The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

Jurafsky, Dan. 2014. The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

The Language of Food has always been one of my favorite blogs, and so when I heard that it was being turned into a blook, I leapt at the chance to review it. Having now read the book, I still like Jurafsky’s writing and approach, but feel the blog was occasionally unable to transition of the Internet and on to the page. And yet, despite the beefs anthropologists might have with the book, I find myself recommending it to non-academic friends both because it makes a fine read, and because it teaches some core anthropological lessons. It deserves a wide readership for the anthropological lessons it teaches and the delightful stories it tells along the way.

Jurafsky is a computational linguistic at Stanford — someone who crunches large corpora of data and figures out how computers should process human speech. Language of Food grows out of an undergraduate course he teaches, so it has the feel of a specialist reaching out to a more general audience by exploring some of his personal interests even, if they are off the main trajectory of his research. His situation in California is a major part of the book. In many ways the volume is a love letter to San Francisco, its food, and its mindset, and its cuisine, and as a native Californian Jurafsky channels the whole city, not just the web 2.0 version of it. As a fellow northern Californian this really endeared the book to me, though ymmv.

At root, Language of Food takes two separate approaches to food. The first uses freakonomics-style ultra-fancy regression analysis to ‘surprise us’ with ‘fascinating facts’ about how people think about food. I was not particularly impressed by this approach. Did someone really fund Jurafsky to crunch five bintillion Yelp reviews in order to figure out that the most common adjective used in positive restaurant reviews was ‘good’?  This sort of thing strikes me as a massively over-engineered attempt to prove what everyone already knows.

But, to be fair, there is no way that Jurafsky could have written these sections of the book to please me — they are just not the sort of work that anthropologists value. Anthropology is about working on human life from the inside out, while Jurafsky’s approach is focused on moving from the outside in. So I suppose that I am glad that both approaches are out there and working simultaneously to converge on similar findings. Now we know through lived experience and computational linguistics that people use the word ‘good’ to describe restaurants they review positively.

The second approach in the book is far more interesting to anthropologists, and it’s what draws me to Jurafsky’s work: His discussion of the diffusion and transformation of cuisine across time and space. In marvelous, deeply researched, and well-illustrated chapters he describes the cultural history of fish and chips, ice cream, and macaroons as they move from east to west and back again. These chapters are, to me, the core of the book.

There’s a reason that these chapters are such a genuine treat for anthropologists like me: Anthropologists used to write this way ourselves. Jurafsky’s work is a timely and well-executed retread of classics like Ralph Linton’s 100% American (1936) or Robert Lowie’s Culture and Ethnology (1917). In fact, these sorts of bravado lectures on the unexpected histories of our culture traits were a staple of American anthropology in its culture-historical mode.

It’s a pity, in a way, that anthropologists have ceded the field to linguists like Jurafsky. Too often our ethnography — and yes, our ethnographers — lack the deep areal expertise that allows us to write books like The Language of Food. Half ethnography and half philosophy, too much anthropology these days ends up being neither. Anthropologists therefore have a lot to learn from Dan Jurafsky, the least of which is that if we write accessibly about the complexities of ethnographic life, we might get book contract out of a mainstream publisher like Norton. We should all be giving lectures on why turkey and Turkey are the same word.

That said, there is something also a little problematic about this sort of old-school culture history, and it’s got to do with the way that Jurafsky yokes his history of diffusion to a multiculturalist argument about tolerance. Throughout The Language of Food Jurafsky argues that the travels of food across the planet is a sign that learning about new ways of eating can help build a liberal, secular, happily multicultural community — a kind of global eating community that overcomes the narrowing parochialisms of religion and ethnicity. In like, you know, exactly the way that people are multicultural in San Francisco.

This is the sort of argument the NPR crowd loves, but the argument seems a bit forced — one gets the idea that the publisher really encouraged Jurafsky to include it — and it also falls flat. Jurafsky is absolutely right that eating is incredibly important to human meaning-making. But, like all things cultural, humans can make eating mean all different things — the meaning of food and eating is, as we like to say, shaped by history and context. Taking communion can be a powerful way to build a Christian communion. Eating bits of the body of your foe can be the ultimate form of aggression and domination. Learning to cook Chinese food can connect one to the Chinese community, or it can be an act of cultural co-option that leaves enrages them. There mere fact of diffusion cannot ground liberal tolerance because food’s meanings are context dependent.

Anthropologists moved away from Boasian decontextualized culture history, in fact, because it was inadequate to explain patterns of diffusion. In order to understand how and why tea, sugar, and ketchup spread over the planet we needed to understand the concrete historical context in which they moved. This is what is lacking in Jurafsky’s approach. The Catholic reconquest of Iberia? Opium shipments to China? Spanish colonialism in the New World? These central parts of the story of food are missing in Jurafsky’s account.

I’m not slighting Jurafsky for not being politically correct, or not being a Marxist or whatever. I’m not interested in being those things. The point is that an adequate history of food reveals that the forces that propelling it around the world were often the opposite of the happily multiculturalism Jurafsky advocates for. Perhaps if Language of Food had jettisoned it’s normative claims we could have just enjoyed Jurafsky’s romp through history and etymology. But the added ethical baggage requires more attention to the political economy of food than Jurafsky brings to the table.

Part of the charm of blog version of Language of Food was its scattershot approach.  Each entry went off in a million directions (it was also, by the way, more heavily illustrated than the book version).  The entries didn’t always have a super-coherent narrative or clear focus, but who cared? It was a blog, and that was part of the appeal. It was fun to watch Jurafsky bouncing around from sound symbolism to nineteenth century menus to maps of the silk road.

Perhaps it is unfair of me, but I was hoping that the book version would do a little better at telling a complex story clearly. Unfortunately, The Language of Food, like the blog,  struggles to juggle all of the bits of story that it wants to tell. It’s no wonder — the food Jurafsky follows travels all over the place in a way that is maddening to track down and describe. And, to be sure, the book is well written, easy to read, and never loses the reader in technicalities — but I did feel it we lost the forest for the trees on more than one occasion. I had a similar concern about the recipes, which sit uneasily in the book and are not collected at the end. Is this a history book or a story-telling cookbook? Were we meant to be able to try them at home? Language of Food sits on the fence on this issue too. But, again, these are hardly major objections to the book.

Overall, there is a lot to like about Jurafsky’s book. It reads well, it’s well researched, it tells fascinating stories, and it helps drive home central lessons of anthropology: Cross-cultural trade has a long and deep history, our own culture owes much to other cultures, and the global community has been related a long time. It’s eminently teachable, and I find myself recommending it again and again to my friends who are interested in food. At the end of the day, even if you don’t want to hit the ‘buy’ button for the book, there is still the blog to fall back on as a source of lecture material and inspiration. Anthropologists may have hoped for more, but we’re a tough crowd to please and really: Jurafsky has better things to do than please us! But please us he does, and I’d recommend Language of Food in either its book or blog form as proof of what a traditional anthropological approach, enlivened for the present, can bring to a public audience.

 

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “The Language of Food by Dan Jurafsky

  1. This is a great review – told me exactly what I wanted to know about the book. I’m a big fan of the blog, of course, although in some cases it didn’t tell me that much more than I already knew. I feel like Charles Mann’s 1493 is a better attempt at telling similar stories, and if you already know everything in it you’re superhuman, but they’re different books, and of course the perfect is the enemy of the good.

    Anthropologists moved away from Boasian decontextualized culture history, in fact, because it was inadequate to explain patterns of diffusion.

    To explain, perhaps. To document, though… Without knowing that nearly all of the world’s words for tea (probably) ultimately derive from proto-Austroasiatic *la, we might never understand the early history of human use of the plant, and we’d lack key information regarding the nature of Sinitic-Austroasiatic interaction in prehistory (among other things). If you see Jurafsky’s book as an introduction to this kind of evidence and reasoning, instead of as a world changer (like 1493), then it probably works a bit better, and we can afford to be a bit more charitable to it.

  2. Sure John — it’s under a creative commons license, so you can feel free to repost it however you like (as long as you maintain attribution, of course).

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