Tag Archives: croissant

You can have Danishes with your giant beaver, but maybe not croissants

In one episode of Big Bang Theory, Amy and Sheldon are playing a game they call “Counterfactuals” (let’s leave aside the linguistic use of that term, which is a little different). They challenge Leonard with this question: “In a world where mankind is ruled by a giant intelligent beaver, what food is no longer consumed?”

He guesses wrong, of course, because that’s how the show works. The correct answer, according to Sheldon and Amy, is cheese Danish. The explanation: “In a world ruled by a giant beaver, mankind builds many dams to please the beaver overlord. The low-lying city of Copenhagen is flooded. Thousands die. Devastated, the Danes never invent their namesake pastry. How does one miss that?”

So anyway, that never sat quite right with me, and I was thinking about it today while I was face down on a massage table. First of all, it didn’t sit quite right because Denmark isn’t all that low-lying overall, certainly not as much as the Netherlands (hence the name: nether lands). Of course, Copenhagen is at sea level, but so are many other cities, some of which may likewise be associated with particular foods. I think Dutch pancakes and other Dutch foods would be at least as endangered. Except, of course, the Dutch would build dams to keep the water out of Amsterdam. As in fact they have.

Which leads me to the key point. Dams would not make the sea level rise. I mean, yeah, if they put dams around more low-lying land to reclaim more of it from the ocean, that might have a modest effect, but you know that’s not why or where beavers build dams. Beavers build dams on rivers. To make big ponds. Lakes, even. Reservoirs. Just like people do. Only presumably more dams would be built than we have already.

And all those dams would keep water from getting to the oceans. So, if anything, the sea level would be a bit lower. Not a whole lot, probably, but maybe a bit.

But meanwhile, big cities on rivers would be flooded. Sorta like what has happened to some cities in China where they’ve built dams. Whole cities have been submerged, their residents relocated.

So name a big city on a river that would be submerged, a big city associated with a famous pastry.

I’m going with Vienna. It’s on the Danube. I think it would be likely to be underwater. Vienna is associated with croissants. (The story of their being invented in honour of bakers hearing moorish armies tunnelling under the walls has no historical basis – and in fact croissants aren’t as old as that – but still, Vienna. Croissants. Anyway, Paris would also be underwater, don’t you think? Damming the Seine? I think so.) So you probably wouldn’t be able to get croissants. Maybe several other things invented in Vienna and Paris and other river cities too.

But you’d be OK. You could have a Danish instead.

Yes, yes, I know, it’s a TV show. Remember, I was lying face down on a massage table. You’re supposed to relax, so I wasn’t going to lie there planning my day or week. I needed to think of completely irrelevant things.

Is my point that the writers of Big Bang Theory aren’t geniuses? Oh, no, they’re geniuses. (Or genii if you prefer.) But geniuses at being funny. They pulled it off. And they kept me thinking about their show after.

I’m not even going to go into other things, such as how Sheldon, Leonard, et al. would surely recite the rhyme of the One Ring not in English, as they did in one episode, but in the Dark Tongue of Mordor (as I did at the TV in response). Again: What, were they going to translate it for their audience? If the show were written at true full-on geek level the audience would be much smaller. See? They know what they’re doing.

But I just thought you would like to know. Not Danishes. Croissants.


Croissants have been with us a long time, of course – their modern form was invented around the middle of the 19th century, though not without forerunners. (They were not invented by Viennese bakers commissioned to create them in commemoration of their having foiled a Moorish attempt at tunneling into the city during a siege; that’s a popular myth, but it is pure myth.) But my recollection is that they had a bit of a surge in the early 1980s, at least in Alberta, when some restaurants started serving not simple croissants but full sandwiches made with them. (The Oxford Companion to Food supports this notion, noting that in the late 1970s such sandwiches came into vogue in France in response to the invading hamburger; it would have taken a few years for the trend to reach Banff.)

The reason I remember the time with some clarity is that in my last year of high school, I wished to conduct a science experiment testing reaction times after intake of successive amounts of alcohol (inspired by an episode of WKRP). My subject, Dave Breisch, a good friend more than a decade older than I, a fellow who was never without his black leather jacket and always wore his hair in a ducktail, recommended one local establishment not simply for the relative ease of performing the test there but for the food – they had great croissants. Which he explained were not just the rolls but full sandwiches made with them. And which he pronounced “croy-sants.”

Well, how the heck do you pronounce this word if you’re an anglophone, anyway? The French way is just not available, not even substituting an English-style /r/: we don’t have /rw/ together in a syllable onset in our phonemic repertoire. (For proof, say Rwanda or ask anyone else to. Odds are very good they’ll add an extra syllable: /ru wan da/.) But, on the other hand, “croy-sant” just sounds, well, you know, uh, déclassé. We may do English-style spelling pronunciations of some loan words, but we all know enough about French to know that’s a bit too distorted. So, if we don’t wish to switch for one word into French phonemics, we will tend to just assimilate the /r/ into the /w/ and say /kwa/ instead of /krwa/. Some people, I believe, merge in the other direction and say /kra/ – especially in that synthetic macaronic word croissandwich, which can get to sound a bit like “crust sandwich” said sloppily.

Ah, crust… There’s a decent crispy taste of crust in croissant, isn’t there? Slightly less, true, if you say it more the French way, with a nasalized vowel followed by a glottal stop rather than the /nt/.

And of course the written form starts with the iconic c. It gets even better than that, though: say it the French way and the mouth goes from puckered to open, a fast dilation that matches the quick crescendo from voiceless to full voice. What has this to do with croissant? Why, croissant means “growing” (even in modern French it’s the present participle of croître “grow”). The source is Latin crescentem, also the source for crescendo and, of course, crescent. And how is a croissant or crescent growing? Is it because a croissant is thick in the middle and tapered at the end? Well, not per se, no. It’s because when the moon is waxing to full, that’s the shape you see. (Originally a waning moon was decrescent, but that’s now excrescent.) And crescent is so much nicer to say than convexo-concave, isn’t it? Which reminds me that the shape of a crescent is the same sort of shape as a cross-section of lenses for hyperopia (farsightedness) – that is to say, glasses one needs for reading.

Which are, of course, different from the glasses one needs for drinking. Which takes me back to Dave Breisch. I had a nice reaction timer ordered in by the school. We went to the pub (actually a hotel bar) and ate those nice croissants, too. But before we did, we ran four drinks through Dave and did the tests. And what I found was what was actually known generally to be the case: reaction times get faster at first (after a drink or so, depending on tolerance), as the person calms down and focuses… and then, with more drinks, the times rapidly get worse. The graph is itself a crescent shape, as the times are first decrescent and then crescent.

You may have noticed the irony of a leather-jacket-and-ducktail-wearing guy talking about how good the croissants were. I’m put in mind of a MAD Magazine parody of the TV show Simon & Simon, in which Rick (the country-style brother) asks A.J. (the citified brother) what he’s having for breakfast. “Espresso… and a croissant,” A.J. says. Rick replies that he doesn’t go for that fancy stuff, and he’ll just have a small cup of strong black coffee and a roll. And, yes, Dave was much more a Rick-style person. But I’m sure my tough-guy greaser-type friend who made a career as a nurse, and who died unexpectedly about a year and a half ago, would appreciate the fitting irony of my dedicating today’s word tasting note to his memory.