“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!”
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.
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!’
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…
The Architecture of Taste Part 3: Manufactured Tastes.
Control the food and you control the people.
—Henry Kissinger, 1973
The Industrialization Of Our Palates
Up jumped the devil! Suddenly our tastes are co-opted, twisted, and turned back on themselves with all the tenderness of a tax audit. Our palates are the playing field of the white coated flavor scientists, the bean counting food economists, and the bio-criminals, a word not used casually, who are hijacking our very womb: the Earth. This is no metaphor. The earth is the womb of all things living and to try to control it is as absurd and as offensive as trying to control your Mother’s uterus through rules and laws. Of course some wish to do that too, and for the same reasons. But the point of life is freedom. It’s a seminal issue.
Sound dramatic? Well, that’s life…and some people want to own it. What they can’t own they want to control.
The Thing That Couldn’t Say No.
We’re all partners in this ridiculous crime against our own natures. Like the Chimpanzee above, who just couldn’t say no to a mouthful of figs, our fellow citizens have been offered a similar deal: All you can eat. So we do. There’s not much more to it than that. Our culinary culture didn’t grow naturally out of a relationship with the ground, the plants and the animals. It was designed by chemists and business people, and enabled by both a bounty of our earth, and of our economy. We were supplied with too much of everything and demanded even more, Once we were freed from the natural constraints of supply and demand, food producers went to work getting us to want it, to like it. Through the various processes of persuasion available to them, we were trained minute by minute what to want, what to like. Ask any Subway sandwich customer why they’re drinking Coke with a foot long sandwich and they’ll probably say, “Because I like it”. Ask why there are four condiments and twelve ingredients on their sandwich? “Because I like it”. But is that the real reason?
Ten minutes into the great Noir classic, “Out of the Past”, this scene brings a telling snapshot from 1948. It isn’t part of the story, just background. A man walks into a coffee shop, orders a ham sandwich. The woman at the counter takes two slices of bread, spreads butter on them and puts a thin slice of ham on it, then serves it to the customer. He drinks coffee. And he liked it.
Has our biology changed? Our culture? Well, not exactly. I believe that we would still be eating that simple ham sandwich, as much of the world does, had it not been for changes entirely outside of the culinary culture: marketing and processing. Today, that sandwich would have to be covered in lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, and the ubiquitous cheese. But why? What would we gain with all of the condiments and accessories? Nothing. It’s all done as a sort of theater, to convince us that today is better than yesterday. To persuade us that after the war, when things were tough, we had to eat these meager things because we had no choice. Now, the rich bounty of excess has provided us with the means to create sandwiches we can’t even see over. And we wash it down with corn syrup because we can afford to. And yet the people in the photo seem healthy and well fed, and the world over, a simple sandwich is actually preferred. Mayonnaise makers, lettuce growers, tomato and cheese producers have all had their say, and we’ve been trained to think of the simple sandwich as a thing for poor people. Something out of the past.
But the Architects of our taste have created a new standard. Tall and wide, with many levels and little taste cul-de-sacs to get lost in. We’ve been lured into this structure and can’t find our way out. In fact most of us aren’t even looking for a way out: We like it.
Let’s trace back the steps which got us here.
The simple sandwich, Out Of The Past, is made of bread, butter and ham.
Why was this good enough in 1948, but not at Subway, not for America, not now?
It always comes back to processing and marketing, economies of scale.
If we are ever to accept the Simplovore approach, we need to find a path back Into the Past, or at least explain why things changed.
Highly processed ham has very little flavor, and so the usual suspects are rallied to its aid: salt, the cheapest flavor boost there is; water, cheap bulk; and sugar which is so ubiquitous in American hams that it’s rarely even questioned. Most Americans have never tasted ham without sugar.
Why do we use mayonnaise? Because it lubricates and sweetens the sandwich. Sugar likes sugar. Lettuce and tomato? Color and crunch. And soon the fact that the ham is watery, salty, sugar, in a protein matrix disappears.
And finally, we learn taste through the picture tube. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that food TV, in the form of Julia Child, only caught on once TV was broadcast in color. James Beard made an early attempt in about 1950, but despite his charm and flair, was not successful. B/W TV may have been the reason. We expected to see food in grand stripes of red and green and orange, and we let tomatoes and condiments and cheese dress up our TV commercials.
What to do? Simplify. Why not go back to the simple ham, butter and bread? The ham will have to be much better, but it wouldn’t increase the overall cost, and the pig would not have died for nothing.
All in all, many of the goals of the new food movements, less waste, more nutrition, decent treatment of the animals we kill for food, fall naturally into place when we respect our tastes. And it will save money. The only thing it would cost us is about 30% of the calories: the 30% that will end up on the hips of most Americans.
That’s not much of a sacrifice for a better meal.
“I think that this is the age that invented ugliness”
With typical bluntness this phrase is provocative, but is it defensible? How can one generation ‘invent’ something which has been around forever. And, who, after all, decides what’s ugly?
What was once considered ugly, we can view as just another form of reality, alternate beauty. The plain girl from school whom you end up marrying becomes beautiful. By the end of Notre Dame Quasimodo’s ugliness has melted away to reveal many kinds of beauty.
The ugliness Bunuel saw was not failed beauty, not crooked teeth or bad skin, but the deliberate imposition of ugliness, ugliness which was actually what its creators intended: Shopping malls, Burger King, and all of the ugliness associated with the marketing of products which we don’t need and are sold to us using lies, deception and brain-washing. That’s true ugliness: lies told cynically, for profit.
When ugliness is a function of a things existence, an essential component in its design, that’s not bad taste, it’s the assassination of taste itself, Gusticide. When the creation and marketing of food makes it necessary to destroy its nature, its flavor, that’s Gusticide.
Taste is the tool we use to decide what is good, what’s good for us, and what we like. When that tool is taken away from us, our very existence is less rich, less meaningful, and less our own.
When we ‘choose’ to eat and drink foods which are actually chosen for us by food product engineers we’ve succumbed to a form of control beyond Orwellian, because we think we’ve made the choice ourselves, we defend them as our own. Meanwhile the beneficiaries are strangers who, like the executives at tobacco companies, never touch their own creations.
This is ugliness: You’re invited to dine at a facility which allows you to carry your food to the table yourself, eat from paper and plastic, food which is overpriced and bad for you. And you are in a facility where the colors, the hard surfaces, the brightness and the sound levels were chosen expressly for the purpose of making you leave quickly. That’s FastFood hospitality.
That’s what ugliness means: It’s not esthetics, it’s a business plan.
These tomatoes are bad because they have no flavor or nutrients, but they’re also bad because they’re grown that way on purpose, and people buy them and don’t know the difference, or don’t care. And they’re triply bad when our ham is made in giant factories and has no flavor besides the sugar added to it. The pig died for nothing. We put these tomatoes on the ham sandwich. And then we add mayonnaise, full of sugar, to make up for a bit more of the lost flavor. To save it from itself.
And then, can you imagine drinking water with this? Of course not. Like likes Like. You drink sugar. It’s an evil cycle and it’s ugly.