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The hidden history of food: How wordier menus can impact your wallet

The menu board at Seoul Sausage in West Los Angeles.
The menu board at Seoul Sausage in West Los Angeles.
Jacob Margolis/KPCC

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Eateries often use florid language to describe their food and beverages. But it turns out that the shift in language can have a direct impact on your wallet.

For every extra letter used to describe a dish, there's also, on average, an 18 cent increase in price.

That's something to chew on as you consider whether to go to the place which serves Five Spices Duck or the one dishing up "Young duck boiled in exotic five spices broth, de-boned and served with spicy vinaigrette!"

Writer Dan Jurafsky examined this phenomenon for his new book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu.

Highlights from the interview on Take Two:

On the Chinese origin of that American staple, ketchup:

The Chinese distillers were distilling this new liquor called arak, out of the local palm sugar, so the British Navy bought thousands of barrels of this arak and while they’re there, they buy some barrels of the local fish sauce that these distillers are making on the side, bring it back to England. And now you’ve got this very expensive product…So what do you do when you have an expensive, imported product? You build knock-offs. So immediately, there were knock-off ketchups made out of mushrooms and walnuts – Jane Austin’s family made theirs out of walnuts. Then around 1800, tomatoes came from the New World and people began adding tomatoes to their ketchup. Then maybe 1850, the fish began to die out and then sugar began [to be added] and our modern chutney developed.

On his analysis of 6,500 online menus and the connection between a menu's language and pricing:

We found, for example, that the cheaper the restaurant, the more they’re likely to use the word "you." "Whatever you like," "your choice," "your way." So the cheaper restaurants are really focused on the eater and the choices of the eater. The more expensive the restaurant, the less we see the word you and instead, we see the word "chef." So your expensive restaurants are focusing on the "chef’s choice" or the "chef’s collection." In the expensive restaurants, you’re really paying for someone else to make the decision for you.

On the use of foreign language in menus:

If you think about restaurants a hundred years ago, what did a high-status restaurant do? Their menu was entirely in French, even if they’re describing an Italian dish, they might do it in French. French was the language of status. So there has always been a way for a fancy restaurant to indicate to the customer that it’s fancy. And what’s going on now seems to be not that different.