Monday, July 3, 2017

Night work daily

     CATAWBA, Ohio — People seem to believe our country has become one vast undifferentiated nowhere because there are McDonald's and Walmart's in every town and, in some cities, on every corner. But the truth is, there are subtle differences, if you look for them.
    Such as here at Bergman's, a 158-year-old farm stand on the north coast of Ohio, where we always stop on our way home from Put-in-Bay to load up on peaches and sweet corn, local honey and unusual spreads such as, this visit, carrot cake jam. We also bought shortcake because, really, how often do you get the chance?  
     It was before lunch, and my eyes immediately went to the various bags of Ballreich's potato chips. As I did, a certain odd word popped out. "Marcelled." 
     Marcelled. As a lad, I had read numerous books about the 1920s, and always thought of marcelling as something done to hair. I had never seen the word applied to potato chips, though it harmonized with the bold declaration "Since 1920." (Well, I must have seen the word; I've been coming to Bergman's for years; but  I never really noticed it before). 
     I knew what they meant, yet how did the word get to potato chips, one of the last consumer food products to resist globalization. Yes, Chicago's own Jays—no possessive since there is no "Jay"—went bankrupt in 2007 and suffered the indignity of having its brand taken over by Snyder's and production moved to the barrens of Indiana. But many regional diehards remain, such as Zapp's in Louisiana and Utz in Pennsylvania.  
     As if Ballreich's, made in nearby Tiffin, expects customers to be perplexed, the bags contain this definition on the back:

     Helpful. But it did not strike me as definitive. If someone challenged your source, "I got it off the back of a bag of potato chips" is not likely to convince. Something more authoritative was in order. 
     The corporate web site mentions the word early in their history: "Ballreich's chose to call their potato chips "marcelled" (which means "wavy"), taken from the popular ladies' wavy hairstyle of the 1920's.     
     But how did "marcel" come to describe hair? That seemed easy. I like to form theories of words as I go to look them up, and marcel was likely to come from some French hairdresser, Monsieur Marcel, or some such thing. I knew exactly where to look, too. The Oxford University Press' highly-useful 2oth Century Words. Sure enough, there it was.
   marcel v (1906) to wave (hair in the 'Marcel' fashion. This was a kind of artificial wave (known as a Marcel wave) produced by using heated curling-tongs. Fashionable around the turn of the century, it was named after Francois Marcel Grateau (1852-1936), the French hairdresser who invented it.
     Too easy. It's almost disappointing to strike gold so fast, and nail it so closely ahead of time—saps the thrill of the hunt, though it was a few years earlier than I—and Ballreich's—imagined.
Marcelled hair
      Of course that definition could mask earlier meanings. Off to the full Oxford English Dictionary. No "marcel" but the very close "marcella" which is defined as "a kind of twilled cotton or linen cloth," with "twilled' meaning having a series of parallel ridges, rather like the hairdo. And "marcela" dates back to 1802, so obviously M. Grateau was casting his seed onto well-tilled and fertile ground when his name was being lent to hair waves and, eventually, potato chips. 
     I don't want to give the impression that I spent my whole time in Put-in-Bay hunting for novel words. We went for walks on the beach, got ice cream in town, watched the parade and the arrival of the Budweiser's Clydesdales. There was the uncovering of unusual cuisines. Such as Friday night, at Mossbacks—no possessive, a lapse in my view— a bar/restaurant downtown. I didn't intend on ordering a burger, but scanned the list of burgers anyway, searching for novel approaches, and boy did I find one. 

    "Welcome to Ohio!" my friend laughed, when I pointed out the delicacy. The waitress stopped by at that moment. 
     "How drunk do customers have to be to order the Peanut Butter and Jelly Burger?" I asked. This didn't register.
     "I sold one tonight," she said.
     "Have you tried it?" I continued.
     "Not yet." 
     I could tell from her tone and expression that this interchange was entirely puzzling to her—I could have been inquiring what exactly was Gallic about these "French fries" and whether anyone actually ordered them. I let the matter drop and we ordered.
     The six-hour drive home Monday left plenty of time for musing over signs. Just as we were passing through Port Clinton one read "Fowl Foolers" which had me craning my neck, puzzled, examining the place of business as we rushed by and wondering exactly what the establishment could possibly do: produce tofu meals disguised as chickens? Perform chicken-oriented entertainments to soothe birds on their way to slaughter? The graphic—a duck in mid-flight, just begging to be shot out of the sky—gave away the game.
     "Decoys!" I said, triumphantly. (And bird calls. And more! Their web site)
      The last challenge was on 94, heading north. An electronic sign that read, "NIGHT WORK DAILY." It communicated its message: Every night the construction that goes on during the day will go on into the the night. But it also bothered me. something was wrong. "WORK NIGHTLY" would be shorter and convey the same meaning. Though some drivers could be confused and mistakenly believe they were being urged to labor after sundown. "DAY WORK NIGHTLY" might be better or, better still, "ROAD WORK NIGHTLY."  
     That sign entertained me for minutes. "'Night Work' has an edge to it, like 'Sex Work,' I said to my wife. "Good title for a thriller."
     Back home, happily before my iMac, I logged into Amazon. Half a dozen novels entitled "Night Work," plus "Nightwork" by Irwin Shaw. There's nothing new under the sun, as we are told in Ecclesiastes 1:9.  


  1. I noticed that sign on the Edens. It bothered me too. What really bothered me was the millions being spent to resurface a road that didn't need resurfacing. The Edens has been very smooth since they last worked on it. All I could say was "Why?"

  2. Worth waiting. Marcelled indeed. I thought myself astute in making the hair connection, which probably would have quieted any aspirations to dig deeper. Glad that Neil is more ambitious.


  3. When I'm traveling I always keep an eye out for local potato chips. I too looked up "marcelled" in Ohio (as I recall the chips were just OK). This spring I was in Fulton MO and stopped in a Wal-Mart, which you'd expect to be the acme of globalized food, but it had a section of "local favorites" which included Fulton-made Backer's potato chips, which were really outstanding. I'd like to imagine that when Winston Churchill was in Fulton to deliver the Iron Curtain speech, he might have noshed on a few Backer's chips (or crisps to him).

  4. It's probably "Mossbacks" plural because it's an establishment primarily for mossbacks, in which case, Neil, I'm surprised they let you in. Maybe they saw potential.

    1. No doubt the potential is there. Uncharacteristically, and contrary to the spirit of the piece, I never paused to wonder what "mossback" means. (An old-fashioned or very conservative person).

    2. It's a great word. Very descriptive. Hopefully, a couple of trendy, hipster, rolling stones like us will be able to avoid the label.

  5. A mossback is, of course, an ancient turtle. Which may not be a good fit for Neil. He seems disinclined to withdraw into his shell when under attack.


  6. Most potato chips are local because they have a relatively short shelf life. Frito-Lay makes the only nationally distributed brands because they're the only ones to have invested in a nationwide processing and distribution network.


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