food wordsSometimes, when social scientists get ahold of food, I wander where the food goes. Linguist Dan Jurafsky writes:

But food writing, to a linguist like me, isn’t just about food. The words you use when you write a restaurant review say as much about your own psychology as they do about which dish to order.

He goes on to describe his extensive research into the language of food and discovers:

Reviewers of expensive restaurants relied on multisyllabic words such as “commensurate”, “unobtrusively”, “sumptuous” and “vestibule”, and wrote long-winded reviews to depict themselves as well educated or sophisticated. We eat high-class food not only because it tastes good but also to signal that we’re high-class ourselves and have the “commensurate” language.

When a review of an expensive restaurant was positive, writers tended to use metaphors of sex and sensual pleasure, talking about “orgasmic pastry” or “seductively seared foie gras”, cake that is “creamier and more voluptuous” or “very naughty deep-fried pork belly” – perhaps a way of demonstrating their sensuous, hedonistic nature.

Of course less expensive food is described differently:

But positive reviews of cheap restaurants and foods instead employed metaphors of drugs or addiction: “the chocolate in their cookies must have crack”, “the wings are addicting” or “in desperate need for a fix [of curry]” or “craving it [pizza] pretty badly right now”. Why the difference? We’re embarrassed about eating chips and chocolate. Foods that we “crave” aren’t vegetables. We talk about food as an addiction when we’re feeling guilty. By placing the blame on the food we’re distancing ourselves from our own “sin” of eating fried or sugary snacks.

Advertising for expensive crisps, he reports, used fancier language and more often drew comparisons with their lower-priced competition, because “upper-class taste in food has the role of “distinguishing” the rich from other classes – “We’re not like those other chips.” In general, the language of food does not depict the characteristics of the food but the wealth of the diner.

Menu language is equally instructive. In a study for my forthcoming book, we computationally analysed thousands of US menus and found we could predict prices just from the words on the menu. Again, the more expensive the restaurant, the fancier the words. Difficult foreign words (“tonnarelli”, “choclo”, “bastilla”, “persillade”, “oyako”) are an implicit signal of the high-educational status of the menu writer and, by extension, the customer. But we also found that expensive menus were shorter and more implicit. By contrast, the wordy menus of middle-priced restaurants were stuffed with adjectives (“fresh”, “rich”, “mild”, “crisp”, “tender”, “golden brown”), while positive but vague words such as “delicious”, “tasty” and “savoury” were used by the cheapest restaurants.

High-status restaurants want their customers to presuppose that food will be fresh, crisp and delicious. The surfeit of adjectives on middle-priced menus is thus a kind of overcompensation, a sign of status anxiety, and only the cheapest restaurants, in which the tastiness of the food might be in question, must overly protest the toothsomeness of their treats.

I’ve read my Marx and my Bourdieu. I’m happy to employ class as an explanation when warranted. But often exotic, complex, unusual descriptions are used because the food is exotic, complex, and unusual? And isn’t expensive food, when well-prepared, designed to be hedonistic and sensuous rather than filling and comforting? How else would you describe it except through hedonistic metaphors. Of course, not all expensive food is exotic, complex, and unusual, but it is usually the case that exotic, complex, unusual food is expensive for obvious economic reasons.

No doubt, advertisers and menu writers (which is a form of advertisement) try to exploit the vanities of their clientele—that is their job. But I fail to see how a positive review of a fine restaurant could be an honest description without the use of a sophisticated vocabulary. It’s not necessarily because the reviewer is a privileged twit, but because the food was sophisticated and required a sophisticated vocabulary to describe it. Simpler foods are designed to relieve hunger so they are described in terms of satisfying a craving. I doubt that guilt has much to do with it.

The idea that food preferences are nothing but a display of class-based pretension is getting rather old and tired.