As someone whose picture hangs in the Baskin Robbins Hall of Fame for eating a record amount of Rocky Road ice cream at one sitting, it might be inappropriate of me to comment on others’ relationship with food. But this is less about consuming food than talking about it. Even now, the reference is not to the foodies who sprinkle their conversations, like salt on a pot roast, with arcane terms such as salt and pot roast. It’s about the disturbing habit of people using food terms as pet names for their significant others.
Before I cast the first peach stone, let me come clean. Somewhere in the course of the past thirty-five years, I have started calling poor Steve “Pumpkinhead.” Yes. Pumpkinhead. What is possibly worse, as though anything could be worse than being referred to as a squash noggin, is that some friends have followed my example. They used to go all out, pronouncing every letter. Now they sort of slur his name, degrading it, again as though such a thing were possible, to “Punkinhead.” They’re awfully polite about it, though. In their emails to me, they never fail to ask how ol’ Punkinhead is doing. If we’re planning a coed evening, they ask me to bring Punkinhead along. At the start of football season, they want to know what Punkinhead thinks of Ohio State’s chances against Michigan this year. These are people, you understand, who had Steve as a school teacher and who until recently were addressing him as Mr. Boone. One supposes that is Mr. Punkinhead Boone. Pumpkin is bandied about so much with this crowd it’s like being surrounded by Charlie Browns at the end of October. I tend to stick with the orange vegetable genre, calling him Sweet Potato for a change of pace.
Pumpkinhead might be the oddest, but it isn’t remotely the only edible nickname. I once played golf with an elderly gentleman who, in his beautiful South Carolina drawl, called me “Sugar.” Normally I loathe those stereotypical diminutive names people call women. My personal policy is to reduce, after fair warning, a waiter’s tip by one half percent for each “Hon.” But Mr. Fickling’s version of “Sugar” made me feel like a southern belle. I was having a particularly tough time getting across the pond on number seven. After three splashes, Mr. Fickling handed me a bright orange ball from his cart and said, “Play this ball, Sugar. It’s a Clemson ball. It won’t go in the water.” The ball, unfortunately, was unaware of its university affiliation and did go into the water where it rests still in all its day-glo glory. At that point, it was decided another sort of liquid was called for. Mr. Fickling let me drive his boat out on the ocean (really fast) and then we retired to his house where we drank vodka to drown our golf sorrows (really fast).
(And before the accusation of my living a double standard arises, Steve has never actually asked me not to call him Pumpkinhead, although goodness knows he has ample reason to.)
It must take a brave man to call his wife “dumpling.” A dumpling is soft and doughy and puffy and pale, a state of being to which most women do not aspire. I realize “Pumpkinhead” does not evoke visions of untainted beauty but there you have it. Another thing I can’t explain. Far safer is “Sweetie” or “Sweetie Pie” although I once knew a dog—a dog!—called Sweetie Pie (I am not making this up) and it was the most unattractive mammal I have ever encountered. Plus, can you imagine trying to call the dog in from the back yard? “Here Sweetie Pie. Come Sweetie Pie.” An uninformed neighbor would think the spouse was making a break for it.
How “my little kumquat” came to be a term of endearment is anyone’s guess. “Honey” is an old stand-by. “Puddin’” is uncomfortably close to Pudd’nhead Wilson of Mark Twain fame. I have heard the variation of “Puddin’ Pop” which does nothing to clear things up. And once, just once, I heard a man call his girl friend “Lollipop.” As my friend Bob remarked, “Just one more thing to tell the psychiatrist.”
The writer resides in Covington.