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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
March 15, 2018

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.

Buoy, Ice Breakers, Food Truck Race, Craeft

Pronunciation of English words isn't always easy. There really are solid rules about spelling, but those rules all have exceptions. And it doesn't help that as spellings and grammar were getting locked down in the 1800s, the clowns who wrote the rulebooks got weird, horrible ideas and now we have to live with the consequences.

All the "gh" words -- weigh, inveigh, freight, fright, ought, thought, throughout, etc. -- at least have some history behind them. The "gh" used to be pronounced (like the "ch" in the name Bach), and it just faded, becoming either "f" (tough, enough) or silent.

But when those clowns put the first "r" in February, the first "c" in arctic and antarctic, and the first "d" and second "e" in Wednesday, they condemned the English language to having lots of half-educated people try to pronounce those formerly silent letters.

That's right. Nobody pronounced them as these spelling masters decided they should be written, usually in order to preserve some aspect of their etymology.

In a rational universe, they should be spelled Febuary, artic, antartic, and Wensday. (And I had a terrible time defeating spell-correct in order to spell them this way -- thus proving that people misspell them so often that spell-correct programs are all poised to "fix" them from English into the nonsensical spellings forced on us in the 19th century.)

Don't get sucked into pronouncing silent letters that were just added in for pedantic reasons. FEB-yoo-air-ee is correct; FEB-roo-air-ee is wrong, and also harder to say. WENZ-day is correct; WED-nez-day is wrong, and pretentious. AR-tick is correct, but will sound wrong to people who labored hard to remember to say the extra "c"; ARK-tick is wrong -- and awkward as well, but by now you will probably feel guilty or ashamed if you leave out the first "c."

There are two words in particular that rouse my wrath, because there is no excuse for them to be mispronounced as they so frequently are. Audiobook narrators are particular victims of these words, because they assume that they need to pronounce the words in some "special" way -- with the result that pronunciations have been ludicrously transformed, to the point that dictionaries are now reporting the silly mispronunciations as alternate -- and sometimes preferred -- pronunciations.

Let me mention two words that are now always mispronounced, at least compared to how they were pronounced by literate people in the 1950s when I first learned them:

Buoy.

Dour.

Now, neither word comes up in conversation very often, so audiobook narrators may come upon them in a book without having heard them regularly from the mouths of informed persons (i.e., people who pronounce them correctly).

When I was a lad in school, "buoy" was regularly on the lists of exact homophones. You know the lists:

There, their, they're

Here, hear

Seen, scene

Break, brake

Boy, buoy

That's right. "Buoy" is supposed to be pronounced exactly like "boy." No difference at all.

It is hard to imagine a context in which it would be difficult to distinguish between the meanings of "boy" and "buoy" in a sentence. Maybe there'll be a scene in a novel where you aren't sure whether the hero sees a "boy" or a "buoy" bobbing on the water, but come on.

Still, almost every audiobook narrator -- and a lot of regular people I've heard -- is now pronouncing "buoy" as BOO-wee. The way the name of Jim Bowie is normally pronounced. Like the Bowie knife. In other words, it's a homophone again, just with a different word. I suppose you're even less likely to be confused about whether it's a "buoy" or somebody named "Bowie" bobbing on the water, but why couldn't we just keep the original pronunciation?

And then there's "dour," which every audiobook narrator these days is pronouncing as DOO-er, as if the word referred to someone who does something, a "do-er."

Why? What other "our" words are pronounced that way?

Many "our" words rhyme with the word "power": our, hour, sour.

Other "our" words rhyme (or should rhyme) with "store": pour, tour.

But in a rush of pretension, confused people started pronouncing that latter group as if it had the simple "oo" sound of "hoot" or "pool," but ending with an "r."

So by extension, "tourist," which should rhyme with "florist," is pronounced TOO-rist or, more commonly, TRR-ist, with no vowel at all beyond the retroflex R, making "tourist" rhyme with "purr-ist." And that's now by far the most common pronunciation, so people figure "tour" should also have that long-U sound or the liquid R of "purr" and "fur." "He's turr-ing the country."

Add to that the confusion between "pour" and "poor." There was a time when both words were homophones with "pore." And now different people pronounce "poor" or "pour" as if the word opened with "pu," like the word "put" with an "r" replacing the "t." Some pronounce both that way. They have the fanciful idea that this is vaguely more sophisticated or correct. It ain't.

But come on, what do you do with that "u" -- especially when it's followed by a liquid consonant like "r"? The answer is: Nothing. That "u" is decorative when it isn't making a diphthong as in "out" and "stout."

At least nobody makes "pour" or "poor" rhyme with "purr."

What happens with "dour" is that the "doo" sound is even more exaggerated, so it really does sound like DOO-er -- which does not match up with anything.

It's supposed to rhyme with "sour," "hour," and "our." Almost as if it were spelled "dower" -- a word that exists, but has no chance of being confused with "dour."

That's right: "Dour expression" and "sour expression" should rhyme exactly.

But it's too late to call back the runaway horses of language. Just as most people think that "you and I" must always be used, even where "you and me" would have been correct, it's now true that if you pronounce "dour" correctly you sound either old-fashioned or ignorant. Even though you're correct -- or at least you were, back when I learned the word in the 1950s.

If only Audible.com, after its purchase by monopolist Amazon.com, had not forced all the other audiobook producers to cut back on expenses -- because the first expense to go was the cost of having a producer who would check all pronunciations in advance of the recording session and then guide the narrator to the correct pronunciation.

Besides, by now even the producers probably wouldn't have thought to check "dour," and the dictionary, which reports on language usage rather than prescribing it, would have steered them toward that illliterate-sounding pronunciation.

There are two ways to sound illiterate. One is to mispronounce words in a recognized regional or rural accent that differs from the "standard." The other is to overcorrect and mispronounce words in ways that show you learned the wrong rules or are trying desperately to sound more sophisticated than you are.

These two lists now include the overwhelming majority of Americans, so whatever was correct back in the days when they still taught grammar and diction is now just kind of weird.

I know, I know. Language changes. None of the "correct" rules is logical or sensible anyway (for instance, the rule that says I had to write "none of the 'correct' rules is logical" instead of "are logical). But I'm old, and I don't have to accept the idea that now I have to join the hoi polloi in mispronouncing words that I learned correctly in my childhood.

Oh, and that's another one. I'm constantly seeing writers use "hoi polloi" as if it were a synonym for "hoity-toity." As if it referred to high-society, sophisticated people.

It means the opposite. "Hoi polloi" is simply Greek for "the many." It's a term that high-society, sophisticated people used when they spoke of common people; it's a term of contempt for ordinary folks.

*

I've recently become semi-addicted to Ice Breakers candies from Hershey. Packaged as if they were trying to be breath mints, like Mentos, and with many of them shaped like Certs, Ice Breakers have strong flavors and can be very enjoyable, at least until you start losing teeth. (I'm looking forward to trying the sugar-free versions as they come out in flavors I like.)

Ice Breakers Sours are very good. The assortment includes watermelon, green apple, and tangerine, though I can never tell which is which. Ice Breakers Mints offers cinnamon, wintergreen, and others that I don't like (peppermint, spearmint). There are also fruits, like my wife's favorite, raspberry, which is not sour.

The sours, the cinnamon, and the wintergreen are my favorites. They're strong, but not debilitatingly so. The cinnamon reminds me of Reed's Cinnamon Candy, which used to be my primary candy addiction, because unlike Red Hots, it didn't stain my whole mouth red. The sours remind me of Regal Crown Sour Cherry and Sour Lemon, which I would suck on until the inside of my mouth was sore. It was worth it.

Regal Crown was unavailable for years, at least in the U.S., but now you can order the lemon and cherry sours from Amazon.

Likewise, Reed's Cinnamon candy rolls are rarely on the shelves. But you can still buy them at retro-candy places like Candy Crate: http://www.candycrate.com.

By contrast, Ice Breakers are available in most grocery stores, unless I got there ahead of you and bought all they good ones.

*

While visiting with a friend, we finished a round of Hand and Foot Canasta, one of the rare card games that works as well for two people as six (see https://www.pagat.com/rummy/handfoot.html), and we had an hour or so before a rational bedtime (i.e., six hours before I can actually fall asleep). So we checked out what he had recorded on TiVo and settled on the first couple of episodes of season 8 of The Great Food Truck Race.

The show airs on Food Network, and is hosted by Tyler Florence (who also hosts Worst Cooks in America and some other shows). After watching Hell's Kitchen, Master Chef, Top Chef, Kitchen Nightmares, and dollops of several other shows, I found Great Food Truck Race to be refreshing.

First, the producers did not try to turn it into an ugly personality clash between contestants, the way Hell's Kitchen always is (and Master Chef too often becomes). Instead, the contestants sometimes become friends with their rivals and almost always behave civilly -- even when a second contestants' food truck rolls up to park beside a team that has found a lively spot with lots of foot traffic.

The amounts of money are relatively small -- the grand prize is $50,000, which is supposedly enough to start a food truck business. Really? Where do you buy a food truck for that amount? OK, maybe you lease it or buy it used, but by and large $50,000 isn't enough to start any business, especially not a retail food business, where serious capitalization requires that you have enough money to fund yourself for a year or two, while stocking high-quality ingredients.

But in a sense, a food truck is the naked bleeding edge of the food service industry, because you can measure the day's expenses, earnings, and profit (i.e., how much the staff have to live on) out of your own wallet.

The three-person teams are given a starting budget for each day, usually with another assigned task. In Pensacola, for instance, the mayor of the city brought them fresh-caught red snapper -- and each food truck was given one.

Yes, I meant that. One red snapper. Not a large fish. Not a guppy, bigger than a lake trout, but still -- exactly one fish. And they were supposed to have at least one menu item that incorporated bits of that red snapper in every order.

Whoever brought in the most money from sales of the red-snapper menu item won some money that was applied to their total earnings. We're talking only a couple of hundred bucks -- but that can make the difference between finishing somewhere higher than last. Because the lowest-earning team goes home.

Naturally, if a team displays confusion or conflict within the team, this gets put on the air. There was a team from the Dominican Republic, for instance, where "Papi," the father, was so enraged by suggestions and arguments from one of his daughters that he lectured her sternly that he was the chef, and the only answer she should ever give him was "yes."

This meant that any mistakes that were made were his alone; it was also demoralizing to the daughters, because they both seemed sharper and more careful than the father. But ... dictators who surround themselves with yes-men are doomed, because they can't ever learn or improve. That team was gone by the end of episode two -- to our great relief, since "Papi" was annoying in many other ways as well.

There are other annoying contestants, of course, and other problems -- like the woman whose recipe flew out the window of the truck as they drove along (she didn't stop the truck and get out to retrieve it, and nobody from the show's staff helped out), and the Po' Boy truck that ran out of bread.

Running out of an ingredient means two things: You sold a lot of product, and you didn't buy enough ingredients. But then, if you buy more ingredients than you sell, the unsold ingredients are a dead loss. So they have to live with the fact that on a good day, they're going to have to close up the truck with disappointed customers left at the curb.

On a Gordon Ramsey cooking show, it's all about the quality of the food -- everything is freshly made and plating is a vital part of the art.

On Great Food Truck Race, they often buy premade ingredients. The empanada truck simply bought the empanada "discs" at the grocery store; if the store was out of them, there'd be no empanadas that day. Apparently nobody knew how to make them from the raw ingredients on out.

And when heat and humidity in New Orleans made it so the empanadas didn't hold together, they had no way to change the recipe: they ended up with crumbled empanadas in their little cardboard trays.

In fact, some of the items looked completely impossible to eat. For instance, the "brunch" food truck offered something that didn't sound like brunch to me at all: nachos! Breakfast nachos! Sorry, but there's nothing about tortilla chips that says "brunch" to me. And they made them into breakfast nachos by frying an egg and then laying it on top.

How do you eat that? They even showed a customer talking about how delicious it was -- but she had no utensils, so I could only conclude that she ate the fried egg by picking it up like a breadless sandwich and biting into it. Weird.

Yet after watching them struggle with various assignments, working out of kitchens that were better-equipped than I expected but still very limited, I began to sympathize with the contestants and to like even the annoying ones. Some of the food sounded awful to me -- for instance, why would anybody think guava was a flavor Americans would love? -- but hey, I'm not a regular food truck customer anyway.

At the end of the day, Tyler Florence assembles the teams and announces:

1. Who won the special assignment for that day, and therefore received whatever the prize was -- immunity from elimination, or an extra couple of hundred bucks in the till, or a pat on the back.

2. Who earned the most money that day, and then second most, and so on until only two are left.

3. Who, of those two, made as little as one dollar more than the other bottom team, and therefore gets to return for the next episode.

Then the losing team has to turn in the keys to their truck and go on home.

The Great Food Truck Race suffers from the normal reality-show problems -- constant repetition of things we've already seen, contestants all saying the same things about what they've got to do in order to win. But because the contestants have to think of so many things, and decide them among three people, we get some pretty interesting insights into all the ways that they can fail.

If you drive the truck around for an hour looking for a good place to park, you're not going to make as much money. But some of them got very clever. One, for instance, phoned a brewery that didn't serve food with their beer; the food truck became their food service for that day, and did well. The trick is to find a place that has lots of foot traffic at some point during the day -- and then make sure you're there and cooking during that time.

And buying cheap ingredients in just the right quantities is the name of the game. You can only sell food items for prices that people will pay; you can only sell to people who actually walk up to the truck; you have to make sure your food smells good; you have to serve it in a way that people can eat without having a table or even a seat; and your customers need to be able to enjoy it well enough that your truck doesn't get surrounded by discarded food, hardly-touched items, or patches of vomitus with recognizable chunks of your food truck's menu items in them.

So from deciding on a menu, shopping for ingredients on a tight budget, changing your menu based on what's available and affordable in the store, then making sure your kitchen tools are in working order (what if your stove and oven won't light? Did you check the propane level?), to preparing the food in good portions, arranging it on or in the containers (which you also have to buy), and then pricing it correctly, there are so many ways that things can go wrong, it's a miracle any food truck ever stays in business.

Will I watch this show regularly after I get home? I'll certainly record it, and then dip into it on nights of insomnia, because it's way better than channel-flipping at four a.m., when so many stations have surrendered their airtime to infomercials.

If that doesn't sound like a rave review, that's because it isn't. I declare this show to be adequate. But that puts it in the top 25% of television shows, and that's not bad.

*

It was a joy to once again have dinner at L'Auberge Chez François last Saturday night. The finest restaurant in the DC area, and one of America's best French restaurants, Chez François (332 Springvale Rd., Great Falls VA 22066, 703-759-3800), the always-changing menu has a good mix of innovative and traditional selections.

But I'm a man of simple tastes, most of the time, and the highlight of my meal was, of all things, the onion soup. At a French restaurant, this usually means that a crouton -- a slab of toasted bread -- floats atop the bowl, covered by a cap of melted cheese.

In restaurants that offer a French onion soup, the chefs often have the insane idea that the goal is to completely cover the bowl. The cheese adheres to the rim of the bowl so that you can't lift it or get around it. You have to pierce it like a soufflé.

But unlike a soufflé, the top isn't a delicate pastry; as prepared in most American restaurants, it behaves more like a manhole cover that has been SuperGlued to the street. When you push down on it with the spoon, either in the middle or near an edge, the result is that the whole crouton/cheese mass is jammed down into the soup, or it's flipped up so only one side plunges in.

The result is soup all over the table and, of course, you and your clothing. Perhaps a tablemate or passerby will enjoy the splash as well.

At L'Auberge Chez François, because they know that their patrons come there with the intention of actually eating the food, the crouton and cheese do not touch the edge of the bowl. Nor is the cheese a slab of concrete -- this isn't cheap pizza they're making, after all. So the cheese was soft and easily separated into spoonfuls; the crouton was generous in size but was easily cut with the edge of the spoon.

Nothing splashed, as long as I was reasonably careful. (The restaurant is not responsible for mishaps caused by a patron's unfamiliarity with the correct use of a spoon.)

Perhaps it's odd to review only the soup course at a great restaurant, but I'm getting old, and when I've seen a particular dish prepared badly in most other venues, including many restaurants that style themselves "French," it's a relief to be reminded: Oh, yes, this is how it's supposed to be.

*

At first I was put off by the pseudo-Middle-English spelling of the title Craeft; I was afraid the author was going to get all mystical and weird.

But the opposite is true. Written by Alexander Langlands, Craeft: An Inquiry into the Origins and True Meaning of Traditional Crafts is an extraordinarily entertaining and yet informative book.

Langlands has a degree in Medieval Archaeology and an M.A. in World Archaeology, but what matters is that he's of the school of archaeology that instead of just digging, tries to recreate the crafts of ancient people. This can mean trying to work with stone in order to make the same kinds of tools that were made by our distant ancestors in the paleolithic; or it can mean trying to duplicate the crafts practiced by people in medieval Europe, or even modern but pre-industrial societies.

Langlands is also the host of some BBC television series, including the six-part Victorian Farm, and earlier series like Tales from the Green Valley, A Tudor Feast at Christmas, OurFood, and Edwardian Farm; so he's a TV star in Britain.

As a result, he writes with the easy confidence of someone who knows that his readers already know who he is and already are comfortable listening to his voice. He writes with personality and without apology. He assumes that we want to know about his adventures with seeking out specialized tools, learning to work with a scythe in order to mow a lawn -- or a weed patch.

Craeft benefits from the fact that he's a clear and engaging writer, a well-informed scientist, and an experience craefter who has actually done the things he writes about.

Reading about why you weave straw to make a beehive, how and why you choose various kinds of scythe for mowing, and why you wash the wool while it's still on the sheep, is very clear and really interesting, even though few of us have even the slightest desire to practice any of these crafts ourselves.

I found myself fascinated with his account of learning how to thatch roofs, until he reached a point where he was thatching everything on his farm. I had no idea how many different kinds of plants can be used in thatching and how important it is that the thatch be constructed and arranged with such precision that water doesn't form canyons in the thatch, which leads to rot and leaking below.

There are still thatchers in Britain, even though cities long since banned thatching because of the fire hazard. Thatched roofs have the great advantage of being made from local material, ranging from cereal straw to heather to seaweed. And in areas with little timber, long-lasting roofs can be laid on a network of ropes, stiffened by only a few poles.

Since the ropes can also be woven from locally grown straw, the whole thing is basically free -- except for the labor and skill required to find the right materials, prepare them properly, and apply them well.

As Langlands tells us about his learning process, he also tells us when certain materials and techniques came into and fell out of use, and why. There's a lot of history and archaeology going on in this book -- but it's all made personal, immediate, and real by the fact that he is learning these crafts, often with the help of people who still practice it for a living or as part of their ordinary rural life.

For years I've told writers that if they're going to write a historical or fantasy novel set in a medieval-level culture, they should read Dorothy Hartley's The Lost Country Life. But that book is long out of print and can be hard (or expensive) to obtain.

Now I'll be telling them that if they want to know the kind of work that the common people might be doing, or what a child might be learning by working alongside his or her relatives, I will recommend Craeft. It will give them all they need to know to be convincing, it will awaken story possibilities the way that detailed facts about daily life always do -- and it will be a very entertaining and, sometimes, rather inspiring read.

I tried to get a look at Langlands's television shows, but when I got to the website, I was informed: Clips from Edwardian Farm are "not available in your area." Bummer.

Just the discussion of why crops are harvested in different ways depending on the weather is fascinating. If you have good, warm, dry weather when the grain is coming into ripeness, you harvest with a scythe, cutting the stalks close to the ground. The straw is then retrieved after the threshing and winnowing, when the grain is all separated out.

But if the fields don't become dry until the grain is fully ripe, you can't harvest with a scythe because the ripe, heavy grains fall to the ground and you'll lose far too much of your harvest. Instead, you cut the stalks close to the head, using a sickle rather than a scythe. This requires someone else to work with you, to take the handful of stalks from you gently enough that the grains don't fall. The remaining stubble is quite tall, so you come through later with a scythe to cut that down for a specialized kind of thatch called "stubble thatch."

I had no idea till now why both scythes and sickles existed; they seemed to do the same job. Now I know that they have very different effects on the grasses they're applied to, and a farmer has to know when, why, and how to use each tool.

Will you rush out and buy a scythe to mow your yard? I hope not! Lawn mowers are used nowadays because they do the job better, at least when the job is not harvesting but simply shortening the grass, and you don't want to keep goats or sheep.

Speaking of which, now I understand how medieval farmers used "hurdles" as temporary walls or fences, so that sheep would stay all day in certain parts of a field, thus making sure the whole plot of ground is fairly evenly manured instead of having all the manure deposited under shade trees.

Everything that medieval farmers and craftsmen did was with an eye to the future. Everything they worked with had uses, but only if these materials were handled properly. I was especially fascinated by coppicing -- cutting down a tree and then leaving the stump to keep sending up new shoots, because the straight rods rising high above the stump can be cut and split to weave hurdles or staple thatch to roofs, or to make arrows, if you cut them when they're just the right thickness.

All these years I've looked at trees and bushes and thought, How could anybody ever make arrows out of those; now I know that cutting down trees wasn't just for the lumber and firewood or charcoal-making -- it was so that the shoots from the stumps could be harvested again and again when long, slender wooden rods were needed.

Craeft isn't a handbook, it's a guidebook -- Langlands gives us a tour of many crafts, not a course in any of them. And it's a trip into the past, for we're all descended from people who used to be able to perform some or many or all of these crafts, and whose lives were closely tied to nature because of it.

Every now and then it's fun to talk about the nuts and bolts of writing!
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 1
Edward Willett talks with Orson Scott Card, Part 2
A Town Divided by Christmas

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