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"
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"
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)