A Way with Words
An award-winning food writer and creator of the long running blog The Food Section, Josh Friedland was the man behind one of Twitter’s greatest mysteries—the elusive and satirical personality mash-up known as @RuthBourdain, which won a James Beard Award for Humor. He’s dropped the alternate persona, and has now authored a new book, Eatymology: The Dictionary of Modern Gastronomy, in which he demystifies 100 new food terms that have snuck into our vocabulary over the past 15 years, like selmelier (a salt sommelier), fat washing (flavoring liquor with high fat ingredients like bacon), and brocavore (“a male hipster denizen of the local food scene”). Below, Friedland talks about the inspiration for his new book, how Twitter has influenced his career and what it was like being the anonymous voice known as Ruth Bourdain.
AZ.com: When did you start collecting words for this book and what was your inspiration? Where did you find these phrases?
Josh Friedland: I’ve always been interested in words and vocabulary, but I started actively collecting new food words in 2009 on my blog, thefoodsection.com. I’m a voracious consumer of food media, so I would take note of new words when I found them in newspapers, magazines, and blogs. As the idea of putting these words together in a book took shape, I actively sought them out in more obscure places like scientific journals and trade magazines and websites. Those are some great sources for new words.
I also love the work of Ben Schott, who not only wrote Schott’s Miscellany, which is filled with all sorts of great curiosities, but also his op-ed pieces for the New York Times, where he decodes the secret language of bartenders, or the hand signals of waiters and restaurant managers. It’s fascinating.
AZ.com: How did you choose what to include?
JF: With a few exceptions, I wanted to include only words that were coined since 2000, so any words that surfaced before 2000 were generally excluded. I also took pains to strike a balance between words that were novel, but may not be known to everyone. These are mostly words that live just under the surface of being mainstream, even if everyone—or at least people into food—can instantly recognize their meanings. For example, “foodiots”—overzealous (and annoying) instagramming foodies—might be recognizable to everyone but the word might be a surprise. On the other hand, words like “locavore,” which are brand new to the language and emerged after 2000 are so commonplace that nobody would think twice about them any more. I also tried to keep the book palatable, so I shied away from anything too offensive (i.e., “butt chugging” didn’t make the cut).
AZ.com: Most of these phrases didn’t exist 20 years ago, like bone luge, cronut or fat washing. Do you think the vocabulary in this book is here to stay?
JF: I think all three of those are definitely here to stay. When the cronut has morphed from uber-food trend into something (not as good, mind you) that you can find behind the counter at Dunkin Donuts, you know it’s become mainstream.
On the other hand, an entry like “duckeasy” (a speakeasy for serving foie gras in places where the delicacy has been banned) has a short shelf life. While duckeasies did crop up when California and Chicago banned foie gras, those prohibitions have been repealed or overturned by courts. As a result, duckeasies have gone the way of their alcoholic ancestors.
AZ.com: Give us a little background on three of your favorite new food words.
JF: Selmelier (a salt sommelier) and all the other new kinds of sommeliers, from beer sommeliers to water sommeliers to mustard sommeliers crack me up. I find the word nommunication fascinating. It ‘s a hybrid Japanese and English word (nomu means “to drink”) describing the informal social discourse that occurs between coworkers in Japan when they get together to drink after hours.
Gastro-anomy is also very interesting to me and apropos to how we eat now. The term borrows from the sociologist Emile Durkheim’s concept of anomie, the condition of instability between the individual and society when social standards and values break down. Gastro-anomy is individual anxiety fueled by open-ended food choices and a breakdown in norms about eating. It captures the confusing world we live in now where we find ourselves pulled in so many competing directions about making food choices—from ethics, to nutrition, sustainability, and, of course, deliciousness (which really knows no bounds).
AZ.com: You’re obviously a champion of Twitter. How has the use of that platform changed your career?
JF: Well, I couldn’t have created the Ruth Bourdain character without Twitter. It gave me the opportunity to not only self-publish without any filter, but also interact directly with the people and the conversations I was spoofing. That would have been impossible pre-Twitter. While Ruth Bourdain was a big stretch from the kind of writing I was used to, I think it was good for my own development as a writer to get out of my comfort zone and try new things. One of the great things about Twitter is that you get an immediate response and immediate gratification to what you write. So, yes, while one can fret over penning a tweet, there’s much less anxiety involved than developing an article or a book. If you can go with your gut and write what you want, you immediately get to see what works and what doesn’t.
AZ.com: Three years is a long time to stay anonymous as the voice behind Ruth Bourdain. What was it like having the ability to be totally incognito?
JF: It was pretty great to have an alternate persona. It gave me license to write what I wanted to without consequence (or worrying about consequences). Also, because of the nature of Twitter, the persona could have an equal footing and converse in real time with real people, including celebrity chefs and other food writers. There was something really addicting and exciting about playing that kind of role. On the other hand, I would say it started to warp my perspective on food: Once you start not taking food seriously, it’s hard to go back. It really made it very apparent how many clichés are out there and how easy it is to use clichéd ways of talking and writing about food. For a while, it kind of killed my capacity to write about food in a more serious, measured (less satirical) way. Despite that, sometimes I miss the character and when I see something in the food media that needs spoofing, it’s hard to resist thinking “What would Ruth Bourdain tweet?”
AZ.com: Has life changed since you out-ed yourself to the New York Times?
JF: I can’t say that my life has changed radically since “coming out.” I got pilloried by some people for revealing myself and coming clean. On the other hand, I don’t have to live with a deep, dark secret. I’m excited to be publishing Eatymology and to do so with my own name on the cover.
AZ.com: What’s in your fridge?
JF: Milk, orange juice, seltzer, beer, couple bottles of white and rose wine, sake, sriracha, mustard, chorizo, parmigiano reggiano, manchego, butter, Monterey jack, flour and corn tortillas, green salsa, Wallaby Lowfat Greek Yogurt (the best!), apricot jam, leftover chicken thighs braised in soy sauce, leftover roasted Brussels sprouts, Fuji apples, decaying olives, homemade sweet vermouth (gift from a friend), Japanese Kewpie Mayonnaise, leftover pasta with butter, sambal oelek chili sauce, red miso, lemons, limes, onions, Schofferhofer grapefruit wheat beer, eggs, soy sauce, broccoli rabe, simple syrup, half can tuna, fish sauce, Dijon mustard, maple syrup, mirin, rice wine vinegar, carrots, hummus.
About Josh Friedland
Josh Friedland is an award-winning food writer and author and is the creator of “Ruth Bourdain,” a Twitter mashup that won the James Beard Award for Humor. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Washington Post, Olive (BBC), Time Out NY, epicurious, CHOW, and Tasting Table.