Waiter, Is That a Snowclone in My Sushi?

25 June 2007 at 12:37 1 comment

This morning I clicked on a link to a New York Times article on the effect depletion of tuna fisheries is having on sushi chefs in Japan and elsewhere. Just three paragraphs in I found the following sentence:

From maguro to otoro, the Japanese seem to have almost as many words for tuna and its edible parts as the French have names for cheese.

For those of you unfamiliar with them, snowclones are formulaic clichés of the type “X is the new Y” or “have X, will travel”. Snowclones got their name from the ever-popular discussion of Eskimos and their N words for snow. You can read more (much more) about snowclones and their seemingly infinite permutations on the Language Log blog. The crew of savvy linguists there have popularized the term.

The above example is interesting not only because it doesn’t follow one of the typical formulae like “If Eskimos have N words for snow, then X must have just as many for Y,” but also because the Eskimos and snow have somehow been replaced by the French and cheese.

Apart from the usual facile equation of number of words and cultural importance, the tuna and cheese analogy has another problem. The French, to the best of my knowledge (and I spent a year and a half as a culinary student in Paris), don’t have many words for cheese. They have many kinds of cheese, each with a different name. Drawing a cultural conclusion from this seems a little bit like saying “Boy, Americans must really love their families, each of their relatives has a different name.”

Anyhow, snowclone aside, it was heartening to see this article reach the top of the Times‘s list of most-emailed stories for today. Just last week, in a Salon.com interview, Charles Clover, author of The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We eat, lamented the lack of media coverage of the depletion of the world’s fisheries.

My inner anthropologist is also interested in the discussion of what happens when reality (environmental reality in this case) forces chefs and consumers to reconsider the nature of sushi, which is arguably not just a food, but a national symbol for Japan.

In addition to Clover’s The End of the Line, I have three other books about sushi and or seafood in Japan on my pile of books to read:

  • Theodore Bestor’s Tsukiji: The Fish Market at the Center of the World
  • Trevor Corson’s The Zen of Fish: The Story of Sushi from Samurai to Supermarket
  • Sasha Issenberg’s The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy

I’ll try to post more after I’ve read these.

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Entry filed under: Anthropology, Food, Language.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Trevor Corson  |  5 July 2007 at 9:57

    Thanks for calling out the snowclone in that article, it annoyed me as well. The worst thing about that snowclone was that it actually created disinformation. As you’ll learn in my book The Zen of Fish, the idea that tuna is somehow essential to sushi and to Japanese culture and tradition is bogus. The Japanese used to consider tuna a garbage fish unfit for sushi; only after the Western diet of fatty red meats influenced Japan post WWII did they start glorifying tuna for sushi.

    Reply

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