Is there a difference between standard green beans and haricots verts? A langoustine and a lobster? There is, but it's subtle. Until it comes to menu writing, where the sight of words like haricots verts and langoustine can make a restaurant patron feel like something exciting and new is going to be served.
The use of highly specific food terminology undoubtedly plays into the allure of eating in a high-end restaurant. Knowing the name of the farm your beef was raised on, or being educated on the difference between Pekin Duck and Peking Duck is like an initiation into a club, where everyone speaks restaurant jargon and plate can be a verb, meaning "to put something on a plate."
Recently The New York Times produced a piece on new language being developed by foodies (or call them cuisinomanes). The list included new foods like cookie butter; a word for hunger that makes us irritable — hangry; and a way to describe food that's so impressive we have to post a picture on social media as foodspo (translation: food inspiration). Piecaken "with its echoes of 'turducken'" is the new cherpumple, while zarf, the "cardboard collar placed around a paper coffee cup to protect your hands from the heat," is an old word recently re-applied — it comes from Arabic (as do see these others appearing on our vocabulary list, "Food and Drink Words with Arabic Roots").
But while the Times focused on words recently added to the lexicon, would-be foodies might also want to know about some old words that change meaning in significant ways the moment you try to use them to describe food.
Take bias, for example. Having one means you favor one side over another in a dispute. But just as you can think of someone who is biased as being slanted one way or another, in a restaurant, a cut made "on the bias" is made by a knife held at slanted angle, a presentational flourish. In the case of meat, I've heard that the technique is thought to shorten the protein fibers, making for a softer and easier chew, though I'm not sure if this is true, and I wouldn't want to bias you one way or another.
Another word that changes meaning in the culinary world is the word dry. In fact, dry can have many meanings in the world of cooking, only some of which are related to its standard definition. The phrase "dry goods" refers to all the elements of food prior to cooking, or objects related to food preparation, like coffee filters. If a restaurant is dry it doesn't serve alcohol. A martini's being dry, however, has nothing to do with whether it's alcohol free (and whoever heard of that?). It refers to the ration of gin to vermouth in the cocktail — the less vermouth, the drier the martini. Similarly, a dry wine refers to a wine that is low on a scale of sweetness.
Meanwhile, a "dry rub" is a mixture of spices, and is dry because there is no sauce in the concoction. "Dry-aged beef" has no sauce or rub — it's simply beef that's left in a refrigerator where enzymes naturally break down the fibre in the meat. You'd then think the wet in "wet-aged beef" would refer to the application of liquid, but you'd be wrong. It refers to a shorter aging period intended to preserve the moisture in the meat, something "dry-aged" beef sacrifices to enhance flavor.
Had enough beef? Try a salad. But don't use a term as generic as that; who know what you'll actually get? A salad can show up in so many forms — egg, chicken, tuna, beet, etc. — that a salad consisting of lettuce, onion, and, say, tomato — a prototypical salad — has to be specified as such. This observation has made it into the linguistics literature in a paper by Jila Ghomeshi and her team, "The SALAD- Salad Paper," with the word in all caps signifying a specific intonation, which Ghomeshi and her co-authors liken to the adolescent question: "Do you like him, or do you LIKE-him, like him?"
And perhaps that's what it's all about. You may like green beans and lobster perfectly well, but as menu writers know, familiarity breeds contempt. By using haricots verts and langoustine, they're holding out the possibility that what emerges from the kitchen may be so delicious and unfamiliar that we "LIKE-it like it." Hey, it might even be our next foodspo.
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