With this month's column the Language Lounge is three years old, and we wish to take advantage of being a three-year-old by throwing a small tantrum. Like most tantrums, this one will be fleeting and its subject is not of the earth-shaking variety: we direct our obloquy at menu writing. Not, mind you, food writing: that's an entirely separate and venerable genre. We are concerned with the writing of restaurant menus, and the view, cherished by some but held in the Lounge to be erroneous, that a restaurant menu is a suitable medium for flights of lexical fancy.
It's always a good idea to start on a positive note, so we start with the sort of menu writing we like: take, for example, this description of a dish, which we've borrowed from the menu of New York City's Café Mozart:
Black Linguine Shrimp Pasta Black Linguine, yellow tomato marinara, snow peas, scallions and roasted garlic
or this one, from Coq d'Argent in London:
Red mullet on spinach, haddock and potato cake with creamed artichoke sauce
These descriptions are straightforward: pretty much wysiwyg word versions of the food to come that do not tax one's vocabulary or syntax-parsing abilities -- because after all, we go to restaurants to eat. This is the sort of menu writing that we would like to see more of, but that today is under threat from menu writing that has been placed in the hands of overzealous restaurateurs -- who may go so far as to employ soi-disant or wannabe writing professionals.
As we see it, the transgressions of modern menu writing fall into four categories:
- needless elegant variation
- injudicious use of foreign words
- gratuitous value judgments
It is remarkable how often all four fouls can be scored on the same menu, and how one can predict when this will occur with eerie accuracy. It usually begins when your server strong-arms you into a first-name acquaintanceship from the get-go: "Hi, I'm Heather and I'll be taking care of you this evening." Next, as you begin to scan the menu, you spot the telltale phrase "honey-mustard" and a preponderance of past participles that you don't normally associate with food, like studded, drenched, and panéed (whatever that means). Before you know it, you have encountered a full-blown monstrosity that merits a 9-1-1 to both the food police and the language police, along the lines of
"Yummy shredded ropes of jerked baby pork mesquite-roasted to perfection, nestled inside a heavenly pillow of griddled polenta, studded with pepperdews and julienned fennel, served on a bed of mâche and mesclun greens and then drenched in our secret famous rum-ranchero sauce. Scrumptious!"
Now, this a pillow that we would not deign to dine on but that we suggest would be put to a better use smothering the literary aspirations of the menu writer.
- Baby is a frequent modifier in menus and exemplifies the inaccuracy trope well, since most menu inaccuracies are intended to make something sound more interesting or exotic than it is. Most things passed off as baby carrots are, after all, only carrots of all ages machined down to uniform pinkie size. Other sorts of inaccuracies often involve descriptions of preparation methods and take advantage of the fact that these are normally hidden from the diner. Must the mahi-mahi be advertised as having been wok-seared when on arrival it's clear that nothing has happened to it that couldn't happen in a frying pan? Must the salad be bedizened with hardwood-smoked bacon lardons when what arrives is indistinguishable from minced bits of Oscar-Meyer?
- The Oxford Dictionary of English defines elegant variation thus: "the stylistic fault of studiedly finding different ways to denote the same thing in a piece of writing, merely to avoid repetition." This is perhaps the menu writer's greatest pitfall. Granted, pillow is a word likely to conjure more pleasant associations than, say, slab; but since the description above does not strictly require a partitive noun, why not just dispense with one? Along similar lines, we find that nearly all duets that appear on food menus seem to be unhappy refugees from musical scores. Why not just say "two of...?"
- Isn't polenta just another name for cornmeal mush? Mâche also has a serviceable English equivalent in salad. If the restaurant is actually an ethnic one, liberty must be allowed for the use of foreign food terms, but it should be kept in mind that many diners are not dazzled by such words, but simply confused by them. We recently found a dessert described as
Le gateau de chocolate mise en cage de sauce framboise
After our pocket translator rendered this as "The cake of chocolate put out of sauce raspberry cage" we weren't sure whether we should take a chance on ordering it or run for cover. Wouldn't chocolate cake with raspberry sauce do the job just as well? Similarly, it's fine for British menus to waffle on about mangetout, aubergines, or courgettes because those are the names that Brits actually use for snow peas, eggplants, and zucchini, but when American menus slip in such terms, the airs are rather too apparent.
- Menus that proclaim a value judgment on the food or its method of preparation presume a function that should be left to the diner. How can it be known in advance that the pork has been mesquite-roasted to perfection? The food critic is expected to make free with adjectives such as exquisite, delicious, succulent, and wonderful, but they should be avoided in menu writing; their applicability is for the diner to decide.
Everyone is free to have a go at creating atmosphere with words, but we suggest that this activity is more the province of the novelist, the poet and the balladeer than the restaurateur. It is better, surely, to allocate restaurant budget resources to the things that diners appreciate: the food and the service.
We would suggest this test for the writers of menus: imagine yourself to have just returned to the comforts of your hearth after a day in the trenches of post-modernity: you say to your resident spouse or beloved first-degree relative who has been tending the pots and pans, "What's for dinner?"
If you've been good, what's likely to come back is a brief, to-the-point description that tells you what you need to know. Use that kind of language as the model for describing restaurant fare and leave the peppercorn-crusted empanadas en croûte to the few who can appreciate them.
We surveyed a number of mouth-watering menus at these two websites:
www.menupages.com for U.S. restaurants, and
www.toptable.co.uk for U.K. restaurants.