The Grammar of Top Chef: What’s With 'It Eats Salty'?

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The critic of anything—food, wine, art, film, music—must develop ways to describe an experience that go beyond the usual vocabulary lists. Good, bad, beautiful, ugly and a few hundred other words related to the way things look, sound, and taste, and smell might be sufficient for ordinary description, but the professional opinion-giver has to keep things vivid and fresh. To do this, they might come up with new or unusual words, or uncommon metaphors, but sometimes what’s called for is a new syntactic structure. At least that seems to be the idea behind a linguistic trend making its noticeable way through the judges of Top Chef.

In a recent post on Language Log, Ben Zimmer took a look at this trend after it came to light through Top Chef judge Padma Lakshmi’s use of the phrase “it eats salty” to describe a dish made by a contestant. Merlin Mann, cohost of Top Scallops, a podcast about Top Chef, registered his objection to the phrase with a tweet:

In response, Daniel Tse pointed out that this type of construction isn’t as unusual as it might seem. It’s similar to the grammatical “middle voice” (or “mediopassive voice”) which is somewhere between active and passive. It’s what allows us to say “the orange peels easily” (Who’s doing the peeling? Not the orange) or “the book is selling well” (Who’s doing the selling? Not the book).

However, the usual examples of middle voice have an adverb (easily, well) rather than an adjective (salty), so there does seem to be something new about this Top Chef construction. And, as discussed in the post, “it eats salty” is not the only example. Judges have also said “it eats sweet,” “it ate very savory” and “it didn’t eat that way.” Zimmer sees the construction as a hybrid between middle voice syntax and the grammar of verbs of perception like taste, smell, sound, feel, and look which do take adjectives. We say “it tastes salty,” not “it tastes saltily.” There is a blending where a middle voice take on the verb eat is under influence from the concept of “taste.” As Zimmer says, “We could call it gastro-syntactic fusion cuisine.”

So where is this coming from, and why don’t the judges just say “it tastes salty” if that’s what they mean? A quick look around at restaurant reviews shows that it’s not just the judges of Top Chef who find this construction useful, and the middle voice eats is not quite the same thing as taste.

Sometimes its meaning is close to taste:

“It eats dry.” [D Magazine] “It eats like a lobster” []

But more often it stands in for a wider range of eating-related sensation than taste: texture, chewiness, mouthfeel, or even the physical strategy for eating:

“Cut like a pizza, it eats like a Korean frittata.” []  “The flesh is resoundingly rich, as short ribs always are, but it eats more like a tender steak than a piece of stew meat.” [] “If that sounds a little like a candy bar, it eats like one, too.” [New York Times] “Swai is a Thai catfish, but it eats like bluegill, which I love.” [Slug Magazine] “Not that red curry with catfish, though. It eats like a rocket. If you're sensitive to heat, avoid this dish completely.” [Dallas Observer] “A pool of aioli so thick and lemony it eats like savory lemon curd.” [Village Voice]

And much of the time it doesn’t even necessarily relate to food-related sensation in particular but to the whole surrounding experience of dining:

“The dishes are so well coordinated that it eats as a continuous meal.” [] “It looks like a pub, it eats like a gourmet restaurant.” [] “A menu that sometimes reads better than it eats.” [Denver Post] “Rubicon is bar-centric but it eats like a great restaurant.” [] “It is probably better to order in the dead middle of winter, but it eats just fine in July as well.” [] “Treacle-baked ribs (above) sounds like an English dish; it eats like something from the American deep south.” []

Thirty years ago, when Campbell's Chunky Soup introduced its slogan "The soup that eats like a meal," it didn't mean that the soup tasted like a meal, but that it was substantial like a meal, filled you up like a meal, was acceptable to serve on its own as a meal. It referenced the larger general experience of eating, beyond just taste. It wasn't the active "you eat this soup as you would a meal" nor the passive "this soup gets eaten like a meal" but something in between, the middle voice, the mediopassive, not foregrounding the soup's characteristics, or your actions upon the soup, but the quality of the soup-eating experience itself, the gestalt of a food-based experience, if you will. In our current atmosphere of foodie culture, where people read about food, watch TV shows about food, and obsess about food in a way that doesn't necessarily entail that they will actually be tasting that food, it's probably a handy thing to have a compact way to express "here's what the experience of eating this is like." If it reads a bit strange, so be it.