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Eyes on the Prize

May 19, 2010

Most restaurants don’t let you look at the food before you order it.  Sure, there are a handful of places with picture menus, but that’s not looking at the food, that’s looking at a glorified version of the food.  I once worked with a guy who spent two weeks taking pictures of frozen lasagna to get one image for its packaging.

Your eyes cannot tell you if something is super-delicious, but they can give you clues to help you make good decisions.

Recently I was in a taqueria here in Tempe, and before even deciding on which kinds of beans to get in my burrito, I asked to see the different meat fillings.  The carne asada looked fairly pale and gray.  The al pastor looked underseasoned.  The chicken looked like chicken.  But the carnitas looked divine.

They glistened with fat, and had plenty of browned edges.  Large and meaty pieces of pork appeared to have easily torn with the grain.  And I hadn’t seen carnitas that good-looking for a long, long time.

My eyes did not fail me.  The carnitas were delicious.

Some times, like this one, observations are easy.  Other times they are a bit more difficult.  And on occasion either the eyes, or food producers, will deceive you.

Perish the thought that you should ever order a steamed lobster out at a restaurant (such things are never worth the tariff and are super easy to make at home).  But should it be a nice restaurant, and should they engage in the old-time practice of presenting you the live lobster before they cook it up, you have a difficult observation to make.  Do you pick it up and attempt to sex the animal?  Do you send it back if it’s a male and you prefer females?

But for the most part, the idea is that food should look appealing.  Our subconscious wants fruit to be plump and beef to be deeply red.

However, the biggest, yellowest lemon isn’t necessarily the best in the bin.  You do have to temper the visual cues with actual knowledge about the foodstuff.  Lemons and other citrus, for example, should be chosen based on their weight relative to size.  The juicier specimens will contain more water, and that will make them heavier.  In this instance color is a poor indicator of quality.

Sadly, food producers have clued in to consumers’ innate preferences for pretty fruit, and have started breeding things for their visual appeal rather than their taste.

Recently Steve Barnes posted a picture of a prime cut of beef.  It was beautifully marbled with thin even veins of fat throughout the meat.  And there were people who, on a food blog mind you, commented on how that meat looked nasty and gristly.

So trust your eyes.  Just make sure you know what you are looking for.

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