A Dangerous Mind

The Happy Meal Of Journalism

Now that open season has been declared on Malcolm Gladwell, mainly due to his descent into the mire of corporate shilldom, (via Bank of America), we thought it might be nice to re-visit the glory days.

For those new to this, Malcolm Gladwell may be America’s most useful thinker. If you’re looking to form an opinion on something, you can do no better than to find out what Gladwell thinks, then run away. The sheer wrongness of the man is a joy to behold. It’s virtuosic. But he seems to go into overdrive when the subject is food. In particular, his work on Ketchup, and French Fries, America’s favorite ‘pairing’, shows him to be in a class by himself. Here’s Gladwell’s take on Heinz Ketchup, (revised and annotated):

There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: (this week). salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami.  Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup…”Umami adds body,” “If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it’s thicker—it gives it sensory heft.”  (Note to self: Important Concept). When Heinz moved to ripe tomatoes (!) and increased the percentage of tomato solids, he made ketchup, first and foremost, a potent source of umami. (In other words, he used tomatoes to make ketchup). Then he dramatically increased the concentration of vinegar, (I think he means the proportion of vinegar) so that his ketchup had twice the acidity of most other ketchups; now ketchup was sour, (as opposed to tomatoes, which are sour), another of the fundamental tastes. The post-benzoate ketchups (big word alert!) also doubled the concentration of sugar—so now ketchup was also sweet—(Of course, tomatoes already have sugars in them), and all along ketchup had been salty and bitter. These are not trivial issues. (Note: not trivial). Give a baby soup, and then soup with MSG (an amino-acid salt that is pure umami), and the baby will go back for the MSG soup every time, the same way a baby will always prefer water with sugar to water alone.  Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating. What Heinz had done was come up with a condiment that pushed all five of these primal buttons. The taste of Heinz’s ketchup began at the tip of the tongue, where our receptors for sweet and salty first appear, moved along the sides, where sour notes seem the strongest, then hit the back of the tongue, for umami and bitter, in one long crescendo. How many things in the supermarket run the sensory spectrum like this? (Many, actually…Worcestershire sauce, a Twinkie with Tabasco…Spaghetti-O’s with marmalade…).

Note how we’re to assume that pushing all five of the ‘primal buttons’ is somehow the key to culinary nirvana, but we’re never told why.

Now for a synopsis of his French Fry article from 2001: Beginning with the proposition that “Fast Food Is Killing Us”, Gladwell brings circular logic to a higher plane by concluding: “We need another Ray Kroc”. In a 4200 word article which trots out all the de rigueur cliches of today’s food journalism, (erudite studies from academics, quotes from FoodInc. professionals, etc.), Gladwell’s prescription for America’s social rehabilitation seems to be: We’ll have fries with that.

So, Babies like sugar? Congratulations. There it was all along. If Gladwell had investigated just a tiny bit further he might have discovered that the tomato contains all of those flavor elements all by itself, and that the popularity of ketchup is due to the same two things as most other products of FoodInc.: powerful marketing and Corn Syrup, the main ingredient of this umami filled delicacy. Babies Like sugar. Extrapolate: the infantalized tastes of the American palate guarantees sales to any product that has two things: An eye level spot on the Supermarket shelves and sugar. Oh, and maybe a little Umami.

Gladwell has achieved something further in circular reasoning, he has become Gladwellian. Here’s an author that anybody can read and understand precisely because he makes little sense and says almost nothing. When caught in a muddle of contradictory ideas he emphasizes that he isn’t out to persuade, or to argue. What he wants instead is to “engage our minds”. “It’s Ok if you haven’t learned anything of value if I’ve made you think” My Kindergarten teacher used to say that. That’s why she was teaching Kindergarten.

So, Gladwell shows us how Heinz has maintained its domination of the market for so many decades: by pushing our primal buttons. How many other things in our culture do this?.

Titanic, the Heinz Ketchup of Films.

Why was Titanic the highest grossing film ever?  It has ‘The Five Emotions’, the ideal balance of fear, delight, hope, grief, and that elusive fifth emotion, which the Japanese refer to as ‘Tsunami’, huge waves of tears. How many movies do this?
Year after year, the formula never changes because they got it right the first time: Titanic is the perfect film. The Box Office said so.

Barack Obama: Jeffersonian or Ketchupian?

Barack Obama’s Presidency began at the tip of the political iceberg, with sweet and salty notes, moved quickly to the sides, where sour notes began to dominate, and then hit bottom, where bitterness seems to have settled in. Missing is that elusive fifth element: Yo-mommi!
These are not trivial issues. Yo-mommi adds body,  If you add it to an administration, it makes it seem thicker—it gives it sensory heft. It turns a man from a puppet into a president.
How many politicians run the spectrum like this…?

Ketchupian Prose.
This poem is not merely Gladwellian, but, I think, even Ketchupian.
“The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
No allegory, similes or metaphors, just ‘word ketchup’? Here are all 26 letters, nine words, pushing, pushing, our Alphabetic buttons. Marvel at the economy, the almost diabolically correct spelling. Note the Chekovian precision. Two Articles, three adjectives, a preposition, two nouns, all bound by a single verb. Note the stunning absence of adverbs. It starts in the tip of the brain and then… Genius. Perfection. It’s Gladwellian. Quick, brown, foxy, and lazy.

And yet, the most common criticism of Malcolm Gladwell is his hair, which is totally unfair. Give the man a break, his hair is the most interesting thing about him.


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