Putrid in context

Back on the 15th, I posted about the appearance of the adjective putrid in a NYT feature story. From that posting:

Natto for breakfast. From the NYT Magazine on the 12th, in “Rise and Shine: What kids around the world eat for breakfast” (photographs by Hannah Whitaker, text by Malia Wollan) … [in the section on a Japanese breakfast that included the fermented soybean dish natto]

I was taken aback by putrid [for natto], which struck me as much too negative in the context. [in fact, the article had “putrid soybean goop”]

In a comment on this posting, Steve Anderson wrote:

I don’t know whether you’ve ever eaten (or tried to eat) natto, Arnold, but in my opinion ‘putrid’ [meaning ‘rotten’, and by extension, ‘very unpleasant, repulsive’] is precisely descriptive.

Two comments here. First, note the “in this context” in my posting. I meant that seriously. My objection to putrid was to its use in the specific context of the NYT piece, not to its use in any context whatsoever (specifically, not to its use in a description of personal tastes). Second, a note on my own experiences of natto. I’ll reserve for another posting a (lengthy) discussion about rotten or rotted food, fermented food and drink, and related topics — a domain in which ordinary English is poor in vocabulary.

(While I was preparing this posting, a reader complained to the NYT about putrid and similar terms in the children’s breakfasts piece. From the letters in yesterday’s magazine:

I think the author could have diminished the negative tone used when describing unusual or unfamiliar non-American food choices. Descriptions like “putrid,” “goop” and “mush” were a bit condescending. There are other ways to describe the unfamiliar aspects of another food culture. Meliann, West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Context. The children’s breakfasts piece was a feature story in the magazine, written for a general audience and couched as a more-or-less objective (but light-toned) report on the subject, not as a personal-response story. In this context, strong personal judgments are out of place. Natto should have been characterized merely as fermented, or perhaps as fermented and strong-smelling, which would have been vivid but not inaccurate. Putrid or putrid goop is way over the line in this context.

Personal tastes. Steve Anderson is of course entitled to express his personal opinion, which is that natto is just disgusting — an opinion that many others share, though, as Steve wrote:

as the sources you cite note, natto is something for which you can (and many, though not all, Japanese do) acquire a taste.

Actually, I said clearly in my posting that I’m fond of natto, and this despite its strong taste and smell, not to mention its slimy texture (which hasn’t  come up in this discussion so far, but which is certainly relevant). However, I didn’t acquire this taste; I liked the stuff on first acquaintance. But then I’m attracted to strong tastes and unusual textures. (My man Jacques was at the other end of these scales, so that natto was totally out of his range, though he didn’t deny me my pleasures. Still, Jacques took to many kinds of sushi — I was his introduction to Japanese cuisine — so long as they were within his range (the texture of ika, for instance, was just out, and the fishy-salty taste of ikura as well, though I tried describing it as “Japanese caviar”), and he also took to some other Japanese foods, including miso soup, another fermented food but not at all strong-tasting or smelling.)

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