Language of taste

The language of taste. Discursive aspects of gastronomic reviews of Brussels’ restaurants in the 20th century (preliminary title).

Steven Van den Berghe

The last two decades there has been a surge in the volume of academic research into food and drink. It is striking that many historians, anthropologists and sociologists do not limit their attention to who eats what, how, when and with whom, but also focus on how people talk and write about food and drink. This interest in discourse is part of a broader tendency in social sciences, the so-called linguistic turn, which essentially means that researchers try to interpret language and language variation as a historical source. The aim of this research project is to find out whether and how social and cultural relationships surface in language use about restaurants in the 20th century, paying particular attention to the second half of that century. This historical dimension allows an investigation of how gastronomic discourse evolves against a background of not only culinary, but also cultural, economical, political and social changes. The central source of this study are gastronomic critiques of Brussels’ restaurants. These critiques contain names of dishes and restaurants, but also judgements on diners and staff, remarks about food habits and norms and references (often implicit) to authenticity and identity. The relevant texts are collected and digitalised. This corpus of texts is then analysed with a set of quantitative techniques (frequency analysis, concordances and collocations). The goal of this quantitative analysis is to find certain linguistic phenomena, such as the emergence of new terminology, a sudden increase or decrease in the use of certain words or the use of lexical items with a different meaning or in a new context. In this first stage of the analysis, the focus is primarily on the lexical level. In the next stage of the investigation, the results of the quantitative analysis are interpreted quantitatively. This happens by means of a hermeneutical analysis of the texts, an interpretive reading in which relationships between texts and the social and cultural context that shapes them (and which they help shape) are made explicit.