Pete Wells writes in the May 2 NYT Magazine (“Cooking with Dexter: The nut case”) about eating out with his 5-year-old son Dexter, who’s seriously allergic to tree nuts, peanuts, and sesame seeds. Wells tells the story of a trip to Houston, where the family had some excellent Mexican food. At one point, they were having some campechana de mariscos (description, picture, and recipe in the story), which Dexter found a bit spicy for his taste, so his father offered him a hush puppy instead. Dexter ate it happily, but then asked, ominously, “Is there anything in this food that we weren’t expecting?”; his throat was itching, the first sign of an allergic reaction, which then developed into something much worse, requiring a shot from an epinephrine pen and a visit to an emergency room.
Despite being very cautious about what Dexter ate, his parents had “offered him a cornmeal fritter full of chopped pecans”.
More recently, they
asked a waitress whether the muffins that landed on our table with the menus contained any nuts or seeds.
“No,” she said, emphatically, “No nuts. Only peanut flour.”
They passed on the muffins.
There’s a linguistic problem here. Contain X is technically correct, but won’t work in ordinary language, where the object of contain refers to visible or obvious ingredients; there’s also an issue about what nut and seed refer to in ordinary English. But the major problem is over what counts as containing, say, peanuts; for ordinary speakers, peanut oil and peanut flour just don’t count. So the wary diner has to inquire about whether a dish contains peanuts or any peanut product, but peanut product might not be understood.
Similar difficulties afflict those who are allergic to shellfish: shrimp paste and sauces with shellfish products in them turn up in all sorts of unexpected places in Chinese, Indonesian, etc. food, and in addition lots of ordinary English speakers are none too clear about the fish/shellfish distinction (it’s all seafood, right?).
I’ve written on this blog about the hazards of trying to get vegetarian food: on top of varying understandings as to what counts as meat (for some people, the word covers only the category RED-MEAT, excluding things in the POULTRY and SEAFOOD category; for others, it covers both RED-MEAT and POULTRY; and so on), there’s the task of getting people to recognize that various animal products make food non-vegetarian (chicken stock in soup broths, for example; hey, it’s just broth, right?) — the contain problem again.
I’m distressed to see that though I’ve posted (here, on Language Log, and on the ADS mailing list) again and again over the years on categories vs. labels for them, and on ordinary language vs. technical language, I haven’t kept track of these postings — on clothing, food, household furnishings, color (of course), plants, animals, social groupings, and more. Time to assemble some of this material.