'Language Of Food' Reveals Mysteries Of Menu Words And Ketchup : The Salt Linguist Dan Jurafsky uncovers the fishy origins of ketchup and how it forces us to rethink global history. He also teaches us how to read a menu to figure out how much a restaurant may charge.

'Language Of Food' Reveals Mysteries Of Menu Words And Ketchup

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Where did ketchup come from? How about ice cream or macaroni? And what does macaroni have to do with macaroons? We probably don't have enough time to explore all those questions right now with Dan Jurafksy. But he does in his book "The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu." He also tells us why we call a menu a menu, a salad a salad and a toast a toast. Professor Jurafksy is a Stanford linguist and computer scientist. And he joins us from Stanford. Welcome to the program.

DAN JURAFKSY: Thanks, Robert.

SIEGEL: And let's start with ketchup. Tell us about ketchup's origins in China.

JURAFKSY: Well, ketchup was originally a fish sauce just like modern Vietnamese fish sauce. In the 17th century, English and Dutch sailors, traders - they're sailing to Asia. And they brought home barrels of this Chinese fish sauce. And this fish sauce was called ketchup. Tchup is a word for sauce in Chinese dialects. And so in England, ketchup lost the fish and acquired tomatoes. And much later on, the Americans added sugar. And there is our national condiment.

SIEGEL: And you're right that the migration of ketchup out of China - far from being mere curiosity - actually forces historians to rethink just how shut off China was from the rest of the world at that time.

JURAFKSY: Yeah, the traditional view of economic history says that in the Ming Dynasty, China turned inward and had to be dragged into the modern global world by Europe much later. But the story of ketchup tells us that China was really the center of world trade. And we know all that and there it is in just this one Chinese word for ketchup that we still use every day.

SIEGEL: We should just note in passing, as you do, that Marco Polo did not introduce pasta to Europe after supposedly discovering it in China.

JURAFKSY: That is true. That is a fun and humorous myth that was created in a marketing piece in the '20s. But in fact, pasta had been sold throughout Europe for 100 or 200 years before Marco Polo came back from China.

SIEGEL: I was going to call it a canard but that could lead us in a whole different direction.

JURAFKSY: Ah, yes, yes, yes. I'll duck that one.

SIEGEL: I learned from your book that the original ice cream flavor was orange blossom. And making it owed something to the development of gunpowder. Explain that one.

JURAFKSY: Yeah. Well, so the key ingredient in gunpowder is saltpeter. It was actually in China that they first figured out that saltpeter, also called potassium nitrate, could be mixed with sulfur and coal to create gunpowder. And that's of course where fireworks came from originally.

SIEGEL: And then in Syria, there is yet another chemical development involving saltpeter.

JURAFKSY: Yeah. Sometime around the 13th century in Damascus, Syrian chemists figured out that saltpeter was a refrigerant. You could add it to water and it made the water cold. This was used in all sorts of Muslim countries - in Mogul India - as a way of cooling water. You put saltpeter in the water. And then you put a jug of water inside this saltpeter and water. It's the same technology that's used in modern cold packs.

SIEGEL: This is before using actual ice. Saltpeter was used to chill things.

JURAFKSY: Well, you could use ice. But ice is expensive. You have to bring it down from the mountains. You have to store it in these ice houses. So ice was certainly been used. They've been storing ice in ice houses for thousands and thousands of years. It's mentioned in the Bible. But saltpeter's much cheaper.

SIEGEL: Here's a question that I have about the source material for your study of the language of the food - certainly for the older language of food. You cite many recipes from old cookbooks in English, French, Arabic - hundreds of years ago. Considering how few people could read in those days, are we in fact getting more of a glimpse of what the 1 percent of its time ate as opposed to what ordinary people were scrounging up for a meal?

JURAFKSY: That's absolutely true. The recipes we have are the recipes of the courts and the rich people. But one fabulous fact about food is that things that start with the rich trickle down to the poor.

SIEGEL: Now, I should add that your book, in addition to charting the history of food and how we talk about food, has some other features. And one that I'd like you to talk about is what the computational analysis of contemporary American restaurant venues tells us about the priciness of the restaurant and the vocabulary of the menu.

JURAFKSY: Yes. It turns out - we look at 6,500 menus across America - and it turns out that the words on the menu tell you a lot about the priciness of the restaurant and even the price of the individual dish. For example, as you can imagine, expensive restaurants are 15 times more likely to tell you where the food comes from - to mention the grass-fed things or the name of the farm or green-market cucumbers. But expensive restaurants also use fancy difficult words like tonarelli or choclo or pastilla.

But these expensive menus, they're shorter. The really long menus - those are the middle-priced restaurants. They're stuffed with adjectives - so fresh, rich, mild, crisp, tender, golden brown. And it's the cheapest restaurants - they're going to use those positive but vague words - that's your delicious, tasty, savory.

So the idea is that the high-status restaurant - they want their customers to just assume the food is going to be fresh and delicious. If you say it's fresh and delicious, that's kind of implying you have to be convinced.

SIEGEL: Right. If we're sitting down at a very expensive restaurant and the menu says our scrumptious veal, we know something is off-key there at that point.

JURAFKSY: Exactly.

SIEGEL: Well, Dan Jurafksy, thanks a lot for talking with us about the book.

JURAFKSY: Thanks so much, Robert. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: The book is "The Language Of Food: A Linguist Reads The Menu."

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