Does Anyone Really Know What They Like?

“They Liked it in Philadelphia!”

“What do they know?”

“They know what they like!”

“If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Philadelphia!”

—Preston Sturges

Ketchup contains more sugar by weight than Ice Cream

It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s unarguable: “I like it”

But, it’s meaningless.

The science of attraction—liking—draws psychologists, biologists, and all kinds of theorists to help explain our choices. Our tastes are influenced by a thousand things even before we’re born. We know that we like what our Mothers eat, (at first). We know that we like things which are liked by those we admire. (This is why McDonald’s is so determined to keep Ronald McDonald.) We also know that our choices are as fickle as a schoolgirl at the prom.

If an unexamined life is not worth living, then unexamined tastes are not worth having.

So let’s examine ours and see what’s up. When was the last time you simply asked yourself “Why?” As a culture, why do we like something? Why do we like sugar in everything, or mayonnaise on French Fries, or any of the strange things we find ourselves eating?

Why do we crave rich foods? Because they’re economical and beneficial to our bodies (in proper proportions). So first, you should like things which give you pleasure, and you should derive pleasure from things which make you strong. Even Ice cream can help make you strong; sugar and fat and fruit can all be part of a good diet. But as we know, the only difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage, so when the dose turns this food into a poison, it’s time to back off. These are all basic truths, but what turns it all around is marketing, because our brains lose their essential contact with our bodies. This is the fundamental argument against advertising of food, and for eating seasonal and regional foods. Food should advertise itself. Something it does best at its own pace in its own space.

The Problem With What We Think We Like

By now, we’re all familiar with Proust’s reveries about  Madeleines. That’s the benefit of living in a great food culture. An awful lot of Americans are stuck with Twinkies. As a kid I sometimes ate weird things, and I used to get cravings for Chef-Boy-R-Dee canned spaghetti and meatballs. I gave in to the nostalgia; it’s very easy to rationalize these cravings. But reading the ingredients made me realize that this is something that I really don’t want to want. When I took away the nostalgia, it tasted fake and thin. I can still call up this taste memory, but I really don’t want the stuff anymore. So what does it take to break this chain? Only a little discipline, and a little reason. I could want and like canned spaghetti for the rest of my life, but real food is better, cheaper, more healthful, and more honest. It’s what I want to want.

So, what about French Fries with mayonnaise? (Foodies do it with Aioli). This is thought of today as chic. It’s a Belgian habit, and though they may have invented Pommes Frites, that doesn’t change the fact that mayonnaise is sickeningly rich to begin with and it’s not meant to be used on fried foods; in France this is considered a revolting habit. But, what if you ‘like’ it? Well you can learn not to. You can decide not to like it, and want not to want it. And then you may decide that freshly made French Fries, done properly, are so flavorful that they don’t need sauces and toppings. Simplicity is a leaner way to make life richer.

As you simplify your diet, you will, I guarantee, find flavor where before you found none. You’ll taste the richness of ingredients which were covered up with sauces, condiments, and most of all, other ingredients. You’ll realize that the great seducer, sugar, is a trick to get you to eat, to ‘like’, food that’s been drained of its true quality and flavor.

Nature’s Smile

Have you ever asked why everything seems to have sugar in it? Most likely you were told: ‘Oh, Ha ha, everything has sugar in it these days!’

OK. Why?

The one universal facial gesture, the smile, finds its analogue in sugar. Sugar is the “Open Sesame” of taste. It’s an insurance policy, it preys on the corrupted tastes of an entire culture. It began in the 1920’s when bread manufacturers started using sugar as a fast way to promote yeast growth. (It’s not necessary; in fact, in France, it’s against the law to use sugar in baguettes.) Soon this was spun into a chain of sugar additives which spread into mayonnaise, mustard, salad dressings, sauces, etc. Have you ever considered how weird it is to put sugar on a salad? On a hamburger, (two teaspoons in a Big Mac)? Pizza chains now offer ‘dipping sauces’, filled with sugar. (This probably adds ‘complexity‘ too.) And it’s all really just foreplay for the drowning of our taste buds in sugary drinks.

We don’t need to bother with Safeway, or Walmart, but here are a few items from Whole Foods that contain sugar:

The ‘House made’ Meatballs, hit the jackpot with four kinds of sugar, molasses, sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar; Pizza; Ham (all varieties except some genuine Parma Ham); in the deli section there’s sugar in the Local Organic Mortadella, the sausages, salamis, and all of the turkey products. They put sugar in Roast Beef. (Why would you put sugar in Roast Beef?) Instead of growing decent tomatoes we put sugar in sauces, (‘to cut the acidity’, goes the cliché). In Farmer’s Markets, and in most of America, it’s impossible to find Beef Jerky without sugar. Popcorn has sugar. Falafel has sugar. Soy sauce has sugar. I’ve heard some foodies defend this as adding complexity(!)

So what’s wrong? Sugar is central to the human diet. Like the smile, it’s pleasant and welcoming. It represents safety. Who would find fault with a smile; who can criticize ‘fun’? Well, if you’ve ever spent a few minutes in a Safeway or a Walmart, you’ve seen smiles of which are like the sugar in everything: It’s everywhere, it’s pointless, and it’s fake. But some foods are dramatic! Sugar on everything is like a smiley face on everything, a smile that never goes away, (see photo below). When there’s sugar in everything the natural rhythms of taste are flattened into one long laugh track.

If Everything’s Dessert Then Nothing’s Dessert

We have no natural limiter for sugar intake, but, like the smile, it seems unnatural to refuse it. Sugar is such a dominant flavor that it can ruin the structure of a meal. And since this is a flavor problem before it’s a health problem artificial sweeteners change nothing.

So many people still have their hearts in a 1960’s sitcom, laugh track and all. What’s for dinner? Gilligan’s Island.

It just seems so right that this is the smile of the person who gave us the Krispy-Kreme-Glazed-Donut-Bacon-Cheeseburger.

But remember that all of these foods are demanded by the upscale clientele of Whole Foods. No is forcing this on them. The deli manager told me that the producer of one Organic, Artisinal ham refused to make even one of their dozen varieties without sugar because there was so little demand.

There’s only one lasting solution, and that is to inform yourself about the ingredients of what you’re eating. Who would think to look at the ingredients of a Pork Tamale at Whole Foods to see if they put sugar in it? But they did. Brussels Sprouts from Trader Joe? Sugar.

Why would you put sugar in a Pork Tamales and Brussels Sprouts? Because people ‘like’ it.

Well, if they knew what they liked…


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