The Non-Expert

Credit: Jennifer Daniel for TMN

Mixed vs. Medley

Experts answer what they know. The Non-Expert answers anything. This week, we do absolutely nothing to assist a reader while coining a new phrase.

Have a question? Need some advice? Ignored by everyone else? Send us your questions via email. The Non-Expert handles all subjects and is written by a member of The Morning News staff.


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Question: What’s a good side dish for Easter?

Answer: Easter is a special, springtime holiday, so you should plan a vegetable medley. What’s in a vegetable medley? I wish I knew. And what’s the difference between a vegetable medley and mixed vegetables? Let’s consider.

Location: If you were at my house, Easter or not, you would definitely be getting mixed vegetables. Bird’s Eye, probably, though we do prepare fresh vegetables sometimes. Then, however, there would be only one choice (“You can have any medley you want, as long as it’s broccoli”—Mrs. Henry Ford). I do not generally try to double or triple my time in the kitchen for the sake of a side dish. But if you’re in a place where someone cares to know what you would like to eat, there is a real napkin in your lap, and the mixture in question includes roasted cauliflower, I’d say “medley,” for sure. If the mixture also includes one or more spices other than salt, I might suggest “melange.”

Willful subterfuge: Certainly if I took broccolini, the only accepted form of broccoli in my house, and stir-fried it for a minute or two with last night’s frozen peas and threw in a few of the mysteriously soft baby carrots at the bottom of the bag, then called this creation a “medley,” it would be willful subterfuge. To call it anything other than a travesty is misleading, and also why my husband does the cooking.

Outright delusion: For several years I prepared a savory dish with turkey and leeks that was very clearly a straightforward quiche, and not a particularly good one, and yet I insisted on calling it a “tart.” (I have a French mother-in-law; not easy for the culinarily challenged.) During the same period, I frequently insisted that using store-bought, refrigerated dough was still making a pie “from scratch” because you have to roll it out yourself. Just owning a rolling pin and one of those plastic maps with the concentric circles showing the ideal size for several pastries ought to entitle me to something. I have never made it to the proper line, incidentally. I can never get the dough thin and flat enough to reach the circle I need.

But like a dinner prepared by a French mother-in-law, the difference between “medley” and “mixed” might be more complicated than it looks. Are vegetable medleys and mixed vegetables similar-sounding things that are actually different? Or are they different words describing essentially the same thing? Consider the following:



  • Persons vs. People
  • Plate of cheese vs. Cheese plate
  • Lunch vs. Luncheon
  • Country vs. Country house
  • Kindle vs. Kindling

A sign outside an elevator where my husband works reads, “Please no more than 6 persons.” Perhaps this is meant to boost our self-esteem: “persons” emphasizing the individual unit, you, a person, one of no more than six who should get on that elevator. It is a law school, though, so there’s probably some legal difference between “people” and “persons” I’m unaware of.

As to the “plate of cheese” in the chart above, my husband and I saw this once on a menu. We assumed the phrase referred to a “cheese plate”—an assortment of fine cheeses ranging from hard to soft, often accompanied by dried fruit and nuts. Well-executed, it is a course that can precede or take the place of dessert. We thought the semantic difference was either a misprint or a quirk of the proprietor’s. What we received, however, was a card-stack of Kraft American cheese slices inside a ring of Saltines. Now you’ll know the next time you’re in Princeton, N.J. It’s a regional difference, apparently.

The difference between “lunch” and “luncheon” is superficial. Literally. The same food is consumed, but you will be required to dress differently for it. You may hear the people—I’m sorry, persons—who live in New York and host luncheons, refer to spending the weekend in the “country.” What they are referring to is their “country house,” which might be in Princeton, or Connecticut, or Vermont. Point is, it’s a circle or two farther than you get to go for the weekend. You’re the little bit of dough in the middle, not even enough for a handful of butter cookies; and they are the perfect 12” tart.

As for the Kindle and kindling: one is used to start fires and, well, I guess both are.

It’s a glass-half-full/half-empty problem. The more I think about it, mixed vs. medley seems like an essential dichotomy. If someone asked, “What’s the difference, really, between a bar and a wine bar?” you could say, “Oh, you know, mixed vs. medley.”

“Why do you insist on calling your backyard a ‘back garden’?”
“Oh, you know, mixed vs. medley!”

“Is that a new dance or do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“Mixed vs. medley!”

“Vase or vah-se? You say vah-se, don’t you?”
“Vah-se is correct, actually. It just is.”

And a few more:

Closet Walk-in closet
Paperback Paperback with French flaps
Any national book award The Rooster
Any college admissions video The new Yale College admissions video
Winter Spring



So to get back to your question, why don’t you skip the side dish altogether? Make a roast and serve it with nothing. If your guests complain, smile and say, “Mixed vs. medley,” and show them all the extra needlework you got done because you weren’t cooking.

Anyway, that or hearts of palm.


TMN Contributing Writer Jessica Francis Kane’s first novel, The Report (Graywolf Press, 2010) was shortlisted for the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize and was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers selection. Her story collection, This Close (Graywolf Press, 2013) was long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award and the Story Prize and was named a Best Book of the year by NPR. She lives in New York with her husband and their two children. More by Jessica Francis Kane