November 9, 2014

The Language of Food: a linguist reads the menu

What makes group cooking special ... is that the meal benefits from what everyone brings, quite literally, to the table:  their favorite ingredients, their culinary techniques, their family spices. ... this 'stone soup' metaphor is exactly what underlies the foods created by the great meetings of civilizations that also created our modern world. Ketchup, syrup, aspic, turkey, macaron, sherbet, and arrack {an early kind of rum] are linguistic fossils of the high-class meals of the Persian shahsm Baghdadi caliphs, Provencal princes, New York Astors, but also of Fujianese sailors, Egyptian pharmacists, Mexican nuns, Portuguese merchants, Sicilian pasta-makers, Amherst poets, and New York bakers, as each food passed along and changed to comply with the implicit structures of the borrowing cuisines, macaroons and marmalades losing their medieval rosewater and musk, fruit sharbats becoming luscious ice cream, vinegary meat sikbaj becoming Christian fish dishes suitable for Lent. Although the foods change, the words remain behind, mementos of our deep debt to each other from our shared past, just was the word turkey reminds us of tiny Portugal's obsession with naval secrets 600 years ago and toast and supper remind us of medieval pottages and toasty wassails.

How we talk about food also reflects human aspirations: our desire to live a healthy, natural, authentic life, to identify with our family and culture, and our deep strains of optimism and positivity. And it reflects our cognition: the link between vowel perception and the evolution of the human smile, ... advertising 'tomato' ketchup, overmentioning fresh or tasty on aspirational menus or health on junk-food packages.

I left for college planning to major in linguistics, a path that lasted about halfway through my first semester and Linguistics 101. Looking back, I realize that I had no idea what linguistics was, just a fuzzy and romantic idea that I would learn twelve languages and spend some time as a simultaneous translator at the UN. But, in hindsight, if I had known I could be a food linguist, things might have been very different. Reading this book, by a linguist and computer scientist at Stanford --  a combination of culinary history, language studies and psychology, with a few medieval recipes and glimpses of life in present-day San Francisco added in for good measure -- made me think I could have born the computation studies and statistical regressions if the rest of the work was included.. :)

Each chapter focuses on something interesting, subtle and sometimes sneaky in the way we've come to talk about, read about, or even eat food:  from what's written on a menu, to what's written on a potato chip bag (there are very funny bits suggesting that menus in cheaper restaurants are more likely to mention how fresh and good the food is, because we're afraid it won't be, or how the makers of gourmet, expensive chips try to convince us that they're a healthy snack, while ordinary brands don't bother}, to the often ancient origins of words (and foods) like ketchup, ceviche and turkey, to the 'grammar' of a meal {and why it's different in China than in America} to an experiment in which people were convinced that an imaginary ice cream whose name had a vowel formed in the back of the mouth (like 'Frosh') would taste creamier than one whose name had a 'front' vowel (like 'Frish'). {It all has to do with how animals show aggression.}  Along the way, in this very approachable book, I learned a little more about the concepts in linguistics -- like 'semantic bleaching,' the process by which a word loses its original meaning -- which I think I would have found very interesting if I had taken another course or two.  I enjoyed this book very much.


Cosy Books said...

The very word 'aspic' makes me shiver.

I can't say that I love cooking but The Kitchen Cabinet is an excellent podcast if you like clever foodies!

JoAnn said...

This is my kind of nonfiction! I'm also happy to see that it is available as an audiobook and is fairly short (under 7 hours) wish list has grown again. Thanks for the recommendation, Audrey!