The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu

The Atlantic has an interesting preview of Dan Jurafsky’s The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, coming out in September: 

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.”

Putting this book on my to-read list.

The New York Times Treatment of Bistro at Villard Michel Richard

Food critic Pete Wells at The New York Times has just come out with a scathing review of the Bistro at Villard Michel Richard, the fancy new restaurant at the newly renovated New York Palace in Midtown Manhattan. It’s worth reading in entirety but these two paragraphs are the best:

Think of everything that’s great about fried chicken. Now take it all away. In its place, right between dried-out strands of gray meat and a shell of fried bread crumbs, imagine a gummy white paste about a quarter-inch deep. This unidentifiable paste coats your mouth until you can’t perceive textures or flavors. It is like edible Novocain.

What Villard Michel Richard’s $28 fried chicken does to Southern cooking, its $40 veal cheek blanquette does to French. A classic blanquette is a gentle, reassuring white stew of sublimely tender veal. In this version, the veal cheeks had the dense, rubbery consistency of overcooked liver. Slithering around the meat was a terrifying sauce the color of jarred turkey gravy mixed with cigar ashes. If soldiers had killed Escoffier’s family in front of him and then forced him to make dinner, this is what he would have cooked.

Mmm, delicious.

The Six Day Water Fast

Ben Marcus, in his mid-forties, felt pain throughout his body. He decided to try something unconvential: a six-day fast consisting of nothing but drinking water. He chronicles his (mis)-adventures in this piece for GQ.

TrueNorth lacks the whorehouse comforts of a spa. There isn’t even a pool, which seems to violate some central tenet of California apartment complexes. It feels more like a scientific-research center. There are daily lectures and cooking demos, and the guest rooms are stocked with DVDs of slightly NSFW health documentaries. Today at the clinic they showed a grim video called The Pleasure Trap, an unflinching lecture on why we eat, and eat, and fucking eat, what isn’t good for us. Salt, sugar, and fat, combined with chemicals in processed foods, trick the brain in the same way as cocaine, and the brain flushes our bodies with dopamine, perhaps the most blissful, and addictive, homemade chemical we have. Once we find a way to trigger it, we kill ourselves to get more. Literally.

That evening, with no dinner to cook, eat, and clean up, I prepare my water smoothie, made of nothing but distilled water, and turn on the Food Network. If I can’t eat food, I’ll watch some. On TV, pre-scandal Paula Deen and her son are making corn dogs, fried okra, croissant-dough muffins with caramelized pecans. These things look gorgeous and obscene, like the invented genitalia of a new species. But after watchingThe Pleasure Trap, it seems wrong to refer to this stuff as food. More like recreational drugs for the mouth, with nasty side effects like diabetes. Still, I’m drooling. I love these recreational drugs. I go to foreign countries just to try exotic versions. I’m a user. I do food.

Just not today, and, if I survive, not for the next five days.

It appears the fast has worked wonders, though I appreciate the cautious outlook that this might have been a short-term victory:

Throughout my stay, a six-day fast has been regarded with amused smiles. Pathetic amateur, they don’t say. One doctor says everyone should do a long fast at least once in their lives. What’s long, I ask. Twenty-one days. Maybe thirty. Now I see the appeal. Once you get over the misery of the first few days, things start to look up and you get this feeling that something profoundly necessary is happening inside you. I’ve lost sixteen pounds, and a deep bend at the knees is surprisingly pain-free. My hands no longer ache. My skin is clear. The whites of my eyes look Photoshopped.

Don’t try this at home, folks. Seriously: from personal experience, even fasting for twelve hours is bound to make you dizzy, and you don’t want to be falling down stairs when you attempt something this bold…

A Feminist’s Daughter Finds Love in the Kitchen

This personal essay in The New York Times struck a chord with me because I had two separate conversations over the last two days on these two themes: work-life balance and the definition of feminism.

Yet children do not stop needing what they need, even when their parents are fighting for justice. And if you do not attend to them or find a loving substitute, they will suffer and may hold it against you. Even if you have never felt stronger and more truly yourself. Even if you love them.

Because of my history, I know how much the mundane care of children matters. That is why I stop work when the school day ends and greet my daughter with a hug. I may be tired, stressed out or grumpy; I may bemoan the confinement, the repetition, the career limits. But I do it anyway. I pull away from paid pursuits and open myself to the opportunity to delight in my daughter.

My delight comes freely, inspired by a leggy girl with rich brown eyes who has just come home. But our time together is about more than delight. When I hand her a snack and look into her face, seeking the stories of her day, I intend for her to feel how much she matters. She matters more to me right then than anything I could be doing without her. And we will not have these afternoons forever.

When she told me on Mother’s Day that she loves what I do in the kitchen, I realized why I love it, too. For as I stir and chop and bake while she studies, sings, draws, chatters, rides a scooter and does an exceptional job of being young, I am drinking in some of the pleasures I missed.

Worth reading.

What Makes Doritos Chips So Irresistible?

The New York Times on the allure of the Doritos chips:

The inventor of Doritos envisioned this snack in 1964 as a marketing powerhouse that could deliver endless varieties of new flavors. But none of the formulations would surpass Nacho Cheese, whose irresistible taste sent Doritos into the processed food hall of fame, and more recently into a partnership with Taco Bell. I visited Steven A. Witherly, a food scientist who wrote an insider’s guide, “Why Humans Like Junk Food,” and we raided his lab to taste and experiment our way through the psychobiology of what makes Nacho Cheese Doritos so alluring.

On one of the most popular flavors, Nacho Cheese:

The blend of ingredients in Nacho Cheese is given one of the finest grinds in food processing: flour grinding, which creates a powder that fills every nook and cranny on the chip. This maximizes the amount that will contact saliva. Intentional or not, one byproduct is the powder left on your fingers. 

Licking the dust from the fingers in its pure form, without the chip to dilute the impact, sends an even larger flavor burst to the brain.

The notion of “forgettable flavor” is vital:

Despite the powerful tastes in Nacho Cheese, the Doritos formula balances them so well that no single flavor lingers in the mind after you’ve eaten a chip. This avoids what food scientists call “sensory specific satiety,” or the feeling of fullness caused by a dominant flavor. Would you eat a whole bag of rosemary chips? With Doritos, you go back for more.

Read the rest here.

A Nightly Dinner Out as Therapy

Harry Rosen is 103 years old and lives in New York City. He made a fortune in his life in America as a supply company owner, after fleeing the pograms of Russia, having arrived to Ellis Island with his family. These days, he goes out to fancy restaurants in the city, which he considers his therapy:

“I haven’t eaten dinner home in many years,” said Mr. Rosen, who tried singles groups and other activities after his wife of 70 years, Lillian, died five years ago, when she was 95.

But nothing brought him the comfort of a fine restaurant.

“It’s my therapy, it lifts my spirits,” he said Wednesday evening while examining the menu with a magnifying glass at David Burke Townhouse on East 61st Street.

Twice a week, a server there greets him, walks him to his usual corner table and brings his regular glass of chardonnay, his appetizer of raw salmon and tuna, and then the swordfish, skin removed, with vegetables specially puréed for his dentures to handle.

“The food and the ambience, it’s my therapy — it gives me energy,” he said.

His favorite restaurants are Café Boulud on East 76th Street, Boulud Sud near Lincoln Center, and Avra Estiatorio on East 48th Street.

On The Joys of Becoming a Restaurant Regular

This is a wonderful piece by Frank Bruni (former restaurant critic for The New York Times) on the joys and pleasures of becoming a regular at your local restaurant:

I’m no monogamist, that’s clear. More of a polygamist, but I dote on my sister wives. I’ve come to see that the broccolini isn’t always greener on the other side of Houston Street, and I’m here to sing what’s too seldom sung: the joys of familiarity. The pleasures of intimacy. The virtues of staying put.

What you have with a restaurant that you visit once or twice is a transaction. What you have with a restaurant that you visit over and over is a relationship.

Great point here about the smiles:

[T]he smiles you get from hosts, hostesses and bartenders who know you are entirely unlike the smiles from ones who are just meeting you. They’re less theatrical, less stilted, warmer by countless degrees.

I love this addendum from Jason Kottke:

This is a totally minor thing but I love it: more than once, I’ve come in early in the evening, had a drink, left without paying to go run an errand or meet someone somewhere else, and then come back later for another drink or dinner and then settle my bill. It’s like having a house account without the house account.

I haven’t yet made any nearby restaurants a regular for me, but now I am really tempted to pick one or two.