We Need a Style Guide for Food Terms

When I started at CHOW.com five and a half years ago, my copyediting experience with food content was a little light. So there was a learning curve for me, especially when it came to the style of food language. It would've been a huge help to have a comprehensive food style guide to turn to, but one didn't—and doesn't—exist. Why is that? With the proliferation of food writing over the last several years—food blogs being spun into books or movies (see Julie & Julia or The Amateur Gourmet); CNN launching its Eatocracy blog in 2010; even NPR getting in on the act last November with its blog The Salt—there’s more confusion than ever about how to treat food terms. This is particularly true of transliterated words. Is it banchan or panchan? Charoset or haroset? Sichuan or Szechuan? No single authority exists to make the call.

Yes, there's The Food Lover's Companion, which is pretty comprehensive and incredibly easy to use with its alphabetical organization, but it can seem behind the times (cheese steak as two words; Szechuan rather than Sichuan). And yes, there's Larousse Gastronomique, which is comprehensive with a Capital C; but it's also unwieldy and old school. (Larousse was begun in 1938—nuff said.)

The AP Stylebook stepped in last year and added a "Food Guidelines" section, which is really just a consolidation of existing AP content into a dedicated section (though 140 new terms were added). It's thoroughly sensible, and helpful, even laying out how to write and format a recipe. But is it comprehensive? With 456 entries, it looks puny next to Food Lover's 6,700-plus.

What if your sensibilities run more toward Chicago style? Looking in both the index and the table of contents of the 16th edition of The Chicago Manual of Style, you'd be hard-pressed to find anything specifically related to the words "food" or "recipes." Searching the online site turns up better results … in the monthly Q&A and the site forum, but not in the manual itself.

The Association of Food Journalists' "FoodSpell" booklet sounds like a good resource (I haven't seen a copy, but Bob Batz Jr. of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette tells me it's their "go-to source for food spellings," offering 1,200 entries that outline the definitions, spelling, and pronunciation of food terms), but it follows AP style pretty closely, so perhaps nothing new here.

Epicurious.com, up until recently, featured Food Lover's content in its online food and wine dictionaries. But now, according to an email received by one of our contributors, the site says it'll be creating its own "new food terminology content in the coming months," and in the meantime they recommend the Food.com Kitchen Dictionary. Unfortunately, this resource seems nearly useless at times, maybe because it's crowd-sourced.

Dictionaries are also starting to fill the gap, adding more food terms to their pages. But just as there are multiple food-style sources to choose from, there are multiple dictionaries on the market.

So where does that leave a food writer hungry for food-language knowledge? In today's circumstances, still confused.

Photo by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

Deborah Lewis is CHOW's assistant managing editor–slash–copy chief–slash–ScrumMaster. You can follow her on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.