French Food Idioms Decoded

Over the past few months, Chocolate & Zucchini blogger Clotilde Dusoulier has been playfully investigating French food idioms, producing a sweet mash-up of history, kitchen lore, and language. Some goodies: mi-figue mi-raisin, which literally translates as “half fig half grape,” and is used as an adjective to mean that something is a mixed blessing. An example: Son livre a reçu des critiques mi-figue mi-raisin, which translates as “His book received lukewarm reviews.” Dusoulier tells us, “This idiom first appeared in the 15th century, but the reasoning behind it is unclear. Dried figs and raisins (i.e. dried grapes) were both eaten during Lent, and the latter were more prized than the former, which could explain the dichotomy implied between the two. Other sources indicate that it could come from the fact that Greek merchants, who sold currants (in French, raisins de Corinthe, or grapes from Corinth) to Venetian clients, would occasionally try to cheat them by hiding figs, which were cheaper and heavier, at the bottom of the bags.”

Here’s another one: tomber comme un cheveu sur la soupe, which means “falling like a hair on soup,” and refers to someone or something that shows up at the wrong time or place. And another: vouloir le beurre et l’argent du beurre, or “wanting the butter and the money for the butter.” This one is similar to the English expression of wanting to have one’s cake and eat it too, but I like the French version much better, don’t you? You can have the butter, or you can have the money. That makes sense, because you can use that money for a whole bunch of things: butter, or a Snickers bar, or maybe a Lost Hydra mug. Why would you want to have your cake if you didn’t want to eat it? There’s no point. In fact, if you want to just have the cake and not eat it, well, I’m going to eat your slice as soon as you’re asleep.

Dusoulier’s series made me want to review the English expressions that refer to food. There’s a long list, and curiously, cake and eggs come up a lot: He’s got egg on his face, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, walking on eggshells, good egg, it’s a cakewalk, that’s the icing on the cake, you take the cake, it’s a piece of cake. Why do these two foods loom over our language with such authority?