From oysters to eggplants, French is stuffed with food metaphors...The other night at dinner, Philippe was discussing food. Not surprising. After all, France is a country with four religions and 400 sauces. (The United States, Philippe opines, has four sauces and 400 religions.) Specifically, the pervasiveness of food imagery in French speech. I recounted confronting my first major food metaphor. “T’as les portuguaises ensablées, ou quoi?” a fellow student said. Clueless, I attempted direct translation (Are your female Portuguese full of sand or what?), then intelligently responded, “Quoi?”
He explained elaborately. Roman policier (detective novel) writer Frédéric Dard, who single-handedly souped up French with more argot than anyone before or since, was a big foodie. Not surprising. Dard, who wrote under the pseudonym San-Antonio, liked to cook up ambiguously edible titles for his books, like Tarte à la Crème Story (1980), Sauce Tomate sur Canapé (1994) and the inimitable La Rate au Court-bouillon (approximately, “Spleen in the Soup,” 1965). Another one, Du Poulet au Menu (1958), sounds like KFC until you know that poulet (chicken) also means cop.
In Ne Mangez Pas la Consigne (“Don’t Eat the Orders,” or alternatively, “Don’t Eat the Baggage Room,” 1961), San-Antonio invented the notorious phrase about the Portuguese. Which are not Portuguese women but edible oysters known as portuguaises and, by extension, human ears. How come? Because ears reminded him of oyster shells. Why full of sand? Because a dead oyster is full of sand. Also, if you’ve got sand in your ears, you can’t hear anything. “T’as les portuguaises ensablées, ou quoi?” means “Are you deaf or what?” These days, there’s a rock group named Les Portuguaises Ensablées, and the Dictionnaire Grand Robert lists “portuguaises” as a synonym for ears!
But not all food metaphors in French are complicated. Some are obvious. My favorite is pédaler dans le yaourt / la choucroute / la semoule, as in “ You must get organized. Stop pedaling in (choose one) yogurt / sauerkraut / polenta.” Not to be confused with “Il patauge dans la mélasse” (He’s paddling in the molasses), roughly translatable as “He’s in deep doo-doo.”
As we turned to our salad, Philippe remarked that there are 12 ways to toss salad in French, including tourner (turn), touiller (stir) and fatiguer (to fatigue, exhaust or worry, as a dog worries a bone). There’s also remuer, mélanger, saucer, secouer, assaisonner, accommoder, apprêter, relever and I forget. The word salade itself has at least six meanings meanings outside its culinary context. In San-Antonio’s La Vérité en Salade (“The Truth as a Salad,” 1958) it is a veritable layer-cake of innuendo:
—Confusion, disorder: Il a fait une salade indescriptible (He messed everything up). See also, Quelle mélasse!
—Lies: Arrête tes salades! (Stop lying!), but in the singular: Arrête ta salade! (Stop whining!).
—Making a big deal out of nothing: Elle en a fait toute une salade (She made a big stink about it).
—Quarrel, as in Il me cherche une salade: He’s trying to pick a fight with me. Short form: Il me cherche.
—Unclear or dishonest situation, as in Quelle salade que la politique! (Politics is a dirty business).
Later, when the detective caught his man, the poulets carted him off in a panier à salade (paddy-wagon)!
We ran into one last food metaphor that night. Standing by Philippe’s car was a woman, writing. Une aubergine lui collait un papillon (an eggplant was gluing a butterfly on him) . Quoi? A meter maid was giving him a ticket! Back in 1977-78 the Paris police department decided those ladies who leave parking tickets fluttering (hence papillon) under your windshield wipers should wear fashionable maroon uniforms with high, rounded caps. Within minutes, someone nicknamed them aubergines. The maligned uniforms have since been replaced with blue suits, but the name stuck. You guessed it: the Robert now lists “aubergine” as “auxiliaire de la police française”!
© Julia Frey, 2012
Amuse-Bouche: Twelve Ways to Toss a Salad
by Julia Frey
Julia Frey is a writer best known for her biography of an artist who also loved to cook: Toulouse-Lautrec, a Life (Phoenix Giants, London, 2006, available on Amazon.com).