The (Accidental) Sponge Cake Philosopher

For an American cook, navigating an Asian grocery store presents challenges and rewards beyond the sights and smells. I’m talking about Engrish. I’ve bought and eaten my share of burdog instead of burdock root, and plenty of marshmallow cookies whose box is fortified with the motto “It’s Now.” On my last trip to Sunrise Mart, a Japanese grocery store in the East Village, I acquired a Soft Baum cake, a hoop-shaped, spongy dessert in a cellophane package inscribed with “This taste warms the cockles of the heart.”

Sometimes, the intended meaning of an Engrish phrase can be easily discerned, and thus the phrase can be quietly fixed (fixing Engrish should always be discouraged, because corrections ruin the fun). But I find myself baffled when confronted with cockles of the heart. How do I unpack that one? Does it point to some kind of valve-based kinship between clams and cardiac organs?

I could not find answers in the cake itself. The cake offered no seafood flavors. Not even a wharfy aroma. It was just a regular sponge cake, leaving my heart cold and disappointingly cockle-free.

Perhaps we should not dismiss the packaging as a mere product of a novice translation. An elusive wisdom may be tantalizingly locked up in this non-kosher word jazz, awaiting discovery by an observant Soft Baum sponge cake eater.

Could I have just found a new life philosophy? The next time someone tries to cut ahead of me in the deli line, I shall lean forward and say, “It is unwise to summon the octopus of my angst.”

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About OmnivorousTraveler

Darrin DuFord is a travel writer, mapgazer, and jungle rodent connoisseur. His writing has won numerous awards and has appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle, BBC Travel, Gastronomica, Roads & Kingdoms, Narratively, and Perceptive Travel, among other publications. He is the author of Breakfast for Alligators: Quests, Showdowns and Revelations in the Americas (released in July 2016) and Is There a Hole in the Boat? Tales of Travel in Panama without a Car, silver medalist in the 2007 Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Awards.
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2 Responses to The (Accidental) Sponge Cake Philosopher

  1. Thanks to research from my friend Bud Quinlan, it looks like “cockles of the heart” isn’t some random translation, but an archaic expression whose last citation is from 1858. The meaning and origin aren’t all that clear, but it has something do to with feeling happy (as a clam, perhaps?).

    The Aussies over at It’s a table for three – you, japan, me put Engrish into three categories: the phonetic misspelling, the computer-translated mess, and the word made up to look like an English word. It looks like we found another category: bringing dead (or at least moribund) English back to life. As long as language historians keep including a phrase in a dictionary, it is fair game for reappearing in a slogan of a Japanese product.

  2. Pingback: Cheap Thrills and Space Robots | The Omnivorous Traveler's Notebook

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