Hype and Hope: The Limitations of Food Pleasure

What happens when a meal does not sing to you?

I’m making a presumption here, to be sure. I’m of the belief that each of us (at least those of us reading this here blog) have had that…moment. You know the one; the tastes of whatever you put into your mouth gives you such pleasure that your face flushes, your eyelids flutter, and your brain is overwhelmed with pleasure from whatever part of the brain is in charge of flooding your head with serotonins and other similar “happy chemicals”. If one is prone to excessive demonstrations, you may also lightly bash the table repeatedly with the base of your fist.

My hypothesis is that if you’ve ever experienced the above during the consumption of food, you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to replicate it, to various degrees of success. This is when you’ll start looking for the “best” places to find various foodstuffs. Farmers markets, International Districts, and four star restaurants all become your regular haunts.

So what happens when you go to a highly recommended place, and it sort of sits there on a plate. Yeah, it’s okaaaay, but it certainly doesn’t make your heart race.

I suppose the first response I get is to simply thank whatever Fate out there that has given me the opportunity to live in a land of plenty. Bitching about how mediocre can be seems the pinnacle of first world arrogance, given the fact that many people in the would make extreme sacrifices in order to get any meal, let along a mediocre one.

But lately….lately I’ve been getting mad. Part of it this due to the hype machine that surrounds nearly anything labeled as “high-quality”. I believe myself to be somewhat savvy when it comes to recognizing hype, but every now and then I get sucked into it. When I feel duped, I get peeved.

And then I start to wonder…is it possible that there’s a threshold that the pleasure derived from food simply cannot exceed? Is it possible to place too much expectation upon a food or restaurant?

I’m not sure of the answer to the above, because often I can find foods that exceed my own expectation, often from places that are rarely hyped. Barbecue is a good example of this. Rarely is the barbecue joint held to the same standards as a restaurant found in the pages of “Food & Wine”. Because the standards of what defines “quality” are so low, at least in comparison to other more upscale restaurants, that it’s quite easy to exceed those standards.

I’ve had the same thing happen with the bakeries in my area. I’ve been less than impressed on several occasions from the bakery with the internationally award winning baker, but have been exceedingly happy from the place that sells pies, or even the coffee shop that sells cupcakes. (To be fair to the internationally recognized baker, he makes a bread that is to die for. But his pastries? They’re good. They just don’t rock my world).

I’m not sure there’s an answer to this, aside from the fact that each of us has our own likes and dislikes, and sometimes a person prefers what one might term “Simple foods”. But the word “simple” seems to be key, as it connotes a lower threshold of knowledge required to make make it exceptional. Or in other words, the reason you get a great cupcake more often than you get a great croissant, is that it’s far easier to make a great cupcake.

But back to hype; it’s really a frustrating thing to deal with when searching the retail food world. Not everyone nor everything can be great, and just by giving an entree a price tag of 30 dollars plus, doesn’t magically make it taste better. But yet, I remember reading about a study where the perceived quality of a food was increased simply by the environment in which it was presented. Clearly for some, presentation does improve the dishes overall impression.

Gah.

I suppose the only lesson I’ve learned here is that all it takes is to have a great meal once, and you’re ruined for life. Because once you have that baseline from which you can judge future meals, you’ll spend the rest of your life making comparisons.


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