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Misspelled Mouthfuls

[whitespace] Outrage over rampant misspellings on menus drives our restaurant critic over the fuzzy edge of postmodern deconstructivism

By Christina Waters

MAYBE I HAD seen "Caesar" butchered one too many times, or maybe that brunch menu featuring "Leak and Brocolli Soup" pushed me over the edge. If I see "hors d'oeuvres" sliced and diced one more time I am going to disembowel someone. Who knows which one of these violations of ordinary food-world language was the straw that broke the camel's back, but something in me has snapped when it comes to the flagrant disregard for correct spelling displayed, often expensively, on menus everywhere.

If you've ever winced at the manifold variations on the ill-fated emperor's name--"Ceaser, Ceasar, Caeser"--then you may have felt as I do. There you are at a restaurant, prepared to spend some money on what you hope will be a quality meal. You glance at the menu and your eye snags on the first six items, all grouped under the collective heading: "hors d'oeovres." Now assuming that you are aware that something's wrong here, your reaction might run something like this: Why should I trust this place to provide a fair product for my money if they don't even pay attention to how they advertise that product?

You're already uneasy about dinner. Your confidence in the management has slipped. "Why didn't anyone catch that glaring error?" you might be wondering. I find myself wondering why they didn't stick to a word they could presumably manage, like "appetizers." (That's two p's and one t.)

Let's continue with this all-too-common scenario. Undaunted, you grin and let pass the slaughter of the French word for appetizer. You look further down the menu. You notice that you can order your grilled halibut with something called buerre blanche. You also notice some nice fresh Sonoma foi gras, and all of this, including a Ceasar salad and desert, is part of a pre fix menu.

What's the deal? When you joke with the wait person, casually, mind you--you don't want to tip your hand as an uptight modernist--about the misspelling of "radicchio," her eyes glaze a bit. Oh, is it misspelled? She hadn't noticed.

Duh. There's the rub. If you don't know how a word is spelled in the first place, it becomes a viciously self-defeating project to spell it correctly.

I know you're thinking--Hey, lighten up, food fascist. This is America, where English is presumably the first language. We can be excused for fouling up when it comes to French, or--scalloppine, focaccia, raddichio--Italian.

MANAGERS at several restaurants I spoke with agreed that foreign words are dicey. But those whose menus were free of misspellings all confessed to the frequent use of dictionaries.

"We have a food dictionary in our kitchen," said a hostess at Spago in Palo Alto. "And we use it regularly. We always look up spellings, especially of troublesome words of French origin, like crème fraîche. We have to look it up."

She also said that the chef, trained in European cookery by Europeans, knew all the correct spellings, and "he checks everything we do."

Aha! Here is an organization that bothers to check and double-check for mistakes as newspaper proofreaders do--the idea being that pride in your product motivates you to want to rid your document of errors.

But even setting aside the special problems involving foreign words, what about the list of pastries at the end of a meal, under "Deserts." No. "Deserts" include the Sahara, the Mojave, the Gobi. Geographical locations with lots of sand. "Desserts" include crème brûlée, pie, tiramisu and the like. Sweets with lots of calories.

And what about that "leak" soup, implying that the kitchen is undergoing a plumbing crisis. A leak is something that happens when your pipes burst. A leek doesn't flood your bathroom.

In a word, the spell checker. It's our friend, it's our enemy. A spell check allows us to make sure that basic words in the English language are spelled correctly in a computerized document--but it cannot help us out if those words are being misused. The chef's soup is made from a vegetable relative of the onion, the leek. And both "desert" and "dessert" are perfectly good English words. They just have vastly differing meanings. The spell checker doesn't know that--the writer should.

"If you read, you can spell," believes UCSC professor of education and poet David Swanger. "If you don't read--and kids aren't reading these days--you don't even know that you're misspelling words." Swanger notes ruefully that with today's large high school classes, teachers aren't able to assign as much writing to students; hence they don't get the benefit of having spelling corrected. He also cites the computer's spell checker as a culprit in promulgating spelling laziness. In his classes he strongly advises students to look up words they don't know--to use the dictionary.

It's entirely possible that many people who write up daily menus for restaurants--or coffee shops or grocery stores--are in their early 20s and grew up in an educational environment disinvested in spelling. In a postmodern era, spelling has been reduced to a personal choice, and correcting spelling might be seen as an attempt on the part of imperialist authoritarians to lower students' self-esteem.

Whatever. I'd still bet that restaurant managers would feel pretty stupid to discover that the $10,000 printing of their new menu was riddled with misspelled words.

Get a clue here, people. Spelling is not an arbitrary outlet for creative expression. Unlike deciding what to wear, it's not up to you and your roommate. It's an agreed-upon convention that allows all those using a given linguistic reservoir to understand each other.

There is a correct way to spell "Caribbean," and it is not "Carribean," no matter what Tracy the cocktail hostess thinks on any given Wednesday afternoon. To print "Carribean" is to appear ignorant and to be willing to appear ignorant in public.

Whatever happened to pride? Or shame? Do people really just not care about spelling?

I APPEALED to Swanger. Why is it even worth getting upset about? "Clarity," he answered. Spelling correctly is important because it clarifies expression.

"Communication depends on a linguistic contract," the educator believes.

For the record, the correct spellings are: Caesar, prix fixe, foie gras, hors d'oeuvres, rotisserie, focaccia, broccoli and beurre.

To restaurateurs (not "restauranteurs"): Invest in a good English language dictionary (American Heritage even has "hors d'oeuvres" in it), a minimum of three foreign language dictionaries--Spanish, French and Italian--and a food dictionary. For $13.95, Barron's The New Food Lover's Companion could just save your aspic. Give them to your staff--encourage them to look up anything they're not absolutely sure of. Reward them for catching misspelled words before they go before the public. Take pride in your menu.

Consistency in spelling allows people to communicate. And that certainly includes people in the food business. If you don't care enough to look up a word in a dictionary, why should I trust your commitment to making hors d'oeuvres? Much less a Caesar salad.

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From the May 5-12, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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