Restaurant menu

Decoding the restaurant menu, in Louisville and beyond

“Can you figure out how much your dinner will cost by counting the words on the menu?” Food, and how we describe it, can tell us a lot about what it’s going to cost us when we go out to eat tonight.

The Louisville Free Public Library’s e-book blurb on Stanford University professor and MacArthur Scholar Dan Jurafsky’s 2014 book, “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu,” quickly caught my attention. I knew a book that dives into culinary linguistics and statistics would also be a great read for a word nerd and food geek like me.

Semi-finalist for James Beard in 2014, this book delves into both culinary linguistics and statistics. I grabbed the e-book from the library and dove into it.

“Every time you read a description of a dish on a menu,” Jurafsky writes, “you look at all sorts of latent linguistic clues, clues about how we think about wealth and social class, how our society perceives our food, even hints at all sorts of things restaurant marketers might not want us to know.

Jurafsky didn’t just ruminate on how restaurant menus use the words. He gathered the data to prove it. Boy oh boy, did he ever collect the data.

He and three scientists from Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh scoured the web to find 650,000 dishes on 6,500 restaurant menus in New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington DC, San Francisco and Los Angeles.

This vast set of data allowed them to control the city, neighborhood, type of cuisine, and even the neighborhood of the restaurant, across a range of menu prices from cheap to high-end.

The data revealed that the wording of the menu varies quite regularly depending on the price of the entry. Less expensive restaurants usually have a lot more dishes, and they explain them in a very different language than expensive restaurants use to describe a more limited bill, where the food came from and how it was prepared.

All that research, and guess what they found!? The most expensive restaurants mention the origin of the food more than 15 times more often than the inexpensive restaurants!

Nope!

Yes! “The obsession with provenance is a strong indicator that you are in a fancy and expensive restaurant”? Somehow, that didn’t surprise me.

Likewise, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that expensive restaurants tend to use longer words. “When a restaurant uses longer words to describe a dish, they charge more for the dish.” Add a letter to the average word length of the menu, add 18 cents to the price of this dish! Make your words three letters longer on average, “and your customers will pay 54 cents more for your rotisserie chicken or pasta.”

Additionally, expensive restaurants typically have shorter menus with relatively few choices, allowing the kitchen to focus on fine preparation. Inexpensive meals often bring a wider range of items that come off the grill or deep fryer quickly.

“We found that expensive restaurants offer half as many dishes as cheap ($) restaurants,” Jurafsky wrote. Cheap restaurants, on the other hand, abandon fancy words in favor of positive but vague terms intended to whet our appetites: repetitive synonyms like delicious, savory, appetizing, savory, succulent and savory; glowing words like terrific, marvelous, delicious, and sublime; and attractive adjectives that describe the food in an appetizing way: hot, rich, golden, crispy or crunchy.

All of this begs the obvious question: Do Louisville restaurants follow these big-city practices? I haven’t delved into deep data or written any software, but a look at a handful of local menus suggests that they somehow do.

Among favorite low-cost local eateries and world cuisine eateries, D. Nalley’s in Old Louisville lists about 40 menu options. Its menu wins us over with terms like “tenderly fried” and “grilled to perfection.” Everything is also true. Aladdin’s Mediterranean Cuisine, a New Albany favorite, lists some 50 menu choices. The lamb chops are “perfectly seasoned” and the tzatziki sauce on the gyros is “original”. Most dishes at both restaurants are $10 or less.

A few dollars more up the ladder, Goose Creek Diner’s colorful menu features around 50 dishes at prices up to $15, often described in expansive language as “tender salmon lightly seasoned then grilled to perfection.” and “The best fried green tomatoes in Louisville!” It’s also true.

On the more upscale side, 211 Clover Lane in St. Matthews offers just 11 main courses, with prices up to $55 for a grilled filet mignon from Creekstone Farms. The menu at La Chasse dans les Highlands features six entrees, topped with a $50 New York steak — peppered and wood-grilled, the menu assures us — from Blackhawk Farms in Princeton, Kentucky. In New Albany, Brooklyn & the Butcher includes beef from Creekstone and Black Hawk farms among its seven specialty steaks, topping out at $74 for a full pound of rib eye.

I guess you get the idea. It’s a good book, and reading it will teach you something while making you hungry. And that’s before you get to the other chapters on food words and how they illustrate the global stories of our favorite foods and their names and how they came to be.

Who knew our sweet, bright red tomato ketchup evolved from an ancient Chinese fermented fish sauce that also gave rise to rum along the way? Or that a Persian sweet-and-sour beef stew called sikbj that dates back over 2,000 years somehow ended up in modern day fish and chips, not to mention seviche, tempura, and even jiggly aspic?

For all this and more. Highly recommend “The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu.” The Carmichael Bookstore can order it for you, and it’s available in the Louisville Free Public Library’s e-book collection and, of course, on Amazon.

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