Saturday, April 05, 2014


Kids who grow up in big families tend to eat a lot of beans. They're cheap, nourishing and you can cook them in about a bazillion ways. And my mom knew all sorts of ways to cook them: bean soups, baked beans, bean casseroles, bean salads... and, of course, pinto bean chili.

Just so you don't get the wrong idea, I should probably mention first that my mom is an excellent cook. Night after night she came up with tasty, inexpensive, well-balanced meals, often on the fly and with whatever ingredients we had on hand. And of course I'm going to bypass all those peaceful, delicious occasions and discuss the one time when things went disastrously wrong. I'm such an ingrate.

Anyway, one crisp autumn afternoon Mom cooked up an epic pot of homemade chili using some of our food-storage pinto beans. The fantastic scent of that chili slowly filled our big kitchen, and by dinnertime I was ravenous. I got a bowl, spooned up some chili, put it into my mouth and --


I'd just bitten into a rock. Fortunately I didn't break a tooth, but the aggregate all came apart, bits of rock and dirt and who-knows-what-else mixing with the chili in my mouth. I gagged on the obnoxious slurry of beans, rocks and loam and ran to the sink to spit it out.

Dry beans, being natural products, must be carefully sorted and washed to remove any foreign objects before they're cooked. Most of the time my mom sorted the beans one by one, but on this particular occasion she was running short on time, so she just cooked them up without checking. And I got the benefit of eating a natural product in its fully natural state. For a long time after that, I had chili trust issues.

That's not to say there aren't any food prep disasters on my own record. Several years ago, after Miss V came to live with us, I had a sudden yearning for romanesco. We'd gotten used to buying cheap, fresh, fractal green romanesco at the farm stand near our house in Eugene, and I'd developed a taste for it, but not many supermarkets stock romanesco on a regular basis. They do, however, stock organic romanesco in season at PCC Natural Markets. So I drove over to my local PCC, picked up a couple of heads, rinsed them and gave them a good steaming in preparation for dinner.

V, who had just taken a class about the virtues of natural, organic food, was all ready to be wowed by the romanesco. We took the lid off the pot, doled out the fractal-ly cruciferous goodness and were tucking in when she made a horrible face and said, "I can't eat this. It's got bugs."

And it did indeed have bugs -- tiny little black bugs that could easily have been mistaken for pepper, but weren't. In my excitement at finding some romanesco to buy, I'd forgotten that organic produce needs a little more TLC than conventionally-grown produce. You need to immerse organic romanesco in salt water for some time, just to encourage any living stowaways to vacate the premises before you cook it. I'd missed that step... and since I wasn't keen on adding any unauthorized protein to our diet that night, we had to pitch the romanesco into the trash.

I was reminded of these two experiences just recently, when I started reading a new book. It's what the Hollywood people would call a high-concept story, in that the premise immediately engages you and draws you in. It's well-paced, the main character is funny and interesting, and I do want to read more. But there is an issue with it. It's the language.

My response to profanity and vulgarity in media varies a bit. Some mild oaths are just vaguely discomfiting, like biting into a food you severely dislike. Some are a little worse, like the experience of finding rocks in chili or bugs in romanesco. And some foul language is like getting the equivalent of a mouthful of thumbtacks or broken glass.

The first sentence of this story is four words long, one of which is a thumbtack-eating vulgarity. And similar language is scattered throughout the 55 pages I've read so far. It makes me wince, because this story is good. The language doesn't need to be there.

Yeah, I know, I'm a sheltered, hopeless prude who needs to get with the times, right? It's unreasonable for me to expect authors, directors, singers, actors and other media people to alter their language just to meet my aesthetic expectations. Teens and adults are gonna swear; anyone can hear worse language in the average public high school. It's perfectly natural. Get over it.

Thing is, I think I've already proven that just because something is "natural," that doesn't automatically make it desirable. Poison ivy is natural. Skunk spray is natural. Crows picking at roadkill and dogs consuming their own feces -- yep, also natural. Maybe adult humans using vile language is also natural, but if so it falls into this same category of natural-but-undesirable behavior. I wish I didn't see so much of it in our society; I think people who make a habit of swearing -- or of introducing profanity into their creative work -- are lazy creators. More to the point, they seem to have forgotten, or have never learned, the unnatural-but-desirable habit of being gracious to others. Modifying one's language to exclude profanity is a gentlemanly or ladylike act; one does it to ensure that others are immediately comfortable in one's presence.

And no, avoiding profanity doesn't come naturally to everyone. It takes time, thought and work -- like sorting through dry beans, like immersing romanesco in salt water, like making sure the food that nourishes you and makes you strong isn't in some way contaminated. But take it from someone who can still taste the memory of dirt clinging to her tongue -- it's worth the effort.


MarieC said...

Great analogy!

Soozcat said...

Well, thank you. I've been asked before, "What's the big deal with language? How does what I say hurt you, anyway?" And even though I think the question is a little facetious -- almost everyone has been hurt by words at one time or another -- it deserved to be answered in such a way that it helped others understand what a visceral, unpleasant reaction people can have to profanity.