08 December 2010

Food Writing 101: On Vocabulary -- A Love Letter/Bitch Session, by Denveater & MC Slim JB (Part 2 of 2)

[Here's Part 2 of an essay on food-writing words we love and hate. Part 1, focusing on the love part, appears here. The "we" is me and my friend / fellow food writer Ruth Tobias of Denver food blog Denveater, where this piece also runs. The whole thing was Ruth's idea; I just tagged along.]

Words/Phrases MC Slim JB Hates

Slim: “The food writing that most offends me reflects laziness: a reliance on shopworn clichés and the overblown yet vacuous language of restaurant-industry press releases.”

[verb]ed (e.g., cooked) to perfection. That’s not writing, that a lift from a Denny’s menu. Shame on you.

Washed down with. Nothing says “I really enjoyed that beverage” like calling it a lubricant for your food-chute. [Guilty, but then I’ve never been known for gracefulness at the table—Denveater.]

Mouth-watering. Salivation is like an erection: essential to the process of enjoyment, and a universally-understood signifier of excitement. But while I appreciate my own, I don’t care at all for descriptions of yours.

Drool (as an interjection). Mouth-watering, as said by a teenager in a text message.

To die for. Cute when your Yiddish grandma says it, a deathly cliché when you do.

So good. Empty and stupid even before “Sweet Caroline” became a sports-arena staple.

Foodie. Bad enough that it’s infantile. But it has been co-opted by so many ridiculous people who think their love of food somehow makes them extraordinary—from the odious I-got-to-the-It-Place-before-you type to the I’m-pickier-about-my-Cheesecake-Factory-selections-than-you idiot—that it deserves banishment.

Homemade. That should be house-made, unless it was actually made in someone’s home.

Ethnic or authentic. When you say ethnic, I suspect you mean “food from a tradition other than white bread, mid-century American,” which does not reflect well on your worldliness. When you say authentic, I suspect you mean “Just like I had that one time I went to Bangkok for three days”, or “Just like my third-generation Italian-American mom made”, meaning you’re claiming some authority you probably don’t have. Traditional is generally safer and more accurate in both cases.

Crispy (should be crisp). Okay, this might be pure pedantry on my part.

Finger-licking. Unless you mean to say that the venue serves finger food but does not supply napkins, this does not reflect well on your table manners.

From hell. If you’re aiming to describe capsicum heat, or badness, you can do better.

Indulgent. This word makes me think of TV ads trying to glamorize flavored instant coffees. Let’s take it as given that paying to have food prepared and served to you by professionals is already an indulgence. If you mean there’s a lot of fat and sugar in your dish, please be more specific.

Scrumptious. I admit to falling back on simple superlatives and synonyms for delicious on a regular basis. There’s just a glimmer of eye-twinkling in this one that irks me. [Another one I’m partial to, I think because it sounds like the way I eat: scrump, scrump, scrump…Denveater]

Words Denveater Hates

Chowdah, etc. Real accents are charming; feigned, transcribed accents are just embarrassing. Forget “chowdah.” Forget “N’Awlins.” And for God’s sake forget “fuhgeddabouddit.”

Food porn; also crack, orgy, etc. Enough with the faux-edgy references to sex & drugs—yawn. Unless the food you’ve photographed contains actual boobies or you’ve literally been shooting up schmaltz in a back alley, eyes rolling back into your skull, the slang has long since ceased to shock.

¡Olé!; also Opa!, Mangia!, etc. Please, oh, please refrain from the belabored, ethnically stereotyped interjections. Do you actually let it fly during your meal? Does anyone actually shout it at you while serving your meal, outside of the Epcot Center? No, because it’s not a small world after all, it’s a big, bad one where the only proper response to such forced conviviality should be a cold black stare.

Heavenly; also divine, sinful etc. Leave the moral discourse to Sunday sermons & Family Circle. Not only is it not very useful—what exactly does heaven taste like? Ether? The simultaneous ejaculation of 72 virgins?—it just smacks of an era when euphemisms were power plays, when all the ladies wore aprons & stood sobbing quietly in their state-of-the-art kitchens before gleaming refrigerator doors with signs like “A moment on the lips, forever on the hips.” Depressingly prim.

Sammy/sammie. The infantilization of the word “sandwich” is irritating beyond belief not least because it’s pointless as a shortcut—the number of syllables still adds up to 2! Granted, if you’re regressing to toddlerhood as thoroughly as your vocabulary suggests, you may no longer be able to count to 2.

Stoup; also choup. This one goes out to Rachael Ray, who is as much a writer as she is a chef, which is to say not at all. Even “TV personality” gives her too much credit; in fact, it’s her lack thereof that confirms the suspicion that she’s probably a robot built by the Food Network to take over the world one brain-melting slice of microwaved bacon at a time. That would explain her programmatic abuse of the English language. She defines “stoup” as “thicker than a soup but not quite a stew” (and, even stoupider, “choup” as “thicker than a stew but not quite a chowder”). It’s like that old joke, “Waiter, there’s a hair in my soup!”—I don’t want the hairs she’s splitting (for the sake, I assume, of trademarks) anywhere near my bowl. Depending on the ingredients, a thick, chunky soup is a stew or a chowder; there’s no need or room for an intermediate stage. Longest 15 minutes of fame ever.

MC Slim JB concludes: “I hope readers understand that we’re not being prescriptive here: we want you to write as you write, not as we write. I admit to having committed most of these sins over the years myself. But if you want readers to keep coming back, my advice is to be vigilant against the trite, the vague and the cutesy. If you want to be read like a pro, you’ll have to rise above the level of the typical lazy Yelper. There, we summarized that to perfection, and it was more outrageously awesome than a barrel of vivacious monkeys, LOL! I think we’re done here. ¡Olé!"