Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cheesesteaks, Accent Detection, and Tribal Intolerance

A Philly native asked why every single non-Philly cheesesteak tastes so obviously, ludicrously wrong:

It’s notoriously difficult to transport culture of any sort. It's hard for a European jazz musician to really swing, or for Woody Allen to convincingly replicate a Swedish film director (even using the Swedish director's cinematographer), or for American artists to draw convincing Japanese-style manga comics.

It's easiest to understand if you view it like language. All artists have their touch, tone, voice, and it’s awfully hard to escape those things (it amounts, really, to escaping oneself). They function much like accents.

So a chef with a Los Angeles accent/sensibility/touch almost surely won't pull off a convincing cheesesteak. Even with perfect ingredients and recipe, it’s always going to skew wrong. It will always carry a detectable foreign accent. You can learn a new accent, but that takes enormous work, especially if you're aiming to fool natives.

The problem is that our cultural sensors are exquisitely fine-tuned; it’s part of our innate tribalism (we need to know who’s in and who’s out). Even though I’m a food expert who's pretty well-calibrated for real cheesesteak, a Philly native could recognize foreignness in a cheese steak a couple decimal places more minutely than I, being a New Yorker, ever could. The same mechanism that allows her to spot a fake Philly accent via a single errant phoneme in a movie makes her ferociously intolerant of non-Philly cheesesteaks.

As a NYC jazz musician, I can spot fake swing from just two notes. Same thing. Fine-grained in-tribe/out-tribe detection mechanisms.


Richard Stanford said...

Good points. The one that always surprises me - having lived in Central Texas for decades - is the inability of most places to make a decent breakfast taco. It seems like even a kitchen novice here can whip up a tortilla with some eggs, cheese and something else and deliver a better end result than anything you'd get out of state, which makes no sense to me, but there it is.

Jim Leff said...

Yup! But two fallacies at work (for all of us; they're innate):

1. Any point of inauthenticity we spot currently feels especially egregious in the moment. There are 10,000 other nouns you could switch in, Mad-Libs style, for "breakfast taco", and seem right. But there's an emotional indignation when you fixate on a certain thing.

2. The simpler things seem the most outrageous (which is probably why you chose breakfast taco). We feel like simple = easy = repeatable. That's completely false, under my interpretation of what's happening. The simple things are most exposed to foreign accents/touches. Complexity masks those things; the complexity itself distracts. Somewhat related: most pain-relief "rubs" (menthol, etc) function by distracting your nervous system via overstimulation.

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