Monday, April 25, 2016

Food Science Can't Foster Deliciousness

I was listening to a lengthy J. Kenji López-Alt interview on Freakonomics Radio when I suddenly realized what's wrong with the whole "food science" movement.

(Note: I enjoy and admire J. Kenji López-Alt's stuff; none of this is a knock on him, personally or professionally.)

Consumer-facing operations like Cooks Illustrated and Lopez-Alt's Food Lab are dwarfed by the mighty funds and smarts invested in the enormous field of food science. And while food science addresses many challenges, the golden ticket would be to make food more reliably delicious. If a food scientist could break the code for wrangling even just one set of ingredients into a reliably moan-worthy result via replicable algorithm, the world would be her panko-encrusted oyster.

But after decades of big food science, with billions upon billions upon billions upon billions of dollars spent - the needle hasn't budged. Burger King does not grace the world with supernal delight....even though ground beef grilled over fire is awfully hard to mess up. Food science doesn't foster deliciousness. It just doesn't. We're in collective denial over this, akin to the widespread misconception that cosmetic surgery fosters beauty.

Food science can ensure more consistent results, increase efficiency, and stave off various poor outcomes. It can allow you to swap in cheaper ingredients and methods. These relatively pedestrian accomplishments constitute the industry's entire return-on-investment. Plastic surgeons can certainly make your boobs bigger.

What is deliciousness? If it's a certain optimal bill of ingredients combined and cooked in an optimal manner, as many people assume against all evidence, then we'd already have cracked the code. If the hordes of brilliant, lavishly-funded PhD's in our industrial-gastronomic complex could make food even 10% more delicious, this would be a very different world.

Similarly, if emotionally affecting music were the inevitable result of certain pitches sounding with given timbres at certain intervals, computer-generated music would make us cry...and bad musicians would use computer assistance to sound great. But nyuh-uh. Such assistance can correct the intonation of an out-of-tune singer, or touch up other blemishes, but it can't make bad singing beautiful, nor make beautiful singing more beautiful. Cosmetic surgery can't make an ugly person beautiful, nor make a beautiful person more beautiful. It can merely correct flaws

Error correction doesn't yield beauty. Beauty is not an absence of flaws (in fact, the greatest beauty is often flawed....and flawlessness is often insipid). There's nothing palpably wrong with most commercial foods. Their low appeal isn't due to flaws, it's due to a lack of beauty. The harder we try to address this shortfall by shaving away at flaws, the worse the beauty deficit becomes. Consider the outcome of lots of cosmetic surgery!

As I write this, The Sainted Arepa Lady somewhere blithely rubs crummy margarine over corn cakes sizzling away upon her unevenly-heated griddle. She summons magnificence from cheap supermarket provisions and dodgy equipment. If Lopez-Alt were to advise her to switch to a provably optimal blend of Moroccan Argan oil and otter fat, they wouldn't taste better, because, past a certain (low) threshold, error correction does not augment beauty (what's more, I have no doubt that a year hence she'll have found a way to make her new provisions taste exactly like margarine; see the tale of George's New Piano).

It's possible to see clearly through a lot of murky thinking if you'll bear closely in mind that great photos can be taken with lousy cameras. My iPhone camera is vastly better than the equipment Ansel Adams used, but the aesthetic gap between he and I hasn't narrowed. The big development is that I enjoy vastly greater ease of use.

"Ease of use". That's our jam. That's where the money and ingenuity show results. Quality, however, remains a great Mystery. It stems from love, skill, care, commitment, and other perturbingly vague concepts that stubbornly resist reduction, formulation, and replication. A century of research, supported by upwards of a trillion dollars, hasn't increased deliciousness. Our food is less flawed, and a helluva lot easier to make, but science is not making it more delicious. If it could, it surely would.

I confess that I'm as enticed as anyone by geeky food science writing. I find myself investing in the widespread baseless hope that some new move will improve my cooking. But it's only possible if I'm doing something so wrong that I'm making success impossible. If so, a more optimized method would indeed improve my results. If you've been cooking steaks exclusively via armpit heat, science definitely has very good news for you.

But the lousiness of the foods all around us is not due to errors. On the contrary, most of it has been fully optimized by food science's best efforts. They've had lots of "work done" (the culinary equivalent of tummy tucks and face lifts). Yet you still can't get a tasty pie at Pizza Hut - even though cheesy, saucy bread is awfully hard to mess up.

I understand deliciousness is not Pizza Hut's sole priority. They'd gladly settle for moderate deliciousness if they could save two cents per metric ton. But if food science worked - like, at all - then Pizza Hut surely wouldn't suck. Sucking would be obsolete. Instead, flaws are obsolete. As is hard work. And that tells me we're actually headed the wrong way. Great food is never blandly flawless, nor is it created by shirking hard work!

Deliciousness barely correlates with (much less is caused by) factors like technique, equipment, or ingredients. I'm not suggesting it's entirely a matter of hippy love and chakras; even the most earnest three year old can't create wonders by simply splashing together random condiments from the fridge. Some minimally effective workflow must be established. But once it is, tweaking via science can increase your efficiency and your consistency, and certainly your ease of use. It can debug flaws. But it won't increase the deliciousness.

Just as plastic surgery can give you tauter skin or bigger boobs, but never anything resembling beauty, we need to recognize what's possible. If a few bucks worth of science could augment your deliciousness, think what the annual investment of $25 billion should have accomplished. We'd be moaning over the supernal, subtle qualities of our Slim Jims and Pop Tarts!

In fact, food science works against deliciousness. Increased efficiency removes opportunities for human touch to impart deliciousness. And flaws are the vital spice of art. And consistency is a regression toward the mean (inspiration is fleeting, so expunging volatility ensures uniformly uninspiring results). As with a taut Beverly Hills face, the application of blunt science to profound aesthetics produces a zero-flaw, zero-beauty outcome.

Companion pieces:
The Evil That Is Panera or...Why Adam Smith's Invisible Hand Reaches For Lousy Chow
How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Artificial Flavors (which was too optimistic about technology).

Careful readers will note that an enormous amount has been left unspoken. As we've considered food, photography, music, and cosmetic surgery, the question pervades: what's the missing chunk? What, exactly, resists dissection, comprehension, and replication? Whence beauty?

It's a question I've pondered since childhood, and have tried to answer, in a thousand ways, in a thousand of these Slog postings. The problem is it can't be stated in a direct, crisp manner. If it could, then it would be something hackable and wield-able. But even a trillion dollars of research hasn't budged that needle. If it could be explained in clear terms, we'd have done so centuries ago.

Scientists remain certain they just need to slice finer and sample wider. I love science, but the two issues which most intrigue me - Consciousness and Deliciousness (and its analogs in other art forms) - appear to resist all scientific/materialistic investigation. I wonder how many centuries it will take for us to spot the cul-de-sac our collective noses have smashed up against (note: this is why some materialists are getting angrily dogmatic. They're starting to smell the inevitable endgame, and they don't like it one bit).


Adam said...

This reminds me of your answer to my question several months ago as to your thoughts about recipes.

Also reminds me of golf. Many folks lay out tons of money for the most recent newly designed clubs and balls. They won't be turned into Jack Nicklaus. (well kind of on both accounts)

Jim Leff said...

Here's the recipe posting Adam's referring to:

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