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.

Delicious! by Ruth Reichl

9781400069620_p0_v3_s260x420Having laughed through Ruth Reichl’s adventures as the food critic for the New York Times in Garlic and Sapphires and empathized with her Not Becoming My Mother and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way, I looked forward to this foodie’s first book of fiction. With the taste of Italy still fresh on my palate, Reichl’s Delicious ! was the perfect combination of food, mystery, and romance – topped off with a recipe at the end of the book.

Using her experiences as editor of Gourmet magazine, including the sad demise of that publication, Reichl created a story around Billie, who quits Berkeley in her senior year to take a job as assistant to the editor of Delicious magazine in New York City, with hopes of becoming a writer. Surrounded by a crew of Reichl’s food-loving characters, including “Mr. Complainer,” the handsome regular customer at the Italian deli where Billie moonlights on weekends, Billie explores a mystery involving letters from James Beard before he became the famous chef.  Reichl uses the quest, with secret passages and coded letters, and Billie’s aversion to cooking, to add purpose to the rambling adventure.

Reichl includes the recipe for Billie’s mother’s gingerbread cake at the end of the book. Like my own mother, Billie’s mother refused to reveal the secrets of her baking. Billie and her sister guess at the ingredients and the cake is the catalyst to their successful Cake Sisters bakery. The recipe works; I tried it, changing it a little “to make it my own,” as James Beard suggests.

Like a Sophie Kinsella book for food-lovers, Delicious! is a delight and the perfect digestif after my week of sumptuous Italian eating. Bon appetit!

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