The Language of Food
A Linguist Reads the Menu
Reviewed by Alex Golub on
The Language of Food has always been one of my favourite blogs, and when I heard that it was being turned into a blook, I leapt at the chance to review it. Despite the beefs anthropologists might have with the book, I find myself recommending it to non-academic friends both because it makes a fine read, and because it teaches some core anthropological lessons. It deserves a wide readership for the lessons it teaches and the delightful stories it tells along the way.
Jurafsky is a computational linguistic at Stanford — someone who crunches large corpora of data and figures out how computers should process human speech. Language of Food grows out of an undergraduate course he teaches, so it has the feel of a specialist reaching out to a more general audience by exploring some of his personal interests, even if they are off the main trajectory of his research.W, and as a native Californian Jurafsky channels the whole city, not just the web 2.0 version of it.
At root, Language of Food takes two separate approaches to food. The first uses freakonomics-style ultra-fancy regression analysis to 'surprise us' with ‘fascinating facts’ about how people think about food. I was not particularly impressed by this approach.
Did someone really fund Jurafsky to crunch five bintillion Yelp reviews in order to figure out that the most common adjective used in positive restaurant reviews was 'good'? This sort of thing strikes me as a massively over-engineered attempt to prove what everyone already knows.
To be fair, there is no way that Jurafsky could have written these sections of the book to please me — they are just not the sort of work that anthropologists value. Anthropology is about working on human life from the inside out, while Jurafsky's approach is focused on moving from the outside in.
But I am glad that both approaches are out there and working simultaneously to converge on similar findings. Now we know through lived experience and computational linguistics that people use the word ‘good’ to describe restaurants they review positively.
The second approach in the book is far more interesting: His discussion of the diffusion and transformation of cuisine across time and space. In marvellous, deeply researched, and well-illustrated chapters he describes the cultural history of fish and chips, ice cream, and macaroons as they move from east to west and back again. These chapters are, to me, the core of the book.
There's a reason that these chapters are such a genuine treat for anthropologists like me: We used to write this way ourselves. Jurafsky's work is a timely and well-executed retread of classics like Ralph Linton's 100% American (1936) or Robert Lowie's Culture and Ethnology (1917). In fact, these sorts of bravado lectures on the unexpected histories of our culture traits were a staple of American anthropology in its culture-historical mode.
It’s a pity, in a way, that we have ceded the field to linguists like Jurafsky. Too often our ethnography — and yes, our ethnographers — lack the deep areal expertise that allows us to write books like The Language of Food. Half ethnography and half philosophy, too much anthropology these days ends up being neither.
Anthropologists have a lot to learn from Dan Jurafsky, the least of which is that if we write accessibly about the complexities of ethnographic life, we might get book contracts out of a mainstream publisher like Norton. We should all be giving lectures on why turkey and Turkey are the same word.
That said, there is something a little problematic about this sort of old-school culture history, and it's got to do with the way that Jurafsky yokes his history of diffusion to a multiculturalist argument about tolerance. Throughout the book Jurafsky argues that the travels of food across the planet demonstrates that learning about new ways of eating can help build a liberal, secular, happily multicultural community — a kind of global eating community that overcomes the narrowing parochialisms of religion and ethnicity. In like, you know, exactly the way that people are multicultural in San Francisco.
This is the sort of argument the NPR crowd loves, but it seems a bit forced — one gets the idea that the publisher really encouraged Jurafsky to include it — and it falls flat. Jurafsky is absolutely right that eating is incredibly important to human meaning-making. But, like all things cultural, humans can make eating mean all different things — because the meaning of food and eating is shaped by history and context.
Taking communion can be a powerful way to build a Christian communion. Eating bits of the body of your foe can be the ultimate form of aggression and domination. Learning to cook Chinese food can connect one to the Chinese community, or it can be an act of cultural co-option that leaves them enraged. There mere fact of diffusion cannot ground liberal tolerance because food’s meanings are context dependent.
Anthropologists moved away from Boasian decontextualized culture history, in fact, because it was inadequate to explain patterns of diffusion. In order to understand how and why tea, sugar, and ketchup spread over the planet we needed to understand the concrete historical context in which they moved. The Catholic reconquest of Iberia? Opium shipments to China? Spanish colonialism in the New World? These central parts of the story of food are missing in Jurafsky's account.
The point is that an adequate history of food reveals that the forces propelling it around the world were often the opposite of the happy multiculturalism Jurafsky advocates for. Perhaps if Language of Food had jettisoned its normative claims we could have just enjoyed Jurafsky's romp through history and etymology. But the added ethical baggage requires more attention to the political economy of food than Jurafsky brings to the table.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Jurafsky’s book. It reads well, it's well researched, it tells fascinating stories, and it helps drive home central lessons of anthropology: Cross-cultural trade has a long and deep history, our own culture owes much to other cultures, and the global community has been related a long time. It's eminently teachable, and I find myself recommending it again and again to my friends who are interested in food.
At the end of the day, even if you don't want to hit the "buy" button for the book, there is still the blog to fall back on as a source of lecture material and inspiration. Anthropologists may have hoped for more, but we're a tough crowd to please.
But please us he does, and I'd recommend Language of Food in either its book or blog form as proof of what a traditional anthropological approach, enlivened for the present, can bring to a public audience.
Why this sudden fad for the expensive macaron, and how is it related to the humble coconut macaroons of my childhood? And why do both of these words sound so much like macaroni?