Mind Over Menu

By Giannina Ong

Alison Pearlman always follows her nose. Trained as an art historian, her nose for visual and material culture led her to explore a motley of topics from New York art galleries to bodybuilding. No wonder the aromatic, vibrant, and delectable Los Angeles food scene caught her attention. 

Pearlman’s inclination towards food grew from a childhood fondness for dining out and became evident as she travelled through Europe picking up menus here and there. Despite the obvious intrigue, only recently have restaurants and menus become Pearlman’s subject of analysis. Launched in 2009, Pearlman’s blog The Eye in Dining records an emerging epiphany regarding the fruitfulness of restaurant design criticism. An amalgamation of thoughts, her posts paint a broad picture of food-related criticism with commentary ranging from the visual rhetoric of her dining experiences to pop culture references, with one analysis focused on Jersey Shore’s communal kitchen.

Pearlman’s first full-length publication on restaurants, Smart Casual: The Transformation of Gourmet Restaurant Style in America, was released in 2013. In the wake of renowned ramen noodle bars and the emergence of farm-to-table establishments, the book charts a social history of the evolution of dining experiences and expectations. Pearlman tracks how standards for Michelin-starred and critically-acclaimed restaurants pivoted from the elitely established white tablecloth service of gourmet dining to more casual eateries.  

Little did Pearlman realize that she was salting the meat of her next book. “While researching Smart Casual, I began to collect menus systemically from all the restaurants I visited to make sure that I had accurate information about what was served,” she said. “I was analyzing the style of food and the cuisine, so I wanted to have documentation. That’s when I started collecting compulsively. I couldn’t stop.”

Fast forward five years and Pearlman’s insatiable obsession with menus results in May We Suggest: Restaurant Menus and the Art of Persuasion (Agate, 2018) solidifying her status as a connoisseur of food culture. Tackling the menu itself as a tool designed to sell a product, her latest book is an unparalleled investigation in comparison to other publications on food and restaurant criticism. Guided by her understanding of design theory combined with her passion for food, the book’s central research question explores the menu’s ability to control choice and its socio-psychological implications. 

“I was more and more interested in this idea of the menu as a tool of persuasion and merchandising. At the same time, I was a skeptic,” Pearlman said. “There is a lot of skepticism in my latest book about the power of a menu to persuade. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Am I really immune to the menu’s persuasive wiles or am I simply unaware of being influenced by the menu?’ And so this book turned into a quest to find out.”

Along the way, Pearlman analyzes both classic and current culinary tropes from the staunch prix fixe menu to the emergence of secret menus. Most striking is how the book provides unique insights that speak to Pearlman’s expertise as an art historian. 

While chefs, food critics, and industry professionals focus on mise en place, freshness of ingredients, and taste, Pearlman teases out the nuances of mise en scene

“Since I am not a food critic, I chose to not talk about the taste of the food. Instead I focus on the entire visual order. There is so much about food and restaurants that is visual. Now more than ever, we are eating with our eyes, probably even more than with our mouths. It is not just about the food. It is about the restaurant as a theatrical environment. Whether it be the architecture or the table service, art historians already study these aspects of performance and materiality. The only thing we don’t cover is the taste of the food—a topic which is amply covered by culinary historians and food critics, who in turn don’t discuss the rest of the picture.”

Recognizing the restaurant as a constructed space, she utilizes not only methods traditionally espoused by art historians but cites psychology, sociology, and historical research as she converses with menus and their creators. Likewise, as a professor at California Polytechnic Pomona, Pearlman encourages her students to think interdisciplinarily. 

“In the Renaissance, art and science were not separate things. Now we think of the arts and sciences as so separate. Yet all of the categories are changeable, movable; they are not real,” she said. 

A coveted tool in the art history discipline is formal analysis, a purely elemental and positivist visual take. The method itself borrows, for example, from psychology in regard to its use of color theory. Pearlman said, “You just can’t escape multidisciplinary work.”

Pearlman credits her love of learning for the career path she is now on. “There is nothing in my training as an art historian that would have ever predicted that I would write about food. It’s been a long meandering path that has allowed me to turn a personal passion into an investigation and analysis,” she said. “Keep wandering, letting your curiosity lose, and following your nose while doing the most responsible job you can. You’ll end up learning sideways, doing some horizontal wandering, and end up in fields that you never imagined. It’s an adventure.”

Although Pearlman has come to the conclusion that menus—spoiler—do not successfully augment the user’s self-determined choices, her future still sizzles with haute cuisine. One culinary trend she is tracking: the rise of a conscientious and ethically-aware celebrity chef, a la José Andrés. Unready to hang up her thought-filled toque, Pearlman is set to unravel dining’s design by asking what it means societally to eat and be fed. 

Giannina Ong graduated from Santa Clara University with majors in English, classics, and women’s and gender studies and minors in history and public health sciences. An avid reader and conscientious writer, she was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa in 2018. She will begin her M.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies at University of Toronto in September. Santa Clara is home to the Pi of California chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.