Funny how some words we just know. Like the word “menu.” Do you remember ever looking it up the dictionary? Or asking somebody for a definition? Chances are that you did not. It came into your vocabulary as if by osmosis. It is older than your teeth, as my Latin teacher would say.
The fact of the matter is that “menu” is a French term that remains virtually unchanged across languages. Travel to Holland or Italy and the waiter will hand you a menu. It’s origins according to the American Heritage Dictionary traces back to Latin. From “minutus” or small. The same root from which we get “minute.”
Without menu, we might ask for the “bill of fare.” In fact, Thomas Jefferson might just have done so since the earliest recorded use of menu did not happen until the 19th century.
This instrument serves as our first encounter with a meal at nearly every restaurant. It enables our discriminating minds to select from dishes that the kitchen is willing to prepare. What sounds good today?
Most menus organize themselves according to category. The first, smaller dishes, or appetizers get their own section and the main, larger items huddle under the banner of “entrees.” This is the part where the Brits chuckle.
Few Americans realize that “entree” is another way to say “starter.” So dining in the US looks like a couple of beginnings and an end to the eyes of a European. We have no center.
What is fascinating about the menu is the care by which the chef announces their dishes. Menu items can come with a key phrase and / or a description. An author might see this as a title and subtitle. They intend to arrest the attention of the diner and prepare them for what to expect.
In this way, the name of a dish can stand as both provocative and contractual. Like a diva who practices law on the side. It says “hey mister, sink your teeth into this mouthwatering burger, but don’t complain that we did not tell you about the pickle and onions.”
Chefs describe their fare in one of several ways. There’s the descriptive, fanciful, cultural or symbolic expressions.
Descriptive menu items pretty much layout the ingredients. For example, two all beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, onion on a sesame seed bun. (McDonald’s Big Mac).
BBQ joints show the simplicity of their menu. Cooper’s in LLano, TX pretty much names the cut of meat. You get the idea that everything is smoked and served with a spicy sweet sauce. Your choice on the protein.
Even high end eateries like Cotogna in San Francisco may just tell you that its “Red Snapper with shelling beans.”
Max’s Wine Dive makes “chicken and waffles” for brunch. While Southern heritage plays a part in the breakfast pairing, you pretty much know what you are getting with this description.
At times, chefs play the creativity card. This is where the modifiers to those nouns come about. It is what characterizes the second convention of naming dishes.
Chefs at The Burning Tree in Otter Creek in Maine change their menu regularly. However you catch a glance of this fanciful naming when they list “lavender roasted chicken breast.”
Go to the Palace Kitchen for “Martha’s handmade parsnip ravioli.” Not only are we sensitized to the magical idea of whipped root vegetables inside a pasta pillow, we are introduced to the author.
Culture plays it’s part in naming as well. This factors into the third style of naming conventions. In the land of Italian food we find Margarita pizza or pasta carbonara. Enter a Mexican restaurant and enchiladas, chalupas and nachos fill up the menu.
Phil’s Ice House takes this convention further by going into the specific culture of Austin. Their burgers are named after particular neighborhoods like Crestview or Rosedale. The Austinites know the Violet Crown as a hipster movie theater.
Of course chef’s can mix things up. Try the Tres Leche French Toast (Max’s Wine Dive). Basically “three milk” cake prepared in the American tradition of griddled,egg-soaked bread. We have two traditions mixed up into a fanciful combo.
Symbolic convention is the last way chefs name their dishes. Images from well outside the food realm add new meaning.
The food truck known as the Evil Wiener provides us with “Cowgirl” (pictured at top of the post). A saucy ranch hand of the female persuasion leaps to mind. The chef gives us as much attitude and poise with this name.
Pizzeria Bianco teases us with “Wise guy” pizza in Phoenix.
Uchiko offers “Hot Rock” where diners literally cook their own steak table side on deeply heated stones. How much more zen is that?
And in our own kitchen, the tomatoes were “garlic shocked” before resting on top of the lemon-scented pasta.
Celebrity chef, Susan Feniger calls her super charged boiled eggs as “Angry Eggs” at the LA restaurant, Street.
We learn about Susan’s gift for storytelling from master storyteller, Peter Guber in his book, Tell to Win. Every waiter steeps in the narrative that inspired each dish. This layers a new dimension to the experience because every menu item comes with a hero’s journey.
This speaks to power of words and the power of stories. And while Juliet might argue that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, we contend here, that it would not taste the same.
We have the chance to capture the attention of our diners long before the kitchen vapors do. We play with context in the mind when we name a thing. We play with memory and feelings with carefully hung words. Let’s not miss the opportunity.
Feel the same or differently? Let us hear about it in the commentary box.
It was a rubber chicken, three feet long, that was stuffed into a tubular FedEx package. The chicken had on a little paper jersey. On one side, the jersey read, “Don’t fowl out!”; on the other, “You’re about to fowl out! However you can avoid the bench and keep on playing. Just read the attached. … To me, the headline of an ad (the FedEx box) has only one purpose: to get the reader to read the subheadline. And the only purpose of the subheadline (the rubber Chicken) is to get the reader to read the copy….Selling begins with the headline.” Jon Spoelstra, Marketing Outrageously Redux, Bard Press, 2010 (pg 185, 186, 188)