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What's Eating You?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010


Theodor DeBry's illustration of South American cannibals., ca.1590.



Ambrose Bierce once defined a cannibal as "A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period."

Of course, we're much more civilized today--we no longer actually tear into our enemies with our teeth. We prefer to do it symbolically -- with our tongues -- but we reveal our ancient cannibalistic tendencies by using metaphors from the kitchen. To be verbally "roasted" by a superior is be "raked over the coals," and "basted." In French, the verb cuisiner (to cook), also means to interrogate with the help of torture.

Sometimes, if we deserve the hot treatment, we are merely left to "stew in our own juices" or "fry in our own grease." The Spanish equivalent is quemarse en su propia salsa, "burn in our own sauce." Once we are thoroughly cooked, our colleagues may properly describe us as "done to a turn." Likewise, someone who has been (or is about to become) totally defeated is "dead meat" or "gobbled up."

When someone's in trouble at the office, they're said "to be in a pickle" or "in hot water." In Italian, they're essere in un bel pasticcio, "in a lovely meat pie" -- and when an American might say that the boss is going to make "mincemeat" out of such a person, the Italians say that he fare polpette di qualcuno, "is going to make meatballs out of him." To "have someone for breakfast" or to be "chawed (chewed)" or "chawed up and spit out" is to be completely destroyed -- or at least demoralized -- by such a tongue-lashing. A worse insult, that is only implied, is to be "chawed" and not spit out -- because that means the hapless victim is digested, reduced to the status of "used food" (the stuff we flush down the toilet).

It is worth noting that, while there lots of food-based ethnic slurs for others considered to be inferior (for example: "bagel-benders," "frijoles," "frogs," "fruitcakes," and "krauts" -- suggesting that they are what they eat), completely different food-names are applied to superiors. Food terms can be used to indicate flaws in our superiors -- which allows us to treat them (if only surreptitiously) as our inferiors. Almost always, the descriptive insults suggest that superiors eat too much. Consider terms like "the big cheese," "the big enchilada," "old lard-ass" or "lard-bucket" or "tub-of-lard," or the "top banana," or the "big potato." In Spain, the preferred term is el pez gordo, "the fat fish." None of these terms (with the possible exception of those containing the word "lard") would be used for someone we actually believed to be more powerful but less qualified than ourselves. For sure, we don't want to be caught using one of these expressions -- lest we "get our goose cooked."

When someone asks, "what's eating you?" they're suggesting that some imaginary, corrosive, consuming evil is the source of our discontent. What's really surprising that no one ever asks "who's eating you?".

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This somewhat altered selection from How to Serve Man was published as an article in March/May 2003 issue of The Valley Table, and appears here by permission of the publishers.

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