Restaurant menus: Is it “baked beans on toast” or “Navy beans redolent of pomegranate molasses afloat in a sauce of Cherokee Purple tomatoes suffused with basilico genovese concealing a hand-cut slice of toasted wholewheat”?
A short piece about the language of restaurant menus in The Atlantic (13 August 2014) mentions Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu which tells how he and his colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes across the USA. The findings indicate that fancy restaurants use fancier – and longer – words than cheaper restaurants. 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.”
The book says that lower-priced restaurants rely on “linguistic fillers”, subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. Cheaper establishments use basic terms like ripe and fresh, while trendy establishments add provenance to descriptions of ingredients in order to up the stakes of exclusivity. According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.”
Another study found that long-winded, flowery menu descriptions are effective marketing tools, as consumers are easily seduced by the language and even inclined to pay more for a dish. For instance, when seafood was labelled “Succulent Italian Seafood Filet”, and red beans and rice became “Cajun Red Beans and Rice,” sales spiked 28 per cent. The same dishes were also rated as tastier despite the fact that recipes were identical.
But critics cannot claim the moral high ground either. Flowery prose is a staple of any half decent restaurant review – especially if a play on words can be thrown in for good measure:
“On the meal’s front end, marinated white anchovies rode the crisp backs of tempura-fried cauliflower into a satiny fondue of roasted garlic and tangy sheep’s milk cheese. Veal sweetbreads were dredged in flour spiked with pink peppercorn and smoked paprika, then deep fried. Dragged through spiced honey and candied parsnip purée, they tasted like exotic chicken nuggets.”
“The steak, sauced with a veal demi as dark and bitter as fine chocolate, had a large supporting cast: beautiful sautéed mushrooms and rapini, bland sweet potato gnocchi, and a cloying puddle of shallot sauce. The lamb was more simply arrayed with tiny heirloom potatoes, roasted Brussels sprouts and a dab of puréed garlic and fennel, but its demi-glace had turned to demi-glue on the plate.”
In the film Ratatouille (2007), the restaurant critic Anton Ego says:
“After reading a lot of overheated puffery about your new cook, you know what I’m craving? A little perspective. That’s it. I’d like some fresh, clear, well seasoned perspective. Can you suggest a good wine to go with that?”
When One for the Pot – as good a name as any for a restaurant – opened in London in 2011, one reviewer was ecstatic, describing it as specializing in “confusion cuisine” and calling it definitely a cut above the rest. But that’s the trouble with reviews: you can’t trust everything you read.