In Joy Fielding’s book, Good Intentions, a character named Renee says, “I’m in my element. This is a piece of cake.” The next moment, Renee, who is overweight, wonders why all her metaphors are food-related.
It’s impossible never to use a food-related saying, cliché, or metaphor. They’re everywhere. A quick survey of the phrase books on my shelves turned up 171 of these — phrases like: “to walk on eggs,” “pie in the sky,” and “couch potato.”
Some of these sayings are actually classified as proverbs, for example: “Half a loaf is better than none,” “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar,” “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket.”
Several others are rooted in the Bible: “Forbidden fruit,” “kill the fatted calf,” “land of milk and honey.”
Quite a few are so modern we don’t need to search for their sources. We all know where a “Dagwood sandwich” comes from. The same goes for “Spaghetti Westerns,” and, “Where’s the beef?”
I discovered sayings I’d never heard before: “As out of place as a pork chop at a Jewish wedding,” “As useless as a chocolate teakettle,” “You couldn’t knock the skin off a rice pudding,” “I say it’s spinach,” “Come at pudding time,” and, “Take the gilt off the gingerbread.”
Many food-related sayings are simply common sense statements: “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” “Life isn’t all cakes and ale.”
“To lay an egg” is modern slang meaning,”to fail.” From the sports world, it’s a form of “goose-egg,” meaning “zero.” Goose-egg in this sense dates back to about 1886 although earlier English references (1863) tell us the egg in question is from a duck.
“To not give (care) a fig” is very old, possibly coined in ancient Greece. Some sources point out that the worthlessness of a fig was noted in the 1100s in Italy where Italian slang of the day used fig to refer to mule droppings.
“Cakewalk,” about 150 years old, is Afro-American. The cakewalk was a contest where couples competed via graceful, elegant walking for a cake as first prize. The contest winners would “take the cake.”
“A pretty kettle of fish” is from the mid-1700s and was used by English authors Henry Fielding (Joseph Anderson) and Samuel Richardson (Pamela) in 1741. The reference is to the upper class pastime of boiling salmon on the riverbank for a sort of picnic. If the kettle of fish was ruined — perhaps overturned or burned — it was said to be a pretty kettle of fish. Today we use the phrase to indicate an awful mess.
“Piece of cake,” the phrase that caused Fielding’s heroine to wonder about food metaphors, originated in the 1930s in the U.S. However, it wasn’t widely used until the Second World War when it entered RAF slang. It’s considered to be a short form of, “It’s as easy as eating a piece of cake.”
From time to time, let’s examine more food-related expressions. There are certainly enough of them.