Food and discourse are inseparable. For the same reason we add sauces and spices to enhance flavour, we pepper our food with dialogue, share handwritten recipes and spin yarns about it. It’s why the avocado is ‘smashed’ and not just ‘mushed’, and why we’re tantalised by exotic descriptions that, as often as not, elude us. Why else might we be swayed to have the mushrooms if they are ‘wild’ or ‘foraged’? It connotes adventure and expedition – backpacks, hiking boots and crisp, dewy mornings.
The ‘rustic lamb stew’ scrawled in chalk on the specials blackboard evokes an elsewhere – maybe a classic country home with a few chickens scratching around the back and a stew gently simmering over a gas stove, stock slowly dripping down the sides of the pot. A tasteful sprinkling of words can be just enough to whet the imagination as well as the appetite and envelop us in a fleeting fantasy, even if it only lasts until we fold our napkin on the table, settle the bill and trudge away into the night.
Hardly a new phenomenon, the sentiment was captured perfectly by French writer Alain Robbe-Grillet as he relates a scene at lunch over 50 years ago*: “In a restaurant…it is the menu that people enjoy consuming – not the dishes, but their description. Lo and behold, he had relegated the whole art of cooking…to the status of an abstract exercise of vocabulary!”
Whether it’s printed, spoken or hashtagged, language is what frames our meal before we’ve even taken the first bite. Like the way a bowl contains soup, language sets the parameters of our expectations. It gives us context, a sense of value for money and, in some ways, meaning.
Using the literary flourish as a garnish has always been the game, but the players have changed with the trends. Words that used to be all-stars of culinary puffery have in time become feeble linguistic has-beens. ‘Epicurean’ is a dusty relic from a time when the desire for elegance and luxury was de jour; others like ‘entrée’ and ‘gourmet’ evoke starchy white tablecloths, lobster cocktails, waldorf salad and cordon bleu. Once a stamp of sophistication, these words now give off a tired, dogged air.
In more recent times, a new generation of buzzwords have come into vogue. Like their predecessors, they serve often as a marketing tool, but also reflect something about our own shifting culture and values. When we look at the words trending in the current food lexicon, what do we see? Bespoke. Artisan. Natural. Sustainable. House-made. Free range. Foraged. Seasonal. Local. Heritage. Independent. Heirloom. Wild. Organic. Are we reading too much into it, or are we deeply yearning for something?
Philosopher Alain de Botton suggested that the motive behind our impulse to buy something is not simply to possess it, but to lay a permanent claim to the virtues that it embodies. Whether it’s a house or a car, a brand of beer or a plate of food, it seems that some part of us hopes that just by having it, maybe we can absorb some of the values to which it alludes.
Is it possible that by living a life constantly framed by tall city buildings, glowing screens and Instagram filters, we crave authenticity so much that we want to eat it?
The hunger for sincerity resonates beyond just our plates. The same phrases that constantly appear on our menus and food packaging crop up in conversations and marketing campaigns and are employed to inspire a different kind of consumption. From bicycles to beer, furniture and fashion, we are enticed by the promises of local design, sustainability and a bespoke quality. Popular music is local and independent, and even our clothes can be organic and foraged for.
Our ever-changing vocabulary, even surrounding food, is a signpost of our times. Like those that came before it, this particular trend may last a decade or just another couple of years. Then maybe after that, heirloom carrots and foraged herbs and bespoke pizza will be erased from the specials board, replaced by something a little different. Think ‘abstract eggs’ and ‘post-modern corn fritters’, perhaps with a side of ‘walloped avocado’. It’s the same spin, just spun a different way. Sometimes you just have to read between the lines, and dig in.
*Robbe-Grillet, Alain, Why I Love Barthes, 2011