Friday, January 14, 2022

Healthy Cooking vs Mouth Hacking

The Bad Donut Experiment

Want to learn something useful about food? Here's an easy fun experiment.

Buy a crappy chocolate donut. Entenmann's, Dunkin, any supermarket brand. Anything mass-produced and other-than-fresh. Take a scientific bite, paying attention to only one aspect: sweetness. Pretend it's your job to tweak the recipe. Could we get away with less sugar? Exactly how much less?

I think you'll find 35-50% of the sugar unnecessary. Counterproductive. Ugly, really. Isn't it odd you never noticed before? We're accustomed to blasts of grimly unnecessary sugar. We just are.

Keep visualizing. Use your detective skills! Why, exactly, have they overdone the sugar?

Perhaps it might help to probe for non-sugar flavors, for a fuller picture of the situation.

What? You can't find any? Yeah. That's the problem. Remove the sugar and you're left with nothing because these are junk. Not food. And that's why there's way too much sugar. Without it, there's nothing to reassure the mouth that it has reason to chew, swallow, and repeat.

It's not that people love "too much sugar". We enjoy sweet things, sure, but the excess isn't the prize. It's the cover-up! So this isn't a food experience so much as a hacking-your-mouth experience. And the sugar's the hack. Let me map it out for you:
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Sugar? Ok, you may pass.
Etc. etc.
Thus the donuts get eaten. Despite how much they suck.

Mouth Hacking

No one ever ate a shitty mass-produced chocolate donut and went "Mmmmm!" "Mmmmm" is beside the point. We do not expect to glory in such things. But they do get eaten. Because they hack your mouth.

"Hack your mouth" is what a lot of food does. Not just donuts. Say you're a lazy, grindingly uninspired chef working in a shmancy restaurant. You're sautéing string beans, for which the restaurant charges $14. Those babies had better convey a premium $14 experience, but it's not like you're going to kindle stunning magisterial beauty via masterful nuances. No, you're standing in a hot kitchen with flop sweat, and you need this job to pay gambling debts, so what's the easiest way to convince customers their stupid string beans are worth 14 bucks?

You hack their mouths. You melt a stick of butter all over it. That'll get the bastards. Enjoy your $14 string beans. Customers, registering the greasy jolt, feel like they've had a premium experience. Mouth-hacking is the most efficient means to evoke the dopamine hit that opens wallets.

Home Chefs

Among the myriad problems currently blighting our society, home chefs these days try to emulate restaurant chefs. And restaurant chefs hack mouths. So lots of home chefs are clobbering with the butter, salt and sugar so they can evoke the cheap dopamine hit and feel like rock stars. And they invariably work from cookbooks written by authors with similar flop sweat.

Recipes are Bullshit

HUGE FOOD WORLD SECRET: if a written recipe could result in sure-thing deliciousness, MacDonald's would be churning out splendiferous burgers, and a night at Olive Garden would be like a trip to Naples. Recipes (as the great food writer John Thorne insightfully explained) are, at very best, loose roadmaps to be read off-handedly and set aside while you pretty much go back to your usual thing, only perhaps folding in the egg whites a bit earlier in the process.

Cookbook writers have flop sweat for the exact same reason chefs do. Readers paid $35 for your damned book, so they expect to produce something noteworthy, however unaware that no recipe is sure-thing. So cookbook recipes are designed to hack mouths. And it's always that same trinity of coverups: sugar, salt, grease.

We've all had our mouths hacked so many times that excess no longer bugs us. Much as we expect to wince in pain at the volume of rock concerts, or cringe at the crippling bitterness of a New England IPA, the hack becomes part of the experience. We accept the hacking, and few of us expect to go "Mmmm" much (though we do sometimes text "Yum!", much as we "LOL" while stone-faced).

We've lost "Mmmm".

Feast, Not Famine

The best food I ate in the 20th century was cooked by an Italian grandma in Queens who used virtually no salt. There was no effort to hack my mouth, and my "Mmm"s were pornographic. Her unforgettable lunches left me with an unusual attitude toward low-salt cooking: it needn't taste like austerity. It can be full and luscious and to-die-for.

I've spent years trying to reconstruct her magic. And it's surprisingly easy. First: stop cooking like restaurant chefs. Second: stop following recipes. Just keep iterating with constant improvement. Taste your food the way you tasted that crap chocolate donut, asking yourself how much you can reduce the hacks: the sugar, the salt, the grease, without losing the soul. The answer, you'll find, is a lot. And as you keep pushing, you'll keep finding more space to push into.

You needn't flail with compensatory moves. Don't shake all sorts of spice into your food, eager to offer your palate something to grab hold of. Make your food foodlike - way better than the insipid commercial donut under the globs of sugar - and palates will be more than happy. Good food makes you go "Mmmmm." Nobody misses the coverup. Nobody even likes the coverup. We're just inured to it, that's all.

But you have to actually do it. You need to cook with great care. Because careless cooking requires coverups. Blotchy skin calls for tons of makeup. When food doesn't taste food-like, that's when the mouth starts feeling empty, probing for the grease, the salt, and the sugary sugar. We don't actually deeply enjoy those things. But, as any addict will attest, a paucity of love turns one's mind to seamier, less subtle attractions.

Concentrate on Sucking Less

Hi. So, yeah. I've reached a pretty banal conclusion. Hey, deep insights often reduce to banality. Salt covers don't make problems.

Then keep easing back further, firm in your faith that while we're accustomed to "way too much", that's not where the deliciousness ever was. That's just cover-up; saving gracelessness; copious spoonfuls of sugar to make the medicinal go down.

Healthy cooking is not an austere xerox-of-a-xerox of good food. Rather: unhealthy cooking is a cheap move to make mediocrity palatable. Frame it that way.

Follow-up here

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