I panic in restaurants sometimes. Is it the prices? Or the presence of employees paid to brush the breadcrumbs off my table between courses? ("You don't need to do that," I say. "Yes, I do," they say.) But no. It happens when I read the menus. Squash soup with root-beer marshmallow and cocoa granola. Shaved bottarga. Ponzu buerre blanc. Arctic char with licorice uni foam. Chocolate-balsamic sundae.
It's finally dawned on me: These menus are in English, but they're also not.
Ninety-nine percent of their words are familiar, with a scattering of foreign loanwords (pancetta, mezcal), but what makes me panic is the urgency, an acrophobia-inducing exclusivity, a blasé je-ne-sais-quois that says both What? I'm just a menu and Whoah! Lookit me! Reading these menus feels like being "it" in a mean game of Keepaway.
It's English, Play-Dohed into a new dialect in which "hedgehog" means not a bristly woodland animal but a mushroom, and fine: We're supposed to know that. Which just effing makes me ill, but more about my low self-esteem later.
I call this new language Foodish.
It didn't exist forty years ago and barely existed twenty years ago. Far from the flatly earnest gourmetspeak of Julia Child and the Galloping Gourmet, wryly hipster-inflected Foodish is a fiercely ascendant dialect these days because food is arguably this decade's main obsession. Just as previous decades were all about deadly plagues (helllloooo, 1340s!) and space exploration (1960s, I'm looking at you), this one's about eating. Relatively primeval, I realize: e.g. "My grandfather liberated Auschwitz but I can soooo sauté fennel," but maybe that's the point. You know: the bread in bread and circuses. Subcultures -- surfers, flâneurs, flappers, hepcats -- create dialects. And foodies (God forgive me for typing that word) are the new Huguenots.
Sooner or later, some subcultures go mainstream. Suddenly everyone's digging the Beach Boys and wearing Hang Ten shirts in landlocked states. Foodish's stratospheric rise is only natural in an era when the fanciest fancy foods are being downscaled while the junkiest junk foods are being upscaled, and kids eat grownup food while grownups eat kid food and it all intersects in an ever-swelling habanero-scented hi-lo swirl.
It's the age of the $3 donut and the $65 burger and the current uproar about $4 slices of toast. It's an age in which artisanal High Road Craft Ice Cream includes a "Big Kid Collection" featuring kiddie flavors such as malted-milky "Jokester" and peanut-butter-ganachified Mr. Butterpants, and Torn Ranch's range of handcrafted snacks include dark-chocolate-dipped upscale s'mores:
It's the age of supermarket prosecco, stocked right below the caramel corn:
And it's the age of supermarket pheasant paté:
Granted, the supermarket where I took these pictures is located in Berkeley's Gourmet Ghetto, but it is a supermarket, sporting ordinary shopping carts, checkout lines, and aisles arrayed with Pepsi, quiche Lorraine, Pop-Tarts and lard.
I marvel at what modern chefs are doing. I should be fluent in Foodish because I write about food and sometimes eat in fancy restaurants, but I'm not. I'm an impostor, like a creepy foreign party crasher who stands nodding with a wine glass in her hand, pretending to get all the references.
But no. People at whose age I barely knew what Jarlsberg was tweet Wagyu tartare w/ kumquat gastrique & gado-gado skipjack jerky @MeatBar! #ferment #jerktastic #citrusgastrique and I'm like: Uh oh. What? Among them it sounds curiously natural. For many of them, Foodish is a nearly native tongue which they absorbed as toddlers being pushed around farmers' markets, just as my husband at that age learned Liquorstoreish and Pennypokerese and my friend Pat, whose dad repaired clocks for a living, learned Clockrepairian.
Among the fluent, Foodish can sound rather beautiful, because the fluent are so into it. While fluency in French requires agile lips and fluency in Chinese requires an ear for tones, fluency in Foodish requires one thing above all: desire. You have to want this. You have to care. You have to be the kind of person who will spend hours debating which spoonful of tiramisu tastes the best: not which spoonful of this or that particular serving of tiramisu but all tiramisu, always: is it the second spoonful, or is it the fifth? You have to want to spend your time this way.
And why don't I? Because I fear that if I tried, I'd fail? Do I believe I'm so incompetent that my attempts to master Foodish would render me the doofbag from whom everyone hides their eyes as did my past attempts to master Jewishyouthgroupese and Neopaganese? Granted, I've just written a book about low self-esteem. My shame threshold is very low.
Or do I resist Foodish out of loyalty to my own true identity? E.g., I should speak Foodish because I write about food and live near Chez Panisse, but don't because I'm the least picky eater in the world and spent Christmas at Sizzler. (I've never eaten at Chez Panisse. I hear they serve small portions there!) I like eating. Not long ago, I would have said I love eating but loving eating has become too trendy, too competitive. You love it? Prove it! No. Please pass the unironic, watercressless, uncurried, untruffled tater tots.
Restaurant and mask images by Kristan Lawson. S'mores image courtesy of Torn Ranch. All other images by Anneli Rufus. All images used with permission.