June 4, 2017
My grandmother was in love with the English language. She abhorred pretension and embraced simplicity. She respected English too much to use many modifiers in speech or writing. Good language didn’t need them.
I adored my grandmother and adopted her attention to language. These days it is all I can do to contain myself when people start each sentence with “So…” or when they say, “No problem” when they mean, “You’re welcome.”
Over my lifetime I have come to realize that too much attention to language is a burden. I cringe when people say, “You can’t do that to he and I.” I get irritated when I see the word “flammable” painted on the side of a truck and when guardians of language like the New York Times and Washington Post split infinitives and write, “President Trump consumes classified intelligence like he does most everything else in life…”
That’s my problem and I should have chosen mathematics as a profession or some other field in which language is unimportant. Instead I chose food, rich in clichés. Is food uniquely dependent on them or am I just too aware of them?
These days every food ought to be artisanal, handcrafted, curated and locally sourced; and restaurants are chef-driven.
When for goodness sake did chefs become chauffeurs?
I understand that repetition is inevitable and don’t mind the use of words like “luscious” or “tasty” that are opinions or “house-made” or “seasonal” that are facts. But for goodness sake! “Honest food?” What on earth does that mean? There is a Web site called “honest food” and it features gluten-free and no-fat foods. What then is dishonest food?
Why is there so much repetitious gibberish? “Signature” as in “our signature cheeseburger.” “Habit-forming” as in our French fries.
It’s hard to write about food.
Phyllis Richman, restaurant critic of the Washington Post for 24 years, used to say that one of her greatest challenges was finding fresh ways to describe foods. But can we agree that “sumptuous” and “sensual” – if they were ever-fresh terms, are not any longer.
I understand it’s hard but not looking for more precise adjectives seems to me to be laziness and a discourtesy to readers.
Really, writing about food is no different these days from writing about other subjects. How many times each day are we obliged to read in newspapers about “hitting the reset button” and about “paths forward” or “changing the paradigm.”
I don’t wish to be one of those old fogies who think that everything was better in the old days. Perhaps I have become that because I do believe that more people paid more attention to the elegance of their writing than is the case right now.
It is not fair to blame what I think of as a decline in writing entirely on journalists because it is not only journalists who write about food. In volume, those who sell food write even more – on menus and Web sites – and they have a vested interest in pretention. A bartender fixes drinks and sells them for, say, nine dollars but a cocktail that is “hand-crafted by our expert mixologists” sells for $15.
“Hand-selected salad greens?” Not in our bakery. We try to keep our hands off those greens.
We do get mixed greens from local farms. They come in cardboard boxes and cost more than those that come from the produce delivery company. Often we doctor the greens with some herbs and bitter greens. But “hand-selected?” Who does that? Where do they do that? Are their hands clean?
Clichés are irritating but some are not only irritating but downright misleading.
Take “free-range eggs.” I confess that I dislike that term because I have trouble envisioning eggs ranging freely or otherwise; but I know that’s picky. I also don’t like the idea of “grass-fed hamburgers.”
More important than that, the term “free range” is meaningless. Sometimes it means eggs from birds that live outdoors and wander in yards. But sometimes it means nothing at all. That depends on local law and local honesty where the term is regulated at all.
And what about “artisan bread?” Wendy’s claims to have it, Starbucks too and so does Macdonalds, Quizno’s, Subway, Burger King, and Jack in the Box. Is it really possible that Ron Shaick, founder of Panera, said this? “We start with artisan bread handcrafted by professional bakers using fresh dough.”
What does that mean?
It means that “artisan bread” no longer has a meaning – if it ever did.
Certain terms – or should I say clichés – I just can’t bear. “Decadent” when used to describe a food seems like a term insulting to me. I am decadent when I eat it? “Addictive” is just hyperbolic and silly. “Curated” is overused for all sorts of collections but is particularly pretentious when used to describe food collections.
“Meltingly tender,” nearly always used to describe meats and “cooked to perfection,” a description associated most with hamburgers, “velvety,” applied generally to soups along with “silky,” and “tasty,” bland adjectives usually called upon in desperation.
I think we can do better? Writing about food is not easy but many have done it awfully well. There’s no reason for food writers to be content with words like “toothsome” and “mouth-feel.” They should read or reread Ludwig Bemelmans and A.J. Liebling.
I don’t mean to be unfair. Not everyone can be an M.F.K. Fisher or Laurie Colwin. But I really do believe that reading about food ought to be nearly as good a food experience as eating. It’s also a lot less caloric.