The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

This is a book review of The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu by Dan Jurafsky.

The Language of Food by Dan JurafskyStars: *****

W.W. Norton & Company (2014)
Cooking/Food Writing
2015 James Beard Award Finalist

I received a copy of this book for review purposes. This post contains affiliate links.

Summary: Why do we eat toast for breakfast, and toast to good health at dinner? What does the turkey we eat on Thanksgiving have to do with the country on the eastern Mediterranean? Combining history with linguistic analysis, Stanford University linguist Dan Jurafsky uncovers a global atlas of culinary influences: how a fish sauce from China became America’s favorite condiment, how Martha Washington helped import the French macaron, that became the coconut macaroon, and why the Chinese don’t have a word for “dessert”.” He points out the subtle meanings hidden in words like “rich” and “crispy”, zeroes in on the metaphors we rely on in restaurant reviews, and determines how much your dinner will cost by counting the words on the menu. The Language of Food will leave readers with their taste buds tempted and their intellects fully nourished.

If you love food and language this is a great book but I do have to warn you, there is a lot of heavy, complex language. It really depends on where in the book too as some parts were a smooth read and others I had to read and re-read to make sure I understood.

My linguistic side really enjoyed reading about the meaning behind words and my foodie side really enjoyed reading about how our favourite foods evolved over time.

The Language of Food contains quite a few recipes although none I could really make. Most contain old ingredients that as far as I know are not easy to find anymore or are just too odd for my tastes. They are interesting to see though to see what recipes were like then.

Maluma and Takete

One thing that I really found interesting was the chapter that talks about maluma and takete. If you have heard of this before you’ll know it has to do with words and not food, usually.

It’s this experiment where two pictures are shown along with two words, maluma and takete. People are asked which picture is maluma and which is takete. One of the images is like a many pointed star with poky edges and one is like a blob with rounded parts. Most people agree that takete is the poky one and maluma is the rounded one.

“Linguists and psychologists have repeated this experiment using all sorts of made-up words with sounds like bouba and kiki, and no matter what language they study from Swedish to Swahili to a remote domadic poulation of northern Namibia, and even in toddlers two and half years old, the results are astonishingly consistent. There seems to be something about jagged shapes that make people call them kiki and rounder curvy shapes that is somehow naturally bouba.”

I’ve read about this is many places but this is the first book that mentions in in relation to food too.

“People eating milk chocolate […] said the taste fit the word maluma […]. People eating dark chocolate […] instead chose the word takete […] In another paper they found similar results for carbonation; carbonated water was perceived as more “kiki” (and spiky) and still water was perceived as more “bouba” (and curvy). In other words, words with m and l sounds like maluma were associated with creamier or gentler tastes and words with t and k sounds like takete were associated with bitter or carbonated tastes.”

Overall, although I still gave The Language of Food 5 stars there were a few places that could have been lighter on the linguistic history and still been just as good.

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About Kathleen

I've been a nonfiction lover for as long as I can remember. I love children's nonfiction as well and love to share my knowledge and the books I gained them from, with the world. I wish more people would give nonfiction a chance.