May 2, 2014 6:08 pm

Eat our words

The food world has developed its own absurd language. Like jargon used in the art world, it risks alienating the real audience
An illustration by Richard Allen depicting a conversation in food jargon©Richard Allen

I’ve just read a marvellous essay written a few years ago by the academic Alix Rule and the artist David Levine entitled “International Art English” (IAE). Through research of press materials and an online text analysis tool called Sketch Engine, the pair identified and parsed the linguistic patterns of the art community. It’s a brilliantly humorous piece and, as you’d imagine of something that sets itself in opposition to the mannered pomposity of verbose gallery catalogues, wonderfully easy to read.

IAE is beyond mere jargon, Rule and Levine argue, and has become instead an international language, a self-perpetuating code that includes and validates practitioners but is of ever-diminishing use in actually expressing anything of value about the work. It seems that the art world needs the language even as it alienates the eventual audience.

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Tim Hayward

I’m always intrigued by similarities between the worlds of art and food. Both are playgrounds and markets for those with plenty of discretionary income and both support a subculture of critics, professional and amateur. These days, many of our most “creative” chefs present themselves almost as artists in food and many in the food commentariat are more than happy to play along.

And it’s here I fear that, as in the art world, we may be losing our connection with the real audience. The prose in gallery notes and art periodicals has become the way in which artists, gallerists and critics validate each other; “mediating, questioning paradigms and investigating the intertextuality of spaces”. Food has developed a similarly absurd code. When did we begin to request food “three ways” so our “perceptions about texture could be challenged”? Why would I demand my dinner “deconstructed”?

I’ve been trying hard to remember where the cult of innovative “flavour combinations” began too. Certainly there were odd juxtapositions appearing around the end of the nouvelle cuisine era – remember fish and vanilla? – but today it’s not unusual to find 14 courses on a degustation menu, each of which involves a unique and never-before-experienced superimposition of tastes. Occasionally this is interesting; usually it feels forced.

What still delights the ordinary restaurant customer most is when a brilliant cook does something simple – roasts a piece of lamb, for example. I’m not sure anyone really “invented” lamb, garlic and rosemary but you can’t deny it’s a phenomenal combination of flavours. The big problem is that it gives none of us – not the chef, the critic, the commentator, the PR or the TV presenter – anything to get our teeth into.

“Blimey, Greg. That’s an outstanding bit of roast lamb.” “Hey, Ludo. Doesn’t this spoonful of roast lamb taste like it’s been brilliantly cooked and you’d love to eat more of it?” “Blumenthal’s new restaurant will feature dishes you recognise in combinations you like.” Just doesn’t work, does it?

Like the art community, we need the language and innovation; texture and “flavour combination” are our tropes. A chef can lay claim to a new combination of 10 different flavours and textures on the same busy plate, a PR can hype it, a critic can analyse it and a writer can opine.

I’m not, by any means, anti-innovation or otherwise down on the creativity of chefs – but the way we’re talking about food professionally is becoming disconnected. The many-headed leviathan of modern food media needs to be fed a constant diet of novelty. Excellence isn’t enough, we need new, fresh stuff to talk about. Just like art, food and taste evolve slowly. Revolutionaries can briefly astonish but the sensations that we seek as consumers are timeless and, as International Art English shows, when we manufacture a “way of seeing” we risk losing relevance.

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Tim Hayward is an FT Weekend contributing writer; tim.hayward@ft.com; Twitter: @TimHayward

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