Food Facts & Lore, Fricassee of Words

Fricassee of Words – As Thick as Peanut Butter, or is it Pea Soup?

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

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The Thames above Waterloo Bridge – Joseph Mallord William Turner – 1830’s

As Thick As Peanut Butter… or Is It Pea Soup?

Meaning – Refers to a very thick fog… or to a very intellectually dense individual when used even more figuratively.

We ended August with a quick question on our Facebook page. “We’re in the mood for a good food expression. Any favorites?” we asked. Aimee Tinker did not lose a moment and offered: “From Rudolph the Red Nosed ReindeerYukon Cornelius : “This fog’s as thick as peanut butter!” Hermey : “You mean pea soup.” Yukon Cornelius : “You eat what you like, and I’ll eat what I like!

It is September at the time of this writing, and we did not expect mention of Rudolph this early, but the challenge of finding the origins of a good peanut butter saying, or pea soup, whichever it may be, demanded our attention. Here is what we’ve found.

Hermey is right. The correct expression refers to pea soup, not peanut butter. 18th and 19th century Great Britain was known for its million chimneys spewing thick smoke from coal-burning fires. This is the time of the Industrial Revolution and factories lining the shores of large rivers in urban areas. The expression “The London fog” dates to this time, and for good reason. Incidentally, this particular fog was known by another, perhaps more accurate name: killer fog.

When atmospheric conditions were just right (or perhaps just wrong), a very thick yellow-greenish and black fog would form in the Thames valley. This was due to especially high levels of sulfur dioxide and soot particles in the air. Not exactly the town pub’s famous, thick and soothing pea and ham stew. No. This thick-as-pea-soup fog was indeed lethal.

Of course, just as we say these words, some readers may be conjuring up a few ideas of their own regarding other reasons why pea soup might be lethal, in some ways. We will not expand any further on this matter and leave you to your imaginings and mischievous giggles. Enjoy.

Though the mysterious, other-worldly fog reminded folks of one of the most common meals of the time, there is no evidence of the expression “as thick as peas soup” being widely in use until the first part of the 1900’s. Most texts, including many references by well-established authors the likes of Dickens, Conan Doyle, T.S. Elliot and even Winston Churchill refer to the yellowish fog without any reference to the soup.

American author Inez Haynes Irwin (1873 – 1970) is credited with being the first to use the phrase in print when she compared the California fog with its London counterpart: “Not distilled from pea soup like the London fogs…” she stated.

The poignant and highly descriptive painting at the top of this post is by Joseph Mallord William Turner. It is titled “The Thames above Waterloo Bridge” and dates to about 1830. This painting and others like it have provided historians and scientists with unique documentation of the Pea Soup fog era.

Pea soup is perhaps one of the most nutritious and comforting soups there is. We think it deserves a place in an expression that inspires deep, satisfying gulps of fresh air, not images of life-threatening fog. How about, “This music is as soothing as a warm bowl of home-made pea soup,” or “The valley extended into the sunshine as softly as pea soup in a spoon?”

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