"It eats salty": middle voice on "Top Chef"

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On a recent episode of Bravo's competitive cooking show "Top Chef" ("Spines and Vines," 12/10/15), the contestants had to make a dish with uni (sea urchin) and pair it with a wine. One contestant, Angelina Bastidas, received the following less-than-glowing appraisal of her dish from the show's host, Padma Lakshmi, and guest judge Dana Cowin, editor-in-chief of Food & Wine.

AB: Over here it's a play on an Italian cacio e pepe. I made uni butter. And the wine that I chose today is chardonnay.
DC: The uni obviously has a lot of salt.
PL: Yeah.
DC: It's one of the characteristics, and the dish…
PL: It eats salty.
AB: Sorry about that. I apologize.
PL: Thank you.

(If you can view the episode on Bravo's site, the relevant part starts at about 12 minutes in.)

Lakshmi's judgment of "It eats salty" drew the attention of fans of the show, including Merlin Mann, who cohosts a podcast about "Top Chef" called "Top Scallops." Here's a Twitter exchange he had with Daniel Tse.

Mann then talked about this on his podcast with co-host Max Temkin. (The episode was called "It Eats a Little Salty," appropriately enough, though they don't get to the salty talk until about 24 minutes in.)

So what's going on here? At the risk of grammarsplaining further, I think Daniel Tse was correct to identify this as an example of "middle voice" (also called "mediopassive voice"), as in "The meat cuts easily" or "The book sells well." Mark Liberman discussed such constructions in a 2006 Language Log post: "Diagnosing soup label syntax." As it happens, the example under discussion in the post also involved the verb eat: the Campbell's Chunky Soup slogan, "The soup that eats like a meal."

In a followup post, "Another bite at 'eats like a meal,'" Mark quoted Beth Levin from her 1993 book English Verb Classes and Alternations:

The intransitive variant of this alternation, the middle construction, is characterized by a lack of specific time reference and by an understood but unexpressed agent. More often than not, the middle construction includes an adverbial or modal element… The middle alternation is described as being restricted to verbs with affected objects.

…to which John Lawler added:

Middle sentences are more likely than not to be generic, which fits in with the adverbial/modal element Beth mentions.

The presenting slogan ('The soup that eats like a meal') is weird because it violates the restriction to affected objects: eating something destroys it, which is not technically 'affecting' it within the meaning of the act. That's why it sounds strange, I think.

The "Top Chef" example is weird on an additional level, though. As Merlin Mann points out, the complement of eat in "It eats salty" is adjectival, not adverbial. And this isn't an isolated occurrence: An Entertainment Weekly recap of a "Top Chef" episode from 2014 singled out judge Tom Colicchio for using the phrase, "It eats sweet." But changing these to "It eats saltily" and "It eats sweetly" would hardly count as an improvement.

To my ear, it sounds like eat is being put in a (quasi-)middle voice construction, but it is then getting patterned after another verb, taste, which of course can take an adjectival complement ("It tastes salty"). Beth Levin places taste, along with look, feel, smell, and sound, in the category of Stimulus Subject Perception Verbs. These intransitive verbs, she writes, "take the stimulus as their subject" and "take an adjective phrase complement predicated on the stimulus."

(Note that this is a bit different from one of Mann's other examples, "The orange peels easy." There I would say that easy is functioning as a "flat adverb," that is, a "zero-derived" adverb that lacks the -ly ending and thus appears indistinguishable from its corresponding adjective. Flat adverbs have been looked down upon by grammarians since the eighteenth century and many have fallen out of use, but it's still entirely idiomatic in a case like easy. In the words of the late Glenn Frey, "Take it easy," not "easily.")

Blending the "middle voice" construction with the "verb of perception" construction results in a peculiar grammatical hybrid. We could call it gastro-syntactic fusion cuisine. Depending on your palate, it may eat bitter or sweet.

(H/t Jeff Schwartz.)

[Update: Toward the end of the same episode, about 50 minutes in, you can hear judge Richard Blais use middle-voice eat in another context: "It didn't eat that way."]

[Update #2: Steve Kleinedler sends along another example: On Season 12, Ep 6 of "Top Chef," Gail Simmons says, "It ate very savory."]

[Update #3: On Mental Floss, Arika Okrent has some great observations on "eat ADJ": "The Grammar of 'Top Chef': What's With 'It Eats Salty'?"]


  1. Pat Barrett said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:19 pm

    See also Suzanne Kemmer's Middle Voice. Thanks for the examples of pseudo-grammarians.

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:21 pm

    “The pen writes well” is not an example of the mediopassive because the pen is actually doing the writing as opposed to being written.

    In German, it is possible to say, “Der Kugelschreiber schreibt gut.” However, “*Die Orange schält leicht” would be ungrammatical. Instead, you have to say “Die Orange lässt sich leicht schälen” (literally: “The orange lets itself be peeled easily.”).

    Likewise, you can say “La penna scrive bene” in Italian, but instead of “*L’arancia sbuccia facilmente,” you have to say, “L’arancia si sbuccia facilmente” (literally: “The orange peels itself easily.”).

  3. Rubrick said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:23 pm

    A very common (and increasing? Or recency effect?) example which takes an adjectival complement is skew, as in "the electorate skews male".

  4. CD said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:37 pm

    While I haven't heard "it eats salty" before it's instantly understandable in its context to this native speaker, and a nice robust alternative to "tastes." Merlin Mann reads arrogant.

  5. Victor Mair said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 7:43 pm

    Note that PL emphasizes "eats" to signal that she's using it in a special way, but she says it in such an authoritative manner that poor AB has to say, "Sorry about that. I apologize."

  6. Guy said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:09 pm

    The use of an adjective rather than adverb here is perhaps less surprising if you consider that "middle" constructions generally require a manner adverb, negation, modality, or similar thing. So "this orange peels easily" but not usually *"this orange peels" (but "will this orange peel" or "this orange won't peel" is fine). In this sense the adverb is arguably a complement of the verb, but it's incredibly rare for a verb to take adverb complements. Aside from the arguable case of middle constructions we have "behave" and "treat" taking adverbs as complements, but not much else. And semantically, "salty" is much more like a predicative complement of the food than an adjunct of manner. In fact, it's not immediately obvious to me that a predicative complement should be regarded as against the general pattern, which, as the modal auxiliary examples show, does not exclusively require adverbs.

  7. Guy said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:19 pm

    Incidentally, In the spirit of explicitly being technically correct (the best kind of correct). English is not usually regarded as having a middle voice, but "middle voice" is nonetheless often used as a description of this type of construction because of similarities they share with languages that do have actual middle voices. I believe the chief justifications for not calling these a separate voice are that which verbs enter into it is highly lexical and arbitrary (and restricted), and it is not marked either inflectionally or analytically, and if we called this a voice we would have to call countless other common verb alternations (such as causative/inchoative) voice contrasts to maintain a semblance of consistency.

  8. Rebecca said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 8:44 pm

    Another example I see from tome to time is "that reads complicated"

  9. Scott said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 9:31 pm

    Does the usage of "look" in sentences like "It looks broken" originally derive from a middle-voice version of the "look" in sentences like "I'm looking at it"? It seems like the same sort of relationship, but it's more deeply embedded in the language than the other examples.

  10. Mark Mandel said,

    January 31, 2016 @ 10:51 pm

    Now, is this process the origin of the middle-voice use of "taste"? "look"? "smell"?
    "It tastes/looks/smells good."

  11. John Walden said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 4:01 am

    Brief drifts into the usefulness (or not) of the term "ergative" find in these comments:



  12. James said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 5:24 am

    I think John Lawler is mistaken. There is nothing at all odd about

    "This hardwood will burn quickly"

    even though the burning destroys (consumes!) rather than altering the wood.

    [(bgz) Burn here is in the "inchoative" construction of the causative/inchoative alternation described by Beth Levin, which (as discussed in the linked post) is similar but distinct from the "middle" construction. Other examples: "The sample melted," "The window broke," "The pipes froze." As Levin writes, this construction "need not have an understood agent, may have specific time reference, and does not have to include adverbial or modal elements." Note that you can say "This hardwood will burn" but you can't say "This dish will eat."]

  13. Michael Moszczynski said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 6:08 am

    As a frequent watcher of Top Chef, this construction sounds perfectly natural to me, and I would not classify it, at least in my instinctive parsing, as parallel with mediopassive constructions like 'the book is selling well.' Rather, as some other commenters have pointed out, it is a verb of perception like 'looks' or 'sounds', and thus takes an adjective perfectly naturally.

    There's a lot of foodie-jargon in shows like this, so it's not surprising that common verbs get assigned somewhat technical meanings – everything's a 'play on' some other food for example. For me, a food that eats salty is similar to a book that sounds pretentious, describing what the food is like. Though technical, it's not exactly the same as 'tastes' but more about a whole dish, the same as the difference between the way a book 'sounds' and the way it 'reads'.

    Take this excerpt from http://articles.latimes.com/2005/jan/24/entertainment/et-phil24: 'More accurately, it reads naive. It sounds amazing. Against a landscape of burbling tuned percussion, the lake awakens with the earthy elation of six exuberant horns.' The more I think about it, the more this usage of 'read', especially common among critics, is the best parallel for 'eats' in this context.

  14. John Shutt said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 7:17 am

    I associate usage "that dress wears well" — meaning it looks good when someone (likely the addressee) wears it — with my grandmother's generation, born in the late nineteenth century.

  15. Ray said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 8:48 am

    I was thinking along the lines of michael moszczynski, because I’ve noticed how food pros will commonly say things like “this linguini plates beautifully” or “this chardonnay drinks well” or “a good busboy waters tables promptly” — expressions that set up similar syntactical rhythms or that follow a familiar “mouthfeel.”

  16. Coby Lubliner said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 9:29 am

    The examples from French and German (Tom S. Fox) point out how English, as an Ingvaeonic language, has to struggle in order to make up for having lost the reflexive pronoun (se, sich etc.).

  17. BlueLoom said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 10:02 am

    @ John Shutt–

    My mother was born in the early 20th Century, therefore approximately the same generation as your grandmother. If my mother had said "That dress wears well," she would have meant that it's made of good, sturdy cloth and can be expected to last a long time.

  18. John Shutt said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

    @ BlueLoom –

    Yes, there's that sense too. One wonders whether they're historically related.

  19. chris said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 7:18 pm

    I happened to run into an example of this construction today, also with "eats", in Patrick O'Brian's _The Surgeon's Mate_ (published 1980, set in the early 19th century; the main characters are in the British Navy). Jack is eating a kind of bird he has never eaten before and remarks "It eats rather like pig, don't it?".

    It doesn't sound any odder to me than any number of other things that I put down to the time period or nationality, and while O'Brian engages in quite a bit of deliberate wordplay throughout the series, I don't think this is part of it.

  20. Roger Lustig said,

    February 1, 2016 @ 9:38 pm


    @Tom S Fox: colloquial German would allow "Die Orange schält sich leicht," no?

  21. Graeme said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 1:09 pm

    If I were to say "I did it good" rather than "I did it well" would that be a flat adverb?

  22. Bloix said,

    February 2, 2016 @ 8:20 pm

    Also, "this house will show well," said by a realtor.
    "The wine drinks easy but thin," found on the internet.
    "How to know if your business will scale" – Fortune.

  23. mike said,

    February 4, 2016 @ 12:42 am

    @Bloix, I'm not sure that "business will scale well" follows this pattern. In the tech industry, "scale" is just a shortened version of "scale up"–i.e, grow with sufficient capacity. At least, "scale" in this example seems different to me than the others here ("peel easily").

  24. Josh Hickman said,

    February 6, 2016 @ 3:23 pm

    Worth pointing out that I, as a native speaker of American English, has absolutely no idea what this phrase meant even within the context of the transcript. I thought, because two items were mentioned (the wine?) Ate/disrupted that saltiness he was going for.

  25. Ken Lakritz said,

    February 9, 2016 @ 12:19 am

    I've heard real estate agents say 'the house wants $1.2 million.' (i.e., the asking price of the house is $1.2 million)
    Not quite the same grammatical construction, perhaps, but equally weird.

  26. nbm said,

    February 11, 2016 @ 10:22 am

    I happened to catch an 1877 citation yesterday: "Hard-boiled eggs also eat extremely well with sauce à la vinaigrette" (from Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery, cited by Australian blogger The Old Foodie).

    Is the usage with "ship" or "publish" the same kind of middle-ish voice? As in "Your package shipped today" or "The book publishes in the fall"?

  27. John Shutt said,

    February 13, 2016 @ 6:56 am

    This construction seems to require relatively low animacy, to distinguish it from the ordinary transitive use of the verb.

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