Not long ago I had an experience that is unique in my three decades as folklorist: I witnessed the genesis of a legend firsthand.
The scene was Texas, where I had traveled to attend a convention about urban legends. Half a dozen of us folklorists were seated around a table at a Chinese restaurant, discussing what to order. We were wavering between two family-style alternatives, which would allow each of us to sample several dishes.The attentive Chinese waitress was taking drink orders. Since we were all from different parts of the country, she was having a little difficulty understanding our various regional dialects.
The waitress had gotten the first four orders down and was waiting for the man on my right to choose when he stated his opinion on the food order: "Let's go back to plan one."
I echoed that, saying "OK, plan one," and then we turned to order our drinks, but the waitress had already left.
A few minutes later she returned with a tray of drinks: an iced tea, a Coke, two cocktails - and two glasses of plum wine. Plum wine? Who ordered that? The waitress smiled and insisted that we had, and so the two of us without drinks shrugged and raised the wine glasses in a toast.
In time one of the other folklorists figured it out: "Plan one" had sounded like "plum wine" to the waitress.
I figure it served us right for talking funny and for using slang.
Since we were all folklorists, we appreciated this apt illustration of how a misunderstood word or phrase may lead to variations in folklore texts.
Later in the evening I heard the first variation: But the teller, a member of our party, messed it up by saying "plan A," which destroyed the punchline. Some can tell `em and some can't.
The storyteller's mistake got a big laugh, though, when he had to correct himself. By the next morning people at the meeting were telling the new story about how the guy had garbled the telling of his story about the Chinese waitress. Soon just the phrases "plan one" or "plan A" were enough to bring a chuckle, often followed by other anecdotes about misunderstood words.
It started to sound like a set of Chinese boxes at that point . . .
A similar dining-out story - also set in an ethnic restaurant and turning on a misunderstanding of food-related terms - was told to me by a colleague. This man heard it from his mother, who said it had actually happened. But like most urban legends it seems too good to be true.
My friend's mother had heard about two Texans visiting New York City. Every morning for a week they went into one of famous delicatessens on Sixth Avenue, wearing cowboy boots and 10-gallon hats, and ordered lox and bagels.
At the end of the week, the owner came over to their table and said that he'd noticed them eating lox and bagels every morning. He said he was happy they were eating at his place, but did they really like lox and bagels all that much?
"Sure, we like `em a lot," one of the Texans answered. "But can you tell us, which is the lox and which is the bagels?"
Reminds me of the time when one of my kids held up a cookie and asked, "Daddy, which is the fig and which is the newton?"