miscellany/etymology

Brassica Uber Alles, Part One: Chouette First, Ask Questions Later?

a propos of mostly nothing, save that there was cabbage in this dish and i really like this picture. also reminds me i never finished Lair of the White Wom.

 

it is a fixture of my insufferability that if, when embarking publicly on an analysis of some quibbling feature of language or social reality, i am met with a skepticism and (supposed) indifference so fervently avowed as to border on the venomous, i take it as an indication that i am on the right path, and my resolve is strengthened accordingly.

you know, like, i’m like “blah blah blah,” and they’re all like “that’s stupid, shut up, don’t think about that,” and so of course i am like “Whoa Ho, Methinks Thou Dost Protest Too Much!” and i become even more interested in whatever the fuck it is, cabbages or something. i mean it’s a vulgar psychoanalytic trick and basically Zizek’s equivalent of the People’s Elbow, but i think there is often enough something to it to justify my taking what may be merely an annoying habit/personality defect as a point of personal pride.

in this case, yes, it is cabbages, thank you very much, and more specifically the currency and polysemic richness of chou (cabbage) in the French language.

i got to thinking about this after i had my first (first! i know!) petit chou at a bakery in Paris just recently. in this case, the chou à la crème, a cream puff, effectively (effectively, the best cream puff, holy shit), is so-called because it resembles more or less a cabbage, and has nothing else to do with cabbage than that, just as chocolate truffles are so named because of their loose resemblance to fungus truffles, and for no other reason. the immediate question which arises is “why cabbage?” the answer to which, of course, is “shut the fuck up,” and i’d be happy to leave it at that if that was where it ends (because they do look more or less like little cabbages), but it so happens that chou is a very popular and versatile word.

in the world of patisserie, beside chou à la crème, we also have paté à choux, which is a light, egg-based pastry dough, supposedly named after the cabbagey-looking buns made by the 19th century master pastry chef Jean Avice.

chou itself refers, as does cabbage, to both the family (brassica/cruciferae) and the species (oleracea), but to a greater extent than the english, it permeates the nomenclature of its relatives and its preparations. see: chou fleur, choux de bruxelles, chou frisé, chou-rave, choucroute (cauliflower, brussel sprouts, kale, kohlrabi, sauerkraut), where the chou/cabbage occupies a seat (within its field) of ontological primacy.

but is it merely within its field? the whole train of consideration was set off by hearing chou used as a term of endearment – like ma blondemon chou/ma choute is a Québecois expression for boyfriend/girlfriend. further, chou can also operate as an adjective (familiar, of course) meaning nice, cute, generally sweet, as does chouette (which, complicating things further, also means owl, and, wtf, can refer casually to a random object, as might thinger or whatchamajigget!). so what came first, the owl or the cabbage? and why are they so cute? WHY DO THE FRENCH LOVE CABBAGES SO? because it persists, still further and farther afield in the French idiom, it turns out.

in my Petit Larousse alone i came up with “Aller planter ses choux,” (“Go plant his cabbage”) meaning to retire to the country;  “Bête comme chou,” for something that’s really easy; “Faire ses choux gras,” meaning to capitalize on something; “Feuille de chou,” for a crappy newspaper; “Être dans les choux,” and “Faire chou blanc,” for being fucked/in a fucked situation, and to totally fuck something up/fail, and “Bout de choux,” for a small child.

see what i’m saying? i mean, what i’m not saying is that there is some sinister ideological undercurrent to the ubiquity of the word, but i’m curious how it came to be so prevalent and variously employed. particularly because we anglos certainly do not seem to give the cabbage much play. it’s a much maligned vegetable, and when we stop to think about it, which is rarely, it tends to conjure associations with poverty and commonness. a fine instance of this can be found in MFK Fisher’s “The Social Status of a Vegetable” (Harper’s, april 1937):

At the word spinach her face clouded, but when I mentioned cabbage a look of complete and horrified disgust settled like a cloud. She pushed back her chair.

“Cabbage!” Her tone was incredulous.

“Why not?” James asked mildly, “Cabbage is the staff of life in many countries. You ought to know, Mrs. Davidson. Weren’t you raised on a farm?”

Her mouth settled grimly.

“As you know,” she remarked in an icy voice, with her face gradually looking very old and discontented again, “there are many kinds of farms. My home was not a collection of peasants. Nor did we eat such – such peasant things as this.”

[ . . . ]

“Why do you really dislike cabbage, Mrs. Davidson?”

She looked surprised, and put down the last bite of her bowl of brandied plums.

“Why does anyone dislike it? Surely you don’t believe that i think your eating it is anything more than a pose?” She smiled knowingly at her nephew and me . . .

this is fully worth reading on, as is invariably the case with Fisher (who now crowns my list of People For Whom I Should Probably Invent A Time Machine For The Purposes of Seducing/Being Seduced By), i assure you.

but anyway, even if there is no reason per se, should it prove to be the essence of happenstance that the French have been so fundamentally romanced by the sound and the spirit of the cabbage, if not necessarily  the taste; i find that no less interesting.

if only googling “history of cabbage in France?” yielded more to supplement my patchy knowledge (ie: near-total ignorance) of European agricultural history, perhaps i could shed some light on the matter and perhaps make some amateurish and intellectually irresponsible generalizations about language and alimentary materialism. but you know, alas.
alas indeed.

i guess that’s it.

you just wait for the post wherein i associate Morrissey’s fixation on criminality and masculine thuggery with my own fascination with brussels sprouts. don’t tempt me, people, i am not a man to be trifled with.

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