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.

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.

Why Lobster Isn’t Priced Like Chicken

In 2005, Maine lobster was selling for almost six dollars a pound wholesale. By 2009, it cost just half that, and, in the past couple of summers, huge lobster harvests, believed by some to be a result of global warming, have glutted the market, sending prices tumbling further. This month, lobster off the boat is selling for as low as $2.20 a pound. So why hasn’t the price of lobster come down when you’re buying it at your favorite restaurant?

James Surowiecki explains in The New Yorker that lobster isn’t like a commodity, but rather is more like a luxury good. If it were priced like chicken, people would presumably enjoy it less:

Keeping prices high obviously lets restaurants earn more on each dish. But it may also mean that they get less business. So why aren’t we seeing markdowns? Some of the reasons are straightforward, like the inherent uncertainty of prices from year to year: if a bad harvest next summer sent prices soaring, restaurants might find it hard to sell expensive lobster to customers who’d got used to cheap lobster. But the deeper reason is that, economically speaking, lobster is less like a commodity than like a luxury good, which means that its price involves a host of odd psychological factors.

Lobster hasn’t always been a high-end product. In Colonial New England, it was a low-class food, in part because it was so abundant: servants, as a condition of their employment, insisted on not being fed lobster more than three times a week. In the nineteenth century, it became generally popular, but then, as overharvesting depleted supplies, it got to be associated with the wealthy (who could afford it). In the process, high prices became an important part of lobster’s image. And, as with many luxury goods, expense is closely linked to enjoyment. Studies have shown that people prefer inexpensive wines in blind taste tests, but that they actually get more pleasure from drinking wine they are told is expensive. If lobster were priced like chicken, we might enjoy it less.

Another additional point worth highlighting:

Restaurants also worry about the message that discounting sends. Studies dating back to the nineteen-forties show that when people can’t objectively evaluate a product before they buy it (as is the case with a meal) they often assume a correlation between price and quality. Since most customers don’t know what’s been happening to the wholesale price of lobster, cutting the price could send the wrong signal: people might think your lobster is inferior to that of your competitors. A 1996 study found that restaurants wouldn’t place more orders with wholesalers even if lobster prices fell twenty-five per cent.

Finally, having lobster on the menu is a boon for restaurants because its artificially high price makes other dishes on the menu comparatively more affordable. Cited in Surowiecki’s piece is a fascinating paper by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky concerning these context-dependent preferences:

The standard theory of choice-based on value maximization-associates with each option a real value such that, given an offered set, the decision maker chooses the option with the highest value. Despite its simplicity and intuitive appeal, there is a growing body of data that is inconsistent with this theory. In particular, the relative attractiveness of x compared to y often depends on the presence or absence of a third option z, and the “market share” of an option can actually be increased by enlarging the offered set. We review recent empirical findings that are inconsistent with value maximization, and present a context-dependent model that expresses the value of each option as an additive combination of two components: a contingent weighting process that captures the effect of the background context, and a binary comparison process that describes the effect of the local context. The model accounts for observed violations of the standard theory and provides a framework for analyzing context-dependent preferences.

MacDo: On The McDonald’s Franchise in France

Very interesting post at Roads & Kingdoms how the McDonald’s in France caters to local taste:

It’s not quite a bistro, but it’s close. This is McDonald’s as a decidedly more grown-up experience, where hard plastic is traded for leather banquettes, pull-out chairs for angular cushioned stools, and golden arches for burnt sienna and low-lit nooks where couples can steal a quiet moment. You can still find a Big Mac and a box of nuggets here, but they are overshadowed on the menu boards by the bigger stars of the French universe: the McDoo, a warm ham and cheese take on the croque-monsieur, leafy salads that bounce like a Kardashian’s backside, and a line of burgers featuring artisanal French cheeses like Comté and Camembert that McDonald’s rolled out earlier this year.

I had no idea about this trivia:

It may surprise some, but McDonald’s France—called MacDo by the locals—is the highest-grossing McDonald’s market outside of the United States (despite the fact that worker pay, a recent source of controversy in the US, starts around $12—France’s minimum wage). It’s a fun story to tell: the lowbrow American chain that won over the fastidious French. Something about it makes Americans feel like a warm apple pie inside. That’ll show those French snobs! But this didn’t happen by accident. If McDonald’s has found success in France, it’s because in many ways it has become the anti-McDonald’s: The service is warm, the interiors thoughtfully designed, and, above all, the food—from the baguette vessels to the pain au chocolat to the camembert-swaddled patties—is made for French palates.

Next time you find yourself in a McDonald’s in France, make sure to order something else besides the Royale with Cheese.

A Brief History of the Children’s Food Menu

Michele Humes has an interesting post at Slate profiling the brief history of the kid’s menu at restaurants across America:

Depending on where you stand vis-à-vis childrearing, the golden age of youth dining in America either began or ended with the Volstead Act. ​In the century leading up to the dry laws, children rarely ate out. A child had to be relatively well-off in order to dine in public, and a guest at a hotel to boot. (Restaurants not attached to hotels didn’t tend to serve children, reasoning that they got in the way of boozy grown-up fun.) But the lucky boy or girl who could tick these boxes was assured of a pretty good time. When the English novelist Anthony Trollope toured the United States in 1861 (his two volumes of crotchety travelogue were later published as North America), he was astonished to see 5-year-old “embryo senators” who ordered dinner with sublime confidence and displayed “epicurean delight” at the fish course.

Prohibition spelled the end for 5-year-old epicures. Taking effect in January 1920, the dry laws forced the hospitality industry to rethink its policy on children: Could it be that this untapped market could help offset all that lost liquor revenue? The Waldorf-Astoria in New York thought so, and in 1921 it became one of the first establishments to beckon to children with a menu of their very own. But even as restaurants began to invite children in, it was with a new limitation: They could no longer eat what their parents ate.

The earliest children’s menus didn’t look so different from the playful ones we know today. The Waldorf-Astoria put Little Jack Horner on the cover of their pink-and-cream booklet; as he brandishes his plummy thumb, a dish runs away with a spoon. But then there was the food—the bland, practically monastic food, appearing all the more austere for the teddy bear picnic taking place overleaf. Here was flaked chicken over boiled rice; here were mixed green vegetables in butter; here was a splat of prune whip. And the one dish that appeared without exception—the chicken nugget of the Jazz Age—was a plain broiled lamb chop.

Read the rest here.

Dinner in the Sky: Hanger Steak is on the Menu

The Wall Street Journal reports on two Belgian entrepreneurs who thought people would pay lavish sums to dangle from a crane and have their meal too:

Their effort began here as a stunt six years ago, when publicist David Ghysels and crane specialist Stefan Kerkhofs seated 22 people around a chef and hoisted everybody 180 feet into the air for a meal. Today, the Dinner in the Sky franchise has tables dangling in more than 40 countries, serving about 1,000 people each month.

Rising to a city near you. As the WSJ suggests, yes, hanger steak is on the menu. Just make sure to go to the bathroom before your trip!

This was an interesting bit:

Expanding into Saudi Arabia posed a problem because of rules against men and women mixing socially. So rather than offering a single table, the company developed a cluster of six four-person tables served by tethered wait staff. The arrangement is now being offered as Lounge in the Sky. Two tables can be removed to make room for musicians or dancers, who perform in tethers similar to parachute harnesses.

Michael Wolff on New York City Dining

Michael Wolff opines on the dining scene in New York City for the British GQ. As the commenters note, it’s not clear whether this is meant as parody:

Of course the ultimate status is not to know someone, but to be known, for the restaurant to want you. This is naturally true for all celebrities, but this is also often true for people merely associated with celebrities. I once had a breakfast meeting at one of the new breakfast places in my neighbourhood with someone of reasonable renown, and now can no longer return because of the unctuousness and obsequiousness and close-in touching with which I am greeted.

It must be said, finally, that there is little pleasure in restaurants of the new restaurant culture. The experience may seem precious, because it might so easily be lost, or necessary, because there is no other alternative, and beyond questioning, because the world is as it is, but on any purely empirical basis it is gruelling time served.

Only in the most expensive, ritualised and ceremonial establishments (we’re talking thousands per table) is there any attention to physical comfort and the basic science of acoustics. This is not only because the people in these restaurants are very rich, but also because they are very old. One of the points about restaurants is to feel young, or to be among the young, or, that is, the right young – the young who can afford expensive restaurants, albeit not as expensive as the restaurants for the very old and rich. (Almost everybody on the Upper East Side, where, in New York, the expensive and quiet restaurants are located, now travels great distances to eat among the young and loud.)

Entertaining, to say the least.

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(via Tyler Cowen)