Eating Words

More words to chew on

Roses? They’re actually heads of lettuce, at the Piazza delle Erbe market in Verona.

As a follow-up to my list of proverbs, here are a few common descriptive phrases in Italian making use of food as a metaphor. These modes of expression are tucked into all kinds of conversations, showing how knowledge and respect for food are deeply ingrained in the daily life of Italians. And above all, they speak to an imaginative spirit, one that finds meaning and humor in the everyday act of eating. Lots more where these came from:

Essere alla frutta   |   To be at the fruit
Fruit is the last course in an Italian meal, so the phrase refers to being at the last stage of a phase, or reaching the end of the rope. At the height of Berlusconi’s power, you could hear many an Italian lamenting “siamo alla frutta” – we’ve reached our limit.

Spuntare come funghi   |   To pop up like mushrooms
i.e. Farmers’ markets in that area are popping up like mushrooms.

Essere una pentola di fagioli   |   To be a pot of beans
To talk incessantly, like a boiling pot of beans.

Togliere le castagne dal fuoco   |   To take the chestnuts out of the fire
When you do someone a favor by taking their chestnuts out of the fire before they burn, in spite of their scalding heat, you are getting him/her out of a bind. Or, in a more cynical interpretation, gaining an advantage over others by taking a risk.

Essere come il cavolo a merenda   |   To be like cabbage at snack time
To be irrelevant or out of context. Merenda, or snack time, is a beloved time around 4pm in Italy when you have a snack to tie you over until dinner. A typical snack would be a pizzetta (mini-pizza, more like a pastry) or gelato – nothing involving cabbage.

Fare il pesce in barile   |   To be the fish in the barrel
To be indifferent and avoid taking sides, acting like you can’t hear or see what’s going on around you. In earlier times, fresh fish was stored in barrels, filled to capacity and preserved with salt. The implication is that a fish in such a barrel would be so crowded that it wouldn’t be able to see anything.  

Essere buono come il pane   |   To be as good as bread
It’s well known that bread has very positive, life-affirming connotations – in English, we call it the “staff of life.” To be as good as bread, in Italian, means someone is genuinely kind and altruistic, as pure and golden as fresh bread.

Avere poco sale in zucca   |   To have little salt in squash
Squash, or zucca, in Italian is also slang for head. Gourds are low in salt and, instead, full of water – a watermelon is a perfect example. To have more going on than just a bunch of water in your head suggests that there’s some grey matter there; to have little salt means that you’re a bit daft.

Essere pieno come un uovo   |   To be as full as an egg
i.e. I don’t think I can go for seconds; I’m as full as an egg.

Non fare il salame.   |   Don’t be a salami.
This one is probably my favorite. A nice way of saying don’t be an idiot. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard my Italian aunt say this to my cousin when he’s goofing around. Non fare il salame has more of a masculine connotation; non fare l’oca, or “Don’t be a goose,” is a female equivalent – to be silly, easily distractible, and a little out of it (my other cousin gets this from my aunt, too).

Eating Words

Eat your words

One of the things I like most about the Italian language is how eating and drinking form a central theme in proverbs and sayings – it’s a testament to the role that good food & drink play in everyday life. Here are some of my favorite foodisms:

A tavola non si invecchia.
No one grows old at the table.

Non puoi avere la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca.
You can’t have a full bottle and a drunk wife.
(i.e. you can’t have your cake and eat it too)

Non tutte le ciambelle riescono col buco.
Not all doughnuts come out with a hole.
(i.e. you can’t always predict what’s going to happen)

Una ciliegia tira l’altra.
One cherry pulls the other.
(i.e. once you start you can’t stop)

Gallina vecchia fa buon brodo.
An old chicken makes good broth.
(i.e. old isn’t bad)

Chi dorme non piglia pesci.
He who sleeps doesn’t get fish.
(the Italian version of the early bird gets the worm)

Tutto fa brodo.
Everything makes good broth.
(i.e. everything is useful in the end)