Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Fetid Flights of Fancy 

Image hosted by Photobucket.com I had a Chinese patron, an older woman, ask me if English had exact words for different types of food to indicate they have spoiled. She told me that in Chinese there was a specific word for when soup goes bad, another for when fish turns, another for when beef spoils, and yet another for when fruit is rotten. I told her that we had interchangeable, catch-all words like ‘spoiled,’ ‘turned,’ ‘bad’ and ‘rotten’ that can be used to describe all foods when they go bad. Because I had never really pondered food decay or taken a class in food science I never really thought about all the different words for food spoilage and their shades of meaning. Take for example, milk, which can be described as sour, rancid or putrid. I’ve always used these words interchangeably, but now that I think about it each word indicates a specific stage or type of decomposition. Each is also so recognizable by taste and smell that you wouldn’t need the award winning palette of Napoleon Dynamite to recognize it.

Sour: milk has been made acidic by fermentation (or perhaps the cow got into an onion patch)
Rancid: the result of decomposition of fat and oils
Putrid: horrible smell and taste caused by bacterial break-down of protein.

So, the word putrid specifically refers to the decomposition of animal proteins by microorganisms, ass in the unforgettable sentence I heard when I worked at the Sheriff’s Office, “Whoo-ee, did the wallet taken off that floater smell putrid!” The officer played a little prank on the receptionist and put it on her desk, and the smell filled the entire room and had everyone gagging who entered it, including me. I would pay big bucks to the people over at The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to expunge the memory of that smell.
The word rancid, on the other hand, describes the odor and smell of decomposing oils or fats, while the word sour has to do with the breakdown and fermentation of sugars.
Then there’s the word stale, meaning loss of freshness and palatability. I think specifically of bread (or jokes, or bathwater) that has been dehydrated by exposure or age.

I’ve always associated the word fetid with mold. When I think of fetid I think of cheese and wine – things that are processed by beneficial bacteria or fungi, but way too much.
The word rank I’ve always thought of it as having a stronger, more pungent than smell than fetid.

I always enjoy these linguistic, cultural differences. The Chinese girls I used to work with told me that the phrase “You have rats in your house” is a compliment. In China, you have rats because you have the luxury of food enough to spare for storage, not because, in the USA, this land of careless abundance, you keep your house like an unsanitary sty.

I am anosmic (sp?) which also affects my taste a bit, so I have on more than one occasion drank sour milk and eaten putrid meat.
I snuck back into quarantined New Orleans about 2 weeks after Katrina to retrieve some clothes and valuables, and to clean out my refrigerator, in which I had foolishly left many perishables. I would gladly pay the Spotless Mind people to purge my brain of the memory of the putrescence I found there.
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