Thursday, May 17, 2018

The word police

Stephanie Izard
    A future column I'm working on necessitated a stop by the Chicago Ideas seminar at the Museum of Contemporary Art Tuesday night. I was hoping to talk to an executive in attendance at "The Future of Food in America," a panel discussion between Stephanie Izard, the chef behind Girl & the Goat, and Sam Kass, a nutrition advisor at the Obama White House, moderated by ABC 7's food reporter, Steve Dolinsky. 
     Since I wasn't particularly interested in the topic, I probably shouldn't assess how thoroughly it was covered—in the future we'll be eating less meat, ideally, and toward that end Girl & the Goat is serving hamburgers that are 25 percent mushroom, which seems like a good idea. 
     Seeing Izard reminded me of a column I wrote about her a dozen years ago, when she was starting out. Afterward, we had a chance to chat. "I still haven't read The Odyssey," she said, when I reminded her of the item below, and I put in a plug for Emily Wilson's new translation. 

     I understand ironic restaurant names. So many places are burdened with ordinary names such as Ma's Family Restaurant or the Steak and Potatoes Grill or whatever, that a hip chef wants to stand out in the crowd. Thus we get eateries with odd names like Barbed Wire or Gristle or Slop Sink.
     For me, the gold standard of winking eatery names is the University of Colorado at Boulder's student center cafeteria, which is called the Alferd E. Packer Memorial Grill— Packer being one of the few Americans ever found guilty of cannibalism, convicted of dining on several of his snowbound traveling companions during a harsh Rocky Mountains winter of 1873.
     College students eat that sort of thing up—sometimes literally, during "Alferd Packer Days" when they have, in years past, constructed life-size Packers out of chopped liver and set at them with crackers.
     So I understand irony.
     But "Scylla"? The "yelping horror" of The Odyssey? A beast known for gobbling up men alive? That seems to be pushing it.
     When I heard that a seafood place named "Scylla" had opened up on North Damen, I found myself running back to consult the epic poem. Circe, finally releasing Odysseus from her clutches, warns him: whatever he does, stay away from "the grisly monster."
     "No one could look on her with any joy," explains the goddess. "She has twelve legs, all writhing, dangling down, and six long swaying necks, a hideous head on each, each head barbed with a triple row of fangs, thickset, packet tight -- armed to the hilt with black death!"
     But Circe isn't done yet.
     "Scylla's no mortal,'' she continues. "She's an immortal devastation, terrible, savage, wild. No fighting her, no defense—just flee the creature, that's the only way."
     Can't you just see that in an ad? "Outstanding" -- Pat Bruno. "Terrible, savage, wild" -- Homer.
     Restaurants cost money—often somebody's life investment. I just couldn't imagine, with the menus being hand-lettered and the lighting fixtures agonized over, even the most ironic chef, going through lists of possible names—"'Clytemnestra?' No. 'Medea?' No.—Hey, 'Scylla!' That's snappy. The good old yelping horror. Yeah, that's it. We'll call it 'Scylla.' "
     I phoned Stephanie Izard, Scylla's chef and owner, who laughed when I told her why I was calling.
     "Basically, when I chose it, it was early on in reading about Scylla," she said. "I saw her as a sea monster in the Mediterranean, not really realizing the extent of her evil. Since then I've read more about it. . . ."
     So a failure to do one's homework—sort of like naming your daughter Anna Karenina Smith because you never got to the end of the book.
     Any regrets?
     "I still like the name—it always brings up questions,'' said Izard, 29. Like why you'd go to a restaurant whose name suggests—at least to the tiny fraction of Chicagoans familiar with the tale—a hideous doom to be avoided at all costs?
     "We don't want to send that message out," she said.
      Can't say I blame her.
                          —Originally published in the Sun-Times, July 10, 2006

     Postscript: And as a reminder that you never know what part of a column will touch people, after this ran, I received a letter from a 15-year-old reader, saying her name was Karenina, and could I pass along her interest in meeting other girls of the same name. I did.


  1. Maybe a pie shop called "Sweeny Todd's"


  2. I'm betting that Karenina's parents thought the name was an exotic version of Karen.

    I'm currently reading what I first thought was a novel, Leonora by Elena Poniatowska, who identifies as Mexican and writes in Spanish. Leonora Carrington is a real person, it turns out, whose talents and foibles aren't as interesting as I thought they would be. My point is that although I think Leonora is a pretty name, I'm sure I would not recommend it even to my nieces who are raising bilingual children. And Karenina? Not exactly a curse, given the small number of people familiar with Tolstoy characters, but not a blessing either.


    1. I know tolstoys book was published a long time ago and is very long and that there's a rumor going round that people don't read anymore. But over 100,000,000 copies have been sold .I'm guessing more people have read it than you might think. It is after all one of the greatest works of fiction of all time .

  3. How about "Don't Eat Here" for an ironic restaurant name; I imagine that would bring a few curious folks inside.


  4. The company name that made me respond with a big "What the..." is the meal replacement line named Soylent. I saw the movie, I'm never eating that stuff!

  5. Back in the day, there were many signs that just said EAT.
    In the early and mid-Fifties there was one at Chicago and Homan.
    It was just the standard lunch counter with a half-dozen stools. Never went inside, because it was always closed on Sundays, when my father would drive us past the sign. I begged him to take me there on another day, like maybe a Saturday, but he never did. When I moved back to Chicago in 1975, I went looking for it, after all those years. No more eatery, no more EAT sign. I wish I had been able to see it lit up at dawn or dusk, because it was a neon sign. I love those old signs. Used to own one, in fact. Sold it eventually, because it buzzed and gave off an ozone-like smell.

    There was also a COZY LUNCH in South Evanston in the Fifties and Sixties, near Chicago and Main. Rode past it countless times, usually when it was closed. Probably closed after the lunch hour. It was exactly what its name implied, maybe three or four stools, five tops. That was now my new neighborhood in 1975, so I walked over to it. The sign was still there, but no more counter. No more stools. Empty. Gone. Never got to EAT there, either. Lunch counters and diners are so cool. Older towns still have some of them around. Newer ones probably never did.

    1. When I was a kid, there was a tiny diner on the corner of 78th & Exchange. We lived down the street for 20 years, but I only remember going in the place one time and marveling at the giant can of Campbell's tomato soup behind the counter. No pretensions about home-cooked meals there.



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