Monday, November 25, 2013

Fancy That!

The other day, with Thanksgiving feasting just around the corner, I bought some dried apricots that were described in large letters on the label as “Fancy.”  I wondered if these were elaborately ornamental apricots, or perhaps very swanky and exclusive apricots, or maybe especially whimsical apricots.  What could it be that made these particular apricots “fancy,” instead of the plain old apricots I had been used to in my drab former life?

The adjective fancy is a contraction of fantasy, and its original meaning as a noun in the mid-fifteenth century was a “whim or desire, based on imagination or illusion.”  Its origin was Old French fantaisie (“vision, imagination”), from the Latin and Greek phantasia (“appearance, image, perception”), ultimately from the Greek phainesthai (“appear”) and phainem (to “show or bring light”).

Its adjectival use dates from the eighteenth century, and over the years it has assumed many meanings, among them “whimsical,” “ornamental,” “swanky,” “of particular excellence, the highest grade,” “impressive,” “bred especially for bizarre or ornamental purposes without regard to utility,” “extravagant,” “executed with exceptional skill or dexterity,” “multi-colored,” “overly elegant or refined,”  “flamboyant,” and “morally lax.”  Which of these applied to my apricots?

It turns out that “fancy” is a technical term used by the United States Department of Agriculture to grade certain fruits, vegetables, and prepared products, based on their color, size, shape, maturity, flavor, texture, appearance, and the absence of any defects. There’s one grade higher than “fancy,” which is “extra fancy,” but it’s a rare occurrence to find a product that measures up to that level.

The USDA doesn’t mess around when setting these standards. Nothing is left to guesswork. Take apples, for instance.  Here’s the official definition of a “fancy” apple:

“U.S. Fancy” consists of apples which are mature but not overripe, clean, fairly well formed, and free from decay, internal browning, internal breakdown, soft scald, freezing injury, visible water core, and broken skins. The apples are also free from damage caused by bruises, brown surface discoloration, russeting, sunburn or sprayburn, limb rubs, hail, drought spots, scars, stem or calyx cracks, disease, insects, bitter pit, Jonathan spot, or damage by other means, or invisible water core after January 31st of the year following the year of production, except for the Fuji variety of apples. Invisible water core shall not be scored against the Fuji variety of apples under any circumstances. Each apple of this grade has the amount of color specified for the variety.”

Now that’s a pretty fancy apple! I’m not sure why Fuji apples get a pass on “invisible water core,” whatever that is, but after all it’s invisible, so who cares?

Now, back to those apricots. The rules are just as stringent.  In order to be classified as “fancy,” they must “possess a practically uniform, bright typical color, characteristic of well-matured apricots. The fruit may possess pale yellow areas around the stem end that do not exceed an area equivalent to one-eighth of the outer surface side of the unit. Not more than a total tolerance of 10 percent, by weight, may be slabs, immature, or may possess pits or pieces of pits; may be damaged by discoloration, sunburn, hail marks, scab, disease, insect injury, or other similar defects; or may be affected by mold, decay, insect infestation (no live insects are permitted), imbedded dirt, or other foreign material: Provided, that, not more than two-fifths of the total tolerance, or 4 percent, by weight, may be affected by mold, decay, insect infestation (no live insects are permitted), imbedded dirt, or other foreign material: And further provided, that, not more than one-tenth of the total tolerance, or 1 percent, by weight, may be affected by decay.”

I sleep a little easier every night knowing that these standards are being maintained for fancy fruits.

It’s not widely known that the plain old Bard of Buffalo Bayou is something of a fancy-Dan himself when he dons his fancy pants and shows that he’s fancy-free (and full of fun). 

            There was a young fellow named Clancy, 
            And when young women tickled his fancy, 
                        He’d drive his Mercedes 
                        To thrill all those ladies— 
            Beyond that, his prospects were chancy. 

            Clancy met a young woman named Nancy, 
            And the two became rather romancy, 
                        But she said, “Take your Mercedes 
                        And drive it to Hades, 
            You’re no more than a quick passing fancy.”


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