Magazine article The Spectator

Alexander McCall Smith's American Diary

Magazine article The Spectator

Alexander McCall Smith's American Diary

Article excerpt

The trouble with going on an American book tour is that I know it's going to play havoc with my diet. People on diets can very quickly become diet bores, but I am unrepentant: I know the calorie content of most things and, for instance, how long it takes to burn off a croissant. Not that I eat croissants any more, of course. (We dieters can be tremendously smug.) America is a challenge, though, because all their food is injected with corn syrup. In Denver I was once served an omelette that had been dusted, in cold sobriety, with icing sugar. But it's not just icing sugar that is a problem: the intrusive strawberry is a difficult issue too. Any breakfast, it seems, must include a strawberry or two, placed alongside the eggs. Strawberries have their place, but I think it is part of living in a free society that one should be able to decline to eat them with eggs and bacon. For some years I battled unsuccessfully to be served eggs without strawberries, and it is only recently that I learned the way to do this. What you say is, 'Hold the strawberries.' That means 'No strawberries'. That works. You can also say 'Hold the ice' if you want a drink served without a very large amount of ice. It helps to insert an exclamation mark, as in 'Hold the ice!' The waiter then says, 'You want me to hold the ice?' and you cry, 'Yes, hold the ice!' That brings results.

We tend not to take much notice of signs, but when you actually read them carefully and consider their wording there is a strange poetry about them. Kenneth Koch, a New York poet, wrote an extraordinary poem called 'One Train May Hide Another' after he read those words of warning on a level-crossing sign in East Africa. In New York on this trip I saw a sign in a deli that had the same haunting, poetic quality: No foods from another place are permitted here . So only bagels and hot dogs and other New York fare. And then, while being driven through the wastes of Los Angeles on the way to Santa Barbara, suddenly I noticed a very strange sign: College of Hypnotherapy: Next Exit . There is something quintessentially California about that... or Californian. Purists used to censure those who used the adjective 'Californian', pointing out that Californian is a noun used for a resident of California. So there are many references to 'California wine' rather than 'Californian wine'. Which is fine, but then, as non-prescriptivists love to point out, language changes. …

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