Thursday, January 27, 2011

Rhubarb to you

As I have been immersed for a while now in deep and serious topics (to say nothing of a brief exchange on another site on the use of explosive rhetoric in the discussion and analysis of contentious issues of global politics), I feel the need to rebalance and recalibrate. And nothing assists the recalibration of one's reality sensors more effectively than the mundane and the superficial.

A friend recently baked what she called a 'cottage pie' (potato topped mince-meat pie); my family calls it a 'shepherd's pie'. What do you call it?

In my mother's family it was a Monday-night dish made with left-over meat from Sunday's roast lamb. My maternal grandmother - not a stickler for accurate nomenclature - rather unhelpfully called it 'potato pie'.

Which reminds me of something in Willard Van Orman Quine's account of his childhood. He referred to 'pie plant' growing in the garden - "rhubarb to you," he wrote.


  1. Casserole. (Just kidding.)

    We call that shepherd's pie at our house. I never could figure out where the name comes from, though. Your reference to lamb is illuminating ... but that would make our "shepherd's pie" more properly "cowboy's pie."

    Nomenclature is so confusing sometimes. No wonder people can't always get along. LOL.

  2. I understand there is a distinction (at least, here, in southeastern England): and I THINK it is this.

    Shepherd's pie is made with minced beef.
    Cottage pie is made with minced lamb.

    I think that is the right way round.

    But choice of meat apart, otherwise they are essentially the same

    It may be different where you are.

  3. Mark, I can see straight through your tricks. Clearly, this is a deep and meaningful posting. You just want to see whether we can decode it. I haven't figured it all out yet, but the reference to Quine must be a very big clue. And "rhubarb" is an obvious hint to do with meaninglessness.

    I'm struggling with the connection between shepherds and philosophy. Monty Python perhaps? I'll get back to you when I've got it worked out.

  4. GC, the notorious 'ploughman's lunch' apparently started life as a 'ploughboy's lunch'. Is there a cowboy's lunch?

  5. Dominic, welcome! I suspect the pattern of the use of these terms varied quite a lot over time and regionally (as you suggest), though we seem to be rapidly losing regional variations.

  6. TalesNTypos, I am greatly honored!

  7. Alan, you are probably aware that Quine used something from a paint advertisement as an epigraph for one of his books: "The surface is all." A very profound remark, don't you think? (Or just provocative?)

  8. Yes, according to the "American Dictionary of Regional English", rhubard has been referred to as "pie plant" on a widespread basis by people across the USA (less so in the south) since at least 1838. By the way, Willard Van Orman Quine ( was a strong supporter of the dictionary as I am (

  9. I'm getting there.

    Neither shepherd's pie nor cottage pie is really pie. The reason is philosophical. Every true pie should have a pastry covering. These pseudo-pies lack a proper covering. Hence the allusion to Quine: the surface is all. Thus, pseudo-pie stands for some sort of anti-phenomenological philosophy -- some sort of essentialism, I suppose.

  10. "Cowboy's lunch" is not a term familiar to me. It's not a "usage" as far as I know. BUT ... if there is anything clearly "cowboy" among foods, it is jerky: smoke-dried salted meat that requires no refrigeration, roughly the consistency of rawhide. US Western cowboys inherited this from the early 1800s mountainmen who fanned out across the West as fur trappers soon after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 (Jefferson bought half the continent from the French). The French learned this recipe from the Native Americans. The proper name for it is "pemmican," and I have no idea where it got the name "jerky." Except when you gnaw on it, ya gotta kinda jerk it instead of bite it off, because it's tough. In any case, "saddlebags filled with beans and jerky" is a phrase from an old cowboy song. ("Jerky" happens to rhyme with "Albuquerque.") Prototypical protein energy bar, high food value, light weight, adds salt to the diet, and is addictive if you don't watch out. LOL.

    Alan, I think you've got it. I had no idea how devilishly clever Mark English really is, until you said that.

  11. Douglas Quine, thank you for dropping by. I once wrote to your father, you know, but he was then unfortunately very ill and unable to reply. (I wanted to know if he remembered Louis Rougier, a French associate of the Vienna Circle.)

    I have had a look at your web pages and will certainly return.

  12. I take it, GC, that your saddlebags are no longer filled with beans and jerky...

  13. That's physically correct, but spiritually that's another matter. I was raised in a cowboy culture and I still have some cowboy values. I even worked as a cowboy just out of high school, and still have the cowpie-encrusted boots to prove it. Meantime, I've come a long way, baby. But I'm still a desert rat.