Monday, September 10, 2012

My 5.01 Curse (and The Flavor of America)

I was driving around doing errands one night last week when I realized I'd skipped dinner. Not much was open nearby, so I decided to hit a dive bar that had caught my attention. A rickety cabin in an industrial zone, the place has a sign over the door touting "The Best Hamburger You Ever Had". Who wouldn't want that?

I've been in some pretty primordial bars, but this set a new standard for soul-sucking bleakness. The room was done up in moldering 1950's rec room paneling, the booze sat not on a shelf but in a cheap cabinet low on the floor, and the bartender emerged only a few times per hour from a back room where she indulges her video poker addiction. Somehow she always appeared on cue, though. They apparently have a video surveillance system allowing her to monitor for empty glasses and new arrivals.

On TV was a show called "America's Got Talent (sic)", which I could only stare at in numb disbelief. A few others sat at the far end of the bar, but I couldn't make out their faces, as their features were pixelated. When I asked for a bourbon, the bartender stared blankly and asked whether Jack Daniels is bourbon. So I did something I hadn't done in fifteen years: I ordered a Bud draft.

I'd like to tell you what a traumatic experience it was, but I was shocked at how non-awful I found it. It certainly wasn't good. There wasn't an iota of worth. But I could swallow it without feeling offended.

In my system for rating foods on a one-to-ten scale, a 5 is "utterly neutral. No particular urge to eat...or to stop eating." I had remembered Bud being more of a 3 ("lousy food you might eat if very hungry and without alternatives"), but I was finding my glass startlingly fivey. Actually, it was a tad better than that. While I felt no serious desire to imbibe, it was ever-so-slightly preferable to sip than not to. It just barely tipped the scale. It was a "5.01".

And the burger was a 5.01. As was the TV show. As was the bar itself. Walking out to a parking lot strewn with cat feces, it hit me like a shockwave: the flavor of America, outside my bubble, is 5.01. Just barely good enough to keep going.

But then it got scary. The following day, I had a chance to sample two rare and acclaimed beers: Firestone Walker's "Wookey Jack" and Two Brothers' "Cane & Ebel" rye beer. I eagerly sidled up to the bar for a half pint of each, but the beers filled me with ennui. They seemed barely worth sipping. Horrified, I realized I experienced them as firm "5.01"s - exactly like Bud. Something had gone deeply wrong. Something was broken.

The next night I was scheduled to meet some beer geek buddies at my "local" pub (which you won't be surprised to hear is a 45 minute drive) where a cask of Thornbridge's "Raven" had recently arrived. One of my favorites! On cask!!

Too trepidatious to chance an upsetting scene with the Raven, I figured I'd ease in with a merely good-not-great beer. But I felt nary a twinge. Hoo boy. I switched to sangria and, amid much anguish and gnashing of teeth, filled in my friends about my ordeal (consensus advice: I need to travel to California to seek beer therapy from Vinny, head brewer/visionary of the illustrious Russian River Brewery).

At the end of the night, with no one watching, I asked for a small sample squirt of Thornbridge Raven. I took a sip. And felt like crying. I could taste everything acutely, but there was no joy in it.

My friend Pierre, who knows everything, posits a behavioral underpinning. It's common to continue an activity, out of habit, long after that activity has failed to bring pleasure, without consciously registering the falloff. In a flash, one realizes one no longer likes that activity, and it feels like a sudden change of preference even though the progression was gradual.

For instance, you might watch a TV show for many weeks before realizing you dislike it. Certainly, relationships can work this way. And this explains how Pepperidge Farm has managed to degrade those large-sized cookies so steeply over the's been so gradual that consumers haven't consciously noticed they no longer like them. This also explains the state of slice pizza in NYC.

But, no, I don't think that's it. I really liked beer (well, great beer, anyhow) just a short week ago, I'm sure of it. Beer and I weren't locked in joyless marriage. We were still in torrid honeymoon. I mean, just two weeks ago I wrote this!

No, something about my unsettlingly tolerable encounter with the King of Beers profoundly reset my baseline....and pinned me tightly to that baseline. I don't know how it happened or how long it will last.

Yesterday someone asked me how I'm doing with food. Truth is, I'm terrified to eat anything delicious.


Barry said...

There may be other explanations for this, consistent with all observed phenomena, that account for experiencing Bud and the exquisite microbrews as similar aesthetic experiences, without the Bud having been any sort of trigger or catalyst.

Allow me to project wildly for a moment (my own experience is all I have to offer):

Being even mildly depressed *profoundly* changes how I interact with food and drink... it doesn't just attenuate the pleasure response, but skews it weirdly. A "flattening" of the aesthetic response is exactly how I would describe it, and the 5.01 Syndrome has at least some echoes of that to me.

You had skipped dinner in the first place. I don't know whether this is unusual for you, but this is something that I generally do only when very stressed or distracted.

These are my experiences only, and may not map to your situation *at all*. But especially if you find this aesthetic flattening in other areas of life that give you pleasure (food, music, art, interactions with other people would be bellwethers for me) -- and you recognize that the inputs are good, but that your processing is askew -- you may want to look for other signs of depression or stress and consider your options.

Jim Leff said...

Good theory, thanks for posting, but, no, I'm otherwise pretty normal (or was, anyway, until this happened!).

And, in any case, beer's a blessed exception from the effect you describe, because, when it comes to enjoyment, beer makes its own gravy!

Jim Leff said...

Also, it's important to bear in mind that this is as much a rising as a sinking. I should not have enjoyed the Bud even as slightly as I did. THAT, really, was where the strangeness began.

I was somehow hoisted somewhere, and got stuck there.

Paul Trapani said...

The 5.01 made me think of a Wired article I just read about high volume traders. These people are taking advantage of being able to execute trades microseconds quicker where they earn micropennies. They rely on algorithms and computers to make the actually trade as a human couldn't operate at that level.

It's the scary aspect of technology, statistical reasearch, etc., the drive towards ultra efficiency, the convergence of Budweiser and other American products to the minimum goodness.

I also remember Bud being somewhere around a 3. It seems that they have been tweaking their formula through the years:

So maybe I'm a bit paranoid, but I take it as a sign that mass producers are figuring out how to make things just barely good enough.

Not sure how this would affect the rest of your baseline, but the article above talks about Bud being engineered towards blandness and avoiding palate fatigue, so maybe it tripped some sort of palate circuit breaker.

Jim Leff said...

Thanks, Paul.

So maybe terribly advanced and scary things are being done to engineer taste perceptions of the product (it sounds paranoid and unlikely, but my understanding is that certain artificial sweeteners dont' actually taste sweet on your palate; rather, they somehow hack into your brain and make it directly perceive the sweetness).

I may be sensitive to this. It may have left me Changed.

Are you thinking what I'm thinking? It's the logical next step of the final-front battle I first recognized in the form of Panera.

Paul Trapani said...

Yep, and it's a step in a scary direction.

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