Spring 2002

Ingestion / How to Read a Menu

The carte before the course

Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

Reading a menu is a sometimes rewarding, and more usually frustrating, exercise in hermeneutics and cultural studies. Rarely is the inadequacy of word to thing more evident. A most perspicacious entry into the problem was recently suggested in an unpublished article by the translator Jean-François Allain, dealing with the treatment of cultural differences according to the gastronomic model.[1] He suggests that there exist five major categories in translating culinary (and, by extension, all cultural) terms. Like Allain, I will work between French and English for reasons of familiarity, though I will use my own examples for heuristic reasons; readers are encouraged to work out these issues according to their own multi-lingual and poly-culinary capabilities.

(1) Direct translation: “vin” = wine. Ease of translation should not suggest ease of comprehension. In the case of wine, the cultural, symbolic, and oenological differences that separate the French and the American versions of this elixir are vast.

(2) Generalized borrowing: “hamburger” = hamburger. Cultural imperialism forces open foreign lexicons, despite all resistance. The French have borrowed, and understand all-too-well, this word: They know what it is and we know what they mean when they use it. Yet how does the fact that a certain New York restaurant serves a $26 hamburger stuffed with foie gras and truffles stretch the meaning of this term?

(3) Specialized borrowing: “cassoulet” = cassoulet, a casserole of baked beans and sausage or some other kind of meat. This relatively current term exists in English language dictionaries, taken directly from the French. Familiarity with a dish through continued cultural exchange will eventually motivate lexicographers to add a dictionary entry. The English language, especially American English, has by far the richest lexicon, and as the US is at the center of culinary fusion, its vast, malleable, and open lexicon places it in very good stead. Yet how can we think through the problem of definitions and “authenticity” given the age-old battle between, for example, the cassoulet of Castelnaudary (which uses pork exclusively), of Carcassonne (which may include mutton), and of Toulouse (which includes duck or goose)? Furthermore, what linguistic aberration or analogy might explain the existence of a “fish cassoulet”? It seems that like “pot-au-feu,” “cassoulet” is now used as a generic term for almost anything made in a casserole.[2] (As such, the word merits anew its quotation marks.) Thus specialized culinary terms need glosses both before they are widely known and after their familiarity causes them to be denatured.

(4) Equivalence: “bouillabaisse” = a fish stew typical of Marseille, which can only be made in that region as some types of fish necessary to this recipe are strictly local. This word is to be found in some English language dictionaries, but never is enough information given to differentiate it from other types of fish stew, of which it is a regional example. One might well wish to ask why the bouillabaisse has come to be the most famous of the fish stews. Equivalence is translation by analogy, entailing differently nuanced examples in different countries or regions, all linked by family resemblance.

(5) Gloss: “aligot” = a puree of potatoes, unfermented Laguiole cheese, cream, and garlic, originating in the Rouergue region of France. This word is not found in either English or bilingual dictionaries (and rarely even in French ones), thus one needs to consult specialized cookbooks, culinary encyclopedias, or regional guidebooks to find it. Some culinary terms, especially many regional dishes, have no translation or even equivalence in other countries (or even other regions of the country of origin), so that only description can suffice.[3] But how did it happen that Theodora Fitzgibbons, in her encyclopedic The Food of the Western World, describes aligot not as being made with Laguiole cheese (fabricated uniquely in and around the town of Laguiole in the Aveyron), but with the relatively similar tomme de Cantal (made in the adjoining département)? Might the substitution work in the recipe? Would the dish still have the right to bear the same name?

Obviously, the various solutions to translation difficulties do not necessarily solve problems of comprehension, and in any case such matters of nomination are of minor concern to most diners. For the majority of people, the main purpose of reading a menu is to predict what one will actually be eating, and accurate translation is a necessary but never sufficient condition of understanding. Here, the real issue is one of prefiguration, rather than nomination. I would therefore like to propose another set of categories, concerning the range of descriptive parameters of the various sorts of names of dishes used in cookbooks and menus.

(1) Common name: “Roast turkey with cranberry sauce.” This self-descriptive dish is certainly one of the most famous, and most symbolic, of American foods. The French have both turkeys and cranberries (airelles), but the latter are not the same. The most common American cranberry is the Vaccinium macrocarpon, while the French version is usually the European cranberry, Vaccinium oxycoccus, much smaller and with a slightly different flavor. Regional differences in products may produce either serendipity or misfortune. (I always bring a bag of the dried American variety with me to Paris, as they are far preferable in certain chicken-based salads.)

(2) Uncommon name: “Haggis,” to take Allain’s pertinent example. The name of this Scottish pudding—made of sheep heart, liver, and lungs flavored with suet, spices, onions, and oatmeal all boiled in the animal’s stomach—is known to many, but the recipe is familiar to few. The name probably stems from the Medieval English word haggen, to hack or chop. In terms of translation, Allain has it in the category of equivalence, meaning that the term is used in French as is, with the necessity of adding a descriptive cultural note, which is also necessary in most English-speaking contexts outside of the British Isles.

(3) Common title: “Tournedos Rossini.” Until recently, this dish—named by and after its inventor, the famed composer—had been a cliché of classic French haute cuisine: tournedos topped with foie gras and sliced truffles in a Madeira sauce.[4] It was surely among the first complex French dishes many Americans of my generation ate in French restaurants, both here and abroad. It is now relegated to nostalgia, but the name still resonates. To name a dish after a person or place in itself offers no information about the recipe, though widespread use will transform such names into generic types, so that, for example, soubise (named after the 18th-century aristocrat) implies the use of finely minced onions, and niçois (named after the city) suggests the use of olives in a shallot and garlic sauce, or, in a corrupted form, simply the use of olives.

(4) Uncommon title: “Tournedos Roumanille.” In Auguste Escoffier’s Guide culinaire, the recipe immediately following Tournedos Rossini is the all-but-unknown “Tournedos Roumanille”: tournedos cut small, fried, set on grilled half-tomatoes and coated with a Mornay sauce, with a stuffed and poached olive encircled by an anchovy ring placed on each piece of meat, accompanied by fried eggplant slices. The name is rare because the dish is extremely uncommon, and deservedly so!

(5) Title of lost recipe: Here we experience the conundrum of a dish whose existence we are convinced of but of which we have no knowledge. With further evidence of its makeup, it would slip into the previous category; with increased suspicion of its inauthenticity, it would enter into the following one.

(6) Invented title without description: In Marcel Rouff’s La vie et la passion de Dodin-Bouffant, gourmet, it appears that the rabbit dish “Lapins au Père Douillet” is invented. As in all realms, it is most difficult to prove conclusively that something doesn’t exist. And of course, many things that don’t exist should, and will. Isn’t that what art is about?

(7) Invented title with description: Again in Dodin-Bouffant, one of the dishes central to the denouement of the narrative is the “Potage Adèle Pidou,” a soup named after the protagonist’s chef, thus a fictive dish named after a fictive person. A fully comprehensible and feasible description is given—I can almost taste everything described—and it sounds fabulous, though so complex that it is unlikely that it has often been attempted. As is the case in so much fiction, the literary may be as real as the real.

(8) Description without name or title: Given the extreme inventiveness of the nouvelle cuisine, it has come to be increasingly useful to provide descriptions for dishes rather than inventing names. Guy Reuge of Mirabelle (St. James, New York) has recently proposed a “Warm salad of Nantucket Bay scallops with cinnamon, carrot oil and apple, toasted hazelnuts and endive.” This delicious dish bears an honest and user-friendly description, since all of the ingredients are familiar, and their unified taste may readily be imagined. At the other extreme of the culinary-linguistic spectrum is a dish created by Edouard Loubet of the provençal restaurant Le Moulin de Lourmarin (Lourmarin, France): Huîtres tièdes et Langue d’Agneau grillée relevées au Caviar Jus et Feuilles d’Orties pochées à l’Huile d’Olive Purée de Céleri bulbeux et Vert de Poireau à la Corne de Cerf (Crucifère Moutarde des Champs) [Warm oysters and grilled lamb’s tongue with caviar in a sauce of nettle juice and nettle leaves poached in olive oil, accompanied by a purée of celery root and leeks with “Corne de Cerf” (Crucifère Moutarde des Champs)]

One feels obliged to set the description of this dish in its original form, almost as a poem, and a nearly undecipherable one at that. Almost everything about it is potentially rebarbative—both gastronomically and linguistically—to all but the most adventurous. First of all, while the “surf’n’turf” combination of fish and flesh is an age-old device, oyster and tongue is a rather abstruse variant on this theme, and in any case the addition of caviar is a clichéd overkill of conspicuous consumption. In a very different mode, those of us who have been stung by nettles can hardly imagine eating them, the book titled The Taste of Nettles notwithstanding. Finally, the rest of the menu is practically untranslatable, and even the typographic presentation poses problems of comprehension. We find that “Corne de Cerf” (stag’s horn) is a buckhorn plantain, of which the European version bears the scientific name Plantago coronopus, a plant certainly unknown to most diners. Thus the mysteriously parenthesized “Crucifère Moutarde des Champs” is not a further description of the Corne de Cerf, as might be expected by its parenthetical status, but rather indicates another plant, a sort of wild mustard. But why differentiate two wild plants by citing one within parentheses and the other without? Adding to the exasperation is the fact that the parenthethical term seems to contain a tautology couched in a mix of Latin and French, as Cruciferae signifies the mustard family, thus all “moutardes” are “crucifères.” Of course, there is another logical, though very unlikely, reading of the phrase “à la Corne de Cerf,” which would indicate a style of preparation on the model of à la provençale, though I highly doubt that this is the case. Had I ordered this dish, many of these mysteries would have been resolved, but its description dissuaded me from doing so. This might have been a mistake, since typography, vocabulary, and rhetoric ultimately have nothing to do with how a dish tastes. (Does Wittgenstein have a formula for this?)

In all of the above cases, what we find is that a culinary term, no matter how common or recondite, no matter how precise or vague, never guarantees authenticity or quality, but is always a mode of categorization or typification, offering nothing more than an axis of possibilities. Culinary meaning—like that of all cultural artifacts and symbols—is a function of the intersection of individual perception and social context. This does not obviate taste or quality, regionality or nationality, but rather suggests the limits within which they are to be discerned. Yet given even a close appraisal of these factors, many other conditions are crucial in predicting how a dish will taste. A menu activates a field of expectations, but it is things like the quality of produce, the chef’s technical skill, and culinary style that will ultimately determine the success or failure of a dish. And we should not forget our own limitations. One may never have eaten wild and properly hung pheasant, or never even seen a grouse or woodcock, so it would be impossible to imagine how they taste. (One New York chef bemoans the fact that he had to eliminate the quite expensive wild Pacific salmon from his menu, as too many people sent it back, saying that it tasted strange. Strange indeed!) As for technique, even the best amateur chefs I know (including some who have cooked innumerable extravagantly complex meals to test them for cookbooks) claim that, due to differences in skill, there is simply no comparison between their efforts, however successful, and those of the great professional chefs in question. As in any art, the tour de main (trick of the trade or skillful gesture) is what counts. It is, however, on the level of style that some predictability may occur. Many people are attached to traditional cuisines because it is comforting to know, more of less, what will appear on their plate. Others like the nouvelle cuisine precisely because of its unpredictability. However, every great chef has a personal style and signature dishes, which offer both specific sets of expectations and suggest the forms of culinary invention to come. Obviously, the proof (of the pudding, etc.) is always extra-textual, as even the best-sounding dish may taste terrible. In gastronomy, the textual is but a hint, a teaser, more often than not misleading or even dishonest. Yet imagine how boring the world would be if word were always adequate to thing! That is why we love to read recipes and menus: not only to choose between the possible culinary rewards of the very near future, not only to meditate upon the cultural and symbolic complexities hidden within them, but ultimately to test our culinary imaginations against reality—a literary game that combines thought of food and food for thought.­

  1. Jean-François Allain, “‘Accommoder’ les écarts culturels: le modèle gastronomique,” presented in Paris in October 2000 at the “Troisième Journées d’étude sur la lexicographie bilingue: Le traitement des écarts culturels.”
  2. On the complex cultural history of the pot-au-feu, centered on Marcel Rouff’s Dodin-Bouffant, see Allen S. Weiss, “The Ideology of the Pot-au-feu,” in Allen S. Weiss, ed., Taste, Nostalgia (New York: Lusitania Press, 1997), pp. 99-110.
  3. On the gastronomic imperatives of description, see Lawrence R. Schehr, “Savory Writing: Marcel Rouff’s Vie et passion de Dodin-Bouffant,” in Lawrence R. Schehr and Allen S. Weiss, eds., French Food (New York: Routledge, 2001), pp. 124-139.
  4. For an amusing and erudite account of Tournedos Rossini and the psychological profundities of nomination, see Lawrence R. Schehr, “Rossini’s Castrati,” in Taste, Nostalgia, pp. 43-47.

Allen S. Weiss has been working hard on ingestion: he recently co-edited French Food (Routledge), and his Feast and Folly is forthcoming (SUNY).

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