THE LANGUAGE OF FOOD
Dan Jurafsky, W.W. Norton,
272 pages, $26.95
Diners can infer a great deal about a restaurant from its menu. Bound in leather and devoid of prices, it hints at Michelin stars; laminated in plastic and offering a choice of proteins for each dish, it does not. The words used are also revealing, according to Dan Jurafsky, a linguist and computer scientist at Stanford University, in "The Language of Food." His decoding of food-related texts is the most original aspect of a work that is entertaining and revealing throughout.
Jurafsky ploughed through the descriptions of 650,000 dishes on 6,500 menus. Mid-range restaurants repeatedly insist that their food is "fresh." Cheap eateries swear their food is "real." Expensive restaurants avoid such terms. The mere mention that the crab is real or the plums ripe is sufficient to conjure in diners' minds the possibility that they might not be—the "maxim of relevance" in linguistic terms.
Pricey joints also use longer words. Jurafksy calculated that every one-letter increase in the average length of the words describing a dish adds an extra $0.18 to the price. Phrases like "exotic Ethiopian spices" inflate prices too. Vaguely positive words, however, such as delicious or tasty, "linguistic filler words" used when restaurants have nothing genuinely valuable to talk about, bring the price down by 9 percent.
Jurafsky also analyzed 1 million online restaurant reviews Satisfied customers can be remarkably price-sensitive, if unconsciously so. The pleasures of expensive food are equated with sex, while cheap food is compared to drugs. By describing sugary, fatty foods as addictive, people distance themselves from their own "sin" of eating it, argues Jurafsky: "It's not my fault: the cupcake made me do it."