The Grammar of Cuisine.

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.


  1. Was cinnamon toast necessarily sweet, though? It may have had cinnamon without sugar, after all?

  2. Paul (other Paul) says

    In the UK, the order is main course, dessert, then cheese. We stick to the French order, main course, cheese then dessert, which seems to us more logical in taste terms.

  3. Yes, once I’ve had my dessert, all I want is coffee. (And I must have my coffee. Unlike most coffee-drinkers, I don’t have a cup first thing in the morning, but I have one after every meal.)

  4. Gale used to be like that, but has now changed to cup-in-the-morning for whatever mysterious physiological reasons. I don’t take xanthines at all.

  5. “In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, sweet and savoury could intermingle in the course of the meal as well as within individual dishes; ”

    And in Kansas City they still do, if you’re eating at a barbecue place.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Blancmanger: similar amounts of chicken breast, rice and sugar ground up and boiled together. Probably the point was to show how much sugar you could afford, and I don’t know if rice was actually cheaper.

  7. La Horde Listener says

    Nobody in my family could figure out what made Chinese food (not authentic or from China, just common fast food in the USA) so good. It was corn syrup all along!

  8. Persian/Iranian food often includes meat cooked with fruit. Not unlike our turkey and cranberry sauce.

  9. And there’s chicken stuffed with apples and dried plums, even in non-adventurous German cooking.

  10. La Horde Listener says

    I could read about the Norwegian meatball dinner with lingonberry sauce on the side again and again.

Speak Your Mind