The Language of Food – A Linguist Reads the Menu

9780393351620_p0_v2_s192x300In keeping with theme – we are not eating what we think we are eating – Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food exposes more assaults on our feeble brains.  Although the debate over “natural” vs “fresh” seems obvious, Jurafsky concentrates on more subtle influences.

What image comes to mind when you read “exotic spices” on a menu? Or other linguistic fillers like “zesty, crunchy, fluffy…”  One of my favorite authors, Calvin Trillin, would “sneak off down the street to the place that is authentic enough not to have to protest is so much” and where the food was cheaper and often better.

In chapters addressing the origin of food labels (ketchup comes from the Chinese), the true beginnings of Thanksgiving (not the Pilgrims and Wampanoag sharing a meal but the successful lobbying of an anti-slavery novelist), linguistic analysis of Yelp reviews, the brilliant advertising behind junk food (convincing you it is really a health food), and the link to social status of the expensive macaron (as opposed to the old standby coconut macaroon), Jurafsky includes a mix of research, history, and old recipes – sprinkled with humor and a dash of irony.  In my favorite chapter – “Does This Name Make Me Sound Fat?” – Jurafsky explains how sounds affect food marketing.

With an extensive list of references, the book clearly has a scholarly tone, yet, Jurafsky has managed to include  wry observations to make the science of words palatable.  A short book and a quick read – despite the many references – The Language of Food left me with a good aftertaste.

You Taste What You See

images-1Can a glass cup sweeten your coffee?

In Nicola Twilley’s New Yorker essay – Accounting for Taste  – packaging can subliminally affect the flavor of food. Not a new idea – the power of the mind over the senses. In the nineteen fifties Vance Packard demonstrated how slick marketing could manipulate in The Hidden Persuaders. In this century, Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink proposes we form perceptions based on our immediate surroundings. Twilley’s summary of Charles Spence’s research demonstrates we taste what we see – the “new frontier”of oral perception.

Longing for something sweet? Some of the findings you might want to consider next time you lift a fork:

  • Strawberry mousse tastes sweeter when served in a white container.
  • Coffee tastes sweeter in a glass mug.
  • Red in packaging is associated with sweetness.
  • Cheesecake tastes sweeter when eaten from a round white plate rather than a square one.

And the sounds surrounding your taste buds may make a difference. Try listening to a soundtrack of crashing waves and screeching gulls while eating your next seafood plate to improve its taste.  Or, better yet, find a restaurant near a beach.



Undermajordomo Minor

9780062281203_p0_v2_s192x300If you appreciated Patrick deWitt’s wry humor in The Sisters Brothers, his latest novel – Undermajordomo Minor – will have you smirking and gasping – did he really say that?  Written is short chapters with sharp dialogue and clipped descriptions, deWitt’s story of teenager Lucien, known as Lucy, offers a bent philosophical view of life in a fabled narrative with questions and surprises.  After a while, you won’t know what to believe, but you’ll continue reading…

After a near-death experience, Lucy Minor leaves the village of Bury, hoping for a better life as the undermajordomo at a castle in nearby town.  Clearly, Lucy knows how to make his life seem better by fabricating lies, but sometimes he gets caught in his deception. The character evokes sympathy as well as humor as he bumbles his way through his new life.

I haven’t finished yet, and I understand the ending has some surprises – something to look forward to…


Related Review from NPR:  A Fable’s Foibles: In Gilded Language, This Folk Tale Gets To The Point