In an article entitled,” The Easiest Way To Eat More Vegetables”, researchers were credited with having found ” an ingenious way to get people to eat more vegetables”, not quite the same subject, but that’s apparently how research gets turned around. In any case, the idea is this: Presented with four categories of vegetables prepared in exactly the same way but labeled differently – Basic (beets, corn, green beans), Healthy (vitamin rich-corn, antioxidant-rich squash), Restrictive healthy (reduced sodium corn, carrots with sugar-free citrus dressing) and Indulgent ( rich buttery roasted sweet corn, dynamite chili and tangy lime-seasoned beets), diners most frequently chose the most evocatively indulgent menu.
Thus, at the crossroads of science and marketing, research indicates that we choose options that sound tasty. I suppose that’s why restaurants go to the trouble of hiring itinerant authors looking for work between novels to bring the full force of literary imagination to their carte du jour.
It happens that I know what it is to face the bleak reality of an artless menu, having lived for a few years in a tiny Swiss village far from the elegant eateries in Zürich or Geneva. No, in the hinterland dining options are notably rural and menus roughly translated. I would not have needed translation, of course, had I been as clever as any Swiss child, able to speak four or five languages with functional fluency. My rudimentary command of Swiss German allowed me to avoid some grotesqueries of communication. Some, but not many.
Without dwelling on the fine points of inflection which separate the Swiss German word for chicken and the word for dog. suffice it to say that my visit to the town’s butcher went badly when I inadvertently ordered a hefty slab of dog breast. My attempts to clarify this request aroused the butcher to greater ire as in an attempt to make myself understood, I pumped up the volume. He apparently thought I really wanted that dog flesh, really wanted it, so much so that I dropped the deferential meekness which had characterized my tenure as a stranger in a strange land. To him, I now understand, I was a barbaric Amerikaner screaming for dog meat and brooking no refusal.
This did not end well.
From that point on I was persona non grata in the village’s metzgerei, receiving no greeting but the untranslated, “No meat for you”.
So, obviously, I needed help when it came to deciphering the menu at the local restaurant, and when I say local, I mean not visited by diners not born in the Gemeinde with the exception of the previously mentioned barbarian. My host was always pleased to see me; obviously word of my canine fixation had not reached the Gasthof. His command of English was immeasurably better than my Schweizerdeutsch but somewhat spotty, particularly when it came to adjectives, and, since it is precisely in evaluating the power of adjectival impact in convincing diners that tastiness lay ahead, his suggestions were, well, blunt.
Slight digression here in noting that every language has oddities of usage that probably mirror the culture’s deepest compulsions, but as I am entirely steeped in my own experience of language, I don’t recognize those oddities as I did in encountering Swiss translation. The point being that the Swiss in this small village used the word “must” in virtually any situation: “You must pay now.” “You must now go to the laundry.” “You must from here take that road.”
That being noted, my host’s urgings may sound less threatening. “You must have the little cow. Before it takes no milk from his mother, yes? So small it has tiny skin, You know? Little cow in the cream with potatoes that are shavings. I put also in onion.”
I quite liked the candor with which the folks in my village spoke, if I understood them, and I appreciate it still. The town seems to have grown more suburban in the forty years since I last chose not to eat the little cow with tiny skin; there are at least eight restaurants in the hamlet now, all of which cater to trade from outside the village. Just as I now check the reviews posted on restaurants that are new to me, travellers can read comments posted in English on various sites. It seems candor remains the expression of choice, and diners are given fair warning in language I appreciate.
“The restaurant makes already from the outside a dingy impression, what is going on inside.” Who knows, really what is going on inside, but it sounds dingy to me as well. The meticulousness with which these diners assess the restaurant is impressive but occasionally puzzling. “The price/performance ratio is not.” I see, but not …? “The chef greeted us friendly and very sympathetically…”. I could have used some sympathy, but let it go, let it go.
To return to the subject under examination, let us consider the menu at our locally esteemed steak and chop-house, a restaurant with a reputation as one of the best in the Pacific Northwest, then sneak a peek at a description of an entrée at a fast-food chain, just to see how adjectives drive the appetite.
First, the mission statement provided by Omar’s Restaurant in Ashland:
It is our mission to provide our guests with the freshest and highest quality food products that are locally sourced whenever possible. It is our passion to turn these bounties of the land and sea into handcrafted, from scratch products for you. We hand cut all of steaks that are aged for an extra 6 weeks to ensure tenderness and enhance flavor. We receive 3 to 5 fish deliveries a week from local and global waters. We make all of our soups, dressings, sauces, and stocks from scratch. We do all of this in order to ensure that you, our valued customer enjoy delicious home cooked meal, from our kitchen to your plate.(sic)
It happens that every word in this introduction to Omar’s is true; the food is locally sourced, the chefs are passionate about their craft, the steaks are hand cut and aged, fish arrives frequently from global waters, and soups and sauces are made from scratch.
But… are we drooling?
No reservation is needed at Carl’s Jr’s various outlets. Drive up, step in, read the menu on the wall and consider the Jim Beam Bourbon Burger.
Unwind with the Jim Beam® Bourbon Burger. Featuring a chargrilled beef patty topped with bacon, crispy onion , swiss cheese, fresh lettuce and tomato — slathered in a rich and tangy sauce flavoured with Jim Beam bourbon.
OK, fairly evocative. Slathered. Good word. How about McDonald’s Maple Bacon Dijon burger?
Layered with thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon sprinkled with sweet maple seasonings, creamy Dijon sauce, grilled onions, smooth white cheddar, and crisp leaf lettuce, on a quarter pound of 100% pure beef with no fillers, additives, or preservatives, with your choice of an artisan roll or sesame seed bun.
Thick-cut Applewood smoked bacon has more oomph than the pedestrian bacon or cured pork product, and this cheese is not simply white cheddar but smoooooth. Getting close to whetting the appetite.
As a youth I was forced to eat unpalatable meals, the memory of which still make the gorge rise, so let’s take one of the standard components and see what a few well placed adjectives can do. The lowly turnip is a root vegetable, easy to store over long periods of time as are the other root vegetables – bulrushes, onions, chufa, taro corns, yams, virtually any sort of tubers. With some effort, the bulb of the turnip can be massaged into something like presentable food, perhaps by chopping, rinsing, then mashing the turnip into paste served hot with butter, slightly less bitter than the untreated turnip.
A word often used in describing the turnip is pungent, but pungent is not the sort of word to slide into the carte du jour, but powers of invention abound in menu-speak, so here goes:
Early Harvest White Turnips in an Adelle-rind pasteurized cow & sheep’s milk
Turnip Adelle is vibrant young turnip in a soft-ripened bloomy-rind cheese melange. With a light, fluffy texture and a flavor of butter and citrus, this creamy, smooth turnip in cheese melts in the mouth.
I know turnips far too well, and no amount of Adelle cheese would save them from being the roots that they are, but … sounds almost … tasty. En Guete, mittenand!