You’ve heard of sour grapes, I suppose. It’s an expression that grew from Aesop’s fable about a hungry fox who couldn’t quite reach a bunch of grapes, and went away grousing that they were probably sour anyway. Over time, the use of a false pretense to make oneself feel better morphed into an idiom that, in English, suggests the practice of disparaging other people because we’re jealous of them.
An employee might respond to a colleague’s promotion, for example, by grumbling that he or she didn’t deserve the raise, but had probably been sucking up to the boss, or got the position because of his or her gender, ethnicity, or some other factor. It’s a way of putting others down to make ourselves feel or look better.
My problem lately hasn’t been sour grapes, but a sour pineapple — literally. Several years back, my friend Ralph, a former student with a lot more gardening knowledge than I have, told me that he raises pineapples. I had no idea that one could grow a pineapple in North Carolina, or anywhere outside of the tropics or a greenhouse.
He assured me that even I could grow a pineapple, and I took it as a challenge. More than three years ago, I followed his instructions and cut the top from a commercial pineapple from the grocery store, set it into a pot of rich earth, and kept it well watered.
Lo and behold, the thing began to grow, though slowly. When frost came, I moved the plant into the garage, keeping it near a window. As the plant grew bigger over the next two years, I transferred it to a larger pot, and set the pot in an old coaster wagon so I could roll it in or out more easily.
Last fall, well into its third year, a baby pineapple began to emerge from the spiky green leaves, and I began to salivate at the thought of eating it: Ralph had assured me that it would be the sweetest I’d ever tasted — but reminded me that I’d have to be patient, as it would take a while to grow.
I kept the pineapple in the garage through the hard winter, and it didn’t die, but it didn’t appear to thrive, either. By the time it warmed up enough to move it back outside, a small spot had developed near the top. As weeks passed, the spot grew, and even though the pineapple didn’t appear to be fully ripe, I figured it would be better to go ahead and cut it rather than letting the whole thing go bad.
The spot, as it turned out, appeared to have been caused by a worm or burrowing insect that invaded the top portion, but had only gotten so far. The unripe pineapple, sadly, was sweeter than a lemon, but not by much.
That doesn’t mean it went uneaten. The small harvest of pineapple chunks cost me at least $500 in labor and trouble over three and a half years, I figured, and it was going to be eaten. Some made it into a mixed fruit salad, and the rest went into a smoothie with some strawberries and lots of sweetener.
It was a worthy adventure, and my admiration for Ralph’s gardening abilities has grown, but I don’t think I’ll be growing any more pineapples — the end result and the labor involved are not a good match for me.
Speaking of sour grapes and bad matches, perhaps you’ve seen the by-now-old comments by Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia, one of seven Republicans running to replace Saxby Chambliss as a U.S. Senator from that state (he and another candidate are virtually tied for second in polls leading up to the May 20 primary). In a meeting with Jackson County Republicans, Kingston said that children who participate in free school lunch programs should be required to mop up the cafeteria or do other chores so they could learn “there’s no free lunch.” Could the stigma attached to being singled out as a poor child possibly be worth the labor gained?
Kingston has defended his comments, saying they were not intended to disparage the poor, but to argue that children should learn to have a good work ethic. Meanwhile, Kingston has consistently joined like-minded colleagues in voting for measures that stack the deck ever higher in favor of the rich, making it harder and harder for the poor to get their heads above the poverty line. While griping about benefits for the poor, he’s been enjoying lots of taxpayer-funded perks and meals.
All of this reminds me of a quote about sour grapes, not from Aesop, but from a couple of prophets who lived at about the same time. Both Jeremiah 31:29 and Ezekiel 18:2 quote the proverb: “The fathers eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.”
Some things never change.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.