Cake Under Pressure: Saussure’s Course in General Linguistics in a MasterChef US Pressure Test

In every MasterChef (in any part of the world) episode that involves a team challenge, there’s a pressure test at the end of the challenge for the losing team. For much such episode of any version, it’s either guess this, guess that or try to recreate this one type of test. For this application, the author will use one episode of the third season of MasterChef US, where in four of the losing team had to make a molten lava chocolate cake in 45 minutes. Two of four were of good standing; one was too floury & bland, while the last collapsed & looked very messy. Like a chocolate mess. In the said episode, the person who made the collapsed cake gave up his apron to the judges after one of them decided the one who made the worst cake then to step in & give up their apron with integrity.

For this one, she will use the concepts of Ferdinand de Saussure‘s Course in General Linguistics, even though that a reality TV show, cooking (or even baking in the episode) & literary theory don’t seem to match up. Saussure’s essay tries to explore the nature of signification. Some people said that sometimes the food is a reflection of the one who made it. In this case, that application can prove that.

Saussure explains about the nature of signs that words are not ready-made for anyone from the beginning, that language is the very necessary matrix that without any meaningful thought cannot exist without. He went on to say that a sign is the basic element that is involved in creating meaning & that they don’t just simply label or refer everything to a prior reality or referent. The essay also mentions that language is arbitrary since some signifiers are attached to the signifieds by conventions alone, than necessity.  It also explains that a particular sign only means to something because it is a part of the sign-system; the difference is the cornerstone of the functioning of any sign-system. It also explores the terms Langue and Parole (not a prison or judicial term). Langue is an abstract system within or the basic rules by which all signs mean, while a parole is the concrete applications or instances of such rules.

Let’s turn the attention to the molten lava cake. The one of the judges explains that it combines elements found in a cake (it’s a cake after all) & a souffle in one, & it is one of the desserts that many people, even professional chefs, cannot master well in the world, often baked in ramekins. The four main ingredients are butter, chocolate, eggs & sugar; both butter & chocolate should be melted & whipped together and the eggs can be whipped with sugar for  a thick paste, or can be separated with it so the egg whites can be mixed into an egg foam for more lift, hence a lighter cake. Anyone can make the cake more appetizing in any way: add some coffee for an intense chocolate flavor; put a sprig of mint; put some powder on top, etc.; any way will do. Timing is crucial to this: if placed in the oven too long, it is reduced to a brownie; take it out too soon, it will look messy.

Now back to the episode mentioned. Let’s say that the molten lava cake is the Parole, the contestants left to do the pressure test in that episode are the Langue, & they have to appropriate any certain elements of that cake to stay in the competition. The ingredients are the signifieds and signifiers they need to make a good sign for them to pass (or in this case, a cake). They have to understand the cake well in precision & with good measurements. The results were varied, as mentioned in a few paragraphs back. While one cake was too bland & possibly had too much gluten, it was the person who made a not impressive cake didn’t get the elements properly &, as a result, not only he got kicked out, he also murdered the integrity & idea of a perfect molten lava cake. He messed up the cake in a Structuralist view. The foundations were torn up. Maybe, time & the pressure can get the best of people sometimes. Who knows…

Watch the said episode starting at 26:30: MasterChef US S3 Episode 7: Top 14 Compete

Signification through Language, as according to Saussure: On the Course in General Linguistics

Language can confuse anyone. That’s what Ferdinand de Saussure is trying to explain his essay, the Course in General Linguistics.

Saussure stated that there are 3 criticisms he noted in the origins of language: the historical background & etymology; the expressivist view of language in the individual level; & the referential theory.

He then went to say that words or language work/s at all given moments throughout its development within a specific area, in other words, it’s synchronic.  Then he states about the nature of signs & how they work. Signs refer to anything, he said. He also debunks the idea that there are such things as ‘ready-made words exist before the world’ & said that ‘our thought… is only a shapeless & indistinct mass’; what he means is that language is the one necessary matrix without which meaningful thought can’t occur.

He called signs as the basic elements involved in producing meaning; they don’t simply label or even refer to a prior reality or referent; the old formula once said that sign = referent; Saussure didn’t agree so. He insisted that a sign is composed of the signifier (sound image) & the signified (an idea about reality itself). Also, he said that signs are arbitrarily, since that some singfiers are attached to the signifieds by conventions, instead of necessity. He also proposed a new formula: Signifier + Signified = the Referent/ the real object.

Then, he also state that language doesn’t provide us an unmediated access to or a window into ‘reality’, what it does is it shapes of how we see & grasp reality, or just confuse us to no end, he claimed. He also said that we can never the ‘real’ anymore, for different languages have offered their versions of reality, hence different languages signify ‘real’ differently. There’s also the fact that a certain sign means what it means, only because it’s a part of the sign-system, & different is the major cornerstone of the functioning of all sign-systems. Then there’s an emphasis on the phonetic component of a word.

Of course, he provided the terms: Langue & Parole (not a civil law term for repentance for a criminal). Langue is the abstract system within or the basic rules by which all signs mean; parole, on the other hand, is the concrete/ physical applications and/ or instances of such rules. One example would be the English Renaissance, back then William Shakespeare’s sonnets were prominent of his times and many writers & poets attempted to follow his style of writing.

The author notes that, in conclusion, that sometimes language can make one confuse about reality, to the point everyone doesn’t know to pin-point it after all. But keep in mind, this is just one theory one can learn, but don’t take it for grant.


Leitch, Vincent B. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. New York City, New York, United States of America: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001.

A little reminder of this lesson:

This figure shows arbitrariness of the sign.

This figure shows arbitrariness of the sign. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)