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Monday, February 6, 2012

Adjectives in menus

Backyard vegetable curry from Nabi Houston.

Free range.
Hand gathered.
"Scratch made".

These are buzzwords that are prominently advertised on menus and catalogs. We get them repeated to us by waiters and chefs.  Although they say nothing about the quality or taste of the food - after all, something can be all these things, and still taste bad - why is this such a powerful advertising tool?

Romanesco, the fractal flower.
Because our cultural perceptions trump flavor when objectively measured. Something as simple as water, dressed in plastic and advertising, can take on qualities of affluence even labelled as cat piss (in French).

Sensationalist news have a field day reporting the pervasiveness of fish fraud, where restaurants substitute a less expensive fish for a different one advertised in the menu.

But what's the story here, the elephant in the room, is that most people, unless told ahead of time, cannot tell the difference between pollock, tilapia or red snapper, particularly when breaded and fried. Meaning that as far as flavor is concerned, there's very little value in using more expensive white fish - it's mostly a function of manipulating expectations. 

This point is further illustrated by the brilliant taste test conducted by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt comparing American high fructose corn syrup sweetened Coca-cola with the vaunted cane sugar sweetened Mexican Coke. The key conclusion here is that it's the label that determines preference - not the subtle flavor difference (and there is a flavor difference - although tasters actually preferred the American Coke in blinded tastings). In a recent study, children will reject cookies made with chickpeas only if they are told that they have chickpeas in them .

Cultural expectations overwhelming objective perception applies to wine, where tasters report better flavors if they're told the wine is more expensive, or start using red wine adjectives when white wine is just colored to look red. It's very human - it extends beyond food and drink: when blinded, expert violinists cannot tell the difference between a Stradivarius and a more modern instrument - even if they own the latter instrument.

So, those buzzword are essentially superfluous as far as the flavor is concerned. The main question of relevance is: Does the dish taste good? Using those adjectives serve to obfuscate this main issue, and perhaps disguise flaws by playing up the expected virtues.

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