Thursday, May 28, 2009

Country Malaprops

Mrs Malaprop is a fictional character from Richard Sheridan's play The Rivals (1775) who was prone to using the wrong word or transposing letters or syllables to turn common phrases on their head with unexpected—and often humorous—results. It comes, cleverly enough, from mal apropos, Latin for something inappropriate.

For example, my ex-partner Elke tells the story of her Uncle Mickey who (tongue firmly in cheek) was wont to say after splendid repasts at family gatherings, “What a malicious deal.” Although I never met the man, I’m sure I would have liked him. I have a great fondness for word play. Sometimes of course, people don’t mean to be funny, which tends to make it even funnier. Sifting through 35 years of rural living, I want to share today a handful of the accidental acorns that this blind pig has serendipitously stumbled across along the way.

I was reminded of this lighter side of my bucolic heritage while driving home from my regular Wed night bridge game last night (it’s a 45-minute ride, and a person can’t dwell the entire time on how to find a cold small slam with an eight-bagger spade suit headed by the jack and only 22 high card points between himself and partner). Near home I came across a highway sign that a commonplace whenever a stretch of blacktop has just been resurfaced: “Warning: No Center Stripe.” That got me thinking about Joe Pearl & Eva Grover, the couple who inspired Sandhill to go into the sorghum business…

• • •
Joe Pearl & Eva were in their 70s when Annie & I met them in 1975. (Annie and I were the only ones living at Sandhill that fall—when Sandhill's viability as an intentional community was seriously in question.) We went to visit the Grover's homestead about 10 miles distant to buy a gallon of sorghum one morning, and wound up coming back day after day to help out and learn the craft. In addition to harvesting cane, we also gathered our first crop of country malapropisms.

Sorghum looks a lot like corn, only it’s taller and has a seed head instead of an ear. To make syrup you have to squeeze the juice from the stalk. As the stalk has a lot of leaves on it—just like corn—the producer has a choice to make: remove the leaves or not.

The case for stripping the leaves:
—Some claim there’s a trace of bitterness in the juice of the mid-rib of each leaf, which taints the final product as it goes through the rollers in the extraction process.
—If the cane gets wet while harvesting and sits too long before milling, the leaves can mold and spoil the juice.
—If the leaves go through the mill, an appreciable portion of the juice is lost because it’s adhering to the surface of all those leaves.
—You can put more cane on a wagon because you’re not packing all that extraneous vegetative matter. Fewer trips to the field translates to lower fuel costs.

The case against stripping the leaves:
—Some claim you can’t taste the difference between sorghum made from cane that’s been stripped and from cane that hasn’t.
—It takes a gob of labor to remove the leaves.
—It makes the cane more slippery on the wagon and more apt to slide off if the stackers or tractor driver are not sufficiently careful in the loading or hauling (as much fun as harvesting is, picking up the same wagon load of cane twice is overrated).

In any event, Joe Pearl had a definite opinion about this. While he was happy to mill and cook sorghum for neighbors who’d grown their own cane (custom milling is a traditional practice in small towns throughout the Midwest and South), he posted this sign in front of his mill:

No Striped Cane

Apparently, he preferred to only work with the monochromatic kind. I always wondered what a spectacular view it would make if it were possible to grow a field of cane that looked like 12-foot barber poles. Kind of like a real-life version of Candy Land.
• • •
Here’s another pearl from Mr. Grover. One of the nuances of cooking sorghum is managing the timing between squeezing and cooking. On the one hand, you want the juice to settle for at least a couple hours after milling, allowing sediment and other impurities to gravity settle in a holding pan (making for a clearer, lighter syrup). On the other hand, if you wait too long—especially on a warm day—the juice may sour and ruin the flavor.

One warm day, after Jo Pearl was sweaty from having labored many hours over a vat of boiling sorghum, we approached him to get his opinion on whether the uncooked juice had soured. He deferred, admitting, “I don’t smell too good.” While he was right in more ways than he meant, we let it pass.
• • •
Not to be upstaged by her husband, Eva had her own way with words. I remember asking her once at the end of the day if she and Jo Pearl wanted our help the next day and she replied—without the slightest trace of irony—that the forecast called for only “a 40% chance of participation.” And I had thought we were more reliable than that.
• • •
Expanding from that promising start with Joe Pearl & Eva, I’ve slowly accumulated other nuggets. One year a customer dropped by the farm and inquired closely about sorghum’s nutritional composition because her doctor had warned her “to watch my colostrum level.” With a straight face, I assured her that mothers with week-old children were not typically employed in the manufacture of pure sorghum syrup—and in any event they kept their shirts on when squeezing the juice.
• • •
Sometime after we’d been here for a number of years and had established a local reputation for growing semi-exotic crops, a neighboring farm wife inquired, “Do you ever grow any of those gazebo beans?” I thought to myself, we do have a tent platform, but really, it never occurred to us to plant legumes there—we always just used the garden. (Nor, lest you ask, did we ever attempt to cultivate chickpeas anywhere near broody hens.)
• • •
A few years back I was wandering down some unfamiliar country roads on the west side of the state, trying to find an address for a rural sorghum delivery. I knew I’d made a wrong turn when I pulled into a driveway where this sign was prominently featured on the gate:

Posted: Trespassers Will Be Violated

Deliverance anyone? While I thought that was a little harsh, at least they were up front about it. With alacrity (could I hear “Dueling Banjos” in the background?), I put the gear shift into reverse and backed away safely.
• • •
While word tripping (as in "over one's toes") tends to be more prevalent among individuals, institutions are not immune. I can still recall vividly my astonishment at encountering this classic mixed metaphor as the boldface headline on the front page of our regional Tri-County Shopper more than 20 years ago:

Kick Inflation in the Bud!

Who knows, maybe it was Be Mean to Plants Month.
• • •
I’m sure I’ve forgotten more gems as I’ve recalled, yet it’s perhaps this smapler has been enough to give you a taste of the simple fun you can have by paying attention to how we occasionally trip over our own tongues (or keyboards).

Just last week, Communities Editor Chris Roth caught this gaffe of mine in the closing of an email communication I wrote suggesting an idea for an article. Going a little bit too fast, I had typed:

Your sin stirring the pot,

To which Chris riposted “By the way, I think you left either a colon, a question mark, or both a colon and question mark out of the closing salutation. I've heard that about certain grains (while with others, it's essential).” Touché!
• • •
Last week, at the benefit auction for the FIC’s Community Building Day at Kimberton Hills, we had an energetic donor who contributed several items to the auction and identified himself on the listing forms as “anomalous.” At least his spelling was—even if the occurrence of malaprops, blessedly, tends more toward the iniquitous.

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