Food Writers: Enough With the Fripperific Cliches

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As a writer, I always keep one Internet tab tuned to Merriam-Webster's website, which is the best source I've found for the precise meanings of words (and the correct spelling of "simultaneously," which I regularly butcher so badly that Microsoft Word can't help me.) I imagine it's the scribbler's equivalent of keeping a first aid kit at a rodeo.

I go to the site for definitions, which requires me to ignore a fair amount of lexical clutter. M-W.com supplies word games, top 10 lists, trend columns and a "word well used" feature, which I never noticed until it showed up this week accompanied by a picture of a hamburger.

The latest honoree is Frank Bruni, former New York Times restaurant critic, who now contributes the odd travel story and weekly Tipsy Diary column. Merriam-Webster singled out Bruni for using the word "frippery" in a story about Los Angeles restaurants.

"Young restaurateurs and chefs are quick to trade away frippery and cosmetics and focus on the food," Bruni wrote on November 18.

Frippery's a great word, but Bruni didn't just discover it: He used it on the 14th page of his 2003 analysis of George Bush, in which he set out to uncover "the often offbeat character that flickered through the frippery and pomp." He delivered three stars to David Chang's Momofuku Ko in 2008, praising the East Village restaurant for reaching an audience "more focused on food than on frippery," one year after pointing out that price-conscious diners "accept fewer curlicues in service and less frippery."

Whether or not it's Bruni's doing, frippery has become such a common term in food writing circles that I was surprised to see its use merited mention on M-W.com. "There's not a whole lot of room for girly frippery," Creative Loafing's Besha Rodell concluded after visiting Craftbar. Porter House's owner "is having none of this frippery," New York Magazine's Adam Platt decreed when he reviewed the restaurant.

Bruni's successor, Sam Sifton, last month liked a hamburger at The Lambs Club that was "absolutely devoid of frippery." And professionals aren't the only eaters reaching for the noun: A comment writer at L.A. Weekly chastised Pulitzer Prize winning-restaurant critic Jonathan Gold for indulging in "pompous frippery" when he reviewed hot dogs.

But if frippery's on the cusp of becoming a culinary cliché, there are plenty of more good words where that came from. "Frippery!," exclaims a character in a 19th-century British drama set in a chocolate house (think coffee shop with cocoa.) "I'll reduce him to frippery and rags; a tatterdemalion."

According to Merriam-Webster, "tatterdemalion" means "ragged or disreputable in appearance" - which may be an apt descriptor of "frippery" if food writers keep leaning on it.

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