Cooking In AP Style: A Stew Of Words Spelled Right

Originally published on June 1, 2011 12:10 pm
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MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

Now, if you think your 40th, 50th or 60th birthday is a great excuse to hit the couch, ditch your workout clothes and quit the gym, you might change your mind once you hear about Ernestine Shepherd. She's a fitness diva. She's got the muscles to prove it, and she's 74 years old. Ernestine Shepherd joins us in just a few minutes.

But before we get to fitness, we want to talk about a related topic: food. Anybody remember when a meal was just something you shared with family and friends? Maybe every now and again you'd read a cooking magazine to get a new recipe or get a cookbook from a friend. Well, now cooking is a big business in this country and big entertainment. Hours of reality television shows have turned chefs into celebrities and viewers into food groupies and that's increased the appetite for stories about food in newspapers, magazines and online.

To keep up with the growth in food journalism, the Associated Press has issued its recipe for good food writing. The 2011 AP Stylebook is offering a new food guidelines section in its latest edition with rules dedicated to covering food, wine and spirits.

It features hundreds of food names and terms, plus an official AP recipe guide. AP food editor J.M. Hirsch joins us now to give us a taste of the new food guidelines. He's with us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, I couldn't resist. Thanks for joining us.


J.M. HIRSCH: Thank you so much.

MARTIN: So, what gave you the idea for this new food section?

HIRSCH: Well, you know, I like to think it kind of stemmed from my own incompetence, because when I took over as food editor about six years ago, I realized that, historically, we hadn't been all that accurate or at least consistent in our style in terms of our food journalism. And I was editing a story and I saw the term bok choy, and I realized it just didn't look quite right. So I looked it up, and I realized there were, like, six different ways of spelling this.

And I was, like, wow. OK. Which one do I use? And, you know, these are the sort of things I geek out over. But at the same time, you know, as a journalist, you know, it's important for us to be consistent. And we can be wrong, but we need to be consistently wrong.

MARTIN: Exactly. What do they say? Often wrong, but never in doubt.

HIRSCH: Exactly. So, you know, I looked it up, and I finally figured out what we would use. And that's kind of how it started. I started keeping a cheat sheet for myself and keeping track of every time I had to look something up because I didn't want to have to look it up again.

And so as all that's happening and I'm keeping this list, we realized, you know, we've done the research, AP, in so many ways with its style book, kind of sets the tone and the style for much of journalism. Why don't we share what we've done? And we've already done it, let's clean it up and share. And we started doing that a few years ago, where we started adding food terminology to the style book as a whole.

And then last fall, we took a step back and, you know, this is big enough now. Let's break it out into a standalone section. And it's helped us. It'll help others.

MARTIN: Hold on a second. For those who are not in our field, can you help us explain how people use the AP Stylebook?

HIRSCH: Oh, sure. You know, the style book has been around since about 1953, and we periodically update it. And these days, we update it every year. And it really is a glorified cheat sheet. I'm sure everybody at the AP doesn't like my describing it that way. But, really, it is, because it's a one-source place to look up how to spell the current political terminology. It's which terms need to be capitalized, which terms are trademarked.

It tells you how to format things. It's a punctuation guide. And it really is - it's kind of a one-stop shopping for looking up all the things that a journalist or a writer encounters, and you're not quite sure how to spell, how to capitalize, how to format it, and it's been a go-to source for decades now.

MARTIN: Well, for example...

HIRSCH: And so we decided to add food to that mix.

MARTIN: Well, for example, something like aluminum foil. In some parts of the country people call it aluminum foil. And some parts of the country some people call it tin foil.

HIRSCH: Exactly.

MARTIN: So, what does the style guide say?

HIRSCH: My ruling on that one was to simply call it foil. I decided I wasn't going to try to tell half the country to stop calling it tin foil, even though I'm pretty confident that it's never actually been made of tin, at least not in my lifetime.

MARTIN: OK. What about french fries?

HIRSCH: French fry. French fry is down, because it is a reference to the style of cut of the potato, not a reference to the country.

MARTIN: So lower case for the french, not upper case.

HIRSCH: Lower case french, yup.

MARTIN: What about bok choy?

HIRSCH: Bok choy. Well, like I say, there were, like, four or five different ways of spelling it, which isn't actually uncommon. When you're dealing with ethnic terms like that that have clearly have been translated and changed over the years, it's quite normal to have a number of variants. It doesn't mean we should be using four or five different ways of spelling it across our stories. And so, in that case, I just went with what I felt was the dominant spelling, which was b-o-k c-h-o-y.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with the Associated Press food editor J.M. Hirsch. We're talking about the AP Stylebook's new food guideline section. What about...

HIRSCH: Yes. Uh-oh.

MARTIN: Now bloody mary is lowercase.

HIRSCH: Bloody mary. It is.

MARTIN: Mary is not capitalized. But what about Sloppy Joe?

HIRSCH: Okay. This is my what I've decided, this is a case of culinary sexism because for reasons that aren't clear to me, bloody mary is not capitalized but Sloppy Joe is. And here's the reasoning behind this; as we go through all of our criteria is, you know, is there a trademark involved, is there a dominant usage, if it fails all of these tests to come up with a clear answer which way or another, we then go to a certain edition of Webster's Collegiate Dictionary that we use. And unless there's a good reason not to we default to what they say.

And, you know, one of the things I try to keep in mind when we're collecting these terms is things that are confusing. Things that might be similar enough to be just confusing when you're writing. For example, you know, Alfredo and alfresco. They sound an awful lot alike.


HIRSCH: You know, but one is capitalized and the other isn't. And, you know and, of course, they're not related terms at all.

MARTIN: No, I'm suspecting, I think this is what J.M. Hirsch likes to eat.


MARTIN: I think we are going to be looking at this food guidelines and it's like we're going to have food as to what's on the menu at the Hirsch household.

HIRSCH: I suspect so.


MARTIN: All right, s'more's.

HIRSCH: S'mores. Yes.

MARTIN: Yes. I'm quizzing you. Have s'mores. What's the...

HIRSCH: Yeah. I know. I know. You're throwing me. No.


HIRSCH: Let's see, that is lowercase s-'-m-o-r-e-s.

MARTIN: Oh. Okay.

HIRSCH: Am I right? I think so.


MARTIN: Okay. Well, it's your cheat sheet.

HIRSCH: I know. I know. Well, you know, I don't claim to know it by heart. I just wrote it.



MARTIN: So finally, before we let you go, we appreciate you because, as you would imagine, we do follow the AP Stylebook.


MARTIN: So the question is why do you think non-journalists should care about this? Or why does any of this matter to non-journalists? Or does it?

HIRSCH: Well, that's one of the things I actually wrestled with as we were putting this together. And, you know, 10 to 15 years ago, the pool of people that could benefit from the AP Food Stylebook was actually relatively small, you know, limited to a certain group of journalists and editors and so forth. But since then, we've had such an explosion of bloggers and other new media writers. And so that's something I kept in mind because you know what? Whether you're writing for new media or old media, the reality is we are judged by our accuracy and our clarity, whether you're a blogger or whether you're an old-school journalist and this is a great tool to help you along that way.

MARTIN: Like they say, when in doubt check it out. Even if it's baba ganoush.


HIRSCH: Especially.

MARTIN: Especially if it's baba ganoush. J.M. Hirsch is the food editor for The Associated Press. He's the author of the 2011 AP Stylebook, its new food guidelines section. And he was kind enough to join us from New Hampshire Public Radio in Concord, New Hampshire. Mr. Hirsch, thank you so much for joining us.

HIRSCH: Thank you.

MARTIN: And bon appetit. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.