Saturday, January 15, 2022

What Atrocities are They Hiding?

Yesterday's posting, “Healthy Cooking vs Mouth Hacking,” made the case that healthy cooking needn't be austere. We need to flip our perspective on expedient shortcuts - the traditional profusions of grease, salt, and sugar so frequently resorted to in order to cover up mediocrity.

A reader on Chowhound responded:
I had my 13 year old read it. I'm hoping that one of these days he learns to differentiate between tasty-because-it-is-well-made i.e. good quality versus cheap and loaded with unnecessary crud to mask the junk.
Excellent. But that's only halfway to the flip of perspective - the reframing - I was suggesting. Let me explain.

For decades now, the rap has been "Stop eating that awful junk full of unhealthy crap!" But it's pretty clear that this won't persuade any teenager. Hell, it won't persuade anyone who hasn't bought into nutritional sanctimony. Smokers realize they're inhaling cancerous gases, and many of them even like the idea.

There's another way to frame it that's less primly virtuous, and which jibes better with our actual experience of pleasure. Here's how I arrived at that perspective.

I noticed that from-scratch chocolate chip cookies taste good. Even if they're talentlessly baked from a stupid recipe and lackluster ingredients, they're still pretty delicious. So if someone sells ones full of artificial flavors and chemicals and stuff, what atrocities are they hiding? How unthinkably awful are the cookies to need all that stuff? Someone would need to, like, defecate in the batter to require such desperate cover-up. The ingredients are veterinary-grade. The nuts are rancid. The cheap awfulness must be beyond imagining to necessitate such a level of fuckery.

That is the core problem. Not the xanthan gum or high fructose corn syrup in and of themselves. Strident lectures re: "food additives are bad, m'kay?" are unpersuasive outside organic cult circles. But "what atrocities are they hiding?" (WAATH) is a whole other line of attack, and it stands up much better to scrutiny.

From there, I made the small jump to recognizing that the melt-a-stick-of-butter trick mid-priced restaurants wield to justify their premium is, likewise, a cover-up. And same for gratuitous blasts of sugar or salt. It's not that butter/sugar/salt, or even additives, are deadly neurotoxins to be avoided like sunlight to a vampire. That's crazy. Much more sane: Real food tastes delicious without extreme measures, so WAATH?!?
I can make string beans taste awesome with a half tablespoon of olive oil. Exactly how icky are your stick-of-butter string beans that you need to cloak them so desperately?

And I've had fresh donuts that were absolutely delicious - and pleasingly sweet but not viciously so. So when they gob on sugar, WAATH?

And I've eaten nearly saltless food that slayed me with scrumptiousness. So WAATH with blizzards of salt?
The assertion that additives, butter, salt, and sugar are demonic agents of evil is ineffective. And kooky. Those things are perfectly healthy in moderation, and even acceptable in occasional profusion (e.g. croissants). We need to stop parsing it as "That Awful Junk", and start framing it as "The Atrocities Being Covered Up Via Extreme Measures".

I found the donut experiment and the chocolate chip cookie thought experiment transformational. And I'm not a stern nutrition cultist who'd never let his kid eat a cookie or a donut. Let's expunge the notion of "virtue". This isn't a clash of Good vs Evil. Let's pay more attention to the cynical mouth-hacking; the "turd in the batter" proposition. Then, to yesterday's point, from there it's a question of how healthy you, as a home cook, can make it without sacrificing deliciousness.

This works better than holy war against THAT AWFUL JUNK, which exasperates the normies, makes for cooking as horrific as health food has tasted for time immemorial, and entices kids to walk miles for the cheap embrace of Dunkin Donuts.

Interesting connection. When someone arrived at Chowhound in the early days, enthusing over, say, Olive Garden, I tried never to shame them. Rather, I'd coax them to try other places, realizing that snobbery and shaming don't help. What really helps is exposure to greater deliciousness. I don't need to kick your Cheesecake Factory appreciation in the teeth. Once you've experienced how good food can be, naive infatuations drop away on their own.

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