It’s official. Plonk refers to an “especially low-quality wine.” Free-range should be used an adjective, not a noun, and the proper spelling for Dr Pepper includes no period. When referring to spicy mid-country Chinese cuisine opt for Sichuan, not Szechwan.
All this according to the most recent incarnation of the official Stylebook by the Associated Press, the handbook for journalists everywhere. The new “food style section” defines and clarifies 400 names and terms from absinthe (“A bitter green liqueur made from wormwood“) to locavore (“The preferred term for a person who strives to eat locally produced foods“) to zip-close bag (“Not Ziploc, a brand name”).
AP goes beyond simple spellings to clarifying word use. It articulates the distinction between palate and palette. “A palate refers to the roof of the mouth and the sense of taste (to have a sophisticated palate), palette is the term for an artist’s paint board.”
Here’s what I find interesting. Many terms I’d never heard of when I bought my first spiral-bound AP Stylebook back in 1985 as a college freshman in Journalism 101. (Yes, I am that old.) Back in those days, I’d yet to learn about adobo and ghee, sous vide and Sriracha. Just reading through the words makes the world feel both larger and smaller.
As an editor at the Chicago Sun-Times told me when I started my journalism career, “If you want to be a real writer, you’ve got to read the AP Stylebook through about six times. If you’re going to write about something, get it right.” Over the weekend, the noted food journalist Molly O’Neill suggested attendees at BlogherFood to get an AP Stylebook and use it. “Whether it’s for blogs, books or mainstream media, good food writing demands a solid grasp of confusing and sometimes contradictory language,” explains J.M. Hirsch, AP food editor. “It made sense to use the AP’s expertise in setting the standards.”
As someone I interviewed for my upcoming book noted, our food environment has developed into something extraordinarily complex. We need the definitions and guidance. As a complement to the new AP Stylebook, I recommend a copy of The Food Lover’s Companion by the late (and lovely) Sharon Tyler Herbst. It makes the AP Stylebook section look sparse, with more than 6,500 names and definitions. (AP tends to focus on the most-often confused, misspelled and misused words and terms in its Stylebook; her book focused on covering everything.) As my editor said, “If you can’t get the spelling right, how does anyone trust that you didn’t get everything else wrong?”
If I was going to add a couple more books to a food writing reference library, they would be include The Recipe Writer’s Handbook by Barbara Gibbs-Ostmann, a highly articulate guide to recipe writing, rounded out by The Penguin Companion to Food by Alan Davidson, an exhaustive encyclopedia about the history and origins of foods that, by itself, makes deeply entertaining writing.
Now I’m off to put away the remnants of our Sichuan stir-fry (always includes a hyphen whether used a as noun or adjective) into a couple of zip-close bags.