May 11, 2004

Ritual verbal enthusiasm for food

The winespeak style has recently colonized many other categories of food and drink, for example bourbon ("the palate bears some leather, tobacco, vanilla and hints of caramel" ... "a deep vanilla nose with hints of dark berries and mint"), scotch ("with a powerful smoke, seaweed, iodine, and faint nutty notes to the nose"), beer ("Bready, strawberry sweet start with a silky smooth citrus hop finish" ... "Hints of pine and mustiness to the nose"), coffee ("Fresh aromas of moist herbs and alpine flowers lead to complex, dark notes in the mouth with a silky, subtle finish"), tea ("wonderfully creamy texture ... with notes of ripe fruit and green bamboo"), olive oil (" intensely grassy with an underripe pungency"), cheese ("balanced saltiness and notes of chalk, grapefruit and hay") and chocolate ("Distinct cedar and brandy tones becoming lightly tart with mild nutmeg spiciness at peak").

There's something circular about this semantic field: red wine has "notes of leather and tea", tea has "notes of honey and chocolate", chocolate has "complex tangy red wine and spice flavors ... [l]ight earthiness and tea tones in the ... aftertaste". It would be a violation of foodtalk norms for wine to taste like wine, though in fairness, chocolate seems often to be described as having "chocolate flavor". Though of course it is always modified by a string of adjectives like "direct" or "moderately intense" or "deep".

A minor genre of jokes is created by applying winetalk-style in unexpected areas like horseradish ("With a beguilingly titanium core, the aroma is pugilistic") or markers ("Robust, sweet, distinctly petrochemical with an undertone of benzene" ... "A light, fruity bouquet wrapped in aromas of vinyl and modeling glue"). It would be nice to see a description of politicians and other public figures in this style.

Some of the expressions used in genuine winetalk seem to be self-parody, but are serious. I mentioned in an earlier post that "rubber" and "gasoline" are not only good but even obligatory aspects of rieslings. "Chalk" is apparently also a Good Thing in rieslings, champagnes and chardonnays:

A very floral nose with notes of chalk dust.
You'll detect notes of chalk indicating a great terroir.
Golden apples, honey, plums, hazelnuts and lovely mineral notes of chalk.
...layers of biscuit-y, lemony flavors up front, developing deep complex yellow fruit flavors with notes of chalk
Reticent nose hints at chalk and lime.
Intensely flavored, juicy and very ripe, with Champagne-like notes of chalk, lemon, lime, minerals and toast.

Jokes aside, what these descriptions have in common is that they deal with luxury food products. The evocative language helps sell at a premium price to the public at large; sponsored tasting rituals are good marketing events; and the whole linguistic complex elevates consumption of expensive specialties into a symbol of cognitive capital as well as disposable income. I'm not entirely sure why other food products like beef and sweet corn have been exempt so far, but I suspect that the reasons are mainly economic and social rather than gustatory. There's no economic or social point in ritual enthusiasm about foods that can't be finely differentiated, branded and distributed in a plausibly reproducible way.

Most of this stuff also tastes good, of course, but when the descriptions don't come from sites that are selling the products that they describe, the talk is more balanced and also generally more entertaining: "Mild, sweaty and slightly poopy nose. Then some hints of cherry trickle in. Rather Burgundian so far. But then, when I taste it, what's this? Something here tastes like chocolate Necco wafers." I'm sure that there is a healthy demand for this sort of foodtalk, but the supply side seems to be much stronger, so that most examples are essentially advertisements, like this page of yak cheese tasting notes:

The aroma, at first encounter, has a mild animal scent, a clean spicy note which is reminiscent of both sheep and goat. The cut interior of the cheese has a much milder aroma, and this animal aroma is nearly absent from the flavor of the cheese.

At first taste, the cheese is disarmingly mild, with a clean, delicate milky flavor, which is totally different from sheep, cow, goat or mares' milk cheeses. After about 30 seconds on the palate, the taster becomes aware of a growing complex of herbal notes, with the flavor continuing to develop and building to a crescendo in about 120 seconds. The afternotes are a clean, pleasant, fading collection of milky, herbal and sharp-sweet.

There's something heart-warming about the idea of all that internet technology being used to allow us all to read someone's detailed description of the sensation of holding a piece of yak cheese in his mouth for three minutes or so.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 11, 2004 11:25 AM