Learning from Experts: Dan Jurafsky

In the spring of 2015, I was lucky enough to audit a new course in the USC Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism called “Food, Media, and Culture.” The class provided a source of inspiration for this blog and opened my eyes to food in Los Angeles. Over 14 weeks, we heard from a bevy of EXCELLENT guest speakers; I’ll write about the most thought-provoking speakers in this “Learning from Experts” series. Today’s agenda: Professor Dan Jurafsky.

Have you ever wondered:

  • If there is a relationship between the country Turkey and the bird Turkey?
  • Why macaron and macaroon are basically the same word, but seem like two totally different cookies?
  • Where did Ketchup come from?

Well you’re in luck, today I’ll tell you how to find out.

I had to get some macarons in preparation for writing this post. It was for research.

I had to get some macarons in preparation for writing this post. It was for research.

Dan is a professor of linguistics and computer science at Stanford and his research focuses on food in language. He combines history, computational analysis, linguistics, and anthropology to speak and write about the words we use to describe food. He won the MacArthur Genius Award in 2002.

Over the past few years, Dan researched the history of common foods in this country to understand where they came from, what cultures created them, how they got mangled over the years, and how they are used today. He also collected data from online restaurant menus to study correlations between word choices and price.

Dan came to class with over 100 slides which he slammed through, covering everything from the Ottoman Empire to contemporary Chinese-food restaurants. As a food-lover, a food-discusser, and a one-time student of linguistics, I completely loved everything Dan covered. In fact, he was slated to speak the following day in LA at a book reading for his recently published book, The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, so I went to hear him again!

The answers to the questions at the beginning of this post come from history. At this moment in time, looking back provides a road-map of why we use certain words for certain foods. And, just like our prose changes, the foods we eat now are NOT the same as what they used to be. That recipe you’re making that was passed down from your great-grandmother…it’s probably not the same as what she actually made. But hey, that’s what keeps food interesting!

How is this related to sustainable food? To me, the more we know about where food comes from, the generations of people that have shaped it, and the blending of cultures that resulted in what it is today, the more we take ownership. The more we take ownership, the greater chance we’ll really care. And when we care about something, we look to make better choices to protect and improve it. Choices that are healthier both for people and the planet.