Aspen Times Weekly: Word Play
MY MOTHER LOOKED at me as if she’d just cursed, loudly, in the restaurant. She hadn’t, but I was shocked by what she said, too. What did she think of the steaming Korean bibimbap with Asian vegetables, crispy rice, and poached egg?, I’d asked.
“Tasty!” she blurted out. Her eyes flashed wide in horror.
This word — on par with “delicious” or “wonderful” in how much it describes a dish — has become something of an inside joke between us. My dear father, a businessman running a small manufacturing company, uses this term virtually anytime we ask how his food is (assuming he likes it). Clam chowder at the country club’s annual lobster bake? Tasty! Hamburger at the cool downtown bistro before a movie? Tasty! Graham crackers with a tall glass of milk before bed? Tasty!
My dad equates eating to fueling up. He’s not into anything fancy, and avoids standard meal rituals — sharing appetizers, lingering over coffee and dessert — at all costs.
Attempting to encourage my father to go out to eat must be approached strategically: An early reservation at a restaurant close to home and an understanding that the meal won’t drag on longer than two hours. Dining out, to him, chews up a lot of time better spent on other activities — practicing his golf game, mowing my mom’s garden, getting in a bike ride before sunset. Verbally dissecting a meal is out of the question. Food isn’t for analyzing, according to my father. It’s for eating, to acquire energy, plain and simple.
My mother is the opposite. A lifelong home cook who makes everything from scratch, even grinding meat for hamburgers and drying herbs from her backyard gardens, she’ll detail the nuances of a dish with the same vigor with which she cultivates asparagus and crimps homemade pie crust.
Like me, she’s keen to try new dishes when they hit a restaurant menu and always on the hunt for her next great kitchen project. To talk about food in concrete terms — briny cheese flecked with crunchy tyrosine crystals; smoky roasted eggplant brightened with lemon juice and with earthy undertones of tahini paste — is to show enjoyment and appreciation.
Which is why she was appalled by that “tasty” moment at the restaurant table. Much to her dismay, she had absorbed my father’s habit. I guess that’s what happens when you’ve been married for 30-plus years.
My parents’ drastically different approaches to describing food got me thinking about how each of us is equipped with a different set of language tools — not to mention the ways that we all perceive food differently, anyway. Eating is a wholly subjective activity: Some palates may be more sensitive to certain tastes (seven, according to scientists: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, astringent, umami) than others, and individuals use varied vocabularies to describe them.
If words like “tasty” and “delicious” are simply positive affirmations without describing flavor character, what about interpretations of other, more vivid, adjectives? Is there some sort of flavor-descriptor hierarchy? Might “briny” imply a pleasant salinity whereas “salty” conjures a careless hand with the shaker? Maybe. This is the challenge of talking (and writing) about food: According to most dictionaries, those two words are straightforward synonyms.
Despite this gray area, long, detailed descriptions on restaurant menus entice diners to order up to 30 percent more food than they would otherwise, according to research conducted through Cornell University. Labels such as “locally sourced” or “farm-raised” help to increase the perception of quality, too. Not only do vivid descriptions encourage people to order certain dishes, but diners also rate the food as tasting better.
Language is so effective that many U.S. states have “Truth in Menu” laws — enacted beginning in the 1920s — aimed at preventing restaurants from making fraudulent claims on food origins, ingredients, and cooking methods. Still, menu wording is often vague — does “fresh-squeezed” mean the juice was extracted in-house or by the distributor who delivered it? — and food fraud remains hard to detect and combat as such laws are difficult to enforce.
Yet the power of vocabulary cannot be underestimated. Knowing how to describe taste and flavor is crucial in writing materials for culinary clients, explains Sheryl Barto, principal of O Communications in Carbondale.
“I listen very, very carefully to the chef so I can bring his passion and descriptions for his creations to life,” she says. “Describing food is not as easy as it might seem. I want (press) releases to read as if (the chef) were talking. We try to involve all the senses as we describe food and create a mental image that folks can’t resist — smell the aroma as you bring the food to mouth, sense the texture as you bite. The right adjectives are almost as powerful as eating the food itself.”
A recent missive, introducing chef Eddy Chima’s 11 new menu items at Venga Venga in Snowmass Village, describes a novel sweet-and-sour starter: “This guacamole presentation and flavor profile screams summer,” it reads, before listing ingredients: “fresh cut mango, caramelized pineapple, dried apricot, blood orange, and the authentic Mexican flavors of tamarind and piloncillo, topped with fried plantain chips.”
Many factors affect our sense of taste and how we describe food later, too. Research suggests that loud noises may alter the way we perceive flavor, as do ambient lighting, music, and atmosphere of a restaurant; colors and the arrangement of food on a plate; even a diner’s DNA. Sense of taste weakens with age, thanks to disappearing taste buds and a decreased ability to smell, the latter of which strongly affects taste perception. In fact, elderly folks might require two to nine times as much of a condiment such as salt to experience the same taste.
Though rapping about a great meal might make us reflect on it more positively, there’s something to be said about finding pleasure in simplicity. At 64, a nonsmoker and crazy active, my dad has taste buds that are probably mostly intact. He enjoys food just fine — though it’s not a passion or a priority or even worth chatting about. As long as a dish is tasty, that’s enough for him.
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