Back in September I posted about Dan Jurafsky’s book The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu; I’ve just gotten around to reading the TLS review (subscribers only) from last December, and I’m happy to report that the TLS assigned the review to an actual linguist, Kerstin Hoge (University Lecturer in German Linguistics at Oxford), so it’s well informed and has interesting things to say:
Jurafsky, a computational linguist, defines the grammar of cuisine as the rules that determine how parts (ingredients, dishes and flavour combinations) are structured into wholes (dishes, meals and cuisines). As with grammars of language, rules can vary from one community to another and can change over time, but there are also rules that hold for all cultures, possibly reflecting fundamentals of human nature. For example, by definition, a cuisine involves cooking, a uniquely human trait, which transforms raw materials into a new product, and, as argued by Claude Lévi-Strauss, provides the foundation of civilization. In most cuisines that have dessert, it is the last course of the meal, as evidenced by the word’s etymology (dessert is derived from the French desservir, to remove what has been served). Not all cultures, though, see the need for a sweet afterthought: in Chinese cooking, dessert does not constitute a “grammatical dish”. And the absence of dessert is not to be equated with an absence of sweet foods; as Jurafsky reminds us, “a donut on the way to the gym is not dessert; it’s just a lack of willpower”. Indeed, Chinese cuisine is no stranger to sweet foods (whether sweet and sour dishes or tong sui soups), but traditionally these are not eaten as desserts.
In Western cultures, too, the eating of sweet foods was not always as firmly associated with the end of the meal as it is now. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sweet and savoury could intermingle in the course of the meal as well as within individual dishes; this is attested by recipes such as the Tudor “chekyns upon soppes”, glossed by Jurafsky as “basically chicken on cinnamon toast”. The gradual gravitation of predominantly sweet dishes to a place at the end of the meal appears to have gone hand-in-hand with a drop in the use of sugar in meat and fish dishes. A change in one part of the systemic whole thus had implications for other parts – which is reminiscent of language change, and nicely fits Jurafsky’s neo-structuralist approach to culinary traits, their cross-cultural similarities and differences.
And I like her conclusion:
Irrespective of whether we view our linguistic relationship with food as an entirely social construct or a facet of human cognition, one lesson that emerges repeatedly from its study is the insight that, as Dan Jurafsky puts it, “no culture is an island, that beauty is created at the confusing and painful boundaries between cultures and peoples and religions”. It is a lesson well worth remembering when tucking into supposedly national dishes.