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Hungry Magazine - All Things Tasty
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01.18.08

Phrases, Words, and Things Food Writers and Foodies Should Stop Using

Bites: News and Miscellany


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Today, Leah Zeldes has a sort of an amusing article in the Daily Herald about BBQ in a hotel. Though the content is fine, I’m more interested in how she and the editor use the headline, as well of the first two paragraphs, to dub the place “sci-fi” because of it’s sleek modernist decor. I’ve never been to this place, but looking at the pictures accompanying the article, I wonder just when it is that Studio 54 inspired decor became “sci-fi”. The place looks more like a suite in Vegas than an outtake from Bladerunner. It just feels like the writer and the editor used the words “sci-fi” to prey on what they perceive as fears of backwoods suburbanites (i.e. science food and non-mcmansion drywall based decor) in order to sell papers. Furthermore, later in the article, Zeldes writes:

“In creating the menu, it’s clear that he triumphed over the room’s designer or, along with restaurants like Moto, Avenues and Alinea, O’H would be serving edible paper sushi, lamb sprinkled with crushed Altoids and foie gras crusted with Pop Rocks from smoking glass test tubes.”

Interestingly, Alinea serves none of those things, the first dish is from Moto, the second two are from Avenues, but again, it’s a lazy trite attempt to group all three of these restaurants in as a similar breed of crazy wacky “science food” nerds. To be brief, Moto is a certainly the farthest out, but it’s more performance art than science food. Avenues is actually very thoughtful restrained cuisine with a touch of reasonable creative whimsy, and Alinea is a flavor first proposition that melds the best of very traditional French Techniques and only really uses modern food techniques to achieve better texture or flavor than they can with traditional means. Also, if another writer refers to these chefs as “Willy Wonka”, he or she should just quit their job.

Science food aside, I’ve also been watching quite a bit of the local review show Check Please and I don’t think I’ve seen an episode, where one of the reviewers didn’t say, “phenomenal” or “to die for”. If I believe the show, then by my calculation I should be willing to off myself for 70% of all Chicago restaurants.

As a food writer myself, I’m not immune to adjective over-use, and so in the spirit of this piece, I pledge to stay away from “tang”, “toothsome” and “unctuous”. Actually I’ve never used that last one, but Steve Dolinsky whipped that whopper out on his otherwise fine Iron Chef judging appearance a few weeks ago.

7 Comments on "Phrases, Words, and Things Food Writers and Foodies Should Stop Using"

Anonymous

Hilarious rant! I can’t stand the word “toothsome” either!



Barry Strum

Many thanks for addressing food writing’s semantic abuses.

I have definitely had dining experiences so outstanding that they were hard to describe. They have been few and far between…which of course, is what makes them so noteworthy.

Many food writers lack a solid frame of reference or are prone to confusion and misquotation. Others, wishing to sound supportive of new establishments embellish their reviews with a treacly prose style. Given food writing’s reputation for haughtiness, this may be an poor example of once removed atonement.

As a card-carrying Baby Boomer, I cringe at every over-used “awesome” and “amazing”. Is nothing superlative anymore? Everything can’t be awesome and amazing. Something has to be wonderful, pretty good, average, dull, just “OK”, perhaps even “crap”.

Regarding “to die for”…………it ranks way up there in the pantheon of effusive & disingenuous buzz words. Though I enjoy the Stern’s pieces on NPR’s Slendid Table, they invoke the “to die for” line so frequently that they risk over-committment….which given the term, can be difficult.

As a NYC Jewish Deli vet, I’m still (on a mostly nostalgic level) prone to wax poetic over the glories of delicious corned beef piled high on authetic NY Jewish Rye, with a knishe with potato, kasha, or liver, heavily garlicked pickles, a side order of kishke, and a gassy can of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray Judging from the dwindling number of mavens and deli denizens of late, the more appropriate term might be food “to die from”.

Fortunately, young Turks haunt these ethnic icons, armed with culinary enthusiasm, youth, and little if any arterial plaque.



Mike G

I think one of the best ways to avoid writing cliches is to NOT describe each dish. That’s where you run into the wine-writing problem of finding synonyms for “delicious.” List some highlights if you want, as a guide for ordering, but otherwise try to convey what the overall experience is, what the chef’s personality (if any) is, not try to capture exactly how the mashed potatoes strike you as they begin to dissolve in your mouth. I’ve had mashed potatoes before, thank you…



=R=

With all due respect, I think the criticisms of the linked review are pretty nit-picky. First of all, you can’t blame the headline on the writer. Even though Zeldes is something of an authority when it comes to Sci-Fi, it’s doubtful she had anything to do with writing the headline. But, if the restaurant’s space felt Sci-Fi to her, I’m willing to take her word for it. And certainly, given that she’s actually seen the space, she seems the most qualified person among us to describe it.

Sure, the passage lumping together Moto, Avenues and Alinea is a bit of a stretch but it’s merely meant to create a virtual reference point, which it does. Seizing upon such obviously caricatural descriptions as inaccuracies seems displaced and disingenuous to me. Had they been presented as actual facts about said restaurants, this may have possibly been worth noting. But they weren’t.

The bottom line is that food writing is a tough act and very few do it with consistent excellence. Zeldes is a well-seasoned print-media veteran with a lot of mud in her cleats. Her knowledge is vast and her opinions are well-informed. Considering the body of her work, which spans more than 2 decades, minute criticisms like this entirely miss the point and ignore the obvious, important, larger context in which her reporting is clearly and consistently of value to her readers. This review, for all its supposed problems, is no exception.



Anon

Thanks for writing this. Although I agree that food writing is difficult, we should all try to stay away from certain phrases or words. I, for one, might scream if one more food writer implores me to “tuck into” a dish. I could be tucked into bed (if I was a child), but this seems an overly annoying phrase that somehow has taken flight. I think the writer is attempting to say that what they’re eating is comfort food, but it somehow seems an inappropriate phrase to me. Thanks for letting me vent on this.



ab

Just imagine writing porn reviews.



CBH

haha… yea, not a big fan of “toothsome” and “unctuous” either. and saying something has a great “mouth-feel” (another weird one i hear) sounds like an obscure porn-related reference…



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