Thursday, September 13, 2012

Is that an eggplant in your pants, or are you happy to see me?

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.


aek said...

Getting to be a longtime lurker, 1st time commenter. You are such an inspiration to a dyed-in-the-wool pessimist! I know that however curmudgeonly I am at any given moment, reading your latest will force a grin, if not a guffaw!

I share your first impression experience. In trying to write through some angst, I created some characters that were so nose sniffing smelly that I couldn't finish writing them, let alone expect anyone else to expose themselves unnecessarily to their vileness. Obviously, their arc ended in a cess pool, where they remain undistrubed.

As to the eggplant - I have the luxury of a no holds barred rock 'em sock 'em wholesalers market, to which I religiously attend and try to do what you did in the way of psying unidentified goodness.

My patest is that of oyster mushrooms. I asked the burly tattooed beribboned, cigar chomping hawker about a way to prepare them, and I got a poetic tribute to fungi, complete with a sonnet of butter and tender heat and just a hint of salt and herbes de provence. Who knew?

From there, it was on to the orgy of oyster shrooms with white eggplant, a vidalia onion and snow pea pods in a slow cooker bathed in olive oil. It needed a hint of a good wine, but that will have to wait for the next iteration. It should be the subject of your next book, it's that good and lends itself to your "treatment"...

With gratitude-



Raley Blue said...

OK! I don't know about you, but I'm heading over to aek's house for dinner...

And Tawna, good on you knowing Eggplant is a nightshade. Ten points to Gryffindor!! ;)

btw, love, L<3VE, loving Believe It Or Not, thank you!

Unknown said...

I can't abide too flawed MCs in the beginning either, no matter how improved they might turn out.

First time I tried eggplant I was in a St Louis restaurant and thought it was some sort of dish with eggs. Alas, no. But it was good! In Sweden we say "Auberginer".

I often find the right word in the wrong language - I speak Swedish, English and some French.

Susan Spann said...

I have this problem with certain words, for sure. There are certain words that I learned first in Chinese (mostly food words, ironically) and though English is my native tongue (and I'm of Danish ancestry, so I freak people out when I speak Chinese) I just can't shake the Chinese pronunciations.

It's nice to know I'm not the only one!!

Patrick Alan said...

You caught me. I'm an eggplant smuggler.

chihuahuazero said...

I can't remember the last time I had berenjena--I mean, eggplant.

Also, one of my fascinations with Spanish is the fact that most of the time, the "j" is pronounced as a "h".

Rich Amooi said...

Hola Tawna,

I've done the same thing! I have been studying Spanish for a few years and random Spanish words exit from my mouth at the oddest times, during a conversation in English. My wife and I went to a sushi restaurant, and after the Japanese waitress brought us our Ebi Tempura Shrimp Appetizer, I said, "Gracias."

A propósito, me encanta la berenjena. ¡Qué rica! Hasta luego.

Anonymous said...

Love this!! I can't believe I won In a Fix! I sent you my info, I hope you received it. Thanks so much for the wonderful contest!!

Anonymous said...

You related to STAN PAWLOSKI?
How about DODONGO the DONG?

CKHB said...

We've got the same issues over at our house, only in French. We exposed my daughter (no, not like that) to French songs & books at an early age, and there are a handful of words that she learned in French before she learned them in English, even though we're not a French-speaking household.

It now takes me ages to remember that a poussette is actually a "stroller" and I don't know if The Serious Girl knows the English word at all.