“The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu” by Dan Jurafsky (2014)

I finished reading this book a few months ago, but the last few months have been a but crazy, so I neglected this blog for a bit before finally coming back to it last month. I was given this book as a gift from a friend for my birthday all the way back in June. I read it over the summer and mostly really enjoyed it. I am someone who speaks several languages and likes to see how language evolves, adapts, and translates across countries and cultures. I also really love love love food. I adore cooking, and my palate appreciates cuisine from all over the world (just this week I have eaten Italian, Korean, Somali, and Indian food). So this book was a great gift, and overall I quite enjoyed reading it. It was not perfect, and at times too repetitive, but there are stellar chapters that made me glad to read it and eager to recommend it to fellow language and food aficionados.

the language of food.jpg

Have you ever really inspected a restaurant menu? Have you wondered about the choices that went into the wording, explanations, dish names, even the categories of the menu. I haven’t been able to look at a menu the same way I did before since reading this book. If you’ve ever wondered why an ingredient or technique goes untranslated to those unfamiliar with it, or why the origin of the food you’re eating is expressly stated on the menu, or why adjectives such as “best” and “yummy” appear in the item description, then Jurafsky will finally address those questions for you. His chapter on menus and the language that appears in it makes the read worth it. He and his team analyzed numerous menus to come up with a detailed explanation of the correlation of language, cuisine, and price. The results make sense the second you read them, although they are not necessarily obvious. A second best chapter is when Jurafsky performs roughly the same experiment on food reviews, both printed and user generated (think Yelp), and how people express approval or dislike when talking about food. These chapters stand out above the rest and make the reader wish the author had stuck to writing a book in this format, instead of digressing and straying in his other chapters.

dan-jurafsky
Dan Jurafsky

The vast majority of the book, unfortunately, attempts to do just way too much. Jurafsky tries to trace historically, geographically, and linguistically the origin of customs, food names, and recipes. The attempt is valiant, and there are for sure really interesting topics addressed, but it’s so broad and repetitive, that the final result is a bit too exhausting and overwhelms the mental palate. From ketchup to ceviche passing though turkey, we are treated to so many passages between borders, time zones, and eras that it’s hard to keep up with the author. He is also restricted and blinded by his areas of expertise, which hurt him ultimately. He clearly knows quite a bit about China because he is married to someone from the country, clearly has spent a significant amount of time there and perhaps knows a but of the language – so he always defaults to China, even when intuition would refute that. He also seems to always refer back to France for any romance language word derivation, even when there are clear and known Latin and Greek antecedents. Jurafsky should stick to English. I don’t say this as an insult. I say it because that’s where he is at his mouthwatering best and clearly in his element, because his writing brightens and livens up. Just like an uneven meal, there weren’t enough portions of the rich foods I actually wanted to eat, and too many side items that interested me less and distracted from the true treasures within the spread.

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