Food has a language all its own

As a writer, when I think of communications I most often think of the written word. I might think, too, of photographs, videos, speeches and Twitter feeds.

What I never think about is food. Yet there is a whole world of food communications that in-volves our imagination and every one of our senses, and deeply influences how we experience what we eat and drink. While few of us are food writers, this offers lessons for writers and any-one else who communicates for a living — which is all of us.

In the book “Off Menu, the Secret Science of Food and Dining,” travel and food writer Nell McShane Wulfhart depicts the many ways that we register flavor.

The music played while you eat, the plate your food is served on and the smell and sounds of it cooking all contribute to your experience of flavor. So do your expectations of what you are about to eat or imbibe.

“Our brains combine a number of sensations, taste, smell, feel and sound, into an experience we collectively decided to call flavor,” she writes.

In one experiment she cited, researchers told subjects that they were about to sample five cabernet sauvignons, from five bottles ranging in price from $5 to $90. In reality, however, there were only three different bottles,. So the subjects sampled two wines twice.

Researchers measured brain activity as people sipped the wines. Not surprisingly, they re-ported liking the most expensive wine best — even though it came from the very same bottle that provided the cheapest sample. More remarkable is that the subjects also registered more pleasure activity in the brain when drinking what they believed to be the priciest wine. Their expectations changed their physical experience.

The language used to name and describe a food or drink also helps set expectations and, presumably, establish the experience of flavor. Dan Jurafsky, a Stanford University professor of linguistics and computer science and a MacArthur Fellow, has studied the language of food and written a book by the same name.

A century ago, he said, French was the language of fine dining. Even Italian restaurants offered their menus in French. Today, high-end diners respond better to descriptions of where the in-gredients come from, while middle-priced restaurants tout their foods as flaky, fluffy or but-tery. Lower-priced restaurants declare their food is gourmet or delicious, something that no restaurant aspiring to a Michelin star would ever mention. It’s just assumed.

In packaged foods, names such as Triscuit or Cheezit employ what linguists call language symbology to bring to mind something small, crisp and light. The i and long e vowel sounds are formed at the front of the mouth, along with the t, ch and z sounds.

Most ice cream names, on the other hand, use vowels formed at the back of the mouth, which bring to mind something rich and solid — such as chocolate, caramel and Rocky Road.

Compound names, like Pop Tarts and Rice Krispies, can use both types of language symbolo-gy in addition to the rhythm that multiple syllables create.

When you think about how central food is to our lives — our health and survival, our social lives, relationships and sense of well being — it’s not surprising that communication around food is so complex.

This is not only fascinating, it satisfies my professional conceit that, in the end, everything comes down to language and communication.

— Barbara LeBlanc

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