A pig in a poke

By Bill Taylor

January 8, 2014

It seems to me

It seems to me that old adages, those words of wisdom that have been around for ages, just keep popping up, unbidden, in my mind.

The one that recently thrust itself upon me was, “don’t buy a pig in a poke.” The language might seem odd and old-fashioned and while today most of us don’t usually buy pigs, much less in a “poke”, the saying remains good advice.

OK, let’s look at the adage itself. According to an online encyclopedia, a “poke” is a sack or bag originating from the French “poque” and, like several other French words, its diminutive is formed by adding “ette” or “et”’ - and so our word “pocket” came into being with the meaning “small bag” . “Pokes” reportedly remain in use in several English-speaking countries, and are just the sort of bag that would be useful for carrying a small pig to market.

The problem is that a pig in a poke might turn out to be no pig at all, but a dog, cat or something else so the advice is “don’t buy a pig until you have seen it”. Back in 1530, a book of advice to market traders put it this way, “When ye proffer the pigge, open the poke.”

Regardless of the wording, the essence of the principle is that if you buy something you have the responsibility to make sure it is what you intended to buy — advice that has stood the test of time and people have been repeating it in one form or another for five hundred years or so. And so, “buying a pig in a poke” has come to mean accepting an offer or deal without examining it first.

OK, so what’s the story? Why did this adage pop up? Well, here’s what happened. Occasionally after church we stop someplace for a bite to eat or pick up something to take home so I don’t have to hurry up and prepare a meal.

Recently we decided to buy some fried chicken and a couple of side dishes suitable for a sort of an out-of-season picnic . One of the “largest retailer in the world” stores that features employees wearing blue vests was not far out of our way, so we opted to get our food from their deli and bought their eight piece container of fried chicken, and a pint each of cole slaw and mustard potato salad.

Upon getting home, we settled down for a nice summer picnic-style meal — regardless of the time of year. Our tastes work out well when it comes to chicken.

My dining-companion-for-life is partial to the white meat while I prefer the dark, so I started with a wing while she took one of the two large pieces. Well, folks, I don’t know if chickens can have anorexia - that eating disorder which results in an individual being nothing but skin and bones - but if they can, that chicken wing was a symptom. Once I got through the heavy breading, there was nothing left but skin and bones. I tried the second wing and found the same results - lots of breading covering the skinniest wing you ever saw.

In the meantime, my Sweetheart-for-life was valiantly struggling to get through the breading on her piece.

Finally, she gave up and told me, “Bill, this isn’t’t a breast, it’s a back!”

Sure enough, once we removed the coating, we found the two large pieces weren’t’t breasts at all; they were both backs. Now, folks, most everyone knows the back has only two small nuggets of meat, one on each side of the spine, with the rest being skin, bones, and a little fat. The only use for backs is as a source for chicken broth, certainly not for eating as fried chicken.

As you can well imagine, we were upset figuring we had somehow been deceived into thinking we were getting edible chicken. But then we realized we had gotten exactly what the label said, “eight pieces of fried chicken”. There was no mention of the particular chicken parts the package contained or any claim to the quality - only the quantity. (By the way, the “drumsticks” and thighs must have come from that same anorexic chicken and were suitable only for joining the backs in making chicken broth.)

There you have it, folks. We had bought the proverbial “pig in a poke.”

Yep, we had assumed the “poke” of fried chicken contained two breasts, two thighs, two drumsticks, and two wings, all of which were consumable. I don’t know what made us feel worse, missing out on our out-of-season picnic or realizing we hadn’t heeded that ancient advice, “When ye proffer the pigge, open the poke.” And that brings to mind another old saying, “Once bitten, twice shy.”

Oh, yes, those old adages still apply today. At least that’s how it seems to me.

Bill Taylor, a Greene County Daily columnist and area resident, may be contacted at solie1@juno.com.