Chaos in the food column (fwd)

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Tue Jun 15 15:52:25 UTC 2004

At 12:43 PM -0400 6/14/04, Mark A. Mandel wrote:
>I have just sent the following letter to the New York Times letters column,
>with CC to William Safire:
>---------- Forwarded message ----------
>Date: Mon, 14 Jun 2004 12:41:33 -0400 (EDT)
>From: Mark A. Mandel <mamandel at>
>To: letters at
>Cc: onlanguage at
>Subject: Chaos in the food column
>In Sunday's magazine, Jason Epstein writes of the pioneering cookbook
>written by Buwei Yang Chao and her husband, Professor Yuen Ren Chao. I had
>the good fortune of knowing them slightly during my days as a graduate
>student in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the
>quotation and comments near the end of the article recalled to me Professor
>Chao's sense of humor:
>         >>>
>"Professor Chao [added] this footnote in his own initials: 'The same spoken
>word [for what we now call won-ton in English], written differently, means
>in fact the nebulous state of confusion when the world began,' an elevated
>thought to accompany your next bowl of won-ton soup.
>"'How to Cook and Eat in Chinese' is no longer in print, and the Chaos may
>no longer be with us."
>         <<<
>I would add: The same _English written_ word that refers to Professor and
>Mrs. Chao, _pronounced_ differently, "means in fact the nebulous state of
>confusion when the world began," an amusing thought to reflect on as you
>reread their cookbook or eat your next bowl of won-ton soup. I feel sure
>that that is exactly what Professor Chao had in mind when writing this
>footnote over his own name.
>Mark A. Mandel, Research Administrator
>Biomedical Information Extraction, Linguistic Data Consortium
>University of Pennsylvania
>[This text prepared with Dragon NaturallySpeaking.]

Nice.  Just a bit more Chaos Theory...

There were two other significant points related to the cookbook
missed in the Times article:

(1) while Epstein does comment on the book's introduction of a new
sex-indefinite third person singular pronoun--
Chao was a Chinese doctor who ''never stirred an egg'' until she went
to the Tokyo Women's Medical College, where she found ''Japanese food
so uneatable that I had to cook my own meals.'' She adds, in an
author's note in the first edition, that ''by the time I became a
doctor I also became something of a cook.''  Since she admitted that
she could hardly speak, much less write, English, it must have been
her scholarly husband who wrote (in his wife's name) ''eatable,''
from the Old English ''etan,'' rather than the more pretentious
''edible,'' imported from the Latin edibilis. In fact, it is obvious
that the professor wrote virtually the entire book in his wife's
name. That also explains why he coined the pronoun hse for he/she to
accommodate himself and his wife, given the lack of a third-person
singular pronoun of common gender in English except the neutral
--he misses the point, which is explained by Buwei and/or Yuen-Ren
Chao on p. xxiv of the introduction:

"_Hse_:  my usual way of pronouncing _he_ and _she_ without
distinction when I speak English."

Thus, the indefinite third singular is motivated by the facts of
dialect-specific phonological neutralization.

(2) perhaps of more interest to linguists than foodie-consumers of
the Times Magazine food column is the fact that what is (allegedly)
the one recipe contributed by Professor Y.-R. Chao involves a
wonderful take-off on descriptive linguistics.  Dr. Buwei Chao
explains (p. 133):

"Stirred eggs may be said to be the most everyday dish made by
applying the most everyday method to the most everyday material...As
this is the only dish my husband cooks well, and he says that he
either cooks a dish well or not at all, I shall let him tell how it
is done."
and Prof. Chao begins the instructions for his six-egg recipe as follows:

"Either shell or unshell the eggs by knocking one against another in
any order." [footnote 1]

[fn. 1] "Since, when two eggs collide, only one of them will break,
it will be necessary to use a seventh egg with which to break the
sixth. If, as it may very well happen, the seventh egg breaks first
instead of the sixth, an expedient will be simply to use the seventh
one and put away the sixth. An alternate procedure is to delay your
numbering system and define that egg as the sixth egg which breaks
after the fifth egg."

and, at the end of the recipe...

"To test whether the cooking has been done properly, observe the
person served. If he [sic!] utters a voiced bilabial nasal consonant
with a slow falling intonation, it is good. If he utters the syllable
_yum_ in reduplicated form, it is very good." --Y. R. C.

Wonder what the non-linguist readers of the cookbook must have thought.


More information about the Ads-l mailing list