Food, or Poetry?

A few weeks ago, my mother and grandmother flew into town for a weekend visit. I obviously had to take them to Caf√© Zola, my absolute favorite breakfast spot in Ann Arbor. A few minutes after taking our seats, my grandmother shook her head in frustration. “This menu is really enormous,” she complained. “How could anyone ever choose what to order from all of this?”

Being the expert that I am on breakfast foods (I worked at the Original Pancake House for four years), I encouraged her to skip reading the menu and just order one of the waffles (I encourage you all to try them as well – they’re made with Greek yogurt, which makes for a tangy cake-like texture that is really out-of-this-world). Probably accepting that her granddaughter must obviously be as bright as she, my grandmother promptly shut the menu and stowed her reading glasses. And then she said something quite interesting: “You know, my friend’s grandson is writing an honors thesis about those.”

Wait a minute. A thesis about waffles?

“No,” she laughed. “About restaurant menus!”

How curious, a thesis about menu writing! Upon further reflection, however, it’s not all that outlandish. Even though I’ve never thought about it while reading a menu (hunger and all of the possibilities of food in front of me usually trump everything else in those moments), the people who write restaurant menus have to employ many of the same rhetorical choices and strategies we’ve come to know and love as writers of academic papers and new media. Before you continue reading this post, I encourage you to read food writer and broadcaster Simon Majumdar’s rant about menu writing (“…with the modern prevalence of bar snacks, small plates, tasting menus, family style sharing platters and happy hours, you need a degree from Harvard to provide an algorithm for ordering successfully”).

 

In the name of objectivity (I don’t share Majumdar’s passionate albeit humorous anger), we can think about writing menus in three ways:

Theme

Every restaurant menu has a theme: the colors, layout, pictures and fonts contained within usually complement the restaurant’s theme and decor. The menu’s theme should not detract from the text, and the text should be large enough so that anyone would be able to read it. We have made many of the same thematic choices when making (for example) PowerPoint presentations. Choosing which pictures to include and how large to make the text are important choices in making sure that the content is effectively communicated to our audience.

Layout

Most restaurant menus that I come across are separated into logical, chronological categories that flow similar to the order that the standard meal occurs (i.e. appetizers, followed by entrees, followed by dessert). Shouldn’t our academic papers be structured in much the same way? We have to feed the brain of our readers with information that is presented in a chronological and logical way, otherwise they are likely to experience some confusion and won’t know where to start or how to make connections.

 Grammar and Spelling

This one is pretty self-explanatory. Just like any piece of academic writing, if a menu has typographical errors and misspellings, it conveys lack of effort and detracts from the content.

And now, you will view every menu you read for the rest of your life as one big rhetorical strategy. You’re welcome.

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