Week of May 9, 2021

Food for Thought


Though he didn’t start the idea of putting filling between two slices of bread, John Mantagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, got the name to stick. Supposedly, in 1762, the often-gambling earl wanted something to eat without having to leave the card table, and likely got the idea through similarly-stacked morsels he’d seen on Mediterranean travels. Once he started eating these regularly, they took off in popularity, with people ordering “the same as Sandwich” which got shortened to “sandwich.”


Grapevine stems are naturally twisted and convoluted, quite the opposite of straight and direct telegraph wires. The connection is that to describe something which was “heard through the grapevine” actually descends of the older term “The Grape Vine Telegraph Line.” This reference, which came about soon after telegraph technology grew, referred to information transmitted through the often-meandering and indirect person-to-person channels as opposed to straight-from-the-source communications. Nonetheless, these “grapevine” channels via African-Americans proved useful to Union leaders during the American Civil War in obtaining clandestine military information, and likely in many other military efforts since.


The richer part of milk, the cream, rises to the top of the liquid and is the more valuable part to farmers. The French term for this is the “la creme de la creme” or “the cream of the cream,” so the English term “cream of the crop” is likely an alliteration of this.


A plausible origin of the term “spilling the beans” for revealing a secret goes back to ancient Greece. When voting on a matter, anonymous votes were cast by placing one of two raw beans in an opaque jar: white for yes, black for no. A clumsy voter who knocked over the jar would spill the beans, revealing the vote prematurely.


Remember grabbing that hot cucumber and burning your hand? Probably not. Cucumbers are mostly water on the inside, which absorbs heat slowly and really does keep them cooler than their surroundings, sometimes by up to 20 degrees Celcius. Most melons and gourds share this watery coolness too, but we happen to say “cool as a cucumber” and not “cool as a cantaloupe.”


The most prominent theory about why a “baker’s dozen” is 13 instead of 12 involves bakers avoiding punishment. For centuries, English laws severely punished bakers who cheated customers by selling them undersized or too few loaves. Bakers came to err on the side of caution by selling 13 loaves as a dozen.


Besides a sauce made with meat drippings, “gravy” has also long meant something easy. The term “gravy train” when first used by railroad workers in the 1920s to refer to a good-paying yet relatively low-effort train run.