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February 4, 2000

Some 500 years ago, housewives did their cooking in a big kettle that always hung over the fire. They would light the kindling and add things to the pot. For the most part, they ate vegetables but not much meat. The stew was for dinner in the evening and leftovers stayed in the pot. Next day the process was repeated. Sometimes the stew contained food that had been in the pot for a month. Hence the rhyme: "Peas porridge hot, peas porridge cold, peas porridge in the pot nine days old." That's how that particular phrase came about.

An e-mail correspondent recently sent me some interesting information about the origin of phrases. No source or guarantee of authenticity, but they sounded reasonable to me and I thought they might be of interest to you. The first short collection of these phrases appeared in this column the other day, and now here are a few more.

Sometimes our 16th century ancestors would obtain pork. That would make them feel really special. When company came over, they would bring out some bacon and hang it to show it off. It was a sign of wealth and made the point that "this man could really bring home the bacon!" At mealtime, they would cut off a little to share with the guests and then all would sit around and "chew the fat."

Those with money had plates made of pewter. Food with a high acid content caused some of the lead to leach onto the food. This happened most often with tomatoes, so they stopped eating tomatoes for 400 years. Most people didn't have pewter plates, but had something called trenchers - a piece of wood with the middle scooped out, like a bowl. Trenchers were never washed and a lot of times worms got into the wood. After eating off wormy trenchers, they would get "trench mouth."

Bread was divided according to status. Workers got the burnt bottom of the loaf, the family got the middle, and the guests got the top, or "upper crust." Lead cups were used to drink ale or whiskey. The combination would sometimes knock them out for a couple of days. Someone out for a walk might see a person in that condition lying along the road, and take him/her for dead. To prepare the unfortunate one for burial, he/she would be laid out on the kitchen table for a day or so. Then the family would gather around to eat and drink and wait to see if the "victim" would wake up. Hence the custom of holding a "wake.

We'll deal with the origin of a few more phrases in the near future.