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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

Tag Archives: restaurants

food court

(1980’s | businese (real estate) | “dining area”)

Why “court”? It’s more like a dining mall, but in the early days food courts were found only inside of malls, and a mall within a mall would have caused confusion. And why “mall”? A mall was a wide pedestrian boulevard, often grassy, and it never had anything much to do with commerce — though shopping malls did typically have wide central corridors that one walked along. I haven’t done the research, but it seems to me that “mall” and “court” were adopted for these bastions of plebeian retail because of their grand associations with aristocracy, elegance, and luxury. Not that there’s anything particularly elegant or luxurious about your standard food court, yet “court,” with its echoes of royalty, lends the enterprise a touch of class. A more plebeian explanation is that the word conjures up a big open space, like a basketball or tennis court. Or it’s where you go to judge the food.

One chronicler of the food court lays it at the door of James Rouse, a developer who responded to Levittowns by creating the planned community Columbia, MD ten years before he opened Harborplace in 1980 in downtown Baltimore. (I grew up between those two landmarks, in the heart of Rouseland.) For a developer, he wasn’t that bad, according to the New York Times obituary. It’s not clear if the phrase “food court” is due to Rouse; he may be responsible for “shopping mall.”

Pioneering food courts stirred in the seventies, and by the mid-eighties they were de rigueur, and not just in newly constructed malls — older malls were forced to renovate in order to add them. The term followed quickly, arising in both Canada and the U.S. by the late seventies (the oldest hit in LexisNexis comes from a Toronto paper in 1979). The term came straight out of the oddly buoyant language of developers, but food courts themselves were symbols of adolescence then, understood as places for the disaffected young to get away from their parents and pretend they were adults. The emphasis on fast food (they were sometimes called “fast-food courts”) made them popular with kids. They turned up next on college campuses, heralding a revolution in campus food service. Adults had to get used to eating in them soon enough when they invaded hospitals, airports, and office buildings.

The idea of restaurants and specialty food stores in shopping malls was not new in the seventies, but gathering several of them around a large open seating area was an innovation that demanded a new expression. The malls I went to in my youth didn’t have food courts, but they had drugstore lunch counters and Orange Julius and Baskin-Robbins. I don’t remember fast food restaurants being common in malls back then, but I didn’t get around much and they may have been. (My beloved Gino’s on Frederick Road wasn’t part of any mall, I’ll tell you that. Now it’s a McDonald’s.) Some chains — Sbarro’s, Panda Express — really took off with the advent of food courts.

I find them more than a little repulsive, personally. The open space — bare except for nondescript tables and chairs and people who don’t want you anywhere near them — always feels hostile, and there’s nothing I want on any of the menus. Then there’s the indignity of figuring out how to punch the order into a machine that doesn’t work half the time. Whatever I order, it’s cold by the time I find a seat, and it wasn’t all that good when it was hot. Plastic furniture, plastic cutlery, and the food . . . Everything predictable and disposable. That’s partly why food courts are becoming passé after a thirty-year reign, as “food halls” supplant them. It’s the same idea, only the restaurants on offer are more varied and quirky (and pricier — this is about consumption, after all). “Food hall” makes more sense as a name, “hall” being a word for large open area with action at one end, but “food court” should remain in the language for at least another generation or two.


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comfort food

(1980’s | journalese (gastronomy) | “home cooking,” “favorite dish”)

You could construct a good personality test by asking subjects to define this expression and list examples. Food writers use it confidently, but it has a wide range of meaning, though the gradations can be pretty subtle. The bottom lines that seem to underlie every use of the phrase: it has to be something the diner is already familiar with, and likes. Beyond that, it can go in several directions with equal confidence. Obviously, there is some overlap among the categories below, but I find the taxonomy helpful:

-What you ate when you were a small child, therefore often mushy or liquid, that makes you feel like you’re in Mama’s arms again. In other words, comforting food. Things like macaroni and cheese or tomato soup.

-What lovely Liz from Queens calls “white food.” Also often mushy and associated with childhood, but the point is it’s uncomplicated — bland and starchy as well as pale in color. Mashed potatoes, bananas, vanilla ice cream.

-What people eat in the country. “Comfort food” is sometimes used as a synonym for down-home dishes, and it may have a strong regional tinge. Comfort foods in the South may differ from comfort foods in the Northwest, for example (Moon Pies are not big in Seattle). Burritos in the Southwest, lobster rolls in the Northeast.

-Anything plain and unsurprising. Sometimes “comfort food” refers to things that are simple to prepare as well as eat, perhaps with the implication that it’s for family consumption rather than guests. This covers the first two above and other areas as well. Oatmeal, spaghetti, scrambled eggs.

-Heavy or at least substantial preparations; usually meat, frying, or both are involved. Meat loaf, casseroles, pot roast, burger and fries. Don’t be alarmed if the word “rib-sticking” appears nearby.

-Whatever you happen to enjoy, whatever makes you feel better for having eaten it, or makes up for a bad day. This sense of the term really opens the floodgates; now fancy gourmet concoctions can sit right beside the humblest fare. Sushi or catfish, crème brulée or egg custard, sweetbreads or scrapple. Such broad usage may be an abuse of the term, but you hear it a fair amount.

Notable by its absence from the lists above is the noble vegetable. The more effort it requires to eat, and the less obviously sweet, salty, or fatty it is, the less likely it will qualify as comfort food (except under the last definition, where anything goes).

There are some obvious faults — in the geological sense — in the meaning of “comfort food” that help explain the multiplicity sketched above. The main one: both personal preference and social custom are part of the field covered by this expression, and neither can be disregarded. Each person has their own, to some degree, but there is usually a fairly strong consensus on what most people in the same culture would consider comfort food. If your version of it is a rice cake with a shmear of tofu, that’s your business, but don’t expect your peers to share your tastes. Another fault: Lovers of exotic cuisine may depict “comfort food” with a sneer as unworthy of an adventurous palate, but more often it operates with reverse snobbery, as the lower classes contrast their chow lovingly with the pretentious, fussy gourmet variety. I also note in passing that “comfort food” partakes of nostalgia, real or imagined, especially when it summons our childhood diet or rural eating habits. But once again, the nostalgia may be deeply personal (childhood) or sociocultural (down home). Another point of negative interest: the expression is rarely used metaphorically (e.g., calling a novel “literary comfort food” as a reviewer in the New York Times did in 1987). We have chicken soup for the soul, but comfort food fills only the belly. To round off this sequence of unrelated points, I will suggest that there is no direct connection between the rises of “comfort zone” and “comfort food,” but they occurred at the same time, and it’s quite possible the two expressions helped each other into everyday language.

My brilliant, beautiful girlfriend gave me this expression months ago, and I finally decided to take a bite out of it. Thanks, baby!

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(1990’s | “waiter,” “waitress,” “bartender”)

A word that has vaulted into prevalence. “Server” was not rare before 1980; it had a number of specialized meanings (e.g., in tennis, in the Catholic Church) and a couple of general ones. One was associated with kitchens: a serving tool. It could be the trowel you use to cut the cake, the plate you put the cake on, or the cart you use to wheel the cake into the dining room. Its other general meaning came from legalese, as in the term “process server.” Always unpopular, he was the one who had to track you down and deliver your subpoena. (Falsely claiming to have served papers was called “sewer service.” Nice, huh?) A “time-server” was a drudge, someone who showed up but did the bare minimum.

You did see the word applied to waiters and bartenders in the seventies and early eighties, but not very often, and it generally had a twist. One who circulated trays at a cocktail party was more likely to be called a server than a restaurant waitress. As far as I can tell, “server” in today’s sense was commonplace by the early 1990’s, but maybe it was earlier. A Washington Post restaurant reviewer provided a helpful usage note in 1978; she defined the word as a “restaurant’s nonsexist term for waiters and waitresses.”

Once upon a time, English had lots of gender-specific terms for what you did. There was the “-er/-ess” dichotomy (shouldn’t the male version of a laundress be called a launder?), sometimes rendered as “-or/-rix.” That variant was never as popular, and indeed, you don’t hear anyone say “aviatrix” any more, but it was all the rage in Amelia Earhart’s day. (“Dominatrix” soldiers on, bless it.) Then there were all the -man/-woman words (motorman, washerwoman). We tried replacing both suffixes with “person,” which sorta worked, at least some of the time. It would never occur to me to call my cousin, an expert horsewoman, a horseperson, although I might call her a “horse person,” by analogy with “cat person.”

The scramble began in the 1960’s and 1970’s to find terms that would refer impartially to a male or female practitioner of whatever it might be. And this search resulted in many different solutions. Sometimes one or the other form won out, as in “actor,” which is now commonly, if not universally, used to cover thespians of all genders. At least in unisex hair salons, “stylist” beat out “barber.” In a few lucky cases, we could get by with the stem: “chairman” and “chairwoman” became simply “chair” in academese and businese, as it had always been in politics (“The chair recognizes . . .”). And sometimes we just hauled off and adopted a whole new word. Like “driver” for “motorman,” “flight attendant” for “stewardess,” or “server” for “waiter.”

We can all be grateful that “waitperson” didn’t catch on, and I also remember hearing the slightly ominous “waitron” a few times in the 1980’s. Now, when you are seated in a restaurant, the host or hostess — now there’s an example of a term that never got neutered at all — says invariably, “Your server will be with you shortly.” True, it’s a word that restaurant employees use more than customers, but it has become the polite, non-loaded term for the one who brings your food.

The rise of “server” in computerese started a little earlier, but since computerese hadn’t intruded too much into everyday vocabulary by the early 1990’s, the two senses got settled around the same time. Its use has always struck me as a little odd. O.k., it’s the thing that serves the data to the user, or the remote computer. But it feels much more like inert storage space than an active being that brings you things. Sure, the server will serve me the file, if I give it the password, specify the principal ingredients, and tell it where the kitchen is. (A web server makes a better analogy, because all you have to do is ask — click — and it delivers your page.) But a network server is more like a grouchy turnkey than a cheerful waitress.

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