A coming-together of ensembles
Thursday 05 September 1996
I don't mean the way people actually use handwriting on menus, although even that changes from time to time. In modern days, it has become more and more usual to employ an angular Italic script on menus, which looks ever so calligraphic but does make the deciphering of the menu that much harder, as all the tall letters tend to resemble each other, as do the small ones at a lower level, and the handwriting ends up as an LS Lowry drawing of a line of people walking into the wind. This means that when you find something on the menu masquerading as "putrid wallet", it takes a moment to interpret it as "panfried mullet", or indeed to decode "Tall soup with logarithms" as "Thai soup with lemongrass".
But the actual language of menus is changing as well as their handwriting. Not just in the introduction of words like "panfried", which is a puzzling word, because you can't fry things anywhere but in a pan, so why not just say "fried"? Nor in the gradual invasion of words like "coulis" and "sabayon", which have come from some dictionary known only to chefs and menu-writers and mean nothing to the ordinary public. No, I don't mean just those foolishnesses. I mean the way in which dishes are increasingly being given personalities of their own.
I first noticed it in the addition of the phrase "with its", as in "Roast guinea fowl with its accompanying chestnut and sage sauce". Why do they always say "with its accompanying chestnut and sage sauce"? Why not just say "Roast guinea fowl with chestnut and sage sauce"? It means the same and is shorter. Why bother to say with its accompanying sauce, as if the guinea fowl had turned up at the kitchen that night with a suitcase full of its own sauce? It sounds like one of those announcements they make at grand balls, when the footman takes a name and says loudly: "The Archbishop of Canterbury, with Mrs Carey!", as if the wife or partner was a piece of designer luggage.
Or perhaps it is like one of those notices you get outside French towns which are trying to tempt passing tourists to stay, and which list the attractions right there on the town sign. "Issy-les-Deux-Tours - ses moulins, son chateau, son marche!". Issy-les-Deux-Tours, with its accompanying mills and castle and market ... Roast guinea fowl, with its fabulous chestnut and sage sauce ...
In any case, I now realise that the menu habit is different from the French town habit, because it is definitely developing sexual overtones. No longer do people say "Roast guinea fowl with its accompanying chestnut and sage sauce". They have now started saying things like "A duo of roast guinea fowl and chestnut and sage sauce", or even "A rendezvous of roast guinea fowl and chestnut and sage sauce". You must have noticed it too. Words like "duo" and "rendezvous" are all over the menus these days, and if they don't have sexual overtones, I'll eat my hat with a duo of its scarf.
There was a time when menu-writing only had overtones of haute couture, and painting and decorating. Things had their dressing and coating, or were encased or wrapped in coatings. Indeed I have even seen things on a menu "draped" in other things, but I think "coated" was always the favourite word, perhaps because you can use coats both in haute couture and in interior decor. Whenever I read on a menu that a fillet of turbot, say, had been panfried and then "coated in yoghurt and sprinkled with sesame seeds", I always had a vision of something being given a fresh lick of paint and then pebbledashed. But now all the painting and decorating, and dressing and tailoring, is over. The steaks have been trimmed. The portions have been dressed. Let the partnerships take place. Let the banns be read. Let the duos and the rendezvouses break out all over the menu. Let mango cohabit with coriander, let tomato lie down with mint, let lime go with lemongrass ...
Do you think I am going too far? But don't forget that the language of the menu has always been partly sexual. Don't forget that things have always been served (an ambiguous word in itself) on a bed of other things. Don't forget that chefs are getting younger and younger and that this must be reflected sooner or later in the menu. The fact that people like me now start blushing as soon as they start reading modern menus will not affect progress. I shall just have to get used to it. I suppose I should be grateful that it is only duos and rendezvouses appearing on our menus, and not menages a trois or orgies.
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