Jewish World Review Oct. 4, 2004/ 19 Tishrei, 5765

Greg Crosby

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What do they mean by that? | What are we to do if we suddenly find all our words are meaningless? We call things by certain names in order to distinguish them from other things, I assume. A rock is one thing, a feather is something else.

There are things that are similar in one way or another, and those can be all lumped together and given a generic name, like pastry - but a cupcake is a very specific item of pastry. When someone says "cupcake" you pretty much know what that is, and it ain't a pie. And if you say "Hostess Cupcake" you're getting even more specific. It's like if someone says "slob" that's kind of general. Saying "big fat slob" is less general. And saying "Michael Moore" is very specific.

But what if, all of a sudden, someone decided to change the meanings between generic and specific words? What if society started calling all pastry items "cupcakes?" Suppose you walk into a grocery and you say, "Hello, there. I would like to purchase a package of cupcakes today." The grocery clerk says, "What kind of cupcakes would you like?" You say, "Well, I don't know. just regular cupcakes, I guess. What kind do you have?" The clerk says, "Well, we have boysenberry pie cupcakes, apple strudel cupcakes, Boston cream pie cupcakes, German chocolate cake cupcakes, prune Danish cupcakes, donut cupcakes, bear claw cupcakes. We have lots of cupcakes."

That is exactly what has happened to the word, "martini." Martini used to be a very specific drink - made with gin and vermouth, sometimes vodka instead of gin. The proportions might change depending on just how dry you wanted it. You might get it stirred. You might get it shaken. It always came with a green olive. If you substituted a black olive for the green, its name changed to Buckeye Martini. But that was basically it. That was what a martini was for decades.

I adhere to the original recipe; gin and vermouth shaken with ice in a cold cocktail shaker with green olives. My wife swears by it.

Now martini has become the new word for all cocktails. Matter of fact, martini has taken the place of the word "cocktail" entirely. If you walk into a bar you might get a Screwdriver Martini, or a Cosmopolitan Martini, or a Sidecar Martini. Why the change from cocktail to martini? Beats me. I always liked the word cocktail; it did a fine job of describing a wide range of alcoholic drinks. Then there was the word "highball" which described a specific type of cocktail - a cocktail served in a tall glass. The term "highball" hasn't been used for ages.

Of course certain specific drinks come and go with each generation. Tastes change and so does the popularity of various mixed drinks. Cuba Libre, Tom Collins, Singapore Sling, Old-Fashioned, Rob Roy, and Sloe Gin Fizz are but a few examples of drinks that once enjoyed a great deal of popularity and are now almost completely forgotten. Interesting how drink names, like our culture in general, have gotten less sophisticated. "Sex on the Beach" just doesn't have the same cachet as "Brandy Alexander" somehow.

Okay, I'll accept the new drink names - I won't order them, but I'll accept them as part of "keeping up with changing times." But why discard the good old cocktail, for heaven's sake? I like the sound of "cocktail lounge," and "cocktail napkin," and "cocktail hour." Cocktail hour sounds civilized, warm and leisurely; martini hour sounds loud and raucous and out-of-control. I'll gladly enter a cocktail lounge; I will never be caught dead in a martini lounge.

Another recent example of a generic name change is "Cobb Salad." Once upon a time, the Cobb Salad had very specific ingredients and had to be served in a very unique way. Now, almost every restaurant, diner, and snack bar has Cobb Salad on their menu and each place makes it differently. So differently, in fact, that the name "Cobb Salad" has come to mean almost any generic salad, like "Martini" is now any mixed drink.

The original Cobb Salad was created by Robert Cobb for his Brown Derby restaurant. It was a finely chopped salad consisting of chicken, Roquefort cheese, bacon, avocado, tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, chives, chicory, watercress, and Romaine and Iceberg lettuce. It was served in a large bowl with the bacon, egg, avocado, and cheese in separate sections on the greens. Then it was tossed together in the Derby's wonderful French dressing and served.

Along with the salad came outstanding pumpernickel cheese toast. There was nothing like that Brown Derby Cobb anywhere.

Order a Cobb salad today and see what you get. Turkey, cucumbers, sunflower seeds, and almost anything else. Order it at fifteen different places and you'll get fifteen different salads - none of which will be the real Cobb, I can almost guarantee.

Fortunately, there was a book published on the old Brown Derby Restaurants several years ago which includes the original Cobb Salad recipe. So if you are so inclined and have the time, you can make it at home. It may not taste exactly as it did at the Derby, but it will be as close as you'll be able to get - certainly a lot closer than what the other restaurants around town are serving up. My wife has become somewhat of an expert at making it for us at home, and now it is one of my favorite home-cooked meals.

As a matter of fact, I think I'll talk Jane into putting together a Cobb this week-end. If I bribe her with my martinis, I'm sure she can be coaxed into it.

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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.

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