Saturday, January 11, 2020

Tasting is a Preposterous Charade

It's time to taste something. We immediately start making adjustments large and small. We tighten up to a state of high alertness and zoom all attention toward the tip of the fork. We perform a number of highly stylized gestures and movements, furrowing brows to show our concentration, shifting eyes upward to signify deep processing, and chewing more determinedly or languorously than usual. We uncharacteristically pass the morsel over the full terrain of our tongues while processing the entire proceedings via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain, the goal being to cough up some nugget of analysis (making analogies to other things we've eaten) plus an opinion, i.e. "yay" or "nay".

There is nothing normal about any of these highly stylized kabuki actions. We do none of these things when we actually eat. And, in fact, they're all counterproductive.

Tightening up to signify to ourselves and others that we're "paying attention" actually makes us less attentive. We perceive best while relaxed-but-focused.

By zooming perspective tightly to the chunk on the fork, we imagine we've scientifically isolated it, making ourselves more objective. But you're still the same you, with all your fuzzy illogic and hormonal flows and the pain in your shoulder and your childhood aversions and unconscious needs and the countless other elements skewing your perceptions. You've made only one change: you've shifted to a much less familiar and more artificial framing, where you're actually less able to factor in those prejudicial elements.

And processing via the left (verbal/analytical) side of the brain to produce a verbalized takeaway is equally counterproductive. Eating is not a purely intellectual activity. Emotion is an essential part. As I wrote in my posting titled "Unhinged":
We peak out at "yum". Well, I’m sorry, but "yum" doesn't always cut it.
Intellects are useful. If we ate with emotion alone, we'd be snarfing from troughs, smearing sweet/greasy pleasure-center-stimulating grub all over our faces and clawing savagely at the other livestock for access to errant chunks. But purely intellectual eating is a dry and pleasureless exercise. This is why you don't want to try to "taste" food by donning a metaphorical lab coat and performing all this absurd play-acting with mincing motions of the jaw and aromas huffed upward into sinuses for the fullest possible data set. That's just as inhuman as the emotional livestock approach. You need both...which is how you normally eat. 

You have vast experience eating food. You are extraordinarily good at it; a master! So why would you imagine that divorcing the experience as far as possible from your normal routine is the thing to do when you want to do it particularly well? That's as nutty as a baseball player reserving a different batting stance for the World Series.

By adulthood, we've invested far more than the 10,000 hours required for mastery. Our normal eating approach is well-proven. By shifting into kabuki tasting mode, intentionally stripping away the context, emotionality, and pleasure that make eating eating, we lose far more than we gain.

The most extreme adjustment is the tiny sample size characteristic of "tastings". You studiously mull over some thimble full of lasagna as if it were a priceless relic, mentally composing your position paper on the specimen. But whatever you conclude will be as divorced from reality as the stilted context in which you tasted it. We are, all of us, mashed potato experts, but if you lop a gram of it onto a tongue depressor and gnash thoughtfully with faux-scientific lab technique, your analysis and opinion will be near-useless. It's a joke!

On the other hand, here's the funny thing. I'm different. Having invested 10,000 hours into scientific tasting, I actually can come up with useful data from a dollop of mashed potato or a thimble of lasagna. I don't need familiar environment, portion size, or context, because I've trained myself to divorce those things and still cough up useful judgements (serious wine tasters do the same).

Yay, me.

Restaurant critics seldom work hungry, and that's the least of the artifice. I've spent way too much of my life mirthlessly ingesting speck after speck of this or that while scrawling, in my notebook, the rhapsodic prose these things would have evoked had I been eating normally.

I once woke up, still nauseatingly full from the previous day's research, in a motel near a shack in a North Carolina tobacco farm where busy plump grandmothers served up fried chicken with fractal crunch and impossible juiciness. At 10am (I had a full day of tasting ahead of me), I took, as my first ingestion (a preparatory banana or yogurt would have been unjustifiable calories), a single bite of that chicken, recorded - with a stone-faced expression - come-to-Jesus lively praise in my notebook, shuddered lightly, paid my tab, and miserably returned to my car while busboys dumped the remaining chicken along with a small pile of plump, crispy hushpuppies.

I didn't miss an iota of the quality. I'm a professional. But the fact that I can actually do this well doesn't make it a happy thing. It feels like work. It's by far the grimmest talent in my arsenal. You don't want this.

I'll never forget, early in my career, coming along on research for a neighborhood food survey with a moderately well-known food writer who kept [every cell of my body pleads not to call up this memory, or to burden you with it, but it's necessary to make my higher point] a Food Bag. She'd grab takeout from a dozen close-clustered places, bring it all back to the car, masticating exactly one bite of every item, then pour the remainder, with a sour, revolted expression, into a gaping plastic seal bag, which she'd compress into a sludge and keep in a shopping bag under the heater in the passenger floorspace of her car. She'd often spit into the Food Bag, as well.

It's hard for me to understand why a civilian would choose to engage in enjoyment-divorced tasting, especially when they're not trained for it. But, hey, everyone wants to be a food writer these days.

Don't taste. Don't ever taste. Eat! You'll do it better! By shifting into some weird Other mode, you won't enjoy, nor will you get an accurate picture. You'll reduce your practical acuity; - your ability to assess the food in context, which has nothing to do with detecting subtle notes of passionfruit. How many olive oils bought after a brief tasting-via-cracker turned out to be useful in your day-to-day cooking? I can answer for you: none of them. You can't/won't anticipate real-world eating from stilted tasting. Stilted tasting produces stilted notes useful only in some alien parallel stilted universe.

Unless, that is, you work very hard for a very long time to develop a real knack for it. I can sprint through 75 glasses of beer and determine the good one, even while becoming increasingly drunk. I can mumble a dour "bravo" to whoever cooked the marinara I've sipped from a teaspoon, even recognizing, if appropriate, the chef as a genius (it doesn't make me unhinged to say so). But this brings no pleasure. This is not how we eat, and certainly not why we eat. It's a vocational trick. When I'm forced to do it, the very best I can hope for is to return one day to eat properly, like a normal human being.

So why would you ever abdicate an opportunity to really eat, when this is the best possible outcome of the "tasting" approach?

The impetus for this posting: a few nights ago I returned to Wolf, the sensational restaurant in Nordstrums, with two friends. We frantically doled out samples for each other on side plates and worked through what remained of our plates, furrowing brows, making tasting motions with our mouths, and coughing up analysis and opinions.

They enjoyed it, intellectually, and, to their credit (they're both serious cooks and chowhounds) did recognize the quality. However while the food was as great as ever, none of us felt any of the deep feelings I'd recounted from my first meal there, where I'd meditatively worked through a big bowl of extraordinary pasta. We were tasting, god damn it, not eating. And we paid (and paid) for the privilege.

Don't taste. Eat!

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