Meaty pong

Some especially vivid food writing by Sam Sifton in the NYT Magazine (“Gooey Wild-Mushroom Lasagna”, 11/27/11):

… heralds and fireworks should have accompanied the mushroom lasagna that Monica Byrne served family-style at a New York wedding one recent night, in a Midtown loft dressed in flowers and white. A gooey thrill of savory sweetness, salty astringency and the meaty pong of wild mushrooms sitting beneath a thrum of white truffle, it came in wide tureens placed up and down a long table crowded with flickering tapers and bottles of very good wine.

A chain of Adj + N combinations: gooey thrill, savory sweetness, salty astringency, meaty pong. The last caught my eye, because I knew pong only as British / Australian / New Zealand slang, and then only with reference to unpleasant or bad smells. (Sifton is very much an American, and the context makes it clear that the meaty pong of the mushrooms was very much a good thing.)

OED3 (Dec. 2006) has an entry for pong (origin unknown) ‘a strong smell, usually unpleasant; a stink’. Its cites (from 1900 through 1991) are British or antipodal, up until the 1991 one, from Douglas Coupland (a Canadian), in Generation X:

Smelling the cinnamon nighttime pong of snapdragons and efficient whiffs of swimming pool chlorine.

All the earlier cites are for unpleasant smells as well, as in:

1957    J. Braine Room at Top iv. 44   ‘What a pong,’ he said. ‘Don’t know how you stand it.

So it seems that pong has been extending itself from bad smells to strong smells in general; here’s another British meaty pong example, from Nigel Slater in The Observer‘s food and drink column on 10/8/05:

I want to breathe in the milky whiff from the cheese stall, the meaty pong of game birds and the warm brown smell of organic veggies rather than the piped air from a supermarket’s sugar-tinged in-store bakery. (link)

(It’s clear from the context here, as in the Sifton column, that a meaty pong in this passage is not some disgusting rotten smell, as I would have assumed without the context, but a strong earthy smell.)

And pong also seems to have been moving across the Atlantic.

So: an extension in meaning and a spread from one variety to another. Language use changes.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: