Fricassee of Words – Chewing The Fat

Fricassee: Meat cut into pieces and stewed in gravy.

Fricassee of Words: Musings on food-inspired expressions, words and word play, with occasional bits and pieces of kitchen jargon too.

Don’t stir the pot, go fry an egg, two eggs in a basket are better than one hen in the bush… you get the picture by now, and here is today’s food-inspired expression for us to pick at.

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Chewing The Fat

Meaning – Originally, to gripe or complain. Today, making friendly small talk. Also, gossip.

A book published in 1885 is credited with placing this expression in its proper social context.

In this book, titled Life in the Ranks of the British Army in India, author J Brunlees Patterson writes of soldiers biting off the ends of ammunition and chewing on these during musket practice. At that time, most ammunition consisted in powder and a ball wrapped in cloth soaked in animal fat or wrapped in paper. These were bitten open prior to use and soldiers merely continued to chew on the fat-soaked cloth absentmindedly. This might have provided a nerve-calming activity, similar to chewing gum or tobacco.

Other sources suggest that the expression may have had several origins; that it may have emerged from various cultures spontaneously, inspired by the circumstances of everyday activities. One such source places the inspiration for the expression chewing the fat amidst the North American Inuit tribes whose matriarchs customarily sat in groups to chew animal hide to render it more pliable for making clothes and various implements.

Early farm life and seafaring life offer yet more instances of chewing the fat. Sailors often chewed on salt-hardened fat while resting or while performing  chores. It is possible that they chatted at the same time. British farmers chewed on smoked pork meat and fat. Add a bit of leisurely banter while working and there you go, an innocent activity inspires a phrase to acknowledge the moment.

You are welcome to chew the fat at 158 Main & JPD.

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