following effect: 'Take two dried walnuts, two figs, and twenty leaves of rue; pound them all together, with the addition of a grain of salt; if a person takes this mixture fasting, he will be proof against all poisons for that day.'"

The suggestion here is that potentially harmful effects can be tempered by the taking of a grain of salt. It doesn't discount the fact that what's being taken – or in the case of suspect advice, what's being told to you – could still harm you, but that the taking of the grain of salt, whether literally or figuratively, will make the inevitable outcome more bearable. In the case of the potentially untruthful, unhelpful, or unsafe advice, "taking it with a grain of salt" lessens the chances of its harming you by your less-than-complete acceptance of it. If that makes any sense at all. Hopefully, it does. And now, to me at least, so does the phrase. 

5)  Life Is Just A Bowl Of Cherries – This curious phrase is often used to denote that things are going smoothly, life is great, and all is right with the world. But why cherries? Well, apparently, the phrase "the berries", which would conceivably include cherries, meant either something that was great, or referred to one's wealth. If you had "the berries" or perhaps if your life was "the berries," you had it made in the shade with a spade and some jade. You were "the tops", so to speak. The actual phrase "Life is just a bowl of cherries" came from a song of the same title, the chorus of which went like this: "Life is just a bowl of cherries / Don't take it serious / Life's too mysterious / You work, you save, you worry so / But you can't take your dough when you go, go, go..."  All in all, very wise words for living.

But what if you, like me, don't particularly care for cherries? If "life is just a bowl of cherries" for me, then life is useless, and undesirable, and likely to be wasted. So I guess for folks like me, the phrase can be altered to include a bowl of whatever would signify the good life to me, or to you, specifically. I think I'll go with: "Life is just a bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream." 

6)  Bringing Home The Bacon – This humorous phrase (I can't say it with a straight face) means, as you probably already know, to earn money, in particularly for one's family. It generally implies that the amount of money one is earning is not only sufficient to meet one's needs, but is more than enough for one to consider themselves wealthy. But why bacon?

The most common theory as to where the phrase originated is from the story of the Dunmow Flitch (um...Gesundheit?). Reading about it and even regurgitating the story behind it word-for-word is not only confusing, but rather boring. Basically, back in 1104 in Essex, England, this married couple somehow so impressed the Prior of Little Dunmow with their marital devotion (I don't think I really want to know how they went about doing that), that the Prior decided to award them a flitch (or side) of bacon as a result. Now, every four years the people in Great Dunmow, in Essex, do some kind of ritual demonstrating their marital devotion (again, TMI, don't wanna know), and are rewarded with bacon.

While I may never "bring home the bacon" sufficiently to be called wealthy, I would like to make it publicly known here and now and for all time that I love my wife dearly, devotedly, and delightfully, and anyone who wants to give me some bacon because of that fact is certainly welcome to do so. 

7)  In A Pickle – This also-hilarious phrase, is used to denote that someone is a difficult position, or a quandary, if you will. But what the heck? You can't fit inside a pickle, I don't care how skinny you are! So, where did this saying come from?

Well, apparently the earliest pickles were spicy sauces made to accompany meat dishes. The word "pickle" was later used to describe a mixture of spiced, salted vinegar that was used as a preservative for foods.

Later on, some really twisted writers (an oxymoron, of course) made up some fanciful stories – cautionary tales, really – about living people being added to the mixture of spices and sauces, either by accident, or intentionally as punishment for their misdeeds. If you were unfortunate enough to be purposefully or mistakenly added to the pickle sauce, you were said to be "in a pickle". Which would certainly qualify as being in a quandary, as no one in his or her right mind desires to be pickled and later consumed. That's just crazy talk! 

8)  Cut The Cheese – Yes, I'm going there. As most of you know (especially the more juvenile-minded like myself), to "cut the cheese" means to break wind – or to put it more crassly, to fart. But where did this most unusual of phrases originate?

Who exactly came up with the phrase is a seemingly unanswerable question. But when is a little clearer. First off, the word "cut" by itself has been used as a euphemism for breaking wind since the late 1800's. In polite company, one might say that they had "cut their finger", but what they really meant is that they had farted. Some sources from the same time period suggest that the phrase "cut no cheese" was used contemporaneously with "cut" by itself. However, the saying "cut no cheese" was used to describe something of no weight or value. Similar to how we might now say that something "doesn't pass muster," they would say back then that it "cut no cheese."

Ultimately, the association of cutting cheese with breaking wind is believed to derive from the fact that certain cheeses, while inherently stinky in and of themselves, instantly smell worse, or stinkier, once the cheese is cut. The sudden whiff of stinkiness that emits from a cut cheese far exceeds the stinkiness of the uncut cheese. I don't think I need to draw a correlation here between the two. You get it. 'Nuff said.

9)  Don't Cry Over Spilled Milk – Well, the meaning of this one is probably self-explanatory, but just in case it isn't, here's how Wikipedia describes it: "It is no use worrying about unfortunate events which have already happened and which cannot be changed." But why do we say it? A multiplicity of wildly varying theories abound.

One story says the phrase sprang from fairy lore, in which people would pour cold, creamy milk onto the ground outside their houses to attract fairies to come there; or alternately, they would surround their homes with "spilled milk" to appease the resident sprites, as a sort of shrine, so to speak.

Another theory says that the phrase originated during the Great Depression, when the price of milk as a commodity had fallen so low due to its overabundance relative to demand, that dairy farmers were subsidized by the state to destroy their surplus in order to bring prices back up to a profitable level.

The common sense theory, which I tend to like the best, is that it's utterly pointless to get upset about having spilled your milk. Yes it's wasteful, and yes it's going to be a pain to clean up. But you've already spilled it. So clean it up already! And move on. Life's too short to get upset by stupid stuff like squandered dairy products. 

10)  What Am I, Chopped Liver? – Why is it that, when feeling left out or disrespected by others, we so often utter this oddball question? Of course, it's rhetorical – no one is, in fact, chopped liver. So what do we mean by this saying?

Chopped liver is a traditional Jewish dish, consisting of cooked chicken livers that are chopped (or ground) and seasoned. While chopped liver is sometimes used as a sandwich filling, it is most often served as a side dish, and is never the main dish. Therefore, for someone to say that they feel akin to chopped liver is to equate themselves as less important and more expendable in the eyes of the person by whom they feel disrespected.

Most folks I know don't eat a lot of chopped liver. I don't either. Wouldn't touch the stuff. I don't even want any unchopped liver. But I can easily recognize that there are plenty of side dishes that are perfectly fine in and of themselves, yet will never be the star on the plate.

Since I don't do liver, the next time I feel slighted in some way, or I feel as though I am being treated as second-rate, I am going to personalize this cliché and pose the question: "What am I, steamed asparagus?" I just hope whomever I'm saying this to understands that I mean the question to be rhetorical.

(Sources:,, Wiki Answers, and various other places on the wonderful World Wide Web.)

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