Exclusive Excerpt: “The Dish: The Language of Food”

Food is not just food. It’s a repository for the food critic’s deepest desires, subconscious dreams, secret fears, and eternal longings. The responsibility of the food critic is to tease out those hidden meanings, reflect on past relationships, and explore the very meaning of life. Even if the critic is presented with a simple bowl of macaroni and cheese, never underestimate the opportunity for gastronomic genuflection.

All critics use a simple mnemonic device for creating descriptions of dishes that goes by the easy-to-remember acronym PONTIFICATE. Each letter of the word refers to a specific facet of the dish that must be addressed in the critic’s review. Let’s take a look at how a critic might use this device to describe a dish of braised short ribs with potato and turnip puree.

P for Peppery

A description of a dish is incomplete without a reference to its essential pepperiness. This is de rigueur for all dish descriptions.

O for Onomatopoeia

Here’s where you get to make up words! Can you come up with a word that imitates the sound and feeling of eating the dish? For example, the critic might report that the short ribs arrive “bubbling and burbling” in a cast-iron pot.

N for Narrative point of view

One of the most important decisions for the critic is to choose his or her position in relation to the dish. A first-person description might go something like this: Out of the corner of my eye, I witnessed my waiter bringing me my entrée. Little did I know that I would soon be tasting the short ribs of my dreams.

On the other hand, a second-person review speaks directly to the reader: You are undeserving of this dish. Yes, you may have tasted short ribs, but nothing in your poor little existence could prepare you for the glory of this entrée. You must bow down before it.

Another option, though rarely used, is the third person point of view: He thought about ordering the roast chicken. But, if he did so, he would have made a horrible mistake. Failing to order the short ribs would represent his ultimate fall into a chasm of despair, which he might never escape.

T for Transportation

Restaurant critics are frequently “transported” by a dish: One taste of the short ribs and I was transported to a small village in Provence in the fifteenth century.

I for Illegality

DO: The short ribs are so good they should be illegal.

DON’T: When I went to the bathroom, I peeked in the kitchen and saw that the short ribs were being prepared by illegal immigrants.

F for Fantasy

The “real” world may not be enough to explain what’s on the plate. That’s where fantasy comes into play. One critic might merely mention the short ribs’ “ethereal” or “otherworldly” qualities, while another may resort to more detailed flights of fantasy: Were a forest nymph to bed an angel, the wings of its offspring would not be as light as this potato-turnip puree.

I for Ice-T

A hip-hop reference always enlivens any restaurant review: I’m a cop killer, better you than me./ Cop killer, fuck police brutality!/ Cop killer, these short ribs are undeniably unctuous.

C for Childhood

A reference to the critic’s childhood is a must: As I put my lips to my fork, the experience of nourishment and attachment was not unlike an infant suckling at his mother’s teat for the very first time.

A for Avalanches

Ever since the Japanese earthquake of 2011, it has been inappropriate for critics to write about a “tsunami of flavor.” Use “avalanche of flavor” instead.

T for Teasing

Many of the world’s best restaurant critics were teased as children. As adults, they are still haunted by their youth: Garlicky and redolent of bacon, the short ribs tease the palate without bullying.

E for Epiphany

Highlight the revelatory nature of the dish: I don’t consider myself a religious man, but after one taste of these short ribs, I was bestowed with a new understanding of my small place in the universe. If there is a God, he would give this restaurant four stars.


—From Comfort Me with Offal, Ruth Bourdain’s Guide to Gastronomy, Andrews McMeel Publishing, LLC