Food and Drink

Jennifer Schuessler at The New York Times reports on the work and new book of Dan Jurafsky:

In a study of more than a million Yelp restaurant reviews, Mr. Jurafsky and the Carnegie Mellon team found that four-star reviews tended to use a narrower range of vague positive words, while one-star reviews had a more varied vocabulary. One-star reviews also had higher incidence of past tense, pronouns (especially plural pronouns) and other subtle markers that linguists have previously found in chat room discussions about the death of Princess Diana and blog posts written in the months after the Sept. 11 attacks.

In short, Mr. Jurafsky said, authors of one-star reviews unconsciously use language much as people do in the wake of collective trauma. “They use the word ‘we’ much more than ‘I,’ as if taking solace in the fact that this bad thing happened, but it happened to us together,” he said.

Another finding: Reviews of expensive restaurants are more likely to use sexual metaphors, while the food at cheaper restaurants tends to be compared to drugs.

Previous MR posts on Jurafsky are here.

This I found in a Quora forum on prepaid meals in China:

We’ve actually experimented with prepaid vs postpaid meals in our restaurant. The verdict? Upfront payment increased table turnover by over 80%.

The difference is that customers who haven’t paid can justify their occupation of a table. They surf facebook. They chat away for hours on end. They get comfy. It matters not whether they intend to order more stuff, the mere possibility of them ordering more gives them the moral upper hand.

Customers who have paid up on the other hand, do not have moral justification. They could order more food, but diminishing marginal utility and inertia discourages that act. They get edgy. They feel guilty. They leave.

It all depends on the restaurant’s business model. If it’s a low-end restaurant, this tactic will serve it well. If it’s a high end restaurant, paying $150 for that bottle of wine buys you a little more time.

For the pointer I thank Eduardo Pegurier.

Red vs. white wine, at the state level

by on September 13, 2014 at 3:03 pm in Food and Drink | Permalink

All but three states—Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa—buy more red than white, according to data compiled by online wine retailer Naked Wines. North Carolina, Mississippi, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are particularly fond of red varietals—the four buy red wine nearly 60 percent of the time, and white wine only 30 percent of the time. (The remaining roughly 10 percent account for sparkling and rose purchases).

What’s with the Midwest?  White wine to go with all that fish?  I don’t think so.  The full story, with further data, is here.

This one is so simple it is stupid, yet you hardly ever hear it.  If anything it is mocked, but I will go on record:

Eat at 5 p.m. or 5:30.

The quality of the food coming out of the kitchen will be higher.  Only the very top restaurants (and even then not always) can maintain the same quality at say 8 p.m. on a Saturday night.  It is also the easiest time for getting a reservation.

The best time to eat at @ElephantJumps is 4:20 p.m.  They’re all just sitting around, waiting to cook for you.

Oyamel is a good example of a D.C. restaurant which can be quite iffy, but is tasty and consistent first thing in the evening.

There is a beauty to having a restaurant all to yourself.  And if you don’t like the timing, have no more than an apple for lunch.

This is also a better system for getting work done, if the nature of your workplace allows it.  Few people who do the 7:30 dinner work through to 11 p.m.  If you have  dinner 5-6:30, you are ideally suited to get back into the saddle by 7:15.

But please, I hope not too many of you follow this advice.  The funny thing is, you won’t.  You will leave the low-hanging fruit behind, you strange creatures you.

It seems culture and training matter a great deal.  T.M. Luhrmann reports:

Recently, a team of anthropologists and psychologists at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University, both in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, set out to discover how language and culture affected sensory awareness. Under the leadership of Asifa Majid and Stephen C. Levinson, they made up a kit of systematic stimuli for the traditional five senses: for sight, color chips and geometric forms; for hearing, pitch, amplitude and rhythm variations; for smell, a set of scratch-and-sniff cards; and so forth. They took these kits to over 20 cultural groups around the world. Their results upend some of our basic assumptions.

For example, it’s fairly common, in scientific literature, to find the view that “humans are astonishingly bad at odor identification and naming,” as a recent review of 30 years of experiments concluded. When ordinary people are presented with the smell of ordinary substances (coffee, peanut butter, chocolate), they correctly identify about half of them. That’s why we think of scent as a trigger for personal memory — leading to the recall of something specific, particular, uniquely our own.

It turns out that the subjects of those 30 years of experiments were mostly English-speaking. Indeed, English speakers find it easy to identify the common color in milk and jasmine flowers (“white”) but not the common scent in, say, bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. When the research team presented what should have been familiar scents to Americans — cinnamon, turpentine, lemon, rose and so forth — they were terrible at naming them. Americans, they wrote, said things like this when presented with the cinnamon scratch-and-sniff card: “I don’t know how to say that, sweet, yeah; I have tasted that gum like Big Red or something tastes like, what do I want to say? I can’t get the word. Jesus it’s like that gum smell like something like Big Red. Can I say that? O.K. Big Red, Big Red gum.”

When the research team visited the Jahai, rain-forest foragers on the Malay Peninsula, they found that the Jahai were succinct and more accurate with the scratch-and-sniff cards. In fact, they were about as good at naming what they smelled as what they saw. They do, in fact, have an abstract term for the shared odor in bat droppings and the leaf of ginger root. Abstract odor terms are common among people on the Malay Peninsula.

I am good at smelling curries.

Sapiens [the new book by Yuval Noah Hariri] devotes large sections to unsparing accounts of the domestication and factory farming of cows, pigs and chickens. This, he contends, has made them some of the most genetically “successful” creatures in history but the most miserable too.

It is an interesting question how much that will prove to be the equilibrium more generally, namely the genetic superiority of slaves because they can reap more external investment.  After all, capital is more productive today than in times past, so evolution might now produce more slaves.  Here is another bit from John Reed’s coverage of the lunch interview with Hariri:

What allowed humans to become history’s most successful species, he [Hariri] argues, was our ability to construct and unify small groups behind certain “fictions” – everything from national legends and organised religion to modern value systems like human rights, and the modern limited liability company with thousands of employees and vast credit lines at its command.

…I tell Harari I like the idea of fiction as the supreme human construct.

That is from the FT’s lunch with Yuval Noah Hariri.  If I recall correctly, I pre-ordered Sapiens from UK Amazon.

Here is a new paper by Galor and Özak, highly speculative of course:

This research explores the origins of the distribution of time preference across regions. It advances the hypothesis and establishes empirically, that geographical variations in natural land productivity and their impact on the return to agricultural investment have had a persistent effect on the distribution of long-term orientation across societies. In particular, exploiting a natural experiment associated with the expansion of suitable crops for cultivation in the course of the Columbian Exchange, the research establishes that agro-climatic characteristics in the pre-industrial era that were conducive to higher return to agricultural investment, triggered selection and learning processes that had a persistent positive effect on the prevalence of long-term orientation in the contemporary era.

Didn’t Irving Fisher once say something like this?  My view in contrast is that virtually everyone has a high rate of time preference, but some (wise) people can act like low time preference individuals by choosing the proper perceived rewards and benefits, for instance by courting approval from others for saving or waiting.  It may just be pretense, but who cares?  It is not unusual to see the same person switch rapidly from high time preference to low time preference modes of thought and behavior, and this to me suggests it is all about perceptions, environment, expectations, peer effects, and other social factors, rather than genes.  In other words, choose your framing wisely.

More broadly, there is a “brute fact” that one bunch of societies have a lot of correlated positive features, and another group of societies do not.  I don’t think we’ve gotten very far beyond that brute fact in terms of what we can infer from that distribution.

The original pointer to the article is from

Cochabamba notes

by on August 29, 2014 at 8:09 am in Food and Drink, Travels | Permalink

It is very charming here, but no one can tell me exactly what they export.  Grain is a thing of the past.  There are many universities in town.  Trees, birds, and flowers are all first-rate.

I feel like I had never tasted a green pepper before.  For silpancho, go to Palacio del Silpancho.  The only item on the menu is…silpancho.  I also recommend the street tamales with corn and cheese and the street food more generally, most of all at the comedores at the market 25 de Mayo.  The “nice” restaurants are good and cheap, but not materially better than the Bolivian food you get in Falls Church, Virginia.   Viva Vinto, about forty minutes out of town, served the best meal of my trip, the taxi will wait for very little money.  Cochabamba provides one of the world’s best culinary micro-tours, although it requires a working knowledge of Spanish.

You can buy a quality Andean sweater for $12.  The potatoes are the best I have eaten, ever, both purple and otherwise.

Quechua hats are not like Aymara hats.

People smile much more in Santa Cruz.  The hotel electrical sockets use a different form here, and it would not be hard to convince somebody they were two different countries.

Big Sugar

by on August 27, 2014 at 7:09 am in Economics, Food and Drink, Political Science | Permalink

From Bloomberg:

Because of a plunge in U.S. sugar prices amid a hefty crop of sugar beets and cane, the Agriculture Department estimates that it may have to buy 400,000 tons of sugar from processors who might default on $862 million in government loans. Sugar producers have the option of repaying the loans either with cash or with their harvests if prices fall below a certain level.

…The sugar, by law, would be sold to ethanol refiners, who would pay 10 cents a pound less than the government paid — an inducement needed to get the ethanol industry to use the sugar. Aside from the ridiculousness of piling one ill-advised subsidy atop another, this would produce a loss of $80 million for the U.S. Treasury. Some industry analysts estimate the government may have to buy as much as 800,000 tons of sugar to restore balance to U.S. stockpiles, potentially doubling the loss.

Santa Cruz notes

by on August 27, 2014 at 2:36 am in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

The town square is lovely, even though they removed the sloth for fear he would electrocute himself.  The population is friendly, the weather is perfect, and there are few sights.  Unlike in much of South America, danger is not a concern.  The small children who hang out in the central square seem to think that a full embrace of a pigeon is a good idea.

The food is excellent and yet you never hear about it.  Try El Aljibe for local specialties (peanut soup, or duck and corn risotto, with egg on top), and Jardin de Asia for Amazonian Andean Peruvian Japanese Bolivian fusion.  It is hard to find the Cochabamba version of Bolivian food that has made it over to the U.S.   The steak here is decent but not as good as Argentina or Brazil.

The taxi equilibrium is that you do not ask in advance what the fare is, because that indicates you do not know.  Be confident, and you will be surprised how little money they ask for.

If you had to pick one city to represent South America as a whole, Santa Cruz might be it.  You can feel elements of Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and yes even Bolivia here, all rolled into one.  The proportions of fair-skinned, mestizo, and indigenous people mirrors the Continent as a whole more than the Altiplano.  The secession movement here seems to have failed.  Amazonian indigenous peoples and Guarani are common here.

Arriving at the airport at 3:30 a.m. involves a nightmarish wait.  There is not much air pollution.  I didn’t meet a single person in the service sector who spoke English.  People in Santa Cruz seemed fairly happy relative to their per capita income.

You can study the economic development of China by visiting Bolivia.

Markets in everything

by on August 25, 2014 at 4:05 pm in Food and Drink, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

It’s a nail polish that doubles as a way to thwart sexual assault – and it’s being developed at N.C. State University: Undercover Colors.

The chemistry startup, developed by undergrads, is creating a nail polish that, when exposed to date rape drugs, changes color.

The full story is here, via Catherine Rampell.

Department of Uh-Oh

by on August 21, 2014 at 1:00 pm in Food and Drink, Law, Uncategorized | Permalink

When it opened in 1990, the McDonald’s on Moscow’s Pushkin Square was a symbol of thawing relations with the U.S., attracting long lines and later becoming the fast-food chain’s most visited outlet world-wide.

On Wednesday evening, it stood empty, closed by Russia’s consumer-safety regulator amid the Kremlin’s most-serious confrontation with the West since the Cold War. The agency cited sanitary violations as it said that it had closed four McDonald’s Corp.’s restaurants in Moscow.

Analysts said the move was more likely the latest shot by Russia in response to U.S. and European sanctions over Moscow’s role in the armed conflict with its former Soviet neighbor, Ukraine.

Food inspectors “have been instruments of Russian foreign policy for years,” said Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He cited earlier bans on Moldovan wine and U.S. chicken.

There is more here, there is some context here.

Cochabamba bleg

by on August 16, 2014 at 1:27 pm in Food and Drink, Travel | Permalink

Thank you all for the Santa Cruz tips.  I’ll also be in Cochabamba, and so I request your advice for that destination too.  Bolivia is one of the world’s most underrated travel spots, so if you haven’t already gone you should start thinking about such a trip.

Facts about food

by on August 16, 2014 at 5:44 am in Books, Economics, Food and Drink | Permalink

Stanford’s Dan Jurafsky has written a book doing just that. In The Language of Food: A Linguist Reads the Menu, Jurafsky describes how he and some colleagues analyzed a database of 6,500 restaurant menus describing 650,000 dishes from across the U.S. Among their findings: fancy restaurants, not surprisingly, use fancier—and longer—words than cheaper restaurants do (think accompaniments and decaffeinated coffee, not sides and decaf). Jurafsky writes that “every increase of one letter in the average length of words describing a dish is associated with an increase of 69 cents in the price of that dish.” Compared with inexpensive restaurants, the expensive ones are “three times less likely to talk about the diner’s choice” (your way, etc.) and “seven times more likely to talk about the chef’s choice.”

Lower-priced restaurants, meanwhile, rely on “linguistic fillers”: subjective words like delicious, flaky, and fluffy. These are the empty calories of menus, less indicative of flavor than of low prices. Cheaper establishments also use terms like ripe and fresh, which Jurafsky calls “status anxiety” words. Thomas Keller’s Per Se, after all, would never use fresh—that much is taken for granted—but Subway would. Per Se does, however, engage in the trendy habit of adding provenance to descriptions of ingredients (Island Creek oysters, Frog Hollow’s peaches). According to Jurafsky, very expensive restaurants “mention the origins of the food more than 15 times as often as inexpensive restaurants.

There is more here, you can pre-order the book here.  My previous posts about this work are here.

David H. writes:

Yes, this Forbes list is a miserable failure, but it got me thinking about how to quantify coolness. Good restaurants are valuable, but to be cool, restaurants also need to be affordable and a little off-putting. If I were doing this, I would generate a list of touring bands that rank highly in RYM, knock out the superstars, and then see what US cities they played in the last 4 years. Each band-visit would count as a portion of coolness for that city, and a partial portion for the immediate vicinity. Also, RYM records which cities the bands came from. That should count for a lot. Then I would look for cities with an outsized and lively gay scene. I’m not sure how the causation works – whether a gay scene adds substantial coolness or whether it follows coolness – but the correlation seems pretty clear to me.

Coolness is unstable partly because it’s much more difficult to achieve in expensive cities. San Francisco and Berkeley are sinking in coolness partly for this reason. A truly cool city needs a critical mass of underemployed creative types who will devote a great deal of time to “the scene”, and this is hard to do when you’re paying $6+ for each of your beers. So, the lower the urban rents and general cost of living, the cooler the city, other things being equal.

OK, Forbes was right that proportion of young people living in the city is important. I also think that trends are important, like: Which cities are gaining young people, and which are losing them?

What else?

The link to RYM was added by me.  I would think that a truly cool place cannot be rated as cool by too many other sources.  How about that retirement community in Florida, an incorporated city, ruled largely by contract, where only the elderly live and the visits of grown children are regulated and rationed?  How about the city in America which has the highest birth rate?  Isn’t that kind of cool?  Seriously.  That would put Memphis, Ogden, and Provo in the lead.  What’s so cool about tracking RYM?