Posted 05 February 2004 - 06:53 PM
In Robb Walsh’s wonderfully thoughtful essay on his experience of eating durian, he tries to get to the bottom of why foods that are beloved by some people may disgust others. He asks Paul Rozin, a psychologist, about this paradox and Rozin hypothesizes that it goes back to potty training. He observes that neither infants nor animals have an aversion to their own feces, so our problem with it—and, presumably, by extension, other things that have strong smells—is part of the socialization process. He offers the alternate example of blue cheese.
I have to admit that my first reaction was skeptical. In the first place, psychologists cite toilet training about as often as Baptists cite the New Testament. In neither case are things usually that simple.
Whatever the cause for that illicit thrill we get for breaking a rule, I do think that our attraction/repulsion to certain foods is culturally based. The appreciation of food (and music, art, literature … well, just about anything that requires use of your brain) is learned. While it is true that children have no aversion to playing with their feces, neither are they particularly epicurean.
Furthermore, what we learn to like depends on the culture in which we are raised. We learn to appreciate foods not in isolation but in context with other foods. It is hard to like blue cheese without first having liked mild cheese, and before it butter and salt (I would also add that it’s harder to like blue cheese without also appreciating dried fruit, walnuts and, ideally, a nice Port). In the same way, a prerequisite for loving durian may well be an earlier appreciation for extremely ripe tropical fruits and various grades of fish sauce.
But there is no denying that peculiarly transgressive thrill that comes with eating something nobody else will. Whether it’s durian, or tripe or chicken feet, there does seem to be a kind of “double-dawg-dare-ya”, standing-on-the-high-dive jolt to being the first one at the table to dig in.
This, of course, has nothing to do with a nuanced appreciation of a dish’s culinary merits. Instead, I think, it has more to do with being the center of attention, kind of like the kid in your first-grade class who ate worms (to which we also have a cultural aversion, despite their lack of a strong scent). Some people (including, I’m afraid certain food writers) never get beyond this stage. In fact, some seem to have based their careers on it.
To me, this cheapens both the food and the writer. It perverts a cultural heritage for its sideshow value. This doesn’t mean that you need a doctorate in ethnography before eating food from a different culture, or even having read a book.
But it does mean that you approach the food mindful of where it comes from, who made it and why—just as Robb does in his writings. This is a part of someone’s culture, not a tryout for “Jackass” or “Fear Factor.” To you, this may be just another walk on the wild side, but to someone else, it’s mama.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 07:41 AM
What a great day to play with your feces!
Let's dive into the smelliest part of Russ's comments first. Dr. Paul Rozin's discussion of why some cultures embrace a certain smelly mushy food and reject others had two main points. One, that eating smelly mushy foods is a form of thrill seeking and that the thrill seems to derive from breaking toilet training taboos. And two, once embraced, certain smelly mushy foods became emblematic of a culture. Fermented whale blubber to Eskimos, durian to Southeast Asians, blue cheese to Westerners.
But let's put this in the context of the rest of Rozin's work. Paul Rozin's main focus is trying to understand why people eat things that taste bad or smell bad on first encounter. He has actually written a lot more about chile peppers, coffee, and other irritating or bitter substances than he has about smelly mushy stuff, so it's not quite fair to depict him as caught up with toilet training.
The main thrust of Rozin's theory is that consuming chile peppers, coffee and smelly mushy things that don't initially recommend themselves as edible is a form of culinary thrill seeking. This activity, Rozin says, is akin to going to scary movies or riding on roller coasters. We get a thrill because there is a perceived danger or at least the activity is counterintuitive.
This is, of course, the logic behind the title of my book: Are You Really Going to Eat That: Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker. And as I noted in the introduction, the thrill seeking part of my career started with chile peppers. One of the first pieces I ever published in a major newspaper was an humorous account that described the similarity of eating a raw jalapeño and having an acid flashback. The article ran in the LA Times food section back in 1990 or so. Was it edited by Russ Parsons? I think so.
But Russ brings up an interesting point. When we eat foods that are important to somebody's elses' culture for the sake of thrills, are we being ignorant rubes? And who are we to judge other cultures anyway. (There is a lot more on this subject in the Ultimate Pizza essay near the end of the book.) Am I a food writer who is stuck in the worm-eating stage of a troubled adolescence? Maybe so.
But of course I see it from a slightly different perspective. When I started writing about food, there weren't many media outlets that were interested in stories about smuggling chile peppers and eating durian. Restaurant reviewing and food writing at that time was all about "gourmets." We read about what our "betters" were eating and drinking the same way we read about fashion--in hopes that we might someday be rich enough to emulate that upper class.
When Are You Really Going to Eat That? was reviewed in the New York Times Book Review, the reviewer sniffed, "Why would a foodie bother with Popeyes?" (I went to Popeye's as well as two homegrown Creole fried chicken joints in the essay called Third Ward Fried.)
And the answer is, if foodies are snobs who can't eat Popeye's fried chicken, please don't call me a foodie. Ironically, Julia Reed, the NYT's token Southerner mentioned serving Popeye's fried chicken at a Super Bowl party in her food column in the NYT magazine a couple of weeks later.
I write for the Houston Press, an alternative weekly. My previous job was editor of Chile Pepper magazine. Obviously, I am not a mainstream writer. But the kind of writing I do isn't as far out of the mainstream as it used to be. There are still plenty of elitist food writers out there. But there is a new adventurousness in food writing today and a new multiculturalism, especially in big cities with varied ethnic populations. Likewise, a new kind of food lover has emerged in America. If foodies are snobs who only eat "the right things," then this new kind of food lover is driven by different motives. I am talking about folks who get a kick out of trekking to an ethnic neighborhood to eat things they have never seen before. That's the kind of food lover (and food writer) I am. And I submit that there is a certain amount of thrill seeking involved.
If you are offending people in the neighborhood by making light of their food customs, you are indeed a rube. But if you have an open mind, and you learn something about what other people eat, then you are on the right track. Sure, everybody gets a big laugh when you bite into your first square of stinky tofu, or durian custard. But this is part of the culture too.
So I don't see any reason to apologize for being a culinary thrill seeker.
More worms, anyone?
Posted 06 February 2004 - 10:58 AM
Beyond these, Calvin W. Schwabe demonstrates in Unmentionable Cuisine that virtually everything not instantaneously poisonous is likely to be consumed with enthusiasm somewhere in the world. There is as much variety in the unlikely combinations of flavors as in the sounds that are put together into human speech. To work out a systematic analysis of whence taste patterns derive and how they function will be as groundbreaking a project as Noam Chomsky’s Generative Grammar has proved to be in the area of speech analysis.
Edited by John Whiting, 06 February 2004 - 10:59 AM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 12:08 PM
That being said, much of taste may be learned, but as John Whiting intimates I've never been anywhere in the world where they didn't like sweets. I can't recall a single instance of a human being saying to me "Yuck! I hate sweets! Get those sweets away from me! No, really, don't get anywhere near me with those!"
I'm a very conservative eater or at least I feel that way given the crowd I run with. For 12 years I was a vegetarian and now I'd classify myself as a "recovering vegetarian." When I eat scary stuff in someone's hut in Yennevelt*, it's not because it thrills me to eat scary stuff -- it's because it thrills me to bridge a cultural gap and to learn about other countries food is an important mechanism for each.
I also think one has to delineate among dosages when talking about flavors such as capsicum. No chili-head am I, but I nonetheless enjoy the fire of chilies in moderation because when used by an expert cook they provide a kind of balance against sweetness. These basic rules of balance, opposition, and moderation, combined with the universal love of sweets that I've observed, lead me to think there are some fundamental elements of human taste that transcend culture and learning. I am not yet ready to embrace the purely relativistic view. And none of this means I reject Dr. Rozin's thrill-seeking theory. I just don't think it can be viewed as a comprehensive explanation. Can somebody e-mail him? Maybe he can comment here. I am only considering his theories by secondary sources. Maybe there is a lot more nuance.
Of course I'm not a food writer, to the extent such a category exists. I'm a travel writer, and occasionally the subject of my writing is food. I think food writers tend to be crazier than travel writers, at least when it comes to tastes in food. Most food writers, on the other hand, would likely be too squeamish to join me for the kind of travel I do. Then again, I’m not traveling for the thrill of the being able to say “been there, done that” (I really hate that) and it seems to me that Robb isn’t either. His passion for food takes him to some pretty odd and out of the way places to eat some things I have no interest in eating myself but it appears to be in the spirit of a quest -- of “getting to the bottom of this” -- rather than a passion for one-upsmanship.
*Yiddish: Yennevelt is the imaginary nowheresville at the end of the Earth.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 12:17 PM
Posted 06 February 2004 - 01:04 PM
But if I may offer an unlikely parallel between London and Robb's Houston, the really interesting food in my adopted city is not that which makes the headlines, but is what is available in the incredible polyglot of ethnic restaurants in the city's endless fringes, serving the local communities that have brought them into being. As in New York in the days of massive immigration, new restaurants spring up at a dizzying rate which makes it impossible for the cognoscenti to corrupt them all with instant success.
EDIT Footnote on sweetness: It's interesting that, although a taste for the sweet is indeed universal, a rejection of sweetness is often one of the distinguishing charactaristics of the sophisticated palate.
Edited by John Whiting, 06 February 2004 - 01:11 PM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 01:54 PM
1) though there are a tremendous number of mediocre food sections in this country (as there is of anything anywhere), i heartily disagree with the notion that there is a shortage of food coverage beyond "lifestyle"--whatever that means. Look at the LAT, the NYT, the Chronicle ... there's a lot of good work being done.
2) I think the statement re: the "ethnic" restaurants is true of almost anyplace and it has hardly gone unnoticed. we've been running weekly reviews of "ethnic" restaurants for 15 years.
3) i would argue that the rejection of sweetness is not "one of the distinguishing charactaristics of the sophisticated palate," but rather of the faux sophisticated palate, or more charitably the palate on the way to becoming sophisticated. pure sweetness makes no more sense than pure saltiness, but that doesn't mean that sweetness is bad. as a wine lover, i'm constantly amazed at how supposedly "sophisticated palates" will reject overtly sweet wine out of hand (yquem anyone? beerenauslese?) and then choose wines that are allegedly dry but fermented with an identifiable amount of sugar (Kendall Jackson ring a bell?). a truly sophisticated palate accepts all flavors in balance with prejudice toward none.
Edited by russ parsons, 06 February 2004 - 01:55 PM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 03:05 PM
I didn't think I was starting an argument. Rejection of sweetness is very common in many of the world's foods which are deliberately sour. (I wasn't talking about total rejection of sweetness, but selective rejection in individual dishes.)
3) i would argue that the rejection of sweetness is not "one of the distinguishing charactaristics of the sophisticated palate," but rather of the faux sophisticated palate, or more charitably the palate on the way to becoming sophisticated.
On a relative scale, it's often remarked (correctly, I think) that sugar is added to savory dishes more freely in American than in European cuisine. It's also true that both sugar and salt are commonly used to make up for lack of flavor in mass-produced food, including those packages whose labels promise an intensity of flavor which their contents do not deliver.
Those are the three I would have mentioned. If there are more, I'm happy.
Look at the LAT, the NYT, the Chronicle ... there's a lot of good work being done.
Edited by John Whiting, 06 February 2004 - 05:12 PM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 03:57 PM
But I am intriqued by your superman, "the sophisticated palate." As I mentioned earlier, I was taken to task in the NYT review of Are You Really Going to Eat That? because real "foodies" wouldn't bother with Popeye's Fried Chicken. Is the "sophisticated palate" an uberfoodie of some sort? Does the "sophisticated palate" eat cheese enchiladas made from Velveeta? White bread with barbecue?
Posted 06 February 2004 - 04:32 PM
Posted 06 February 2004 - 05:19 PM
personally, though, i don't like velveeta in enchiladas a mix of grated block cheese is much better (to my palate). and, acknowledging that this will get me smeared all over the place, i once reconstructed an old new mexican enchilada recipe using goat cheese (hey, they didn't have that many cattle in the mountains). it was terrific. white bread with barbecue? sure. if they don't have cornbread.
 but this raises an interesting point of reverse snobbism. where do you stand on jello? just because something is popular with the masses, does that by definition make it authentic and above reproach? how about in other countries?
Edited by russ parsons, 06 February 2004 - 05:23 PM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 05:59 PM
It's true that wherever you go there are unusual foods that people eat. But those tend to be the exceptions everywhere. They may be what come across as most memorable in one sense, but in many trips to Southeast Asia -- including living with a family there for awhile -- I can't say Durians figured prominently into my life. They were around, they were strange, but I'd eat three (or four, or nine) meals a day and most of them had nothing to do with extremes of eating.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:22 PM
To bring discussion back to Robb's book, I was particularly struck by his ability to convey the strong feelings that exist between advocates of two different restaurants serving food which to the uninitiated might well be indistinguishable. Robert Parker once memorably remarked that in his opinion tasting food was much more demanding than tasting wine.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:38 PM
I have "reverse snob" written all over me.
I think the backlash started for me around 1995. I was interviewing Eddie Wilson, the guy who runs Threadgill's in Austin. He is also the guy who started Armadillo World Headquarters, hence the ultimate hippy. Threadgill's had started packaging frozen vegetables. I went to see the process. I was shocked to discover he was using frozen spinach instead of fresh in the spinach casserole. Texas has always been a big spinach producing state, so it wasn't a case of supply problems. Eddie confessed that the frozen just tasted better to him. And it didn't require washing.
I made creamed spinach at home with fresh and frozen after that, and I had to agree with him. I like fresh spinach. But frozen spinach works great in creamed spinach recipes.
Then we started talking beans. Canned black-eyed peas are better than what you get when you cook dried black-eyed peas from scratch, Eddie contended. Again, hard to argue. When fresh aren't in season, you are better off with canned. And that got me into pintos and black beans. I hate undercooked beans. And I ate a lot of undercooked black turtle beans during the Southerwestern cuisine era. Chefs trying not to cook them to death, I guess.
So I started experimenting with canned beans. And I decided that while canned refried beans smell like dog food, you can make damn good refrieds starting with canned whole pinto beans. In fact, since the average home cook gets impatient and uses beans that aren't cooked enough, a cookbook author might be better off to specify canned black beans in a recipe for refried black beans to begin with.
Which lead me to Tex-Mex cheese enchiladas with Velveeta and Philly Cheese Steaks with Cheez Whiz. The processed cheese is required in the definitive version of both, if you ask me.
This lead to a discussion of cream of mushroom soup. Go ahead and laugh!
A chef friend advances this theory: Cream of mushroom soup is actually the canned bechamel of American home cuisine. It is a master sauce in the sense Escoffier intended.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 06:43 PM
i agree wholeheartedly with john in this case that it is the ways in which we are different that are really enlightening and broadening. this is a scary proposition for some (not speaking of ellen here, because i don't know her at all), and this is why the good lord invented hotel dining rooms.
indeed, i think it is a writer's duty to investigate these differences, to observe them honestly and without prejudice, and then to report them in a way that a) translates them to his audience and b) would be recognized as fair and accurate by those being described.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 07:07 PM
Perhaps it's just a question of perspective or emphasis, but I find that some attempts to focus on differences to the exclusion of similarities can be a bit sensationalistic, patronizing, and even dangerous. It is the differences that are most noticeable and overtly interesting, and thus they are the easiest and most immediately gratifying to write and read about, but I don't believe in characterizing people -- or cuisines -- by differences alone. When Robb crosses the cultural bridge by eating goat with such intense sincerity, I think he's connecting on a very basic level that transcends cultural differences.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 07:17 PM
Here's a relevant news item I wrote up this evening for the next Fine Food Digest:
Canned beans with your canned music?
Popular bars in Japan’s Osaka area are serving canned snacks such as pork and beans, sardines and bear meat curry. One of them in the Dotonburi district has a shop front shaped like a tin. There are band-aids for customers who cut their fingers opening the door.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 07:28 PM
I suspect that our argument is more semantic than philosophical. Of course there are differences, and they are very interesting, or we'd all be out of a job. What is important is how one responds to these differences. The danger lies in chauvinist aggression. Such people won't be talked out of their prejudice by telling them that those funny people are just like they are. Obviously they're not! Ultimately nothing works except a mental reconstruction that sees difference as an object of interest rather than as confrontation or a threat to survival.
I'm assuming you gentlemen are all experienced travelers, and that you've encountered lots of people beyond the normal touristed byways, so I'm quite surprised at the resistance I'm reading to the people-are-basically-the-same axiom. It's hardly a recipe for cultural hegemony; if anything the attitude that "they're not like us" is the one to worry about from a policy and cultural-relations perspective.
Edited by John Whiting, 06 February 2004 - 07:32 PM.
Posted 06 February 2004 - 09:55 PM
I will let Dr. Paul Rozin's work stand on its own. But I will say that psychologists would be out of a line of work if you couldn't generalize about why people act the way they do.
As for the cans. I was thinking about the reverse snobbism thing while I was eating. It reminded me of the essay in the book titled "Folk Art on Bread." The main point of that article being that we do low brow better than high brow where I live. You don't come to Texas to hear classical music, you come here to listen to the blues and Tejano music. Likewise with food--barbecue and Tex-Mex are to haute cuisine what the blues and Tejano conjunto are to classical music.
While we have perfectly acceptable high dollar restaurants in Texas (and decent symphonies and operatic singers), that's not where we excel. It's our barbecue shacks and outdated Tex-Mex joints (and juke joints and conjunto gatherings) that blow visitors away. Those are unique in all the world.
As John noted, when Jeff Steingarten came to town, I took him to Thelma's and we chowed down on awesome smoked meat on stryofoam plates. And it was a barrel of laughs for all. When I went to see Steingarten, he took me to Jean George Vongerichten's fashion statement in the financial district. We ate foie gras dumplings and drank single malt. And I tried to look cool.
That will make a reverse snob out of you.
But I am also serious about the pendulum swinging back in a reaction against "foodie-ism." We have seen a lot of retro dishes and cookbooks turning up lately. The crockpot is back in a big way. Russ, tell the truth, didn't you revive the Durkee crispy onion and green bean casserole last Thanksgiving?
Posted 06 February 2004 - 10:06 PM
i think it's a mistake to fall into the high-low trap, and maybe one that's peculiarly american. i think we should look at art as a continuum: maybe the reason the houston opera gets away with so much is that being brought up with a vibrant popular music culture--whether it's tejano, zydeco, blues or country--gives one an open mind (not that that's an accusation taken lightly in texas!).
it seems to me to be a peculiarity of this country that we separate the two so rigorously. and that's particularly true in cuisine. it has long been a belief of mine that one of the problems with much of what passes for haute cuisine in this country is that so many of the people who are cooking it aren't operating from a sound base of "low" cuisine. in countries with great cuisines--let's say china, france and italy just for a start, and of course we should add spain too--good eating starts at the home and gradually ascends to lofty heights. but you learn about good food before you move on to great food.
here that base level has been pretty bad for the second half of the 20th century, though it is much better with the increase in "ethnic" restaurants in the last 10-15 years. maybe we'll get lucky and the next generation of chefs will know how to eat before they learn how to cook.
Edited by russ parsons, 06 February 2004 - 10:34 PM.
Posted 07 February 2004 - 12:45 AM
One of America's big problems is the lack of a common tradition that really holds everybody in the country together at the grassroots level. The so-called "melting pot" has been an uneasy substitute.
When you're building culinary traditions from scratch, it's necessary to "keep it simple". When America was attempting to learn French cuisine overnight, it had the benefit of Julia Child, who set out, in her own words, to cook French with ingredients she could buy at the PX.
These days the emphasis is more on the "home-style" cooking one associates with down-home folk. OK, it's easy to eat, but to cook? Not necessarily complicated but often very time-consuming -- look at barbecue. Such recipes came from families where time was the only thing they had got lots of, and where the wife was supposed to be on call in the kitchen and everywhere else 24 hours a day. You don't do barbecue in ten minutes when you get home from work and then slap it in the micro.
The first book I encountered that brought down-home-cookin' to the attention of the highbrows was Ernest Matthew Mickler's White Trash Cooking. It was published in 1986 by The Jargon Society, a "high-falutin'-cum-demotic writer's press" begun by poet Jonathan Williams at Black Mountain College in 1951. (For the benefit of those not as old as I, that was the amazing educational institution in Ashville, North Carolina which, under the enormous wing of poet Charles Olson, brought together John Cage, Merce Cunningham, David Tudor, Robert Motherwell and many of the other writers, artists and musicians that gave shape to America's avant-garde from the fifties to the present day.)
Jonathan Williams' preface set the schizophrenic tone of the book which, beginning with its title, both celebrated and made fun of its subject matter. Senator Fulbright commented, "How did you know that Trashin Cookin is my favorite of all cuisines?" Mark Holburn, editor of Aperture, called it "the funniest book I have seen in years."
Very few of its recipies (if any) found their way into fashionable restaurants or domestic kitchens. Most often quoted was the
It was reportedly a favorite of Elvis.
ANTI-STICK PEANUT BUTTER SANDWICH
Butter one slice of bread with peanut butter, then butter the other side with mayonnaise (generously). Put them together and eat (will not stick to roof of your mouth -- partials not included).
Delicious with glass of cold milk.
maybe we'll get lucky and the next generation of chefs will know how to eat before they learn how to cook.
Posted 07 February 2004 - 01:02 PM
on the other hand, i wish he had been a better cook, or at least a better writer. i think in the end WTC reflected southern culture about as well as Tobacco Road or Deliverance. which isn't to deny that there is a germ of truth in it.
if you're really interested in the cuisine of white southerners (at least not an american gothic take on it), check out the writings of two more johns: john edgerton and john t. edge. i think their pictures are much more reliable, and much more delicious.
i'd also like to put in a word for older american cookbooks as well. marjorie rawlings (author of "the yearling") covered much the same territory as michler in her Cross Creek Cookery and you should also read the mid-century authors Sheila Hibbens and Clementine Paddleford.
Posted 07 February 2004 - 01:55 PM
American cuisine has received a lot of undue criticism too. Russ carefully described American cuisine "in the second half of the 20th century" as lacking. And there's a good reason for that. As Larry Forgione and James Beard both contended, American cuisine between the late 1800s and the 1930s was spectacular--among the best the world had seen. We entered our culinary dark ages beginning with the Depression. They went on for 50 years. The convenience foods that entered the mainstream after WWII contorted our ideas about cooking and we only started recovering in the 1980s.
In fact, I believe Southern cooking fared better through that period than some others. As for White Trash Cooking, it was an okay cookbook with a callous marketing gimmick. I like Edna Lewis's new book. And I hear Matt and Ted Lee are working a big definitive Southern cookbook.
Posted 07 February 2004 - 02:29 PM
Quite. Which is ironic, considering that Jonathan Williams, the publisher, was a poet of substance and integrity. I suspect that he regarded the book as a colossal joke and never dreamed it would take off.
As for White Trash Cooking, it was an okay cookbook with a callous marketing gimmick.
Edited by John Whiting, 07 February 2004 - 02:32 PM.