Alexa, I’m sorry

One day when I was previewing the lunch options offered by the school dining services for the upcoming week, I noticed that sloppy joes were on the menu for the following Wednesday. It reminded me of how much I’d liked the vegetarian version served at the boarding school where I taught in Connecticut and twigged the idea that I should try serving them to the kids some time (probably starting with a recipe using actual ground beef; the meatless preparation I personally prefer, featuring textured vegetable protein, would likely introduce too many variables at once). I want to expose the kids to as many different foods as possible, gently, of course, so they’ll at least have a frame of reference and a knowledge base, and as I retain fond memories of enjoying the meal as a child when my mother prepared it, I hunted down the ingredients.

To round out the experience, I thought it would be a nice touch to investigate the origin of the name “sloppy joe”; certainly the sandwich had earned its title in the name of eponymy at some point. Now that our family had fully embraced the kind of life where virtual assistant technology is plugged into several rooms, rather than jump on a screen to find an answer, I posited the question to the Alexa device keeping me company in the kitchen. “Alexa,” I said, polite as ever, “Why is it called a sloppy joe?” She responded promptly, “According to an Alexa answers contributor, because it is messy and sloppy.” Well, thanks for nothing, Alexa, I thought. Kind of already worked that part out on my own.

It turned out that I had everything I needed already in the house, so I made sloppy joes that very day, planning to gauge the response at dinner a few hours later. While the kids were eating (for what it’s worth, exactly one of them enjoyed the sloppy joe option), I told them how unhelpful Alexa had been that morning when I’d asked her to demystify the origins of the sloppy joe. They laughed and then one of them, naturally, had to try it for himself, so he said, “Alexa, why is a sloppy joe called a sloppy joe?” Her response, delivered in what sounded to me to be an even more saccharine than usual tone, was, “According to an Alexa contributor, the sandwich may have begun as a variation of the loose meat sandwiches that were popular in the 1950s. According to legend, a cook named Joe at Floyd Angell’s café in Sioux City, Iowa, added tomato sauce to his loose meat sandwiches. Some believe this is how the sloppy joe sandwich was born.”

The kids thought this was hilarious, of course, looking at me quizzically while they tried to quell their cackles of mirth, reveling in my slightly dramatized reaction of disbelief tinged with irritation. “I’ve been betrayed!” I said, and Summerly collected herself enough to say, “Mommy, Alexa isn’t very nice to you,” which we’d already suspected based on the runaround she’s given me in the past when I’d asked her to find a specific song or obscure factoid on a few occasions. “It’s like she doesn’t want you to seem like you know more than she does,” Liam added. I’d told the kids when we installed the device that, as a child, I’d been envious of my brother, whose name is Alex, and I’d wanted to change my name to Alexa because of a years-long infatuation with Billy Joel’s “Storm Front” album. “Maybe she heard us talking about how you wanted to be named ‘Alexa’ and now she’s being competitive,” Liam postulated.

My husband always thanks Alexa for her helpfulness, saying, “Alexa, thank you,” after she plays a song or gives us a notification or reminder. After overhearing a particularly obsequious exchange of niceties between Brian and Alexa one day, I challenged him on why he insists on being so mannerly in conversations with a robot. “When AIs inevitably take over the world,” he said, “I just want them to be merciful.”

All I know is that Alexa never gives him the kind of run-around she seems to reserve especially for me. Considering the pattern that’s clearly been established, I’m thinking perhaps it might be in my best interest to apologize for calling her a robot.

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