Tag Archives: curry

Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.

curry favour

The food court had suddenly become busy, and stomachs were growling. I was along for something to munch on, but the options that didn’t involve waiting were few.

Actually, the options numbered exactly one: only Chennai Kari House was unmobbed. Turning to Maury, who was slumped in a seat in dismay, and Jess, who had one eyebrow arched in that love-child-of-Ellen-DeGeneres-and-Mister-Spock way she has, I said, “Well, I favour curry.”

“You’re just saying that to curry favour,” Jess said.

“That old chestnut!” Maury snorted.

“Chestnut!” I said. “I rather think it’s been lying fallow.”

“Well, the point is, I think you’re just fawning.”

“Ha. That would make me a horse of a different colour.”

Jess’s eyebrow ratcheted up a notch. “I think I must have been away when you covered that one. Perhaps you could go over it again?”

“With a fine-toothed comb?” I said.

“A curry comb would do fine. I’m sure that curry as in combing down a horse, from a Latin word meaning ‘make ready’, is the source of the curry in curry favour. But could you do me a favour…?”

Curry favel,” Maury said drily.

Favel being an old term for ‘fallow’, ‘fawn’, or perhaps ‘chestnut’ – as in a colour,” I explained. “For a horse.”

“In medieval French allegories,” Maury explained further, “the fallow horse was a symbol of cunning and deceit.”

“Oh, yes,” Jess said, with an of-course toss of the hand. “The Roman de Fauvel.”

“All the potentates come to bow down before the titular donkey and to brush him off – curry him,” I said. “Sucking up and fawning over him. So originally it was a donkey, but later a horse. And then, reasonably enough, the phrase was reconstrued as curry favour.”

“All that fawning led to their roan-ation, anyway,” Maury said.

“I think the lack of food is getting to your head,” I said.

“Pappadum preach,” Maury shot back.

“Don’t talk naan-sense,” I retorted.

“OK, guys, I don’t want to be playing ketchup,” Jess said.

We both looked at her. “I’m guessing,” I said, “that that’s a reference to curry the food coming from Tamil kari, which was originally a word for a sauce or relish for rice, and to ketchup coming from Malay kechap, which is a fish sauce.”

“No,” Jess said, looking again at the Chennai Kari House counter, where a line was forming, “I’m saying I don’t want to play catch-up. We’re going to be stuck behind the mad rush for Madras if you two don’t get off your punning butts.”