Group-Thinking Your Palate

It’s been suggested that George W. Bush salted his language with an assortment of “Aw Shucks-isms” (‘nucular’, ‘y’all’, ) in an effort to bond with his audience.

Is that what Julia Child was thinking when she began her thirty year love affair with McDonald’s? Or Why Martha Stuart claims to love Spam, and Feran Adria to love Twinkies?

TV personalities are difficult to parse, because, as Oscar Levant observed about Hollywood: “Underneath all that phony tinsel…is real tinsel”. But few of us, even those who should know better, can ever really turn their backs on the nostalgia magnet of our childhood tastes. And, there’s no reason to, so long as we remember the Great Second Rule of taste:

Just because we like it, doesn’t mean it’s good.

Taste, Malleable Taste

Malleable: Capacity to be formed under pressure, as by a hammer. Our tastes are hammered in all directions by forces which have nothing to do with health or biology. Why do we like a thing? Marketing, random associations, budget.  Calvin Trillin once tried to recreate a dish he ate as a kid, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. But he couldn’t get it to taste right. Finally he realized that what he was really craving was day old Kraft Dinner. You see, it’s not just any junk we want. it’s our junk. But Trillin is, above all, a humorist. His opinions need only make us laugh. On a deeper level, he wasn’t defending leftover frozen foods as anything other than a memory prompt. He liked it, craved it, because it brought him home again. And (we hope) that’s why Feran Adria loves Twinkies: He ate them as a kid, and we were all kids, so he’s one of us.

But this translates directly into a version of Group-think theory: Broadly, it illustrates a culture of laziness and acceptance of the prevailing tastes. That explains a lot about American food culture, fast food addiction, etc. It also explains the irrational defense of bad food which pervades food writing.

The simple truth is that our choices, what we like, is often meaningless.

Is there such a thing as Good? Can good be universal?

Well, I will always believe that some things are good, and some are bad. It’s not a single person who decides this, that’s the job of culture, and of tradition. What’s good is what keeps us alive. It also should not harm us, (some foods do swing both ways).

So, there should be nothing called a guilty pleasure, because pleasure itself is a natural adaptation which tells us something is good. It’s a biological reward.

Given that, the perfect food would be readily available, taste good to a baby, and could be eaten in any quantity without bad effect. But perfection is boring, and conflict is human. Creativity depends on it.

The problem with the FoodInc. model is that there’s no need to advertise something which people already want, and there’s little profit in selling something which came out of the ground perfect. The money is in the marketing and the processing.

And of all canned foods ever invented, Spam covers most of the bases of ridiculousness: It’s a factory farm product made possible by terrible conditions for the animals, it has a very poor nutritional profile. And it’s very expensive. Somehow it’s gotten the rep of a “common food for the common man”, and that’s just about the perfect equivalent to George Bush’s folksiness. Like his accent, like his wars, it’s fake in every way. And the taste? What difference does that make?  They’re selling memories, images, group-taste.

“We may find in the long run that tinned food is a deadlier weapon than the machine gun.”—George Orwell

And, oddly, this:

“Without SPAM, we wouldn’t have been able to feed our army.” Nikita Krushchev on the survival of the WWII Russian army.

The association of ‘bad’ food with war is a long one. Indeed, canning was first developed to help feed the army of Napoleon in the 18th century. Like a cluster bomb which creates business for wooden leg makers, bad food is a gift that keeps on giving. No need to list the litany of its offenses, but among the most harmful is the way these foods insinuate themselves into our culture. We’ve written about the colonization of our palates by sugar, and about the current fads such as Foie Gras a La Spam, etc. In Hawaii it’s common to hear: “We love SPAM because it got us through WWII.” So why not go around with bandages on your head? Nostalgia, marketing, group-think.

 We need simply to employ Simplicity—the antidote to all of this.

(First, the disclaimer. Processing has brought hope to millions of hungry, disadvantaged people. Processing has brought variety to millions of isolated populations. And flash freezing vegetables has both saved a lot of waste, and enabled many people to experience healthy alternatives in harsh conditions. But the fresh, simple alternative would always be better if it could be had.)

Learn to cook it yourself. SPAM is nothing more than braised pork shoulder, (of a terrible quality), too much fat, too much salt and with that all important source of awesomeness: Sugar. For 1/3 of the cost of SPAM, you can make far more interesting things, such as pulled pork, or a French version, Rillettes, made from pork, pepper, and salt. Only. That’s simple. And every one you make will be your own.

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