The language of food

00:31, Feb 11 2013

One thing you invariably find yourself doing when you expend as many words as I do discussing food is pondering the actual language of food - the words we use to describe things that, were you just eating and enjoying them, without a view to writing about them, would not require anything much by way of description other than a satisfied "MMMMMMMMM!"


But I can't just write that, on repeat three times a week (although maybe sometimes that's what I feel like doing). So I am bound up in the search for new ways to describe the intangible.


Along the way, you encounter many of the same solutions to this dilemma. Some of them are good, and useful, and evocative, while others... well, let's cast a critical eye over the language of food, shall we?



At Christmas time, I got the new Nigel Slater book, The Kitchen Diaries II. I like Nigel Slater, I like his style of food and cooking, and his ideas about food and cooking, and I like his style of writing. He is less about exacting quantities and precise measurements, more about using up what you have in the fridge or pantry, and making something to eat that suits the weather, and the season, and your purpose for eating - just to satisfy hunger, or to entertain, or to luxuriate in - whatever.


The two food words that Nigel Slater most detests are "crispy" (oops!) and "mouthwatering". I totally get this - just because something is "crispy" doesn't mean it is good - perhaps it is not meant to be crispy. As for "mouthwatering" (and its close relative "I'm salivating"), it is a victim of massive overuse, and such, deserves a good long holiday before it is pressed back into active service.


When I commenced this blog, getting on for 18 months ago now, my blog editor informed me that I would not be allowed to use the word "delicious", on the grounds that it was played out. Which at the time I thought was bloody ridiculous, but which I now totally understand.


He was being cruel to be kind - I had to have it taken away so I could appreciate its worth. He lifted the moratorium shortly afterward, telling me that he had changed his mind and now thought it was vibrant and positive - go figure.


(Amusingly, the phrase David Chang most often employs after eating something good is "it's delicious!", or, if he's really charging "that's insane!")


The most played out words for me in recent times have been the omnipresent "rustic", "seasonal" and "artisanal". "Rustic", I now reckon, is a way for people to describe food that looks a bit rough and ready and incompetent, but will actually probably taste okay. "Seasonal" - well, why wouldn't you want to use the produce that is widely available and reasonably priced, that tastes good, and that is probably most appropriate for you to be eating at that time of year? And "artisanal" - possibly the most misused of these three words - "artisanal" actually refers to the work of a skilled manual worker or craftsperson - it has been widely hijacked to just mean "not mass produced", and is used interchangeably with "rustic", often wildly inaccurately.


As you know, I am troubled by the term "foodie"...


"Yummy" - there's another - this is a word, I reckon, for making kids eat their greens.


But no food descriptive term is as guaranteed to get my back up as much as the risible, and unfathomable "om nom nom!" I mean, I get it, it's meant to be a pure expression of delicious joy, but seriously - "om nom nom"?! They are, as a friend of mine insists "NOT EVEN WORDS!!!" They are irritating. They are lazy. They are evocative of precisely nothing. It is time for a new expression - this one is done and dusted. As Steve Hansen said (about an underwhelming All Blacks performance) - "flush the dunny and move on".


And so, I will continue trying to find words in which to adequately express the qualities of food, both good and bad (in fact, there is almost invariably more fun to be had, as Simon Sweetman will perhaps attest, when things are bad, than when they are good...) I will not "om nom nom" - not ever. I will try to only use "rustic" and/ or "artisanal" when they are accurate and appropriate. And I will say "it's delicious!" only when it actually is.


What are the food buzzwords that irk you? Which are played out? Which do you find yourself using, and wish you didn't?


Please join The Omnivore on Facebook

Picture by Tango Project