Robin Lakoff: The Linguistics of Food

First, a confession. I don’t always read my email carefully. A few weeks ago, I received an announcement for last week’s PARC Forum, a periodic lecture series that I often attend. I skimmed the announcement, and two words immediately jumped out at me: “Lakoff” and “identity.” That was enough for me to put it in my calendar.    (14E)

I had read the announcement carefully enough to see that it was Robin Lakoff, not George Lakoff, who was speaking. This was fine; she is also a Berkeley linguist, and I was curious to hear her thoughts. I also assumed that Robin is George’s wife, which as it turns out, is not the case. A little bit of Internet searching suggested that she might be his ex-wife, but I have yet to confirm this. As for “identity,” I thought that Lakoff might offer some insights that would be relevant to digital identities.    (14F)

Unbelievably, I missed a very important word in the talk’s description: “food.” The talk was entitled, “Identity a la Carte; or, You Are What You Eat,” and the theme was how we construct minor identities of ourselves around food. I walked into the talk a bit late, but was delighted when I started listening and realized what the talk was actually about. Lakoff was a charming speaker with a dry sense of humor, and the talk was entertaining and informative.    (14G)

Lakoff’s thesis was that how we talk about and interact with food says a lot about ourselves. She gave an outstanding overview of the history of food in our culture, explaining that the recent interest in food stood in sharp contrast to the 1950s, where it wasn’t considered very masculine or even very American. One metric for demonstrating the rise of interest in food is the proliferation of cookbooks. The other are the new words that have recently entered our vocabulary, such as “foodie.”    (14H)

Lakoff then explained that the rise in interest in food over the past 50 years paralleled a similar rise from colonial times to the mid-19th century in America. Initially, servants were largely responsible for cooking, which they learned from their mothers. With the rise of the middle class, the responsibility shifted to people themselves. A similar phenomenon was responsible for the emergence of restaurants in France. Because the aristocracy was overthrown in the French Revolution, the cooks needed to find something else to do, so they started up restaurants.    (14I)

The evolution in people’s interest in and roles regarding food are evident in the recipes themselves. Recipes in the colonial period were concise and fairly ambiguous. They were general guidelines for experienced cooks. This began to change in the 19th century, culminating in Fannie Farmer’s cookbooks in the 1890s, which perfected the measurements and specifications still used in cookbooks today.    (14J)

Curiously, in the past 50 years, there has been a rise in interest in food, but the reverse phenomenon has occurred with recipes. Lakoff compared a scalloped potatoes recipe from the Joy of Cooking, Julia Childs’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse Vegetables. The first was no-nonsense, with the traditional listing of ingredients followed by fairly detailed instructions. Childs followed the same basic formula, except the measurements were less precise and the terminology more advanced. Waters did not list measurements at all. She clearly spoke to the reader as a peer, suggesting amounts “to taste” and offering suggestions for variations on a theme as opposed to a rigorous formula for a single dish.    (14K)

I think there’s an important lesson in knowledge management here. If the purpose of knowledge management systems it to make humans smarter, then we must design systems with humans in mind. The Semantic Web suggests that we need to express knowledge precisely. The lesson here is that we need to express knowledge as precisely as our users demand, which may not be very much. We have to take into account the tacit knowledge already in the heads of our users.    (14L)

During questions-and-answers, one audience member noted wryly that the fall of the Roman Empire was preceded by Romans erecting statues of their favorite chefs, and hoped that history would not repeat itself given our current obsession with food.    (14M)

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