Saturday, February 26, 2011

Oscar night and Hobson's Choice in Black & White

I have a story from our first trip to the grocery store when we moved back to the States from Istanbul. Breakfast in Turkey had been pretty black and white: fresh white oblong-round bakery bread delivered warm by the doorman, fermented black olives, white goat’s cheese, and black tea. Take it or leave it. Lesley and Peter were five and four when we moved to Istanbul, and they remembered breakfast cereal in the States. They kind of missed it. Well they missed it a lot. Except for the occasional scrambled eggs with onion, green peppers and tomatoes (Don made them irresistible as “cowboy and Indian eggs”), black and white Turkish breakfast was the only option.

We came to enjoy it, but when we moved back to Michigan when they were seven and six, we promised to take them to Meijer where they could each pick out any box of breakfast cereal they wanted. We four turned the corner into the breakfast aisle with our cart. It stretched before us into the distant future, the far end in the chilly fog of the dairy shelves. The kids grabbed the first box that looked appealing and threw it in the cart. Within a few inches there was Tony the Tiger on a box of Frosted Flakes, and they grabbed it and put the other one back. Then we came to the Leprechaun and Lucky Charms, and another switch. Stretching on through the long gallery of cardboard art there were Cap’n Crunch, and Fruity Pebbles, Fruit Loops, Lucky Charms, Sugar Smacks, Apple Jacks, Kix, Chex and Trix, Honey Nut Cheerios, Count Chocula, Golden Grahams, Cinnamon Toast Crunch, Coco Puffs, Rice Krispies, Coco Krispies, Frosted Mini Wheats, Sugar Crisps, Corn Pops, Alpha Bits, Ghost Busters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles! Swap swap swap from the cart, then back to the shelf and back to the cart. By the end of the cereal aisle they were in a sugary chaos coated with salty tears. I have no idea which cereal boxes we took home.

Sometimes I wonder how long we’ll have all the choices we have, or if they’ll increase! I learned when the kids went through finicky eating phases to just say, This is dinner, take it or leave it. I think it’s a relief not to have choices all the time. At the end of a draining day at work, I do not want Don to ask me Do you want Indian? Mediterranean? Thai? Mexican? I just want him to tell me, Let’s meet at Maru for maki rolls.

So this post is a toast (remember Post Toasties?) to Hobson’s Choice now and then! Which means, This is it, take it or leave it. There's no choice really, only one option, but you don't have to take it. Here's how it began:

Thomas Hobson, 1544-1631
Etching by John Payne at the National Portrait Gallery, London

What's in his bag? Remember letters? Hobson was a mail carrier between London and Cambridge, England, where he had a livery stable near St. Catharine's College, one of the constituent colleges of Cambridge. He had around 40 horses in his stable, and he rented them to Cambridge students. Some of the horses were very fast, and the young whipper-scholars always wanted to ride those fast ones. But Hobson didn't want them to wear out his best horses, so he developed a strict system of rotation. When a student came to the stable to rent a horse for a few hours, he had to take the next horse in line at the front of the stable: This one or none, he said. Take it or leave it.

John Milton, 1608-1674

Long before John Milton wrote the epic poem Paradise Lost in his sixties, he was a mere witty Cambridge student at Christ's College and soon afterward wrote humorous poems about Thomas Hobson. Milton must have rented a horse or two from Hobson's livery, for after Hobson died, Milton and other Cambridge alumni made up satirical poems and illustrations with horses, carriages, puns and witticisms, poking fun at the old guy. In fact, it was Milton who made him famous, "you can have any horse you want, just so long as it is the one nearest the stable door." Henceforth in literature, this was known as a Hobson's choice.

Henry Ford, 1863-1947

A couple of centuries after Milton and Hobson, carriages became horseless, and another man with a livery, Henry Ford, famously said a Hobson's choice: "Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black."

Charles Laughton as Henry Hobson
in David Lean's comedy film "Hobson's Choice"

I never knew until a few weeks ago that David Lean didn't just make epic films like "Lawrence of Arabia" and "Doctor Zhivago." We watched his brilliant 1954 comedy "Hobson's Choice" and it is now one of my favorite shows ever. I had not heard of the term "Hobson's choice" before seeing the film, hence this post about its provenance. Lean's movie is about Henry Hobson, an arrogant shopkeeper who sells boots with his daughters and gets the rug pulled out from under him when his eldest daughter gives him an ultimatum one day: Take it or leave it. I am going to embed a clip from the movie below, so you can see how lithely a big man like Laughton can fill the screen as a swaying, slapstick drunk.

John Mills was absolutely fantastic as humble Willie Mossop, Hobson's prize bootmaker.

John Mills as Willie Mossop in "Hobson's Choice"

I take my leave with a movie clip from "Hobson's Choice" where Charles Laughton shows the grace of a ballerina as the drunk and annoying Henry Hobson. Take it, or leave it. Or as Dorothy Parker said, Take me or leave me; or, as is the usual order of things, both.

In light of the Oscars tomorrow, I'll also remind you that David Lean "was nominated for a total of nine Academy Awards: seven for Best Director, one for Best Adapted Screenplay, and one for Best Film Editing, the latter two being for 'A Passage to India.' Out of these nominations, Lean won two Oscars, both in the category of Best Director, for 'The Bridge on the River Kwai' (1957) and 'Lawrence of Arabia' (1962). With seven nominations in the category of Best Director, Lean is the third most nominated director in Oscar history, tied with Fred Zinnemann and behind Billy Wilder (8 nominations) and William Wyler (12 nominations)." (wiki)



The Solitary Walker said...

Yes, I'm kind of in sympathy with this. Of course, it's nice to have the incredible choice we have nowadays in supermarkets. But in restaurants minimal choice is best. On the Camino there was usually only one choice to be made at dinner: meat or fish! There's so much choice in every aspect of our lives it makes my head spin. Though I realise I sound privileged saying this. I'm well aware many of us have very little choice at all.

Ruth said...

Robert, we really felt that when we returned from Istanbul, reverse culture shock, I guess. Not that Turkey is backward, but the choices were far less, and I found it more restful. I'm sure by now, decades later, much has changed.

It is a very sobering thought that many -- no, most -- in the world have hardly any choices at all. While I "complain" here a bit, I sincerely recognize that the opposite is not an easy way of life.

Thanks for your comment.

Jeanie said...

Oh, yikes -- I'm running off to meet up with some bloggers in Ann Arbor -- and I really want to watch these clips -- of maybe I'll pick up the movie when I get back!

I've never heard the story behind the Hobson's Choice expression. I like it. I think I have a lot of Hobson's Choicers in my world! So, I can't wait to see the movie.

A cereal story -- that somewhat relates. Rick is very not-into-the brand, and when the kids were little and they'd be at his house, he's have Spartan cocoa puffs, or whatever. The kids always said, "No, I want my Cocoa Puffs and it was one of those -- this is it, take it or leave it things.

The first time I went over to his house on an almost-date was Christmas Eve -- he needed wrapping help, and I was surprised to be wrapping "name brand" cereal. He explained as a child, he and his brothers always got a little box of cereal in their stockings. Those are hard to find now, so he gets their favorite cereal.

I knew I was part of the family when I got cereal, too! It was nice to remember that!

Ruth said...

Jeanie, oh yes, the off-brands. Some of them we liked better than the big brands! For some reason our kids never minded the Spartan or Meijer off brands. Giving the name brand ones for stocking stuffers is so cute and makes total sense. You were christened into the family with milk. Yes, those little boxes! Remember how you could cut them with a knife or scissors and eat right out of the box on a camping trip! :-D

I think you'll enjoy the film. The cinematography is gorgeous.

How fun to meet up with blog friends! Maybe you'll post about it.

M.L. Gallagher said...

I knew the expression, Hobson's Choice, never knew its pedigree! What fun!

When I was in New York in the fall I went to Century 21 in the financial district with my girlfriend. We wandered around for about 15 minutes, both looked at each other, and said, "Let's get out of here."

The plethora of products, choices, options was too much.

What a great prep for Oscar night -- thanks Ruth.

rosaria said...

I had heard the phrase, but never its provenance. So good to read your witty account of breakfast cereal choices. Yes, indeed. Too many choices means no choices at all.

ellen abbott said...

I totally agree...too many choices! How does anyone ever decide anything? I know that all those choices represent a job for someone but I could do with less choice sometimes.

Lorenzo — Alchemist's Pillow said...

A fun and englightening post. I had no idea what Hobson's choice was and initially confused it with Hobbesian choice, which I did know. I guess I have been out of the US for a long time, because if given the choice between your Turkey black and white —"fresh white oblong-round bakery bread delivered warm by the doorman, fermented black olives, white goat’s cheese, and black tea"— and Tony the Tiger, frosted flakes and the entire endless aisle of sugar coated crunchies, munchies and kiddy amphtetamine substitutes, I know I would definitely take the black and white and leave the technicolor dentist's heaven.

The Bug said...

Ooh - I would have been hungry in Turkey at breakfast time - I hate olives :) but I do like bread, so that would have been ok.

I had heard the phrase & knew that it was a choice that wasn't really much of a choice - but I thought it was more like, "do we cut off the leg at the foot or at the knee?" I'm glad to know the story behind it.

Dan Gurney said...

Ruth, thank you for this most interesting and informative post!

I have heard people talk about "Hobson's Choice," but I thought it meant something more like Sophie's Choice and that it referred somehow to Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher who had such a dim, and in my mind, erroneous view of society without government:

"In such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."

Ruth said...

Louise, it's good that you recognized your "wall" before you got to overloaded. I think that's why I don't care much for shopping. It's OK when I know just what I need and can get in and out. But to "shop" through all the choices . . . yikes.

Ruth said...

Hi, rosaria, I had to google cereal boxes to remember the cereals, and I bet I didn't get half of them!

Ruth said...

Ellen, I wonder if people get into their own routines and ignore the rest. It's when I'm shopping for something new that I get weary of doing "research" among all the options.

Ruth said...

Lorenzo, do you mean to tell me that you prefer bread fresh from the oven, fragrant black olives, tangy white cheese with a delicate crumble, and clear çay, to sugar-coated crunch bombs? What's the matter with you??

It's amazing how much has changed. In the 1970s I added a spoonful of sugar to Life cereal! By the way, we didn't let our kids get sugary cereal normally.


Ruth said...

Dana, bread was delivered twice a day: for breakfast, and for dinner. For the afternoon delivery we requested two loaves: one to eat now, and one to save for dinner.

Your question reminds me of the one: "Did you stop beating your wife?" How do you answer that one?


Ruth said...

Dan, there is quite a bit of confusion apparently between the Hobbesian stuff and Hobson, so you're not alone (though now you can impress your friends).

Yes, Hobbes from this quote sounds quite contrary to what you and I value of solitude, and listening to the inner voice.

Maureen said...

What a great post, Ruth! The examples are wonderful.

I have a Jamaican friend who on her first time to the U.S. went into one of the very big grocery stores (think Wegmans, which is the size of several football fields) and was so amazed by the number of selections she could buy nothing.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Maureen!

What strikes me as sad about your comment about your Jamaican friend is that when we live with this kind of selection long enough, that initial repulsion can wear off. It's one thing to have choices, and be grateful for them. It's another to see how consumers drive the creation of more and more useless, and often harmful (read empty of nutrition) stuff.

Susan said...

I've had young friends who asked my advice about getting their kids to eat. My advice is always..."let them go hungry. They won't starve to death and they will appreciate whatever you put on the table. I'm not a short order cook, and you shouldn't be either." I'm still the same way with the grandkids. I do try to offer a couple of veggies at mealtime, especially if I know a certain one is detested by one or more. And the rule that can't be broken is the two-bite rule, even if they have said they don't like something in the past. Tastes change. Mine have and so will theirs.

Have you noticed that all the children's cereals are targeted to them by putting them on the middle or lower shelves. Marketing strategy, along with the incessant commercials. Of course, we had them when we were kids, too, but not such an array of endless choices. And, yes, I do remember Post Toasties. In fact, they can still be found. I saw some at Big Lots a few months ago.

Sometimes I hate having too many choices, especially if I'm in a hurry and have to make a decision quickly. But if they went away, would we complain? Probably.

I learned about Hobson's choice several years ago, but your explanation was much better than the one I read. :) And you synched in some Detroit, too. Big :).

Shari Sunday said...

I had not heard of Hobson's Choice, but it was very interesting to hear the history of it. Hobson's choice, take it or leave it or as my granddaughter's dance teacher used to say, "Take what you get and don't throw a fit!" Your Turkish breakfast sounds good to me, but I guess I would want something else once in a while.

Deborah said...

I'd take olives and goat cheese over my All-bran and soy milk, I tell ya.

What a great post, Ruth! Laughter and learning wrapped up together. Too many choices is a point of (small) irritation with MFB and me, especially when it comes to a choice of leftovers for lunch. 'Do you want this. or would you prefer..' and at that point I snap at him, 'Just put something in front of me! Don't ask me to make a choice about leftovers, for heaven's sake!'

And when I think that a big part of the parenting mantra when my kids were small was all about offering choices... I have no patience for it now.

Babs-beetle said...

I think we have too many choices now. It is easy to pick your favourite from half a dozen cereal boxes, for instance, but if you are offered two dozen to choose from, you will have several that you like equally. That's when it's hard to choose. Though I don't like Hobson's choice much either ;)

Marcie said...

I've never heard of Hobson's Choice - sot this is both fascinating and educational. And - I do think that too many choices are overwhelming. Less is definitely more. Sugary sugary cereal - no matter what the outer packaging says!

J.G. said...

Great post, Ruth (as usual). I love the connections you make.

In my family Hobson's dinner choice was expressed with a kindly "Shut up and eat it." Less artful but the same message (with the implied "or go hungry.")

Sorry for the long comment, but do you know the recording often played on NPR at Thanksgiving, of Charles Laughton reading Kerouac and telling a story about Chartres Cathedral? It makes me weepy every year, in a good way. I never knew who Laughton was, but I recognized his voice immediately in the film clip. SO worth hearing! (Link to the audio of it here:

Dutchbaby said...

One time, when our kids were being particularly fussy eaters, my husband told them that when was growing up, he and his sisters had the same thing for dinner every single night. The kids of course challenged him immediately. "Yes", he said, "every night we had what Memon served us."

I love the Payne portrait of Hobson.

Ginnie said...

Looks like a lot of us are getting our education on this one, Ruth! BTW, did you hear the saw being played in the video? Remember that man who played the saw in Dad's Grand Ledge church? I'll never forget it. :) How fun.

Peter said...

... and I keep learning reading your posts! I like that! A lot! This kind "anecdote history", the background ot Hobson's choice is always fascinating, especially when it's so nicely told!

(I spent my night watching the Oscars, finishing around 5 and 6 this morning local time. Had a late start this morning. - It's nice to be retired.)

Julie said...

Ruth, your observations are fantastic. I especially love how you can go from Lucky Charms and an everyday scene in the grocery story to Hobson's Choice...and it makes perfect sense. Your writing style is so lively and immediate. The clip is also awesome! I didn't know about the television show. I'd love to check that out.

I grew up in poverty (I'm not trying to elicit many ways, it was a beautiful life). But it did a very strange thing to my psyche. Now that I'm not living in poverty, I still hoard huge amounts of flour and rice. I love the choices, but I also have to watch myself, so I don't lose control. If left to my own desires, I would own every bauble and shiny piece of plastic crap in the store. It's an odd, leftover fear from childhood, and I don't know if I'll ever get rid of it completely. I'm good at controlling the urges, though, and I tend to be almost miserly in my spending. It just fascinates me that the urges are still there.

Well, I'm rambling on about myself too much...ha! Thank you for another wonderful, thought provoking post!

erin said...

I'm glad to know I'm not alone in never having heard of Hobson's Choice but I'm glad to learn of it now. Makes sense to me. Wish I'd learned it years ago. I'm afraid I've ruined my children.

Too many choices all in all in our world these days. Although, who wants to volunteer to give any up?


Ruth said...

Susie, you're a wise mother and friend, and grandma. When kids get hungry, they'll eat. It's true about tastes changing. i like squash now, and I hated it as a kid.

No, I had not noticed how the sugary cereals are on the middle shelves!

You're a clever girl, you, catching my bit about Henry Ford. I'll show you his house one of these days. :-)

Ruth said...

Shari, your granddaughter's dance teacher's saying reminds me of a local convenience store's name: Grab and Git. :-)

We are so used to variety here, aren't we? I remember as a kid having just so many meals. We didn't have ten different ethnic choices. We had La Choy Chinese out of a can now and then . . .

Ruth said...

Deborah, there are just so many things I wouldn't be able to tolerate now, as a parent. That's why I'm ready to be a grandparent. I think it becomes easier to just say it as it is and not worry about kids liking you or being happy. If you're happy, I think they're happy. Am I wrong?

Ruth said...

Babs, I remember the Quaker cereals as a kid. There were about five shapes for the same flavored cereal: Quisp, Quake and a few others. Cereal as toys.

Ruth said...

Marcie, yes, and the other ingredients aren't so hot either: corn, corn, corn, a bunch of colors with number names, preservatives, and infused vitamins and minerals. Yum!

Ruth said...

J.G., in big families (I don't know if yours was big), you fought for your food, and you were happy to get it! There just wasn't any complaining. I came from 8 kids.

I am so excited to listen to that Charles Laughton clip. I haven't had time yet. Laughton . . . Kerouac . . . Chartres? Seriously.

Ruth said...

Dutchbaby, your husband is clever. It's funny though, it's like Susie says, tastes change, and eventually most kids grow up to be adults who like a lot of foods they didn't as kids.

I found another portrait of Hobson, but in the other one he was holding a glove, and not a mail bag, so I picked this one. I like portraits that show something of the person's life and personality.

Ruth said...

Boots, I read your comment with Nancy at her place, and she immediately said Yes, she remembered the man playing the saw! I don't remember him, but Don says he remembers one at his church in Battle Creek! He wonders if it was the same guy . . .


Ruth said...

Peter, it is only fair if you learn something here, after all the information you share about Paris. It's astonishing, really.

Well I only had to stay up until midnight to watch the Oscars, and that was hard enough! "The King's Speech" seems to be an international favorite, I was so pleased, and about Colin Firth.

Ruth said...

Julie, I love your comment and feel honored that you would "ramble." By the way, I called "Hobson's Choice" a "show" because I had just heard an interview with some movie makers and they called the movies "shows." This was a movie, not a TV show. I thought I was being so hip.

Your description of your childhood and the residual hoarding fear embedded in your psyche and very flesh makes complete sense. I hear stories like that from people who survived the Depression, and it seems to be the same kind of thing. It is a deep survival instinct. I actually hear it in your incredible poems, that urgency for life, an appreciation for the deep details as if in every morsel is life. And in your craft, it is.

Ruth said...

erin, you love your children so much there is no way you can ruin them. That's my theory anyway, and I'm sticking to it.

There is probably something very wrong with me complaining about too many choices. But really, I think our too-many choices mean that others don't have any.

Oh said...

Post-Oscar comment cuz the weekend was busy-ness personified and I lost blog momentum!

Anyway, I had no idea about the term Hobson' choice and intend to use it liberally at work, beginning tomorrow. I love histories of words and phrases (and such) and this was such fun. Including the movie clips of course.

I hope if you watched the Academys that you enjoyed them. I hope that if you didn't watch, you were writing poetry.

PS The list of all those cereals (know every one of 'em!) was nearly poetic!

Oliag said...

If I have too great a choice I find that I just decide not to choose anything. It paralyzes me...This was facinating!

I really have to see The King's Speech!

Arti said...


Oh what sync. Just a few days ago I watched on AMC Great Expectations (1946) directed by none other than David Lean. I was glued to the TV watching it, a black and white film. It's amazingly lavish in its set design, and great cinematography. I never knew DL had directed that, thought he only did epic stuff. But now your post has shown me one more. I think I've heard of it, but have never seen it. Thanks for this informative post to mark another Oscar night.

I'm very happy to see The King's Speech win, but most gratifying is to see Colin Firth being honored and recognized. He's so unassuming and deserving. After seeing him go up and get his Oscar, make a very personal and heart-felt speech, I'm feeling now that I really don't need to watch another Oscars again. ;) Yes, it's that satisfying.

Ruth said...

Oh! - I love that you love learning about Hobson's choice and will use it. That's the best thing, to use these fun, quirky little English-isms and not lose them. I loved learning about the history of this. I learned a little more about Milton than I knew. I never took a course on him in my English studies. I think they should have made me.

I did watch the Oscars. I drove up north 4 1/2 hours to be with my sister, and we had a blast. We even stayed awake for the most part!

Ruth said...

Oliag, "The King's Speech" is the only movie I've seen in weeks (months?). Yes, you must. I suppose it is a Hobson's Choice, see it or don't see it, but I would say no, you have no choice, you must see it.

Ruth said...

Arti, you're the best! I don't think I knew DL directed that older Great Expectations! Please please please see Hobson's Choice. I absolutely loved every minute.

I feel just as you do about the Oscars and Colin Firth. After falling in love with him in Pride & Prejudice, I've paid attention to him at award shows and in interviews, and I am ever impressed with his humility. I agree with you about his speech! No fanfare, just feeling the weight of the moment, bless him. And I even know what you mean about not needing to see another one because of that. Ahhhh.

Arti said...

I'll reprise my enthusiasm for the Oscars if Colin Firth gets nominated again. :) And I sure hope his career has not peaked yet... Will reply your comment on my Oscar post tonight.

Shelley Reed said...

Water. :)

Did you know that Hank and Nancy gave us this sign?

Dinner Choices
1. Take it.
2. Leave it.

Vagabonde said...

I had never heard of Hobson’s choice so I enjoyed reading about it. I think I shall use this with my husband as it is hard for him to make up his mind. The movie clip was fun too.

Tess Kincaid said...

At your suggestion, I immediately added Hobson's Choice to my Netflix queue. We watched it last night. I can't tell you when I've enjoyed a film so much. It's now on my list of favorites, too. David Lean certainly never disappoints. Thanks, Ruth!

Amy @ Soul Dipper said...

Thank you, Ruth for a welcome and informative explanation of Hobb's Choice.

May the world be blessed with the courage to use it!!

We have plenty of choice overload.

Montag said...

A great cinematic history. I love so much of David Lean that I am surprised how much I absolutely detest major parts of "Lawrence of Arabia".

I saw it again just before the Oscars. The Camera work was outstanding, but I really cannot get into his "celebrity" thing about T.E. himself.