For Starving MFAs, Menu Writing is Best Course

BOSTON.  Like many young people who come to Boston, America’s biggest college town, Lindsay McPherson is hoping that her next few years here will be a life-changing experience.  “I’ve been stuck in a rut,” she says of the three years since she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Minnesota-Minnetonka.  “I’m hoping an advanced degree will be the tow truck that pulls me out of it.”

“It’s not just a Tater Tot–it’s a ‘Tremendously Tasty Tater Tot.'”


McPherson and seventeen other young men and women started classes last week that will lead to a master of fine arts degree, a step not normally associated with an upwardly-mobile lifestyle.  How, this reporter asks, does she think she will escape the cycle of poverty that so many “MFAs” find themselves swirling round in after two years and thousands of dollars in tuition and housing costs, not to mention foregone income.  “This is an MFA with a difference,” she says, and her fellow matriculant Ellen Beshears chimes in to agree with her.  “The school’s statistics are really good,” she says.  “Instead of starvation wages, 90% of Lafayette’s students are employed at poverty-level wages within six months of graduation.”

What gives McPherson, Beshears and others in their cohort hope is the vocational admixture that Lafayette College infuses its program with.  “A lot of schools just prepare you to be a poet or a playwright with an MFA,” says Department Chair Michael Olashevsky.  “We prepare our students for the fastest-growing segment of the creative writing marketplace–menu writing.”

“Can I get the vegetables without the medley?”


Department of Labor statistics confirm the truth of that assertion, as the number of meals consumed in American retail establishments passed those eaten at home several years ago.  As a result, the demand for overwrought prose to enhance the appeal of prosaic dishes has soared, leaving many restaurants scrambling to find someone to gussy up their scrambled eggs.

The first week behind them, students in the MFA Menu-Writing Program have already learned the fundamentals: when in doubt, go pretentious, as in this re-write of a humble dish that earned Todd Mailer an A for his word salad re-mix:  “A nest of tortilla chips, topped with a trio of relishes and drizzled in a warm cheese sauce.”  “This is excellent, Todd,” instructor Mary DelOrario says, as she hands back student papers this morning.  “It almost makes $17.95 for a plate of nachos seem worth it.”

This week, students will learn the value of misplaced quotation marks, which add an exotic air to otherwise run-of-the-mill entrees.  “The special at our imaginary restaurant tonight is prime rib, potato and a selection from three vegetables.  Let’s see what you can do with it,” DelOrario says as she steps outside the classroom for a smoke break.  “I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

When she returns, she decides to mix things up by calling on students in reverse alphabetical order, nearly catching Bill Zembrowski off guard.  “Hit me with your best shot,” she says as she leans back in her chair and props her feet on her desk.

“Well, I, uh, here’s what I’ve got so far,” the man mutters as he makes some quick last minute changes to what he’d written.  “You’ll love our quote prime unquote rib, complimented by a potato of your quote choice unquote–baked, mashed, or fried.  Snuggling next to this hearty quote meat-and-potatoes unquote quote main event unquote, you’ll find a selection from our quote medley unquote of vegetable quote options unquote–carrots, green beans, or broccoli–that will provide the quote roughage unquote you’ll need to move the other food through your quote system unquote.”

DelOrario purses her lips and nods approvingly, but expresses one slight reservation.  “You got a little graphic there at the end,” she says, and Zembrowski takes her criticism in stride.  “Strive for subtlety, not anatomy.”

After the class comes to an end, some students move down the hall for an introductory seminar in Embarrassing Menu Item Names, a tough required course that some students put off until their second year, but which others welcome as a challenge.  “I don’t want to feel like I’m just treading water in a gravy boat,” McPherson says.  “I want to push myself.”

Instructor Aaron Bluport begins with a history of the technique, harkening back to the early days of the Smiley’s restaurant chain, which was run into the ground by a private equity firm in 2011.  “Smiley’s pioneered the practice of ‘re-branding’ commonplace menu items with names that the head of a family–namely, the one paying the bill–would be embarrassed to say, causing his children to insist on dining at its outlets as frequently as possible,” Bluport says.  “A fish sandwich became a ‘Fish-a-ma-Whatsy,’ a milk shake became a ‘Smiley Shake,’ and a simple cup of coffee became an ‘Atta-boy Joe.’”  Students scribble in their notebooks to get this all down, then he gets their attention by a question.

“Anybody want to take a stab at a side salad of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes and carrot shavings?” he asks, and Michelle Umborg cautiously raises her hand.

“Okay, Michelle, give it a ‘toss,’” Bluport says, smiling at his attempted pun.

“I think you should call it the ‘Sensuous But Sensible Garden of Earthly Delights ‘n Stuff.’”

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