May 16, 2004

Modification as social anxiety

Here's a thought: the impulse to pile up fancy words and extra modifiers, and the admonition to write simply and avoid adjectives, are both expressions of the same social anxieties, seen from slightly different places on the social scale.

As an illustration, consider the language of menus.

At the bottom of the social scale, we have simple places like Wendy's, whose menu includes items like "Single Hamburger on a Bun" and "side salad". When I was a boy in rural Connecticut, we ate out a couple of times a year at the only restaurant in town, the Village Treat, whose menu consisted entirely of simple phrases like "spaghetti and meatballs", "hot dogs and beans", and (my favorite) "grilled cheese sandwich".

Things are very different at the White Dog Café, whose lunch menu lists a hamburger as "Big Juicy Burger of Buck Run Farm’s Grass Fed Beef on our House made Poppy Seed Bun", a grilled cheese sandwich as "Butter Toasted Sandwich of Grilled Amish Cheddar, Sweet Red Onions and Tomatoes on Organic Sourdough Bread", and a side salad as "Mixed Salad of Many Lettuces from the Farm with lemon-olive dressing". The menu items are so elaborately expressed that it takes even hyper-literate academics a long time to process the choices, and foreign visitors often require a translation or at least an exegesis. Underneath the elaborate descriptions, the food is excellent. For many years, the White Dog has been one of the best restaurants in Penn's West Philadelphia neighborhood.

About 20 blocks east, and another notch up the scale in price, status and quality, is Le Bec Fin, generally regarded as one of the best restaurants in North America. Henry Gleitman is fond of saying that the two restaurants in Philadelphia that give the best value for the money are McDonald's and Le Bec Fin.

Le Bec's menu is given in both French and English, but the items in both languages combined are often shorter than analogous descriptions on the White Dog's menu. For example, where the White Dog has "Organic Wild Mushroom Risotto with Truffle Oil and Winter Herb Pesto" (11 words, 69 characters), Le Bec Fin has "Risotto aux champignons sauvages/Wild mushroom risotto" (7 words, 56 characters in both languages). Where the White Dog has "Pan-Seared Wild Caught White Albacore Tuna Loin in Coconut Lemongrass Herb Broth", Le Bec Fin has "Tartare de thon parfume au citron/Tuna tartar scented with citrus". The White Dog has "Anise-Black Pepper Seared Neptune Farms Organic Filet of Beef Carpaccio with Peppery Baby Greens", while Le Bec Fin has "Carre d’agneau servi avec une fricassée d’haricots jus de thym/Rack of lamb, bean fricassee with thyme flavored jus".

George Perrier's minions at Le Bec Fin know exactly where each ingredient in each of their dishes comes from, but they don't feel the need to tell us the names of farms and fishing techniques, or even the complete list of ingredients. Instead, they name only the core substances, preparation methods and flavors. This is not out of any concern for secrecy -- there are Le Bec Fin cookbooks -- but because we are meant to take it for granted that we can trust them to use an appropriate number and variety of appropriately selected ingredients. To go into details on the menu, either about what the ingredients are or where they came from, would be infra dig. And to state that something is crunchy or crispy or fresh -- unless this is unexpected -- would be unthinkable, because it would suggest that there might be some doubt about something about which there should be no doubt at all.

A similar dynamic applies in non-menu writing. There's plain work-a-day prose, like the menu at the Village Treat, which just means to tell us something simple in a simple way. Then there's ambitious prose, like the menu at the White Dog, which has much finer and more elaborate ideas to convey, and feels the need to make sure that we understand this, by using finer and more elaborate language. And at the level of Le Bec Fin's menu, there's prose that is secure in its status, or at least means us to understand that it is, and can therefore dispense -- perhaps ostentatiously -- with ostentation.

The "writing experts" who give apparently nonsensical and hypocritical advice about avoiding adjectives and adverbs can be understood as trying to show White Dogs how to aspire to become Bec Fins. Better advice is to step outside the whole frame, if you can manage it.

[Update: Another discussion of the form and function of American menu language can be found in Ann D. Zwicky and Arnold M. Zwicky, "America's National Dish: The Style of Restaurant Menus." American Speech, vol. 55, No. 2 (Summer, 1980) 82-93.]

[Update #2: Steven A. Shaw, aka "Fat Guy" (Director, comments that:

Many of the best chefs in the world believe that producers, regions, and special products should be celebrated on menus. The expression of this belief can range from Georges Blanc's menu specifying "L'Aile ou la Cuisse de Poulet de Bresse Naturellement Rôtie" rather than just "Poulet" to a draft of a Cafe Gray menu I saw where the dishes are described simply but the bottom of the menu contains a list of producers, to Daniel Boulud's menus naming Tim Starck as his tomato supplier, to Alain Ducasse producing an entire book, Harvesting Excellence, containing photographs, bios, and other details about the American producers with whom he has relationships. There's not an insecure chef in that bunch -- they set the standards; they are the standards -- and I see no basis for complaining about being provided with this information. Certainly to call it "infra dig" is to reveal a lack of familiarity with menu writing at the top levels of cuisine today. There are menus that overdo it, and it's especially ridiculous when menus add meaningless modifiers that attempt to make ingredients sound better than they are ("ahi tuna" "USDA beef"), but real information, in moderation, can be a good thing.

Fair enough.

But my point isn't that writers who are socially and intellectually secure always write in a simple style, or that restaurants only provide lengthy descriptions of dishes or extensive information about food sources if their managers are insecure. I'm just pointing out that elaborate language is often displayed as a symbol in itself, on menus as well as in novels and essays. There are a number of reasons for such displays, and one is as an index of status. And among the motivations for indexing status, one is a concern that it might otherwise be evaluated as too low.

I also recognize that in commerce, status symbols are more likely to be a mirror of the buyers' identity issues than an expression of those of the seller. In this respect, most menus are probably somewhat different than most novels.

Other discussion on eGullet is also perceptive and amusing, including a quote from one of my favorite Monty Python sketches, involving the deathless phrase "the finest baby frogs, dew picked and flown from Iraq, cleansed in finest quality spring water, lightly killed, and then sealed in a succulent Swiss quintuple smooth treble cream milk chocolate envelope and lovingly frosted with glucose."

Now that I think of it, I could have omitted my entire post in favor of simply reprinting the transcript of that sketch, in line with the first First Rule of Fiction, "Show it, don't tell it." If this were fiction, that is...]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 16, 2004 10:12 PM