Friday, May 31, 2013

Preference Vs. Rome

From birth, Americans are encouraged to cultivate slews of preferences. Preference is king in a rich society where abundance must constantly be winnowed.

Turn-offs and turn-ons. Pet peeves. Facebook likes. Soup or salad? What's your favorite band/sports team/color? Are you a leg man or an ass man or a breast man? Blondes or brunettes? How do you take your coffee? What's your drink? Should toilet paper roll down the back or down the front? I hate when people do this! But I'm really into that!

It's all bullshit, an epidemic of popular delusion, an extreme indulgence. Our preferences are ridiculously arbitrary and meaningless. If you think you prefer stuff one way, try just pretending you like that stuff the other way for a couple of days. I think you'll find that your preferences flip with disorienting ease.

How can a died-in-the-wool Chowhound say such a thing? Isn't my career, my life, my Slog, seemingly dense with preference?

No. As a food critic, I never had the luxury of ordering what I felt like eating. My task was to determine what the restaurant does best, and to enjoy and judge that on the merits of deliciousness rather than how well the food hews to my personal preferences, or satisfies my momentary cravings, both of which are irrelevant to the task.

I don't like fish for breakfast, but if I'm eating breakfast in Tokyo, I'd never demand corned beef hash. Rather, I'll fall in love with what I'm with - at least so long as it's great! Restaurant reviewing - or even just plain old chowhounding - is the ultimate "When in Rome" pursuit. And after years of it, I'm left with very few personal preferences. What do I like? I like good! (And spare me the relativist rebuttal; there are lasagnas that would make any feeling person pound table with fist, so, no, it isn't all impossibly subjective...especially if we can get past the annoying, pointless realm of personal preference and plunge into deeper realms of beauty and inspiration, where we're more open and where there's actual meaning.)

Same with music. There are songs that make me lunge for the radio to change station. But if I, as a professional musician, am called to play one of those tunes, you'll find me in a place beyond shallow preference. Again, I'll be "when-in-Roming". Hire me to play cheesey disco music, and I will play every note like I've never wanted to play anything else. And it's not a pose; it's real. Because artistic commitment is deep, whereas preference is shallow.

I dislike green peppers. But if you cook something great with them, I'll fully appreciate them, because my appreciation of greatness trumps my niggling preferences. Preferences are meaningless childish caprices best transcended like other childish habits. Beauty, inspiration, and magic are the pinnacle of humanity. That's where human maturity is.

Over and over, my curse is to ask waiters and bartenders to recommend their most delicious glass of wine, and then cringingly await the inevitable response: "What kind of wine do you like?"

I like good wine, dammit! Did you not hear me? I don't want the wine I want! I want the wine that makes me glad to be alive! Please, for god's sake, stop trying to press my preference button! That's not who I am!


My story about The Monks and the Coffee explains what to me is the only sane and mature route of appreciation.

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