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Trying my hand at reading the menu like a linguist

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I’m a food person.  I always have been. When I was little, I liked to mix together all the condiments in the fridge into one, big, disgusting “concoction” that I would beg my parents to try. As I got older, I started organizing mock cooking competitions with my friends. Bon Appetit remains my favorite Youtube account, especially the series about recreating gourmet versions of brand-name foods.

As one might expect from a writer for the Reads section of the Daily, I also really like words. Specifically, I like understanding how the specific words that a person uses can change the meaning of that person’s message.

Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food” perfectly merges these two interests. As a linguist and professor here at Stanford, Jurafsky explores the meaning hidden in the menus that we read at nearly every restaurant we enter.

The first chapter explores how specific words and phrases signal the relative price-range of a restaurant or given dish. According to Jurafsky’s research, the menus of more expensive restaurants tend to use long words like “decaffeinated” and “accompaniments.” They also put the responsibility of determining the details of a dish in the chef’s hands, leading to menu items with descriptions like “chef’s choice.” In contrast, cheaper restaurants use words like “decaf” or “sides.” They also tend to offer varying sizes and protein types or include the word “you” — such as in the terms “your choice” or “your way.”

When it comes to the price of a specific dish, Jurafsky focuses on the meaning behind what he deems “linguistic fillers” and “appealing adjectives.” Cheaper restaurants often describe dishes with vague terms like “delicious” or “delightful,” while mid-price establishments tend to use descriptive adjectives like “fresh” or “ripe” to reaffirm the quality of the food they’re serving. Expensive dishes are characterized by longer descriptive words and references to origin of an ingredient, such as a specific farm, or the exotic nature of a food, such as details of certain spices.

While all of these correlations are certainly interesting, the most exciting part of Jurafsky’s research is perhaps the ability to connect the information to one’s own experiences while eating out. Unfortunately, as a Stanford student on a full meal plan, I don’t often eat off campus, so I haven’t had many opportunities to apply what I learned in the real world. Family Weekend proved the perfect opportunity to reverse this trend.

My parents, both of whom are also food people, were adamant that they take me out to a nice dinner during their visit to Palo Alto. I, of course, was not going to complain. We ended up eating at a restaurant called Oak + Violet in Menlo Park. As I chose which dishes I wanted to order, I tried to read the menu with a linguist’s eye.

The most expensive dish at Oak + Violet is $59. The cheapest, the house rolls, is $5. On average, appetizers cost around $15, main dishes cost around $35, and side dishes cost around $9. This puts Oak + Violet in the mid-to-high price range. While there are certainly more expensive restaurants nearby, it is a far nicer establishment than those at which I’m accustomed to eating. I was interested in investigating if the words used on the menu pointed to the same conclusion.

Immediately, I noticed an emphasis on the origin of food. The restaurant was described as “commit[ed] to local seasonal ingredients” that “celebrat[e] California’s agricultural beauty and abundance.” Sure enough, the menu boasted “California Olive Oil,” “Assorted Local Meats,” “Hobb’s Bacon” (a Bay Area brand) and “Pacific Oysters.”

I also scoured the menu for auxiliary words that did not directly refer to the type or preparation of the food discussed. While there was no use of the word “delicious” or any of its synonyms, a characteristic of cheaper restaurants, Oak + Violet did include words like “artisanal,” “organic” and “rustic,” which suggested a desire to emphasize the quality of the ingredients. There was also one mention of a “signature” dish, which seemed to relate to Jurafsky’s comment of “chef’s choice” style dishes in pricier restaurants.

It’s also worth noting that the menu at Oak + Violet is relatively small. Unlike a diner, which often features pages and pages of options, Oak + Violet limits their menu to the front-side of one sheet of paper. There are five large plates, nine sharing plates, three salad options and four sides. This narrowing down of the user’s choices also correlates with the menus of more expensive locations.

As I analyzed the menu further, the validity of Jurafsky’s research became clear. Even with a sample size of one, I was able to observe the presence or absence of the characteristics mentioned in the book. What’s more, looking for these types of details showed me how much I don’t notice when I go out to eat. Despite how much I claim to like food, I’ve never before taken the time to really study the menu of a restaurant. I usually scan each item, pick out the words that tell me what foods are involved, and order. When I took the time to absorb the words that the restaurant chose to include on its menu, I realized how little of the menu I actually understood.

What, for instance, makes a Marcona almond different from another almond? Are Sicilian pistachios different from the pistachios I buy at Trader Joe’s?  Does Calabrian chili have a characteristic taste? What is a “ripped” potato?

Moreover, if I previously felt comfortable ordering dishes off the menu without knowing what particular terms meant, what is the purpose of these extra words? Are there frequent visitors for whom the specific type of pistachio would make or break a dish? Are the additional words mainly intended to bolster the perceived value of the food? Or do they actually have significant meaning?

I would surely need to analyze more menus to answer these questions with any certainty, but there are questions that I’ve never before thought to ask, and it’s really exciting that a book was able to change how I look at the food I’m eating. Going out to eat may never be the same, and I can’t wait to see what more I learn.

Contact Sofia Schlozman at sschloz ‘at’ stanford.edu.