Friday, September 12, 2014

Food Grammar

I just read this book: The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky. The author is a linguistics professor at Stanford, a resident of San Francisco, a man who loves lots of different foods and food history. I think I found the book enjoyable because it combines several things I love with new ideas. I especially enjoyed the author's willingness to share lots of personal experiences about his wife, grandparents, and neighbors and what they all eat.

Here's what I love that is in the book and what I found new:

First, I love reading about food. Jurafsky names so many books I've read that I find it amazing. For example, his chapter on ice cream cites Elizabeth David's Harvest of the Cold Months: The Social History of Ice and Ices, which I read recently. His chapter on why the Chinese don't do dessert cites my old favorite Jennifer 8 Lee's Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

I loved learning Jurafsky's explanation of food words also -- like his reasons why ice cream names sound the way they do. He explains how new-fangled ice cream flavors often violate our culinary "grammar," for example by putting bacon into ice cream when meat is not part of the syntax of an American dessert.

Jurafsky is passionate about food history.  I love it too! For example, Jurafsky provides a fascinating history of the relationship of the words "macaroon," "macaron," and "macaroni." At first, macaroon and macaron were the same -- that was back when spelling was somewhat a matter of personal choice. But the spelling and the ingredients diverged some time in the 19th century. The French stuck to tradition going back to at least the Renaissance, and used almonds in the macarons. In America, a coconut craze inspired the changeover to the sticky coconut macaroons, which were enthusiastically made part of Jewish Passover cuisine because they have no flour. (Which reminds me -- he had a fascinating discussion of the history of the words "flower" and "flour" too, but I don't think I'll try to elaborate on it.) And the word "macaroni" has the same root meaning pasta. But it also meant someone who ate exotic Italian food like macaroni, so 200 years ago or so meant a dandy like Yankee Doodle with a fancy hair style. So complicated. So amusing!

The Language of Food is full of detailed observations about language in the style of my favorite blog, Language Log -- another source that Jurafsky cites. Studying the frequency and meaning of words as the language changes has very recently emerged as more possible than it used to be. Research is now facilitated by availability of statistical modeling codes and by databases of language from google. Language Log bloggers frequently test their hypotheses about words and usage by this means, and Jurafsky does some fascinating experiments (and cites those of other linguists) to show some wonderful things about how menu writers and food ads choose their words. In fact, I learned about Jurafsky's book from a blog post by Language Log writer Arnold Zwicky.

The language of menu writers is one area where Jurafsky gets results from this type of statistical research. My favorite language analysis in the book was about junk food. Jurafsky does for the language on a potato chip bag what Michael Moss did in Salt Sugar Fat for the nutritional content of the chips inside -- they both expose the manufacturers' manipulation of the consumer. (Salt Sugar Fat is another of the books that I have read and Jurafsky mentions). Packages of fancy premium chips, Jurafsky shows, display far more claims about how healthy they are than packages of cheaper chips. In fact, Jurafsky calculates exactly how much you'll pay extra for an ounce of chips that says it has "no trans fats." The chips inside these bags aren't even much different from one another, just the claims.

Anyway it's a fun read, right from the start when he talks about Ketchup and how the both the word (with its many spellings) and the substance (with its originally many flavors, now only tomato) came into our linguistic and culinary vocabularies.


~~louise~~ said...

Hi Mae!
Sounds like my kind a book although, I must say, I still can't get through The United States of Arugula
by David Kamp.

Thanks for sharing, Mae...

Mae Travels said...

Hi Louise: If I were you, I'd abandon Kamp's book and go on to something better. It didn't do a very good job of what it promised.

~~louise~~ said...

Thanks Mae, I thought it was just me...It doesn't even work as a good reference book either.

Mae Travels said...

I wrote about my disappointment when I read the book: