Language and Food

porkroll sandwichAlong with the general changes rapidly happening to the English language, a fair amount of this impacts how we talk about food – and food, as the delightful, astute family film Over the Hedge shows – is something we talk about a lot because our culture is literally founded on and revolves around it. 


It’s Porkroll, Folks 

Let’s get something out of the way up front: New Jersey prides itself on a long-standing debate between “Taylor Ham” and porkroll: but it is only a relatively small (the northeast corner of the state, ostensibly an extension of the NYC area) area that calls it Taylor Ham. Calling it Taylor Ham would be like saying “I’m Xeroxing this paper, I’m using a Kleenex for my allergies.” These are proper nouns and the names of specific companies. Porkroll is a common noun, a product of which there are different brands: Taylor, Case, Thumann’s, Mercer Meats, et al. Most of the state, including New Jerseyians that can trace their families back generations, calls it porkroll. Porkroll is not ham, because the definition of ham is “the cooked leg of a pig.” Porkroll is, like scrapple, a seasoned assemblage of pork by-products, in a roll shape. Sorry, y’all but it aint ham. 



If you’ve paid any attention to how English has changed in the wake of the internet – and it’s hard not to – you’ve noticed a decline inporkroll on egg sandwich complete sentences, an increased informality to the language, and new words that have entered the lexicon. This is not surprising, given that ⅔ of American children can’t read fluently, schools have become battlegrounds over how much cultural warring should be taught or not, and the use of the internet treats language differently. Google NGrams and culturomics study big data and language change over time. As the comedy film Idiocracy, set 500 years in the future, says: “The English language had deteriorated into a hybrid of hillbilly, valley girl, inner-city slang, and various grunts. [Protagonist] Joe was able to understand them, but when he spoke in an ordinary voice he sounded pompous.” That 500 years has arrived early. 


Those Chicken Fingers Were Bussin’ 

Post-Generation X youth will often toss words around that are new, including subject-verb agreement, cadence, and intonation. Good food will often be described as “bussin” or “fire,” which sounds awkward when a happy eater says “Those fries were fire.” What? Something’s “vibe” is important, often described as “lowkey,” “mid” (mediocre), or another superlative. (As you know, the traditional rules about pronouns have been tossed out the window by younger generations.) Not all young people talk like this, of course, and some of the more cartoonish users of this youth-speak are often satirized on social media. 


So What does It All Add Up To? 

Chef Becky stays current with society. “We had Porkroll/Taylor Ham on our menu,” she laughs, “but you can’t please everyone. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Food still unites people, but how we describe it is in flux.