Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 16 March 2009

March 2009

Guilt-Free Snacking
When I was a kid, guilt-free, when applied to food, would most often mean 'diet'. I am a child of the 80s, when an emphasis on materialism and increased disposable income prompted many people to purchase 'diet', 'low-fat', 'non-fat', 'sugar-free', and 'light' versions of traditionally unhealthy products. Indeed, my house was so full of these products that I could only infer the 'unhealthy' versions existed by reverse-engineering the product name: if this was a tub of fat-free frozen yogurt, surely somewhere there must be some frozen yogurt that is not fat-free (it would be years before I could rustle up some real ice cream). The 'diet' products were all about trying to compromise a healthy lifestyle with pleasurable eating – or more accurately, reconciling our desire to look good with our desire for chocolate and/or beer: in other words, to have your cake and your figure too.

Twenty years later, a new class of specialized food has arisen to claim our disposable income (back when we had some, eighteen months ago): organic, free-range, fair-trade. In terms of corpus citations, organic has the lead, followed by diet and low-fat. Then come fair-trade and free-range neck-and-neck, both leaving fat-free, sugar-free and non-fat far, far behind.

While 'organic' foods have some overlap with the 'health-conscious' diet products of the 80s (organic foods are those produced without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and thus perceived as being safer and healthier), free-range and fair-trade are different entities. Free-range refers exclusively to meat or animal products (like cheese and milk) and suggests the animals were allowed room to move around, not kept in high-density pens or batteries. 'Fair-trade' products are those which have been sourced from developing countries, especially coffee, tea, sugar, and chocolate – staples of the old Imperial Age – but which have been purchased directly from the growers at a guaranteed minimum price, instead of through 'middlemen' who keep the profit for themselves'.

These new trends, then, are not about health food, so much as 'ethical' food. Fair-trade products especially have no health benefits: the coffee and tea are still full of caffeine; the sugar is still sugar (not sugar 'light'); the chocolate is still chocolate (not carob or any 'healthy' chocolate substitute). The only thing fair-trade products will make lighter is your conscience.

Which brings back to guilt-free. A search of our corpus demonstrates that about 15% of citations for guilt-free refer to food. In all of these citations, guilt-free meant either a 'diet' version of a traditionally unhealthy product or an occasional wicked indulgence in a non-diet treat, with one exception: chocolate. Citations for guilt-free chocolate all seem to mean 'ethically sourced' or 'fair-trade' chocolate. I guess where this commodity is concerned, it's easier to cut the conscience than the calories.

Finger-Lickin' Good

Speaking of healthy food, who's up for something deep-fried and crispy? Fried foods may have been the biggest culinary casualty of the 1980s health craze, so much so that the popular fast-food chain Kentucky Fried Chicken (one of the only high-profile business on course to increase jobs this year) unofficially changed its name to KFC just to avoid that poisonous word fried.

Deep-fried food is a staple of the cuisine of the Southern United States, especially the dish known as chicken-fried steak, which is a steak coated in seasoned flour and pan-fried. It resembles, but is not identical to the classic dish fried chicken. The difference in preparation led to the seemingly redundant chicken-fried chicken, which is chicken prepared like chicken-fried steak, rather than being breaded and deep-fried (the usual method for fried chicken). The breaded and deep-fried method can also be referred to as Southern-fried (because it is popular in the Southern U.S.) or country-fried (because the Southern U.S. tends to be a rural region).

The story doesn't end here, however. It seems fried food became so associated with the region that it can be a stand-in for any other aspect of U.S. Southern culture; thus all three of these hyphenated adjectives have a meaning beyond food, especially Southern-fried and country-fried. A search of the corpus shows that chicken-fried usually modifies steak or, less frequently, chicken, but there are also occurrences of non-culinary nouns, such as chicken-fried psyche and chicken-fried America.

Country-fried sometimes modifies steak or chicken, but occurs much more frequently in phrases like country-fried punks, country-fried kitsch, a country-fried White Stripes, or my personal favourite: country-fried neo-hippie acid-rock.

Citations for Southern-fried appear equally likely to describe either music (indicating a strong country/western influence) or the culture and politics of America's Deep South. It commonly modifies words like righteousness, conservatism, stereotype, and gentleman, but also rock, boogie, and jazz. Interestingly, Southern fried (without the hyphen) is more likely to describe food and less likely to describe music or culture than its hyphenated alternative.

Robert Groves - Editor