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You say tomato, I say . . . potato?
Don't want to argue, I don't want to debate
Don't want to hear about what kind of food you hate
You won't get no dessert 'till you clean off your plate
So eat it
- Eat It, by Weird Al Yankovic
FOR years now, an epic battle has been waged in the state of New Jersey over what to call a particular smoked pork product that is very popular over there.
Like most great divides, this is a North-South one - people in the northern part of the state call this pork product "Taylor Ham", while the people in the southern part insist it's called "pork roll". This processed breakfast meat can be eaten on its own or in a sandwich, and whatever you want to call it, the people of New Jersey think it's delicious.
The divergence in porcine product parlance comes from two rival producers of the stuff. John Taylor, a New Jersey state senator and entrepreneur, is credited with selling the creation in 1856. His version, apparently, became popular in North Jersey where the locals began calling it "Taylor Ham".
In 1870, however, a butcher called George Washington Case came up with his own offering through his company, Case Pork Roll Co. "Pork roll" then became the name of choice in South Jersey. In a way, you could say that everyone had a pig in the fight.
While this stand-off has roots in a "blood feud that goes back 150 years" according to food podcast Sporkful, things came to a head recently. This year, assemblyman Tim Eustace has been trying to crown a breakfast sandwich, which uses the contentious Taylor Ham/pork roll, as New Jersey's official sandwich.
But that opened up a whole other can of Spam, since no one can agree if the proposed official sandwich should be christened "Taylor Ham, egg and cheese" or "pork roll, egg and cheese."
So contentious is the issue, in fact, that President Barack Obama said: "There's not much I'm afraid to take on in my final year of office, but I know better than to get in the middle of that debate." I don't have a view on what this pork product should be called - although, all this talk of food is making me pretty peckish.
Here is another naming oddity that is closer to home - the humble laksa dish.
The Singapore Infopedia page says that laksa in Indonesian means "sepuluh ribu" or "10 thousand", referring to the many strands of the fine white vermicelli noodles in the dish. By this token, the Kuala Lumpur type of "curry laksa" is not a "laksa", according to the Singapore Infopedia entry.
That concoction, also called "curry mee", has a "thick chicken-curry soup base similar to that of laksa, but the yellow noodles give it away, as authentic laksa is only made with white vermicelli noodles," the page says. This knowledge might be discombobulating, at the very least, for anyone who has used "curry mee" and "curry laksa" interchangeably their entire lives.
Although, I'd wager that if you ever sample a bowl of the stuff, you'll eventually come up for air, eyes watering and nose streaming from the fiery onslaught of the curry. Then, what its name ought to be will be swiftly relegated to a matter of academic importance. Even so, it is interesting how much store we set by what to call something, even when the object's name has no effect on its molecular composition.
Several years ago, I had been looking up places to eat in New York City's Chinatown, online. What had particularly exercised me was how one reviewer described a rice dumpling as a "Chinese tamale". "They're nothing alike!" I had exclaimed to no one in particular, arms raised to the heavens. After I had calmed down and done more reading, I realised that this label was a fairly commonly used shorthand for explaining what zhong zi or bak zhang were to people unfamiliar with the dish.
It hadn't been a terribly erroneous comparison - tamales are steamed, while rice dumplings are steamed or boiled. Both are carbohydrate on the outside, with a filling on the inside.
In fact, calling it a rice dumpling instead of one of its Chinese names probably irks some people, too. Something is lost in that translation; there are textures, flavours and nuances from that unctuous pork belly filling, that yielding and sticky rice - that do not survive the transition from one language to another.
When you are particularly fond of something, hearing it called something else can feel like a violation of your ownership of it. As the month of November comes to a close, the last few weeks have reminded us that life can be full of surprising and upsetting outcomes.
But amid all this upheaval, one thing is clear: Eat whatever you want, and call it whatever you want. For life is short, but food is tasty.