May 1, 2013

Is "real" sarcasm or is "real" real?

The latest food article in the NYT stimulate, in me, a hunger for an understanding of "real" — not like some what-is-reality? philosophy/stoner college student, but as a connoisseur of language and humor. In 2 different articles, the modifier "real" is appended to a noun, first "milk" and then "vegetables."

1. "Pots and Pans, but Little Pain/Making Lunch With Michael Pollan and Michael Moss," written by Emily Weinstein, has the Pollan (author of books like "In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto") and Moss (author of "Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us") wandering judgmentally through the kind of crowded grocery store that people in NYC call a "supermarket."
Mr. Moss and Mr. Pollan considered the mozzarella choices, skipping the pre-shredded kind in favor of a cheese that advertised itself as a product of Amish country and that cost the same as the more generic ball beside it.

“Real milk, no hormones, no antibiotics,” Mr. Pollan said, reading aloud from the label. “I love the term ‘real milk.’ I wonder if we can get fake milk anywhere here.”
2. "The Frankfurter Diaries," by Mark Bittman was about Bittman eating a hot dog. (Somehow, when I clicked on the link, I was hoping for something about Felix Frankfurter, even though I know Bittman is a food writer. I love his cookbook, "How to Cook Everything."). Bittman — like Pollan and Moss in the grocery store — comes across as an elitist out of his normal environment. He's on "a drive to the Jersey Shore" and looking for something to eat at a parkway restaurant.
My first inclination was Burger King; [a friend who largely shares my weaknesses and prejudices] pronounced it “poison.”

O.K., but what wasn’t? Where was the real food? It didn’t exist....

I’m well aware that we’re light-years away from a rest area without any junk food. It might be nice, however, if there were one offering a vegetable wrap or a big fat falafel sandwich with real vegetables. Would you not think there’s a market for that?
#1 is the distanced, humorous way to use "real" to express lofty/prissy/elitist attitudes about food. #2 is the colloquial, earnest way to use "real" to express longing for a better world. I wonder if Bittman really thinks rest-stop falafel would be any good. Even in decent ethnic restaurants with nicely deep-fried falafel, I've only encountered shredded iceberg lettuce, there for the crunch, not for any wholesome goodness. But Bittman's vision of great falafel at the rest stop goes perfectly — like  lettuce on deep-fried bean-mush — with his non-humorous deployment of the adjective "real."

There's no right and wrong here. Myself, I'd use "real" both ways. I'm just interested in the word "real," which has been big in the Baby Boomer era (and Bittman, Pollan, and Moss are all, like me, Boomers). Be real. Get real. It's been real. He's a real nowhere man. I got to laugh halfways off my heels/I got to know, babe, will you surround me?/So I can know if I’m really real.

According to the (unlinkable) Oxford English Dictionary, the oldest meaning of "real" — now obsolete — connects to the words "regal" and "royal." In reference to a thing, it means: "befitting a monarch; sumptuous, fine, beautiful, noble, excellent." If we're hearing elitism in those NYT quotes, it resonates with the history of the language. That makes me want to quote Bob Dylan again:
The kingdoms of Experience
In the precious wind they rot
While paupers change possessions
Each one wishing for what the other has got
And the princess and the prince
Discuss what’s real and what is not
It doesn’t matter inside the Gates of Eden
But the familiar meaning of "real" — actually existing — is also old. "Free from nonsense, affectation, or pretence; genuine" — a meaning that Pollan's sarcasm presumes not to exist — goes back at least to 1747. And look at this quote from "House of Seven Gables" (1851): "Phoebe's presence made a home about her... She was real!" It's like Nathaniel Hawthorne was a Boomer.

The OED has separate entries for a few familiar phrases, notably, "it's been real," which it defines as: "'it's been memorable,' 'it's been an experience'; used as a farewell, with varying degrees of sincerity or irony, and sometimes simply as a formulaic phrase." See! With varying degrees of sincerity or irony. The phrase was first encountered (by the OED) in Wright Morris's 1954 novel "Huge Season": "He stepped forward and bowed to Lou Baker, took her hand, kissed it. 'Doll, it's been real.'"

There's no food-related entry for "real" in the OED, but there is a drink one: "real coffee n. coffee made from ground coffee beans, as opposed either to a substitute or (now esp.) to instant coffee." That goes back to the 19th century:
1877   H. Ruede Jrnl. 13 June in Sod-house Days (1937) 99   Most people out here don't drink real coffee, because it is too expensive... So rye coffee is used a great deal—parched brown or black according to whether the users like a strong or mild drink.
Finally — and say what you will about Pollan, Moss, and Bittman — there's a separate OED entry from "real man" — "a man who fulfils traditional expectations of masculinity in his behaviour, attitudes, or appearance; a virile or masculine man." That goes back to 1872:
1872   Titusville (Pennsylvania) Morning Herald 23 Sept.,   But society is full of shams shoddy and tinsel. The real man puts on no airs at all....
1926   Times-Signal (Zanesville, Ohio) (Electronic text) 17 Oct.,   It's out here in the lonely places that you get the real-man type. There's nothing sissy about it.
That was some earnest "real," back then. Pop forward to the 80s, for some classic Boomer "real" sarcasm:
1982   B. Feirstein Real Men don't eat Quiche ii. 13   In the past, it was easy to be a Real Man. All you had to do was abuse women, steal land from Indians, and find some place to dump the toxic waste.
That's enough for now. Kisses. It's been real.

44 comments:

Methadras said...

Sarcasm is biting and cutting humor. Sort of like how I prepare my food, laughing at it with real sarcasm as I masticate it and swallow in enjoyment of it's fruits and rewards.

Shanna said...

a cheese that advertised itself as a product of Amish country and that cost the same as the more generic ball beside it.

Which were both still probably WAY more than the shredded stuff.

A falafal sandwich sounds horrible. If you want rabbit food on the road, you should pack it (although Burger King probably has salads).

Aridog said...

Is there such a thing as "fake milk"...well yes there is, generally called Filled Milk ... a reconstituted version with substantial non-dairy components.

Many who have served in the military and eaten in mess halls in Asia have had it served as regular milk...it's just not whole milk.

Chip Ahoy said...

Can you tell the difference between a real American president and ersatz?

A real president would have the facts of Benghazi at his or her immediate disposal, and there would be no space at all for a something like, "I'll have to check on this notion that some folks have about witness suppression because I haven't heard anything like that."

traditionalguy said...

Real food is simply the thing itself rather than a counterfeit substitute made to appear the same until undergoing a taste test.

Bill Bryson in his At Home book relates the history of food sold as bread but being baked from flour that was half white chalk additives.

As with money, the real thing is driven out of the market place by the fakes being unloaded on the unwary.

Which brings us back to Obama, the counterfeit substitute for an American President unloading faked dollars.

John said...

As someone else noted, there are plenty of milk substitutes. Some based on cow milk, some from other animals like goat, others based on other chemicals and compounds such as soy and whatever is in those coffee "lighteners"

"Real" is a registered trademark for a dairy trade association. It requires that companies using it pay a license fee. It guarantees us, the customers, that it really is cow milk or, in the case of some products like chocolate milk, based on cow milk.

So unless it has that "Real" logo, it may be real milk but it is not "Real Milk"

John Henry

edutcher said...

The line, "Somehow, when I clicked on the link, I was hoping for something about Felix Frankfurter, even though I know Bittman is a food writer", says it all.

You know the woman loves her work.

MadisonMan said...

Real milk, no hormones

All milk contains hormones. Whether or not those are real or artificial is something you might want to know. But you cannot avoid them either way.

ricpic said...

A supermarket's not called a supermarket in Wisconsin?

ricpic said...

Whatta they call it: a big store filled with cheese?

William said...

I bet many of the Amish milk maids are virgins. It's the intangibles like this that gives mozarella its flavor.......Remember the old days before the interstates, when people travelled the blue routes. Those old truck stops had the real deal falafel. Our American menus are written in vanishing ink.

Expat(ish) said...

Oddly you can stop into a lot of gas stations now and get ... real youghurt. Real bread with real meat made by real people. Ok, it's not bakery break (though I have seen that) but it's a TON better than it used to be.

Not on the Turnpike which Obamacare style food choice. (See what I did there?)

-XC

ricpic said...

Methadras is a pitiless eater...pitiless!

dreams said...

Real, really?

Ann Althouse said...

"Is there such a thing as "fake milk"...well yes there is, generally called Filled Milk ... a reconstituted version with substantial non-dairy components."

Is skim milk fake then?

"Real" is a way to disparage a competitive product.

Coke, it's the real thing.

Marshal said...

OT:

Boston Police Dept. ✔ @Boston_Police

Three additional suspects taken into custody in Marathon bombing case. Details to follow.

Lucien said...

Food seems like a great subject for examination of "real", in that it has so many applications. First, you might think of real food as food without frou-frou affectation, presentation, etc. (in the sense that nouvelle cuisine is not real food.) Second you might think of real food as food without ersatz, mass produced components (in the sense that fast food is not real food). Third, you might think of real food as somehow authentic in the mode of its preparation (in the sense the P.F. Chang's is not real Chinese food.)

When you talk about a "real man", the distinction between what is affected, and what is simply faked grows blurry.

Lucien said...

Food seems like a great subject for examination of "real", in that it has so many applications. First, you might think of real food as food without frou-frou affectation, presentation, etc. (in the sense that nouvelle cuisine is not real food.) Second you might think of real food as food without ersatz, mass produced components (in the sense that fast food is not real food). Third, you might think of real food as somehow authentic in the mode of its preparation (in the sense the P.F. Chang's is not real Chinese food.)

When you talk about a "real man", the distinction between what is affected, and what is simply faked grows blurry.

Carl said...

The degeneration of "real" to "that of which I fantasize" -- rarely real in the original sense, of course, in fact generally an existential protestation against what is actually happening at the time -- what is really real, so to speak -- is one of those postmodern Camazotzian transubstantiations of English that astonish and bemuse those not already marinated in intellectualism. And people laugh at medieval scholastics!

mikeski said...

"Is skim milk fake then?"

Only in the sense that everything but "raw milk" is fake. Even "whole milk" has been processed and contains less of itself than what drained out of the cow.

(And maybe had some extra vitamin fortification added; also unreal, man.)

"'Real' is a way to disparage a competitive product."

If they're trying to pass off fake stuff as real, then yes. And they deserve that disparagement. Rollex watches, heh.

Many unreal foods (bacon made from turkeys, burgers made from soybean plants) are purchased precisely for that unreality. I don't think I've ever seen a tofu-burger with box art of cows grazing in a field and a carefully worded ingredient list to make you think it was really made of beef.

Aridog said...

Althouse asked ...

Is skim milk fake then?

No. Not in the sense that filled milk is fake...e.g., composed of a substantial amount of non-dairy products.

To my my knowledge skim milk is merely milk with fat content removed to some degree. I don't know as I do not drink "blue milk."

BTW: Filled Milk taste just like homogenized whole milk if prepared properly by the processor.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

C'mon, Ann, "real" still means "royal" in Spanish. You don't suppose that "El Camino Real" meant "Hey, this is a real street, unlike those fake ones over there," do you?

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...

I know the problem. Whenever we go to a restaurant that advertises (e.g.) REAL MEXICAN COOKING! we always ask to see their accreditation papers.

DADvocate said...

I read that entire post and all I got out of it is that there's a real place in Pennsylvania named Titusville. Titus has a city named after him!! Really!!

Methadras said...

ricpic said...

Methadras is a pitiless eater...pitiless!


When I thank the lord for blessing the food I am about to receive and to the people that helped get it there to me is about the only time mercy is ever shown. Once that's done, it's a free for all.

Crunchy Frog said...

You Boomers and your foolish dreams of "real" this and "real" that.

Gen-Xers grew up secure in the knowledge that anything that advertises itself as "real" is pure BS. Especially Boomers themselves.

traditionalguy said...

Coca-Cola found out that real Coke was Classic Coke. And don't fool around with it!

Counterfeits are not as acceptible.

The Amazon portal for gourmet foods is running a special on mediterranean sea salt. It seems that salt is an elite salt or lesser salt.

NaCl was unavalable for comment.

El Pollo Real said...

"Doubling down on entendre"

Tim said...

So many poseurs, sucking up attention.

Definitely a first world problem.

Turn the page.

Tim said...

"Titus has a city named after him!! Really!!"

Any guesses on how much it sucks?

Sigivald said...

It might be nice, however, if there were one offering a vegetable wrap or a big fat falafel sandwich with real vegetables.

Does he not know that Burger King has salads and wraps?

Larry J said...

Hammond X Gritzkofe said...
I know the problem. Whenever we go to a restaurant that advertises (e.g.) REAL MEXICAN COOKING! we always ask to see their accreditation papers.


When I lived in Colorado, just about any restaurant could truthfully have a "Real Mexican Cooking" sign. It didn't matter what kind of restaurant you went to, the odds were very good that the cooks were Mexican. They were good, too.

rhhardin said...

Real milk is unreal.

Fred Drinkwater said...

Larry J: My dad, who traveled frequently and worldwide in the 60's and 70's, once told me that you could always count on there being a good Mexican restaurant near the airport. Anywhere in the world. He claimed that the best one was in Fairbanks, Alaska.
I suppose it's vaguely possible that he was just yanking my chain, though.

ken in sc said...

Aridog is right, Filled milk is powdered milk with non-milk fats added. In the Philippines it was coconut oil. You can make it yourself with powdered milk and non-dairy coffee creamer. You have to mix it warm to dissolve the coffee creamer and then cool it before it sours.

ampersand said...

I'll bet there would be a market for designer organic produce.Just get a few celebrities signed up to personally poop on your potatoes.

ken in sc said...

It's cheaper than real milk and if you get the mixture right, you can't tell the difference.

Sofa King said...

What is "real"? How do you define "real"? If real is what you can feel, smell, taste and see, then 'real' is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.

rhhardin said...

"Look at that ancient spider of the large species slowly poking its head out a hole in the ground at one of the corner intersections of the room. We are no longer in the narrative. It listens attentively for any rustling that may stir its mandibles in the air. Alas! we have now reached the real as regards the tarantula.."

Lautreamont, Maldoror

whswhs said...

My supermarket, which is a fairly downscale one, sells multiple kinds of fake milk. Soy is the most common base but hardly the only one.

wholelottasplainin' said...

"Larry J: My dad, who traveled frequently and worldwide in the 60's and 70's, once told me that you could always count on there being a good Mexican restaurant near the airport. Anywhere in the world. He claimed that the best one was in Fairbanks, Alaska.
I suppose it's vaguely possible that he was just yanking my chain, though."

******

Did he also tell you the waiters in those restaurants wore onions on their belts?

carrie said...

Pollan was the guest on the NPR showWait, Wait Don't Tell Me, and it was hilarious. One of the panelists told him that Ding Dongs (or something similar) is
what made her life worth living and asked how it could be unhealthy if it made her feel so good to eat it. Pollan replied that you can tell a healthy product by the number of ingredients--the fewer ingredients, the healthier the product. So the panelist responded that Ding Dongs only had 3 ingredients--devil's food cake, creamy marshmallow filling and chocolate frosting, so they must be healthy! Pollan also admitted on that show that he had kids and that they also had surgary, processed cereal at home.

carrie said...

Pollan was the guest on the NPR showWait, Wait Don't Tell Me, and it was hilarious. One of the panelists told him that Ding Dongs (or something similar) is
what made her life worth living and asked how it could be unhealthy if it made her feel so good to eat it. Pollan replied that you can tell a healthy product by the number of ingredients--the fewer ingredients, the healthier the product. So the panelist responded that Ding Dongs only had 3 ingredients--devil's food cake, creamy marshmallow filling and chocolate frosting, so they must be healthy! Pollan also admitted on that show that he had kids and that they also had surgary, processed cereal at home.

Smilin' Jack said...

“I love the term ‘real milk.’ I wonder if we can get fake milk anywhere here.”

The alternative to real milk is not fake milk but imaginary milk. You get it by multiplying real milk by the square root of minus one.