I was gushing to a friend the other day about a salad I’d tried at a local restaurant.
“It was really good,” I said. “It had zucchini and artichoke hearts and roasted berenjena and the best balsamic dressing.”
There was a long pause. “Roasted what?”
I hit the rewind button in my brain and scrolled back through my statement.
“Eggplant,” I muttered. “Not berenjena, eggplant.”
It’s a mistake I’ve made more than once. I’m a native English speaker, born and raised in the United States.
But I studied Spanish from ages 13-23, and after college graduation, I lived in Venezuela for five months teaching English. During those five months, I grew increasingly experimental in my cooking. Each day on the walk home from work, I’d hit the produce stand and select some unfamiliar fruit or veggie. Then I’d scurry home and figure out how to prepare it.
It was my first real introduction to eggplant, which is how I came to know this funny, bruised-looking veggie by its Spanish name – berenjena (pronounced “bare-en-HAY-na,” in case you’re wondering).
It’s been more than fifteen years—not to mention endless exposure to this purple produce in grocery stores, restaurants, and that one unfortunate incident with the Vaseline and pliers—but I still can’t reprogram my brain to remember the English word for eggplant.
It’s a good reminder to me as a writer. I recently started reading a new book, and the heroine kicked off some of the early chapters with narrative that struck me as immature, whiny, and entitled. I’m sure the author has grand plans for a growth arc that will rehab her to something less obnoxious, but I can’t shake my initial, negative impression of the character.
Why yes, I did just make a jump from purple nightshade vegetables to whiny bitches. You still with me?
First impressions are powerful things. The word or attitude filtering through your brain when something new is introduced will be tough to change later. A writer may think, “I’ve got 350 pages to make you like him,” but the truth is, you only have a handful. Maybe ten or twenty pages before your reader chucks the book at the wall and wanders off to find a more satisfying way to occupy her time.
Perhaps something involving purple produce.
Can you think of any instances where you’ve formed an early impression of something that you couldn’t shake later? Any occasions when you learned a word or phrase a certain way, and never quite fixed it in your brain even after you learned an alternative? Please share!
And is anyone else craving eggplant parmesan now?
Congrats to Lesleen for winning the signed copy of Linda Grimes’s debut novel, In a Fix. Shoot your snail mail address to me at tawnafenske at yahoo dot com and I’ll get that out to you right away.