Wordplay September 2014

Menu Speak

On food descriptions and status anxiety
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In 1919 the Hotel Pennsylvania, in New York, opened its first restaurant, with offerings notable for their descriptive simplicity: “lamb,” “potatoes: boiled,” and so on. Nearly 100 years later, the Statler Grill, one of the hotel’s current restaurants, offers updated takes, from a “lollipop Colorado lamb chop” to “buttered mashed potatoes (Idaho potatoes with butter & a touch of cream, whipped to perfection).”

You needn’t be a linguist to note changes in the language of menus, but Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

Not that the signature elements of a fancy menu are likely to stay exclusive. Food terms—like food trends—have a way of traveling full circle, from rarefied to mainstream to passé and back again. Take the word macaroni, which rich Americans originally borrowed from Italy. In 1900, Jurafsky explains, it was found mainly on high-end menus but “slowly became more and more common,” ending up the purview of all-night diners. Until, that is, top chefs began reclaiming mac and cheese, mixing in delicacies like truffles, or, in the case of Keller’s deconstructed version, lobster.

Already, provenance-oriented menu language is spreading outward from the finer restaurants to the Subways and Applebee’s of the world. The first franchise to take provenance seriously was Chipotle, says the food developer Barb Stuckey. (“They’ve always menued Niman Ranch pork.”) Now some McDonald’s burgers are served not on “buns” but on “artisan rolls,” and TGI Fridays boasts of “vine-ripened tomatoes.”

In turn, high-end food purveyors may head in a different direction. “As this stuff trickles down, the rich need a way to be different again,” says Jurafsky, who notes the burgeoning menu trend of extreme minimalism, seen at the Michelin-starred San Francisco spot Saison, where the set price starts at $248 and the menu comes after the meal, as a souvenir. In some ways, this is “a return to 200 years ago, when you’d say, ‘Give me dinner,’ and they’d just give you what they’d cooked,” Jurafsky says.

Imagine what this could do for the speed of the drive-through lane.

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