Does this contain any X?

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.

4 Responses to “Does this contain any X?”

  1. irrationalpoint Says:

    “But the major problem is over what counts as containing, say, peanuts”

    In my experience, another major issue is what the hearer takes the speakers concern to be. That is: if you says “does it contain chilli?” (say, because you are allergic) in an Indian restaurant, you may well be taken to be asking if a particular dish is very spicy, and you may therefor be told it does not contain chilli, even if the hearer of the question knows that the dish very clearly does contain whole red chilli peppers, because the dish is relatively mild. I guess in the terms you’ve used in your post, the issue is not exactly whether the chillis are in the CHILLI category, but rather, whether the dish they are a part of is in the REALLY-VERY-SPICY category or the JUST-A-BIT-SPICY category.


  2. mae Says:

    I think some of this is ignorance (or just uncooperativeness). Example: a friend with allergies was really annoyed because the waiter (or kitchen) — asked to omit DAIRY products from her order — left the EGGS off her salad. Well, that’s where eggs appear in a supermarket, isn’t it? In the dairy case?

  3. irrationalpoint Says:

    Mae: better too cautious than insufficiently so, as in the “no peanuts, but peanut oil doesn’t count” situations. Again, the situation seems to be what the waiter/kitchen assumes you to be concerned about. Unfortunately, lots of queries about certain types of foods seem to get a reaction that suggests that the default assumption is “faddy diet” rather than allergy/intolerance/other medical reason. So in fact the question that someone thinks they’re answering may not be the one that you think you’re asking.

    That is, I could see someone thinking “no dairy, ok, that’s a super-vegan…” or “no dairy, ok that’s super-low-cholesterol” or something and so trying to be super-helpful, rather than “no dairy, ok that’s a milk intolerance/allergy”.

    The situation I have seen this is with my local butcher, who makes delicious lamb and beef sausages using either hog or sheep casing. I don’t eat pork (or pork products), so I always ask what the casing is. I think the butcher assumes I am a Super-Natural-Food Nut, because she always assures me that it is “completely natural [sheep/hog, as the case may be] casing”. I don’t care about the natural, I only care about the named quadruped. But if I asked “does it contain any pork?” we’re back to the original problem in the post — casing doesn’t count as pork.


  4. More diets « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] But for O-type choices, there are consequences, sometimes quite severe ones. You can choose to disregard these consequences (many American Jews will happily eat dishes with shellfish or pork in them — definitely treyf — but only when these dishes are Chinese, in a restaurant or as take-out), and even in the case of physically-based food intolerances, people sometimes indulge in the forbidden foods, because they get pleasure from them, and then live with the short-term consequences — not really an option for people with life-threatening allergies, of course (as here). […]

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