Chocolate, vanilla, and the flavors of our lives

Mayor Ray Nagin got himself into hot water last week with a call for his city to be rebuilt as a "chocolate" New Orleans. By this, he said, he means a majority African-American city. "It's the way God wants it to be." He soon apologized, but there was no shortage of talking heads to point out that a white politician calling for a "vanilla city" would have been run out of town on a rail.

Chocolate isn't quite right, a more temperate critic, a New Orleanian in the street interviewed by CNN, remarked: "We're more Neapolitan than chocolate."

The kindest interpretation of the mayor's remarks is that he was articulating a desire to keep his city from being rebuilt as a suburbanized jazz-and-gumbo theme park from which African-Americans would feel excluded.

But the whole flap is an example of metaphors of flavor, and specifically ice cream flavors, in public discourse. Nagin's remarks raised some implicit questions about format: Did he mean hot chocolate? Milk chocolate candy bars? The "Neapolitan" comment, though, suggests that at least some people thought immediately in terms of ice cream flavors.

How often do we hear "flavor" nowadays used as a high-energy variant on the more mundane "type" or "kind"? The day after Nagin's "chocolate New Orleans" pronouncement, I heard a scientist on the radio talking about a particular human gene that comes in two "flavors."

That very evening, in the November issue of The Atlantic, I read an editor's response zinging a reader who took issue with his glowing assessment of Fred MacMurray's performance in "Double Indemnity": "Well, Mr. Green," the editor wrote, "that's why God made chocolate and vanilla."

Then I went Googling. Searching on "flavors" plus "search engines" (the first phrase that popped into my head) I immediately found this from a legal reference librarian:

"Like ice cream, search engines come in a variety of flavors, and what is right for one searcher may be rejected by another."

Picking an ice cream flavor is an excellent example, it seems, of a nonjudgmental choice.

Once you're in the ice cream parlor (and presumably over the hurdle of "Sweetie, wouldn't you be happier with a nice piece of fruit for dessert?"), the decision is purely a matter of personal preference. My choice of cocoa pudding doesn't invalidate your preference for burnt caramel.

All this "flavoring" may simply reflect the relentless urge of a living language to find new modes of expression as established ones grow threadbare. But in so much public discourse, we're choosing among unsatisfactory options. In the ice cream parlor, it's all good, and one picks without putting others down. No wonder people are finding ice cream imagery a good way to talk about choices and differences.

This weekly column appears with links at http://weblogs.csmonitor.com/verbal_energy.

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