- I feel like I can’t post this batch of links without addressing Pastagate, which had all of Quebec abuzz this week. In a nutshell, Quebec has an organization called the Office québécois de la langue française (OQLF), which Anglophones lovingly refer to as the language police. The OQLF’s website is a goldmine of terminology, glossaries, grammatical rules, tips for speaking/writing better French, etc. The OQLF also has the mission of protecting and promoting the French language in Quebec, where it is the only official language but is often encroached upon by English. So for example, if a store wants to do business in Quebec, as the provincial law mandates, the OQLF is there to make sure that it can conduct its business in French (English and other languages are allowed, of course, as long as French is prominently displayed on signs and instruction manuals, and services in French can be offered). The cost and hassle of all this translation is the main reason that so many international chains are reluctant to open locations in Quebec, even though they will often invoke other, non-plausible, reasons (*cough* Whole Foods *cough*). But the OQLF has the mandate to investigate any complaints made by the public, so sometimes that gives them a bad rep.
Allow me a moment to give you some context. The two examples that are most referenced in our household are the Anglo parrot and the Irish pub decoration. In the first case, some assclown was in a pet store and complained to the OQLF that a parrot in the store spoke English, not French. In the second case, some douchecanoe complained that an Irish pub had 19th-century beer ads in English on its walls, without a French equivalent. In both cases, the OQLF had no choice but to investigate, and this made the news. People, Anglophones in particular, went ape shit. But here’s the important thing: in both cases, the OQLF ruled that the complaints were unfounded. The language spoken by a parrot is irrelevant, and since the ads in the Irish pub were clearly decorative and not really advertising products actually sold by the pub, they were fine in keeping with the theme of the establishment. Cases dismissed. So the OQLF unfairly gets a bad rep for things like that, even when it’s the one to act reasonably.
That being said, here’s what happened with Pastagate: the OQLF investigated Buonanotte, a very successful restaurant that’s been in business for over 20 years, and fined them for having Italian on their menu. As in, “Pasta” as a menu header, or “polpette” and “calamari” as names of dishes, instead of a word translated into French – even though all the dishes had French descriptions. I freaked out, and I don’t know of a single person, including Francophones, who agrees with this decision! It’s been pointed out to me that it’s a direct application of section 51 of the Charte de la langue française, but it’s obvious to me that the OQLF watchdog was not using any common sense whatsoever in this case. To me, this is a cultural issue, not a linguistic one. So what if a menu says Pasta, Antipasti, Zuppa, Insalata? Does anyone have trouble understanding the menu if the descriptions are in the official language of the province? We also say pizza, sushi, injera, taco, kebab, samosa, hummus, hot dog (even in French) and many other things to describe dishes that are originally foreign to our culture. The correct term is often the one in the original language, and even when a translation or paraphrase can be cooked up, it usually chips away at the authenticity of the meal. So anyway, luckily the minister responsible for the French language at the government level wondered publicly whether this was an acceptable application of the Charter. There was a lot of public backlash, of course, along with many wonderful tweets on the subject (look up the hashtag “pastagate” on Twitter). And as of yesterday, it appears that the OQLF is backing down. They might ask that changes be made to the menu regarding font size of the French language, but not necessarily elimination of the Italian language (a petty complaint, but one that is more reasonable than its previous position).
I’m a Francophone, and a linguist at that, and I’ll be the first one to say that in this case, it was complete overkill. I can only hope that the OQLF has learned from this incident and won’t repeat the same mistake with another establishment down the road.
- A quick word about metrication in Canada, because I understand how weird it can seem to Americans. Canada used to have the imperial system of measurement until the mid-1970s, when it switched to the International System of Units (SI). As a result, Canada now has somewhat of a hybrid system, where we use the SI on paper but, in many situations, we use imperial units or American units in parallel. I was taught the SI in school, and I love how precise it is and how easy it is to convert from one unit to another. For example, 1 km is 1,000 m; 1 liter of water is 1,000 milliliters or 1,000 cubic centimeters, and it weighs 1 kg. Water freezes at 0 °Celsius and boils at 100 °Celsius. But trying to convert feet to miles is just a clustercuss! That being said, I still use both systems, just in different contexts. I’ll talk about a person’s height and weight in feet/inches and pounds instinctively, even though I’ll understand the SI equivalents, but I understand distances better in kilometers than in miles. I’ll think of the temperature outside in Celsius, but of temperature in the oven in Fahrenheit (although I am making an effort to get a feel for ambient temperatures here in Fahrenheit, since that’s how it’s going to be in the foreseeable future, but I still think of Canadian winter temperatures in Celsius and have trouble figuring out negative Fahrenheit degrees, with the exception of -40). Driving speed is not really an issue: I just look at the speed limit posted and then at the dashboard in the car, without ever bothering to figure out how fast I’m going in the other system of units. A few more tidbits: 5 things you didn’t know about the metric system; plus, did you realize that the official kilo is getting heavier? It doesn’t affect the way the unit is used in the world, but it’s still a weighty problem (pardon the pun).
- I have eaten foie gras, though I must confess I don’t really enjoy it. I was fascinated to read this Serious Eats article, though, which explains why foie gras is not always as unethical as one might think (though it’s still well worth it to look for foie from an ethical farm). And yet I’m still happy that California banned its production, even though apparently that was only one of the three farms in the country… Dan Barber also gave an awesome TED Talk on the humane and sustainable production of foie gras without gavage, and he’s trying to produce more humane foie gras himself. By the way, there is an alternative referred to as vegan “foie gras", which is actually a type of marinated tofu that I’d love to taste someday.
- Remember Pete Wells’ scathing review of Guy Fieri’s New York restaurant? This article explains how, despite the possible validity of the review, it has devolved into a division between blue state and red state, between the stereotypical people with refined taste and most of middle-class America – although the critic did say specifically that the kind of middle-class food Fieri raves about on his show was treated with very little respect at his restaurant. While I haven’t eaten there and therefore can’t comment on the validity of the criticism, I do think it’s a fair point to make, and not an elitist one at that; it’s just the tone of the review that I find particularly mean. I also enjoyed this article about culinary elitism in general. It points out, rightly, that not only are Anthony Bourdain and Paula Deen (another famous feud) perceived very differently because of the type of food they recommend, but that the same principle applies to restaurants: a side of bacon next to pancakes is gluttony (though delicious), while pork belly in a bun is high art – but not radically different and certainly not healthier! So there is a certain degree of hypocrisy at work, even when accounting for the fact that certain “gourmet” foods are simply not attainable for many people. Snobbery won’t make people eat better (healthier/tastier) food. That being said, I think it was dishonest of Paula Deen to peddle her food to the masses when she knew about the correlation between her eating habits and the type 2 diabetes from which she secretly suffered for years. Even now, she prefers to endorse a medication to manage her condition as well as her food, instead of really addressing the root causes of the disease (and she waited for the endorsement deal before going public with the diabetes), and that’s what bothers me more than the food itself.
- Did you know that the fruits and vegetables we eat today are less nutritious and less flavorful than those grown 50 years ago? Heirloom varieties really do taste better, it appears; not to mention that some scientists have proven that grocery-store tomatoes are so tasteless in part because they are red!
- I know that home-grown tomatoes taste far better than grocery-store tomatoes, and yet I still buy the latter on occasion. Like strawberries (just speaking taste-wise and not thinking about how many pesticides they contain), even though I’m never as happy with berries as I am when I pick them myself in Quebec in the summer. What many people don’t realize, though, is that grocery-store tomatoes come at a horrendous human price. Not only are most tomato pickers treated poorly, working long hours in harsh conditions (including exposure to pesticides that cause health problems) and earning below minimum wage, not to mention having deplorable living conditions, many of them are actually slaves. As in, held against their will and routinely chained so they don’t escape at night, beaten if they don’t work, and sold from one farmer to another. Some experts say that any North American who has bought a tomato at a store or eaten one at a restaurant has, at some point, indirectly supported slavery. Some food bloggers are taking a stand, and there are grocery stores that make sure their produce is slavery-free (like Whole Foods, to name just one). You can also send a letter to major American grocery store chains to inform them of the problem and to encourage them to join the Fair Food Program. This problem unfortunately isn’t limited to just tomatoes. There are ways to calculate the slavery footprint of your kitchen or, really, that of your possessions, with this quiz. I took the quiz, and apparently, 44 slaves work for our household! They mostly made some electronics and clothes, and maybe our car. Needless to say, I’m appalled by that number, and I must admit to feeling completely overwhelmed by the sheer amount of things that are made either by slaves or in inhumane conditions. I don’t even know where to start correcting the problem, because it’s certainly not like things come with a label telling you how many slaves made it!