Sunday, April 15, 2007

We Should Can That

There's a scene in Steve Martin's The Jerk when Martin's character Navin R. Johnson, the adopted white son of black sharecroppers in the deep South, is being schooled in the ways of life before he sets off to find his way in the world. His father shows him a can of shoe polish and says, "Shinola." He points to something on the ground and says, "Shit."

"Right," says the dull-witted by earnest Navin, pointing to each in turn. "Shit. Shinola. Shit. Shinola."

The expression, "doesn't know shit from shinola" isn't in my Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, but it ought to be. According to the website The Phrase Finder, it refers to an old American brand of shoe polish called Shinola (pronounced Shine-ola), named with the same once-popular -ola suffix as the crayon company Crayola. Not knowing the difference between something that polishes one's shoes and something one wouldn't want to step in means one is very stupid.

The Phrase Finder says the insult originated with American soldiers in WWII.

I hate to think what Navin Johnson would have thought had he been confronted with a can of Shitto, a spiced pepper sauce from Ghana. A post on the Ghana Community Online offers a description and a recipe:
Shitor Din (or Sheto, Shito, Shito, Shitto; pronounced SHEE-toe) -- from the word for pepper in the Ga language -- is a spicy hot chile pepper condiment that, like ketchup in the United States and salsa in Mexico, is served with any- and everything in Ghana, and is sometimes used as an ingredient in Ghanaian recipes. There are two versions: a spicy oil with dried chile pepper and dried shrimp; and a fresh version made from fresh chile peppers, onions, and tomatoes.
Boing Boing co-editor Xeni Jardin's recent post on the subject has created a minor web shitto storm. It includes a photo of a stack of cans labelled Shitto.

What's delicious in Ghana sounds like something already eaten in English. It reminds me of the Norwegian word for cake, kake, which sounds just like the Spanish word for shit, caca. Growing up eating julekake (Christmas cake) and kransekake (a wreath-shaped almond cake), there was lots of room for amusing misunderstandings with my Spanish-speaking neighbors.

But there's no misunderstanding Italian artist Piero Manzoni's work. Nevermind worrying if you step in shit; what if you bought it, a can of shit for, say, $50,000? You'd better like it as art, because if it lost value -- and there's an outside chance it might -- you'd be stuck with ... a can of shit.

According to New York Magazine, Manzoni's 1961 project, Merda
d'artista no. 19
, was recently auctioned off at Christie's, and the estimated value was $50,000-70,000. It was, quite simply, a portion of the artist's own feces, canned, numbered, and signed in 1961. Apparently Manzoni made 90 of them and sold them for the price of their weight in gold.

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