What does the language of restaurant menus tell us?

Sometimes you read a restaurant menu and think, “Oh, man, this is going to be expensive.” Sometimes you peruse a menu and think, “This is some good ole’ simple down home cooking.” What does the language of a menu tell us? For example, when you read the following menu, what do you understand about the restaurant? (By the way, I ate at Big Ed’s that day and I chose the chicken and dumplings, collard greens, and fried okra. Biscuits for my dessert choice and peach cobbler for my dessert.) The story is continued below the menu.


From John Kessler, a dining columnist for Chicago Magazine: “Linguist Dan Jurafsky, working with a team from Carnegie Mellon University, entered data from 650,000 menu items and found a strong correlation between language and price. Words like “exotic” and “spices” raise the price of a dish, as does any mention of an ingredient’s provenance.”
“Jurafsky et al found that midpriced chain restaurants are far more likely to use mushy “linguistic filler” words like savory, delightful, zesty, rich, tangy, fluffy, juicy, colorful, chunky and moist. This language attempts to conceal the fact that these cheaper dishes lack ingredients of actual value. When you move down the food chain from midrange to everyday, inexpensive restaurants, the menus begin to promise real bacon bits, genuine whipped cream, and fresh spinach, displaying what linguists call “status anxiety.” Expensive restaurants show no such anxiety: The cream comes from a cow.”
“In the 1940s and 1950s, so-called Southern restaurants enjoyed a wave of popularity across the country. Menus from the period codified many typically American dishes, such as fried chicken and barbecue pork, as Southern. They also engaged in the worst kind of racial stereotyping. Images of mammies and men who bore more than a little resemblance to Uncle Remus appeared on menus as far away as Los Angeles. White diners at these restaurants could feel superior to Southerners yet also enjoy the benefits of the unequal power structure through the nostalgia hiding just beneath the folksy surface. I can’t help but wonder if it correlates to the popularity of Gone with the Wind, released as a blockbuster film in 1939. It seems that mere mention of the word “Southern” presents an excuse to engage in racial stereotyping. Perhaps the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision also gave fuel to this trend.”

For the full article, published by the Southern Foodways Alliance, click here. This article taught me about a job I’d never heard of: “menu engineer.” I may have found my new calling.

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