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What is Best in Life?

April 13, 2011

To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.
~Conan

I don’t know why the subject of The Best has been coming up recently. Maybe it has something to do with the Times Union’s annual reader poll of The Best in the Capital Region. What is really interesting is that I seem to be embroiled in several conversations that shouldn’t be able to exist in the same universe.

Over here on the FLB, B and I are going back and forth about how, should the FUSSYlittleBALLOT be successful, it would improve the state of affairs of food in Albany. While he permits for the possibility that he could be wrong, B asserts that when people

See their favorite didn’t make the top spot, they just think that’s stupid and keep going to the place they like. This is just human nature, and like differences in personal taste, you aren’t gonna change it.

Yet over on Facebook, Kristi Gustafson was dismayed by some of her favorite spots blatantly campaigning for votes in the Times Union poll. Due to some freak social media glitch I can’t seem to locate that conversation. However, the very notion that local businesses would alienate their core consumers in order to try to reach the top of this list indicates how important being voted best is for bringing people through the door.

For the record I think B is only partially correct. I believe the businesses campaigning for votes are keenly aware of the poll’s impact, and I’m delighted by the irony that the TU’s social media strategist is put off by the social media strategies initiated by the paper’s poll.

We can hash this all out in the comments section. Because what I really want to elaborate on this morning was the conversation I was attempting to have with Kristi in 140 character chunks about the difference between The Best and The Favorite.

Honestly, if the Times Union simply changed the name of the poll I’d feel a lot better.

If the annual poll was simply called, “Reader’s Favorites” and not lauded as “The Best of the Capital Region” I would be a lot more understanding about the nature of the results. Favorites are subjective. Favorites can easily be decided upon by a popularity contest. Favorites can’t reasonably be debated.

What’s your favorite flavor of ice cream?

If coffee makes you gag, I’ll never be able to convince you that your favorite flavor should be coffee. If rocky road recalls precious memories of childhood, there is nothing I can say to undo that powerful association. Your favorite is your own.

Who makes the best vanilla ice cream?

This is an entirely different question. This requires an answer based on a set of criteria. Perhaps on some level there are subjective decisions to be made about which criteria are used and their relative weights. But there need to be defensible reasons for choosing what is The Best that go beyond mere personal preference.

In the case of vanilla ice cream these criteria could be: the presence of actual vanilla; the assertiveness of the vanilla flavor; the density of the ice cream; the use of high quality ingredients; the absence of stabilizers, emulsifiers, or gums; etc. 

Just because you like Häagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream the best doesn’t make it the best, it makes it your favorite. But at least Häagen-Dazs is a defensible position. Less defensible would be Edy’s. If you like Edy’s the best because it’s a lot less expensive than other options, you haven’t made your case. If you like Edy’s the best because you like the way those food gums linger on your tongue, you will also be unconvincing to anyone who knows something about quality ice cream.

Granted, you could argue The Best vanilla ice cream needs to satisfy a different set of criteria, and that indeed is subjective. But the selection of these criteria can be debated and argued, whereas personal preference cannot.

Much like –S I find the drive up to Saratoga Springs and the prices of Mrs. London’s baked goods a bit off-putting. This is why Crisan (and not Mrs. London’s) is my favorite bakery. It’s closer to home and its prices are closer to Earth. Crisan is very good. But the pastries are just a little bit better at Mrs. London’s, plus they have some very solid bread.

Crisan may be the Best Patisserie in Albany. It could even win the Best Place for a Sweet Treat, although it might face stiff competition from Cheesecake Machismo. But as much as I love the place, respect the skills of their bakers, and am thankful for their presence in Albany, I cannot say they are The Best. Even though the difference is inches and not yards.

The Best doesn’t have to be some unattainable Platonic ideal of perfection. It’s why I’m comfortable giving the nod to Caffé Vero for best coffee. The place isn’t perfect, but there is nobody making espresso drinks as good as these guys in the area. Nobody. And that’s not my opinion, it’s a matter of fact. You can read this to see just some of the things they do in the pursuit of good coffee.

But I refuse to believe there are a majority of Albanians who vote in the Times Union poll who think Subway is actually the Best Sandwich in the area. Granted, I think they may like it the best for a variety of reasons: it’s cheap, it’s close to their office, the line moves quickly. However, there is no doubt in my mind that if you took those same people and gave them a Subway sandwich and a similar one from Andy’s the vast majority would agree that Andy’s was best.

The Best things are special. Deciding on what is The Best requires some thought. The Best may even be different than your favorite. But there are consequences when the major daily newspaper publishes a list of things its readers consider The Best and Olive Garden is among them. I’m just trying to elevate this list to the level of its aspirations.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. April 13, 2011 10:25 am

    I think your notion of “they may like it the best” is really the core of the argument for most people. Using your example of the sandwich, if we were to set up a free, blind taste test, and had people say which one they liked best, I am sure Subway wouldn’t even rank against other places.

    The TU “Best of” doesn’t seem to be this type of contest. As you bring up, financial factors, convenience, and other variables get considered into peoples’ choices before quality even enters the equation. I’m not gonna start telling the Times Union what to do, but a more appropriate title for the contest is something along the lines of “Peoples’ Choice,” because, at the heart of it, that’s what they’re driving at.

    I understand your cause, and I support it, mainly because I believe there are hidden gems that are often overlooked, and it would help bring awareness, since people still hold TU publications in high regard. Even though I am not in full agreement with your FL Ballot choices, I think that encouraging people to take the time to think about their choices is the best message you’re conveying. People shouldn’t feel obligated to make the same exact picks as you, but they should at least bring quality to the front of consideration, since it is “Best of.”

  2. April 13, 2011 11:03 am

    People in this area tend to make choices based on a certain set of criteria – how convenient is the location, how good is the parking, is there a kids menu, etc. They don’t tend to look at things like the quality of the ingredients, the cooking method, etc.

    Like you said, the criteria can be debated, but any real “Best of” would require that all voters agree on the criteria ahead of time. I guess that’s one major flaw of the Times Union survey.

    The TU hasn’t set criteria, nor does it seem they have criteria in mind. The names listed are mostly based on previous years’ results, which means nothing ever changes – unless someone does what you’re doing.

    I agree with derryX – while I may not agree with all your choices, I think what you’re attempting to do is awesome. It’s given me a whole list of places to make sure I try in the next year.

  3. April 13, 2011 11:30 am

    re: B’s point that if people don’t see their favorites, they’ll be put off.
    People are voting things like “The Olive Garden” and “Price Chopper” in all these categories. It shows not that they have their favorites and won’t venture out, but that they aren’t aware of them. If they see a restaurant they’re not familiar with wins best Chinese takeout or whatever, they’re much more apt to try it. It’s the poll that promotes the businesses, not the other way around.

    re: The Best vs. Favorite
    Excellent point and one I agree with. I think “Capital Region Favorites” would be a more appropriate title considering its aims and the results that come out of it, which is why when I mentioned it on my space over at the TU (along with a plug for the FLBallot 2.0), I encouraged people to not vote if they aren’t familiar with any of the options available. That said, I’m a weirdo like that. I don’t know if people take “Best” as it’s used in this poll anywhere near as seriously or literally as you and I do, though it does give them too much of an opportunity to continue reveling in the mediocre. There’s also something to be said for marketing: “Best of the Capital Region” looks and sounds a lot better than any combination of “Capital Region Favorites,” “Favorites of the Capital Region,” “518 Faves,” or what have you.

    I’m delighted by the irony that the TU’s social media strategist is put off by the social media strategies initiated by the paper’s poll.

    She’s also never been shy about campaigning for stuff herself (eg. the bobblehead thing), which makes her stance even more confusing and out of left field. But, yes, definitely backwards. Kristi, God love ya, but you’re doing it wrong.

  4. April 13, 2011 11:44 am

    I have a monthly professional engagement in Troy. I have a fellow associate who enjoys picking random places to try for lunch, and two others who are dead set on going to “Quizno’s” every time. They insist that Quizno’s is close, fast, good, etc… and that it should be the natural choice for lunch, and are dismayed that we would ever want to go anywhere else.

    I explain to them that going to Quizno’s reminds me of a gerbil going to his food bowl to get a food pellet. There, like Subway, you get a bland, uniform, processed, fatty and shove it down your maw quickly without relish. Sure the sandwich is filling, sure it is cheap, sure it is close, but going there seems mechanical and the place is completely devoid of character (although I like the free jalapenos).

    The fact that your food should be quick/cheap/filling/from a chain when you have an hour “work lunch” is so ingrained in these individuals mental frame work that they simply will listen to no other opinion. When I attempt to steer them to an independent, possibly ethnic establishment I am met with protestations concerning the fact that they might “get gas/indigestion/diarrhea” or that the food might be somehow tainted. They are so used to the (apparent) factory like cleanliness of a fast food joint, and the cold uniformity of the food that many independent establishments frighten them.

    These are the type of people that vote for Subway for best sandwich. In their universe this is a completely right and sane thing to do. They will hear nothing else and this list won’t change their minds. But there are probably a lot of people who are a little less close minded who might be swayed.

  5. April 13, 2011 11:50 am

    Daniel, I’m disappointed in the way you responded to my comment. By pasting one phrase and sticking it in a new post (your usual M.O.) instead of responding inline, you’re able to cherry-pick what you respond to — in effect, rephrasing the comment. Yes, I realize you link back but let’s be honest, how many people follow a link when there’s a quote? But so be it, it’s your blog. What you quoted is definitely not the most important point from that comment, but maybe that’s my fault for not being succinct enough. Just kind of disappointing that you don’t address the other points, while at the same time making it sound like you addressed the whole comment.

    Anyway, as I said before, good luck with your efforts, I still won’t bother to see who won but it would be great if your push paid off.

    • April 13, 2011 12:11 pm

      B, this was just a nod to our ongoing conversation and not a response to your comment. Your comment deserves a considered reply, and it will get it, but today’s post needed to come first. My goal is to encourage thoughtful commentary like yours and not to be dismissive of it. Perhaps that should have been made more explicit in this morning’s post.

      • April 18, 2011 11:26 am

        Thanks for the response, re-reading that it doesn’t come off the way I intended.

        It doesn’t help that on the same day I was pointed to more than one blog that linked to itself several times in one post — this seems to be a new “thing”, and unless I’m really invested in the subject is a huge waste of my time. So I probably took some of my frustration out on you…

        I think we’ll just disagree on this one which is fine — good even. Looking forward to the results, I like the sort of subversive qualities of this campaign. Just remember to be careful how you spend those minutes :)

  6. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    April 13, 2011 11:50 am

    Newspapers are pitched at about an eighth-grade reading level; this simple fact should be considered when expecting Times-Union readers to select the “best” in restaurants or in any thing. Most people, in Albany and elsewhere, do not have nearly the food knowledge, or culinary experience, to rate the “best.” So they write down their favorites; they don’t know any better. I know I sound like a snob. Because I am.

    • April 13, 2011 1:00 pm

      News articles are typically written at a 6th grade level. It’s a fun fact people use to jokingly dismiss newspapers, but that’s marrying accessibility with appeal. The manner in which the writing is structured does not have a direct correlatation to the quality of its content and, concordently, its audience.

      Not that I think TU is high brow (it’s not meant to be), but food for thought (SEE WHAT I DID THERE) .

  7. April 13, 2011 11:53 am

    Actually, I was having a conversation with Marshall about this very topic when voting first opened, and I’ll repeat here a point I made to him:

    Voting gets you these “favorites.” I bet if you took twelve randomly-selected Times Union readers, put them in a room, and had them to make a “Best of” list as if they were editors-for-a-day, that their results would come out looking a lot different than if those same people just submitted their ballots.

    And Daniel, you’ve explained it better than I could have, but I think it’s because they would start considering and debating all the criteria for what makes something the best, and not just go with their first gut answer.

    I wonder if AOA would be interested in trying this experiment and seeing if it proves true. :D

    • April 13, 2011 12:50 pm

      People should write blogs just about the conversations we have.

      Also, Daniel, I don’t know if you’ve touched on this yet, but this is – I believe – the first year that they’ve actually listed selectable options rather than having every category be a write-in. I’m curious to see how that influences the poll.

  8. Kristi permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:01 pm

    Thank you for the link and the mention Daniel. That conversation yesterday was lively and fun.

  9. Tonia permalink
    April 13, 2011 1:03 pm

    Personally, I don’t think these types of polls are going to change anything when it comes to food. I agree with the excellent post about Quiznos. Just like religion and politics, people are set in their ways. You can’t talk to them about it. Peeps get uptight. I do not even think writing about it will bring about change, since most of the people who read this blog and/or other similar blogs are the ones who are already in the ‘know’ about food. Now, I will assert that many people who are in the know are fairly good at cooking (I cannot totally vouch for this, but I think it holds a little truth). Either way, what I suggest or propose is [and how I have changed peeps], you feed them. Feed them, give them fresh food. Then, send them out into the world. Let loose the Krackens. I have created many a foodie through my cooking. Sounds funny… ? It works.

  10. April 13, 2011 1:04 pm

    As someone who was new to this area once and trying to find info on what was good here, one of the first things I checked at the time was the “Best of” list from the TU. What I saw there did not give me much hope for the culinary scene locally.

    Now, eight years on, I know of other places to look for this information like All Over Albany or other local bloggers. I’m also more active on social media and that gives me ideas as well. However, I think this list does act as an external marketing tool for the region.

    If the Cap Reg is trying to attract young professionals from other areas, along with their disposable income, they’d be better served to market what is unique about this area, not what those potential transplants can already find at their local strip mall.

  11. April 13, 2011 7:05 pm

    Steph – thank goodness before I moved here I had the foresight to use The Google to find Albany Eats! and FLB. I arrived in the winter looking forward to warm soup dumplings from Ala Shanghai, and other local delicacies. It never occurred to me to check the local paper, and I’m glad I didn’t. It would have bummed me out.

  12. April 14, 2011 1:32 am

    At a science fair last week, a young man set up a blind taste test between Coke and Pepsi. Hard to believe, but a fair number of participants could not tell the difference between the two. One of these was my eleven-year-old son who, by the way, LOOOVES Subways. At least, we can hope that his taste buds will mature some day. Can we say the same of Times Union readers?

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