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The Ultimate Question

January 16, 2013

Last semester I presented a guest lecture at RPI on building a social media brand or something like that. Mostly I talked about this blog. Afterwards, I was told by the professor that the students found it to be engaging. I hope to be invited back to present another one of these sometime down the road, because I’m sure they will only get better with practice.

Anyway, I told the story of how I came to start the FLB. And it resulted in a great question.

When I arrived in Albany I yelped my face off about everyplace I ate. The blog provided me a platform to write about the places where going to eat a meal seemed like a doomed experience from the outset. To provide an example I mentioned a place called Barcelona. There was a sign out front that said this ostensibly Spanish restaurant served “Italian Food” and the menu consisted of such gems as veal with a Jack Daniels cream sauce over noodles.

I explained to the inquisitive student that this was not the kind of restaurant I was looking for. To which he replied, “Yeah, but how does it taste?”

This is a powerful notion. The idea that personal taste trumps all. And I was talking about it in regards to beer last week on the Twitter. I know that what I’m about to say flies in the face of the current move to democratize food and criticism. But I have to disagree.

You say, “I like the way this _____ tastes. This is a great _____ .”

First let’s address the obvious flaw with this. Everyone has a different palate and different taste preferences. Some people love the taste of well-ripened washed rind cheeses. Other people love the taste of muenster slices from the supermarket deli counter. It’s great that people taste their food and have preferences. But you cannot have a debate on personal preference.

Here’s an example: Which is the better of the these two Bolognese?

Taster A: Prefers the flavor of Dish #1
Taster B: Prefers the flavor of Dish #2

So, they are at an impasse. They can argue the finer points of their personal tastes.

Taster A: “How could you say Dish #2? I thought those carrots were disgusting.”
Taster B: “I loved the carrots, and I thought Dish #1 was totally lacking in depth of flavor.”

Thankfully there is more to the appreciation of food, wine, beer, and pretty much everything than just one’s own sensory perceptions. People hated Picasso, but his work has stood the test of time. And there are those of us who love Tom Waits, but it’s not because his music is melodious.

On the flip side of things, the physiology of taste dictates that people prefer sweeter tastes. The wine educator at Robert Mondavi confirmed that with the winery’s sales of their muscat dessert wine in their Napa tasting room. Yet for the most part, people widely acknowledge that the great wines of the world are largely ones on the dry side of the spectrum.

Good food rests on three major pillars.

1. It comes from some place. There is history. There are traditions. There is probably a fair bit of geography as well. Even if a chef is turning those traditions upside down, they exist and need to be acknowledged. If you want to deconstruct a Lasagne Verdi alla Bolognese, go right ahead, but you cannot change the individual components of the dish.

2. It takes skill to prepare. When one eats good food, it’s not just ingredients thrown together, but the product of well trained hands. Sometimes the chef’s hand is clearly apparent and other times it’s hidden to the eye but revealed to the palate in a depth of flavor that is infeasible for most people to reproduce in a home kitchen.

3. Quality ingredients. Let’s jump back to brewed beverages for this one. Hard cider is delicious. Apparently it’s hard to get apple cider to taste like apple cider without adding in a bunch of “natural” flavor. I say that because so many brands on the shelf are compromised with ingredients that shouldn’t be in a well-made product. Yes, it may have more of an apple flavor as a result of these machinations, but in my book that doesn’t make it better.

A lot of food today is engineered to taste good. It’s made in factories, and optimized for flavor. Seriously, if people didn’t like the way Olive Garden tasted they would stop going. Just because people like it, does not make it good.

And the same holds true for Barcelona. They must be doing something right. Their parking lot is full of expensive cars, and I’ve heard some people say not awful things about the place.

Me? I’m going to choose to hold restaurants to a higher standard.

A chef’s food may taste great. Great tasting food isn’t rocket science. The secret is lots of butter and plenty of salt. However, if the person in the kitchen who is calling the shots thinks it’s a good idea to keep caprese salad on their menu all year long and defile this classic from Capri with a vile balsamic reduction, I’ve got to question their judgement. And that’s just one red flag (of many) that allows me to cast aspersions on the rest of the menu. At least enough to push a restaurant down my priority list to the point where it’s unlikely I’ll ever choose to eat their food of my own free will.

Maybe it’s tasty, but I know it’s not great. And likely not even worth the calories or the expense.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. January 16, 2013 12:27 pm

    So are you agreeing with me or disagreeing with me? Sounds like both and neither.

    The whole premise is absurd. You’re using words like “good” and “well-crafted” as OBJECTIVE descriptions. They are no. They are subjective. In order to even make the case they’re objective you’d have to have some way to empirically measure their results. What does “well crafted” mean? By what standards and who defines those standards and who are they to set those standards?

    Your argument is based on the “Appeal to authority” cliche.

    While not necessarily a fallacy, it is indeed a cliche and hence a weak argument. Because “the world’s top ranked chefs say this is the best” (again more subjective terms) that doesn’t make it fact. Do you believe movies, albums and other form of entertainment are indeed the highest form of art because they win awards? Your line of thinking seems to be akin to that. “if it didn’t win an award it’s no good.”

    But that’s a double-edged sword itself. There’s plenty of things we would consider “low quality” goods and services that continually win awards and are ranked highly by “industry analysts”. For example, in the world of beer there’s a malt liquor category at the Great American Beer Festival. So thugs drinking 40s of Olde English 800 are drinking as much of a product that won award at the same prestige as the beer snobs drinking imperial stouts and IPAs.

    So the whole notion that taste could ever been objective essentially means that everyone should arrive at the exact same conclusion. Math is objective. We all agree 2+2=4. We all arrive at the same conclusion on that. To equate taste to this is ridiculous because you’re essentially saying to someone that doesn’t like what you like “your palate is incorrect.”

    I stopped trying to make these types of arguments to naysayers on my beer reviews years ago. If someone thinks Miller Lite is absolutely delicious and Old Rasputin tastes like soy sauce there’s nothing I can say to them to change their mind. Palates are like muscles – you have to work them out and build them up over time. That’s why children tend to like bland food. That’s why the masses as a whole like bland everything. It’s a bell curve – so few have the time, patience and energy to devote to exploration and appreciation of the things more intense in life that we hold in high regard those who do. Athletes have taken the time to test the limits of their body and chefs and foodies have taken the time to test the limits of their palate. But you can objectively measure an athlete’s performance, you can’t measure taste.

    So the whole argument is inherently masturbatory and futile. It’s just an attempt to rationalize snobbery. I used to feel that way, but then once I stopped trying to tell people that my palate is smarter than theirs I was freed of the annoyance that comes with trying to justify the highbrow opinion.

    I’ll never argue with someone over personal taste, but I’ll be glad to argue with anyone that says their opinion is fact.

    • January 16, 2013 6:18 pm

      From Daniel’s post, he acknowledges that palates differ (examples: cheese, Bolognese sauce, wine), but doesn’t say that your palate is wrong if you like muenster. So, your last 4 paragraphs miss the point of this post.

  2. January 16, 2013 12:38 pm

    I was cleaning out the root cellar and found a couple of gallons of cider that, no doubt, are “hard” at this point. I’m sure they taste like nothing buy apple cider. Wanna try some?

  3. PensiveEngineer permalink
    January 16, 2013 12:53 pm

    I’m curious what you think good apple cider tastes like. After making a few batches, two using wine making techniques and once using spontaneous fermentation, I’ve learned hard cider probably doesn’t have much apple flavor but depends on the method used. This, I think, goes right to your point of what tastes good isn’t necessarily good food. Real hard cider probably isn’t palatable to the masses. I guess a better question is how do you prefer “good” hard cider to taste?

  4. January 16, 2013 3:13 pm

    What’s tough is when you find a place that you want to like–a small, independent business where quality, local ingredients are used and you know the restaurant was borne from the passion of one person–but when you eat there, the execution ends up lacking. We need more places like that out here (in terms of places we “want to like”), but I’m certainly not going to keep going to a place where I have to pretend the food is better than it actually is.

    • January 16, 2013 5:26 pm

      This is the exact discussion I’m having with DFH beers right now on FB. Sure their beers hit all three marks listed above, but some (more often than not recently) are downright undrinkable. Just because it’s a well-crafted ale does it mean that I have to say it’s “good” even though it tastes like shit?

      • January 17, 2013 2:15 am

        I cut Dogfish Head slack because I like a number of their standard beers a lot (from the IPAs to the Indian Brown to the Punkin)–and, though tempted, tend to just stray from their wilder creations. I was sucked in by the Faithfull Ale as a long-time Pearl Jam fan and agree with most that it was just off, but did love the Red & White when I had that on tap at a Mellow Mushroom last year.

  5. January 16, 2013 3:28 pm

    I agree with Chad. This is all rubbish. The hard cider example is rubbish too. Oh geez, people are adding stuff to food to make it taste better? Golly gee. This is like criticising our beer making forefathers for adding herbs, hops, or whatever else to their brews. Were they interfering with the pure taste of the malt? I know you mean industrial food additives that are potentially harmful and all that, I am not a simpleton and I am being a bit over the top in my criticism. But I want you to admit something.

    You are are writing in defense of your “thing.” There is nothing wrong with having a “thing.” Most of us have one or two. But it is important to realize that our thing is a construct and we don’t have to defend it. Some people like to pick up an ancient book and run around proselytizing about the one true faith. Do I care about their reasons why? Not really. Are their attempts to convince me that as a non believer I am wrong insulting? Yes.

    All the “food” stuff is a social adaptation/affectation that probably serves a beneficial purpose. It identifies an individual as part of an in-group and gives all sorts of warm fuzzies about how in tune we are with some collective ideal. It is silly. There are some valid rallying cries these days, I concede that. You can hang your hat on dangerous additives or lead in rice or whatever, I get it. But getting bent out of shape about Caprese salad identifies you as subscribing to a “thing” and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    I practice what I like to call “culinary existentialism.” You should try it, it is freeing and it would lower your blood pressure. You could stop preaching a gospel and concentrate on enjoying things. That is to say if your “thing” is really, in fact, preaching and not food…

  6. January 16, 2013 3:31 pm

    …food and not preaching. #edit#

  7. January 16, 2013 4:30 pm

    Good for you, Profussor, to stick by your lance and your windmill. I agree that we need better food in the Cap District but disagree to some extent about all three of the major pillars. This week on my blog I’m featuring Texas chili which hits pillar #1 obviously and hopefully #3 but deliberately doesn’t take skill to prepare; like any rustic dish it’s dependent on patience and tradition.

    With this I am pairing a buttermilk slaw a la the Colonel that takes about five minutes, uses a sack of prepared slaw mix from the supermarket, and cheats with the use of sugar to amp up the flavor profile. No pillars at all. And I’ll serve up a side of beans (since Texas chili is never made with beans, of course) following Kerry’s non-recipe from Snow’s Barbecue in which he picks up a sack of pintos from Sam’s Club and dumps in some chili powder and bacon ends.

    In fact the premise of my blog is that you can enjoy preparing and serving great food even if you’re lazy and a klutz. It’s what works for me, at least as well as your definition of good works for you. (And I agree that people of good will can agree to disagree.)

  8. January 16, 2013 5:56 pm

    It entirely depends on your standard for “good.” In your case, it relies highly upon authenticity and quality ingredients. But that’s not the same for everyone — to some people, “good” merely means “this tastes good.” Sometimes, you can eat something that you know isn’t authentic or quality, but it tastes good anyway (or maybe YOU can’t, but I can) — pasta Alfredo with chicken, say, isn’t actually an authentic dish (the part of Italy where Alfredo comes from is coastal, not a chicken-eating region), but it still tastes good. As long as you know what definition of “good” you’re working from, it’s all, well, good. :)

  9. christine permalink
    January 16, 2013 8:13 pm

    This post really tired me out. I suppose if I were you I would almost never go out to eat because I would be setting myself up for failure. The chance of a perfect meal being served each time I went to a restaurant is not a chance I would take if I were in your shoes.

  10. Thinkydooey permalink
    January 20, 2013 9:01 pm

    I went to Barcelona when it first opened. I asked the waiter for Rioja and he replied, “What’s that?”
    I never went back.

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