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The Grammar of Top Chef: What’s With 'It Eats Salty'?

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The critic of anything—food, wine, art, film, music—must develop ways to describe an experience that go beyond the usual vocabulary lists. Good, bad, beautiful, ugly and a few hundred other words related to the way things look, sound, and taste, and smell might be sufficient for ordinary description, but the professional opinion-giver has to keep things vivid and fresh. To do this, they might come up with new or unusual words, or uncommon metaphors, but sometimes what’s called for is a new syntactic structure. At least that seems to be the idea behind a linguistic trend making its noticeable way through the judges of Top Chef.

In a recent post on Language Log, Ben Zimmer took a look at this trend after it came to light through Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi’s use of the phrase “it eats salty” to describe a dish made by a contestant. Merlin Mann, cohost of Top Scallops, a podcast about Top Chef, registered his objection to the phrase with a tweet:

In response, Daniel Tse pointed out that this type of construction isn’t as unusual as it might seem. It’s similar to the grammatical “middle voice” (or “mediopassive voice”) which is somewhere between active and passive. It’s what allows us to say “the orange peels easily” (Who’s doing the peeling? Not the orange) or “the book is selling well” (Who’s doing the selling? Not the book).

However, the usual examples of middle voice have an adverb (easily, well) rather than an adjective (salty), so there does seem to be something new about this Top Chef construction. And, as discussed in the post, “it eats salty” is not the only example. Judges have also said “it eats sweet,” “it ate very savory” and “it didn’t eat that way.” Zimmer sees the construction as a hybrid between middle voice syntax and the grammar of verbs of perception like taste, smell, sound, feel, and look which do take adjectives. We say “it tastes salty,” not “it tastes saltily.” There is a blending where a middle voice take on the verb eat is under influence from the concept of “taste.” As Zimmer says, “We could call it gastro-syntactic fusion cuisine.”

So where is this coming from, and why don’t the judges just say “it tastes salty” if that’s what they mean? A quick look around at restaurant reviews shows that it’s not just the judges of Top Chef who find this construction useful, and the middle voice eats is not quite the same thing as taste.

Sometimes its meaning is close to taste:

“It eats dry.” [D Magazine]

“It eats like a lobster” [ny.eater.com]

But more often it stands in for a wider range of eating-related sensation than taste: texture, chewiness, mouthfeel, or even the physical strategy for eating:

“Cut like a pizza, it eats like a Korean frittata.” [columbusalive.com] 

“The flesh is resoundingly rich, as short ribs always are, but it eats more like a tender steak than a piece of stew meat.” [newyork.seriouseats.com]

“If that sounds a little like a candy bar, it eats like one, too.” [New York Times]

“Swai is a Thai catfish, but it eats like bluegill, which I love.” [Slug Magazine]

“Not that red curry with catfish, though. It eats like a rocket. If you're sensitive to heat, avoid this dish completely.” [Dallas Observer]

“A pool of aioli so thick and lemony it eats like savory lemon curd.” [Village Voice]  

And much of the time it doesn’t even necessarily relate to food-related sensation in particular but to the whole surrounding experience of dining:

“The dishes are so well coordinated that it eats as a continuous meal.” [adrainsrestaurantreviews.com]

“It looks like a pub, it eats like a gourmet restaurant.” [tripadvisor.com]

“A menu that sometimes reads better than it eats.” [Denver Post]

“Rubicon is bar-centric but it eats like a great restaurant.” [pennlive.com]

“It is probably better to order in the dead middle of winter, but it eats just fine in July as well.” [glutenfreedetectiveagency.com]

“Treacle-baked ribs (above) sounds like an English dish; it eats like something from the American deep south.” [eyeslikeplates.com]

Thirty years ago, when Campbell's Chunky Soup introduced its slogan "The soup that eats like a meal," it didn't mean that the soup tasted like a meal, but that it was substantial like a meal, filled you up like a meal, was acceptable to serve on its own as a meal. It referenced the larger general experience of eating, beyond just taste. It wasn't the active "you eat this soup as you would a meal" nor the passive "this soup gets eaten like a meal" but something in between, the middle voice, the mediopassive, not foregrounding the soup's characteristics, or your actions upon the soup, but the quality of the soup-eating experience itself, the gestalt of a food-based experience, if you will. In our current atmosphere of foodie culture, where people read about food, watch TV shows about food, and obsess about food in a way that doesn't necessarily entail that they will actually be tasting that food, it's probably a handy thing to have a compact way to express "here's what the experience of eating this is like." If it reads a bit strange, so be it.

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Big Questions
Where Should You Place the Apostrophe in President's Day?
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Happy Presidents’ Day! Or is it President’s Day? Or Presidents Day? What you call the national holiday depends on where you are, who you’re honoring, and how you think we’re celebrating.

Saying "President’s Day" infers that the day belongs to a singular president, such as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, whose birthdays are the basis for the holiday. On the other hand, referring to it as "Presidents’ Day" means that the day belongs to all of the presidents—that it’s their day collectively. Finally, calling the day "Presidents Day"—plural with no apostrophe—would indicate that we’re honoring all POTUSes past and present (yes, even Andrew Johnson), but that no one president actually owns the day.

You would think that in the nearly 140 years since "Washington’s Birthday" was declared a holiday in 1879, someone would have officially declared a way to spell the day. But in fact, even the White House itself hasn’t chosen a single variation for its style guide. They spelled it “President’s Day” here and “Presidents’ Day” here.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Maybe that indecision comes from the fact that Presidents Day isn’t even a federal holiday. The federal holiday is technically still called “Washington’s Birthday,” and states can choose to call it whatever they want. Some states, like Iowa, don’t officially acknowledge the day at all. And the location of the punctuation mark is a moot point when individual states choose to call it something else entirely, like “George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day” in Arkansas, or “Birthdays of George Washington/Thomas Jefferson” in Alabama. (Alabama loves to split birthday celebrations, by the way; the third Monday in January celebrates both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert E. Lee.)

You can look to official grammar sources to declare the right way, but even they don’t agree. The AP Stylebook prefers “Presidents Day,” while Chicago Style uses “Presidents’ Day.”

The bottom line: There’s no rhyme or reason to any of it. Go with what feels right. And even then, if you’re in one of those states that has chosen to spell it “President’s Day”—Washington, for example—and you use one of the grammar book stylings instead, you’re still technically wrong.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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language
Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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