Food Talk

With Dan Jurafsky, author of "The Language of Food"

Dan Jurafsky

Dan Jurafsky

In “The Language of Food,” Stanford University linguistics professor and chair Dan Jurafsky journeys into the linguistic history of all things culinary. Jurafsky explores food terminology with easy-to-digest etymologies, entertaining anecdotes, and even snippets of ancient recipes—as well as some not-so-ancient ones, like Emily Dickinson’s recipe for coconut cake. “The Language of Food” asks questions about the similarities between words like macaroon, macaron, and macaroni, and explores how history, geography, and language have influenced the food (and words) we know today. Jurafsky took some time to chat with DiningOut about his motives, his discoveries, and his favorite junk food.

DiningOut: What drove you to write this book? Had you explored linguistics through the lens of food before?
Dan Jurafsky: I first became interested in the link between food and language when I lived in Hong Kong as a graduate student. Everyone there knew that “ketchup” was a Chinese word, but it took me a long time to get around to writing the story behind it. I didn’t put it together with all my other stories until I started teaching a freshman seminar on the language of food. Undergraduates these days are really passionate about food, and at first I was just trying to use food to get students excited about linguistics. I soon found that the combination of the two worlds was irresistible to me.

The book begins with a hard look at the language of menus. Has writing this book changed the way you order food at a restaurant, and how much you’re willing to pay when you dine out?
I don’t think it’s changed how I order, but I definitely have more fun reading the menus now. Every menu feels like I’m having a little conversation with the restaurant in which they are telling me about who they want to be and who they think their customers are.

The chapter “Sex, Drugs, and Sushi Rolls” opens with your research on restaurant reviews and the words people use to share opinions about food. You found that humans “tend to notice and talk about the good things in life.” What is your opinion on review sites like Yelp and BeerAdvocate?
Review sites are the best! First of all, it’s how I find out about great new restaurants. I’m a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd, and you quickly learn to figure out who is giving useful advice and which reviews to ignore. But I also find it fun to read between the lines and learn something about the reviewers themselves. When we found that reviewers who write one- star reviews are displaying signs of minor trauma, I went back and looked at my own one-star reviews, and sure enough I had given those bad reviews after situations where people were behaving badly toward me.

You probably see right through modern-day advertising ploys for junk food (like you discussed in your chapter on potato chips). Is there a guilty pleasure food you continue to indulge in, regardless?
I love reading ads on packages. As a child, I would re-read every word on the cereal boxes every morning over breakfast. I guess it’s an obsession. But my favorite guilty pleasure is kettle corn, which typically doesn’t have any packaging at all (if you get it at street fairs), so there are no fun words to read. That, or the Grasshopper Pie ice cream at my local creamery, Mitchell’s.

You discuss the “grammar of cuisine,” a theory that suggests there are implicit rules within cuisine just as there are rules within language. When rules are broken (e.g. bacon ice cream for dessert), are we witnessing culinary innovation, or bastardization of the way food ought to be consumed?Although I’m not a fan of bacon ice cream, I am a great fan of breaking the rules and violating the grammar of cuisine. That is how great new discoveries happen. The history of science tells us that big innovations happen when you do something that draws from the rules and norms of a discipline, but combines them in some novel way, influenced by some other scientific field. And really, a recipe is just technology for creating deliciousness. Let’s break some rules and see what happens!

The cover of your book portrays cheesy crackers in the shapes of letters. Any significance to this choice (and your decision to use crackers instead of, say, ice cream)?
Using crackers was the choice of my fantastic book cover artist, Chip Kidd, although lots of other foods could have worked. I do talk about crackers in the book and how cracker names tend to use vowels like “i.” (Say “Wheat Thins” or “Cheez- Its” or even “Chicken in a Biskit” out loud.) “I” vowels turn out to be used in many languages of the world disproportionately for words meaning little or light (like “little” in English, or “petit” in French). So it’s a window into how food names tap into our subconscious language processing.

Your book ends with the suggestion that, despite differences in culinary and linguistic cultures, food can bring people together. Do you think food can really help bridge the gaps of an increasingly divided world?
I do! Often, the first thing we learn about another group is their food. It’s a way to slowly build up respect for another culture’s different patterns and habits.

Interview by Monica Parpal Stockbridge | Editor