FOOD MATTERS: Language of food rife with snobbery examples

I’ve often thought that snobbery is a kind of unconscious bullying because snobs are trying to appear superior.

I’ve often thought that snobbery is a kind of unconscious bullying because snobs are trying to appear superior.

Nowhere is snobbery more rife than in the language of food.

The snobbery is so pervasive that it can be used to con people into paying appreciably more for restaurant food just because of the bafflegab on a menu.

But food is life, and the taste buds in our mouth are our only immediate physical aids to eating, while the explosion of globalized food language leads to an on-going battle of words and names that gets in the way of enjoying good food.

Menu terminology is a minefield of malapropisms. (Mrs. Malaprop announced in a centuries-old play that her child was “a veritable progeny of learning” and gave that name to a form of speech error rooted in the basis for snobbery: the desire to appear more educated than we can safely demonstrate).

Menu spinners want to charge as much as they can for their wares, so they inflate the items with pretentious blathering.

It’s not hard for those of us with extra knowledge to find menu bloopers.

But language is more than just an opportunity to show off.  It is part of who we are. It is the carrier of culture. And global culture is trumping ethnic linguistics.

The other day, in a family restaurant, one of our party asked, “What is red pepper pesto?” We decided that since pesto is just a word for paste, then the sauce would be made with red pepper.

The food was ordered and the recipient was disappointed because the sauce was full of basil and there was no detectable flavour from the red pepper. Pesto, in North American cuisine, now means basil pesto, and that’s that.

But that’s an Italian word.

The ascendancy of the French is assured by the massive tome, Larousse Gastronomique, which is only just coming to terms with the shift from the seasonal, diverse cooking championed by Escoffier, co-author of the original, to the science and technology based methods of many leading chefs today.

Bolstering the French ascendancy is the French paradox: why do the French have less cardio-vascular disease despite a diet heavy in butter, cream and eggs? (Hint: Escoffier, diverse, seasonal).

Because of Larousse Gastronomique, it is wrong for restaurateurs to misspell classic foods.

Bissamel will not do for béchamel (bay-sham-el) which is the traditional name for plain white sauce. With au jus is a never-ending battle between those who say, “That’s what it is in our language” and those who say, “But it’s French for with pan gravy juices”.

We’re all Mrs. Malaprop at times.

I thought I knew how to say bruschetta, although I do not speak Italian. I just learned that I was leaving out the k sound in the middle.

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Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society.  She can be reached at marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.

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