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The Power of “I Don’t Know”

I don’t believe I’ve ever felt more empowered as to when I’ve admitted to myself and others that I don’t know a damn thing about any given topic.

This isn’t to say that I don’t know “stuff”. I do. I know quite a bit, frankly, and my jobs require that I know a lot about very intricate subjects. But I am human, and I will not know everything, or even a majority about anything. Admitting this takes a weight off of my shoulders that is indescribable.

I know a lot of people, both socially and professionally, who take the opposite approach. They either claim to know everything, or, at least claim to know a lot about a subject to which they know little or nothing about. These people, especially when they get in positions of power, are the bane of our existence.  This problem is compounded by a cognitive bias called the Dunning–Kruger effect (Note: PDF), which essentially states that:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The
authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these
domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make
unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

While I believe, based off of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, that the Dunning-Kruger effect is a real thing, I also believe that we, meaning you, I, and everyone else, have the ability to diminish the problems surrounding both the “I-know-it-all” point of view, and even the Dunning-Kruger effect. This requires us to admit that, for the most part, we simply don’t know. Even if we’re an expert in our chosen professions, there can be only one person who is the ultimate expert in that arena, and the statistical probability of you (or me) being that ultimate expert is exceedingly small.

The brilliance of the “I don’t know” approach to life is that results in only three possible outcomes to any given situation. Let’s say someone asks you the question of “How did restaurants evolve in the city of Chicago?” If your answer to this question is “I don’t know”, your primary responses are as follows:

  1. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, I don’t need to know. (No further action needed).
  2. I don’t know, I don’t want to know, but I need to know for work or other social reasons. (Go learn stuff)
  3. I don’t know, but I want to know! (Go Learn stuff).
Two out of the three responses are telling you that there’s more learning to do. Ultimately, these responses put the onus upon us as individuals to take advantage of the situation being presented to us. If I, being the curious sort of person, want to know how restaurants evolved in the city of Chicago, it is my responsibility to fill in that gap of my knowledge. Now, whether I can or not is a different issue, dependent upon a vast area of variables, up to, and including the amount of hours in a day, or even my own skill set in reading comprehension.  But those are side issues.
If I want to be the sort of person that seeks to understand things such as Martinis, or New York City, (apparently) Pils and Pilsners, it is my responsibility to get off of my duff and educate myself.
But first? First I have to admit that I don’t know anything about these subjects. And to me, that’s where the fun truly begins.

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision” – Bertrand Russell

 

 

The Art of Novelty: Rogue’s Bacon Maple Porter

The craft-beer world is an interesting place, with various brewmasters trying to find the next big thing. It seems that the scamps at Rogue ale are going to brand themselves with cult Doughnut-house Voodoo Doughnut, and release something called Rogue Voodoo Doughnut Maple Bacon Porter.

At first the idea sounds comical, due to the paring with Voodoo Doughnut, and the name of the beer makes it sound as if the beer will taste of the breakfast pastry. And in looking at the ingredients it well might.

The ingredient list from their full label:

Great Western 2 Row,
Chocolate,
Black,
Biscuit
Maple syrup,
apple smoked bacon,
vanilla beans,
vanilla extract
Pacman yeast,
Free range coastal water.

(I can’t ignore the “Free range coastal” descriptors in front of the “water” entry, because…sheesh…it reeks of made-up marketing terms).

What’s difficult to tell is if this release is a novelty release, with them trying to leverage both Voodoo’s cult status and the(now two year passed due) Internet’s passion for all things bacon. Sure, sure, the folks at Rogue will tell you it’s a serious release, but I’m not sure if the world is ready for a bacon porter, at least not to the point where they buy it often enough to encourage Rogue to make enough supply to meet the demand. Add to the fact that this isn’t simple a maple bacon porter, it’s a maple porter with a hint of cupcake.

This is the thing about novelty releases – It’s difficult to take them that seriously.

It’s possible that I’m not reading the winds that correctly, and perhaps the beer will have demand enough for several runs over the course of the next year. This is why I’m a writer, and not in the business game. But I do want to celebrate the Rogue is doing this at all, even if it fails miserably. I adore the novel. I love companies that take risks, and introduce new and different flavors into the mainstream. This is how our collective palate changes over the course of a generation or so. Twenty years ago, Pumpkin Ales were novel as well, and now they are a season standby for many breweries. Perhaps in twenty years, cupcake beers will be all the rage. I doubt it, but who knows what the future might bring.

More than anything else, what novelty releases do is alert the rest of us of what is possible, from a product stand point. In the hands of a master brewer, bacon/maple/cupcake flavored beer let’s us know that brewing can do far more than what the BJCP recognizes. A chocolatier who makes a Marmite truffle does the same exact thing, as does a cheesemonger who adds jerk seasoning to its cheddar. It’s innovation for the fun of it. Sometimes it pays off, and sometimes it fails miserably. But success and failures are beside the point. In the end, if you pull aside the biases and salesmanship of these folks, I’m willing to bet that if you asked them why they initially made these products, you’ll get an answer similar to that of “To see if I could.”

Such curiosity needs to be lauded and encouraged, by trying out their creations and seeing if they work. I’m going to try to get my hands on this porter for exactly that reason.


Pubs vs. Bars vs. Clubs vs. Taverns

It should come as no surprise to anyone that I am fond of drinking establishments. It would be odd, as a writer of a book covering whisky, if I did not have at least some affection for these sorts of locations.

What’s striking to me is how distinctive my needs are for these sorts of places. Or rather, how many places out there cannot meet these needs. Because, when I examine them, these characteristics that I am looking for in a watering hole are, while distinctive, are still quite easy to meet. They are, in no particular order:

  • The establishment must create a sense of community. I’m not saying that the drinking place must be an upstanding member of the chamber of commerce or members of the local Fraternal Order of Moose. Instead, these places need to illicit a feeling within the customer that they are part of something special. And by customers, I mean all customers, regardless of age, gender, or social status.
  • The place in question must not be intimidating. It must be warm and inviting.
  • Finally, it must be a place of celebration, or of laughter. Typically if the other two items are met, this third one will happen by default. But sometimes not, so it is worth mentioning.

What amazes me when it comes to bars, pubs, clubs, and taverns, is how many fail to meet these three items. This suggests to me, as a simple observer, and one who has routinely dismissed any idea of running such an establishment, that either it’s quite difficult to hit these marks, or that owners have no idea that these are desirable traits in their business, or that they simply do not care to cater to those who want that out of their social drinking experience.

We see this last point demonstrated in many places. Clubs ( who, almost by definition, seek to exclude) are typically the worst offenders of this, seeking to market themselves to a select clientele, be they under-25 supermodels and celebrities, or white males over the age of 65 who hide out in their Eagles, Elks or other similar social clubs . I’m not stating that such exclusion is improper, only that such exclusions exist and should be noted.

And let’s not kid ourselves. There are some places out there who accomplish their exclusivity through sheer intimidation. This can be and is still done intentionally, in many locations. One need to only be of the wrong race, or gender, or have the wrong sexual preference to see this up front, and at times, in your face. In a great majority of the drinking establishments throughout the United States, the straight male rules the roost.

But intimidation comes in other forms as well, sometimes without the owners even realizing. Everything from liquor and beer selection to where the bar is located is enough to get a place labeled as “snobby” or “elite”. There are times when nothing will run out a customer faster than to not have their beer selection available to them, be it Guinness, Duvel, or Budweiser.

As I get older, bolder, and wiser, I find myself no longer willing to settle for places that seek to exclude, even if I meet whatever unspoken requirement needed to stay at these locations. And in my travels, I have found that, for the most part, those places that call themselves “pubs” rather than bars or clubs, meet my needs.

I find this peculiar for a variety of reasons, with the first being that this is not a hard and fast rule. There are bad pubs in America, just as there are cozy bars and taverns. Secondly, Pubs, at least from a legal definition, are bars. Let’s make no mistake here. The fact that owners of these “pubs” have called them as such demonstrates to me how important it was to differentiate these places from the bars, clubs, and taverns. Yet many of these self proclaimed pubs are often based, not on actual British or Irish pubs, but rather on the American idea of what a British or Irish pub is or should be. In essence, many of these pub owners have taken the traditional pub ideal, and have created places that are similar, yet they are distinctive enough to be their own entity.

And now that I reflect upon it, the taverns here in Washington State (where ‘tavern’ has a definitive legal meaning that marks them differently that bars and clubs) seem to have more in common with British and Irish Pubs in terms of substance and feel than the British and Irish pubs that dot our American landscape. Note to self: research this for a later post.

That aside, there seems to be a concerted effort on “pub” owners here in the States to create a sense of community amongst its patrons. Some bars do this as well, and they need to be commended for this as much as anyone else. But in my experience, if one is looking for those three items listed above, the odds of finding them in a self-proclaimed “pub” seem higher than finding them at any other drinking establishment.


New Food Media vs. Old Food Media (or Julie vs. Julia)

The upcoming movie Julie & Julia is bringing up some interesting discussions in the food world about old-school food journal vs. new-school food journalism. Or in other words, professional food writers who work at newspapers and have had cookbooks published by mainstream publishing houses are discussing the validity of those food writers who are cutting their teeth in the blog world, and then moving on to bigger and better things.

It makes sense that this movie would initiate such a discussion, for it details the life of two women who best represent each school. In one corner, you have Julia Child, whose legacy is nearly larger than life, an icon of the food movement. In the other you have Julie Powell, an ex-food blogger whose web site hit the big time when she parleyed her exploration of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking into a book deal and then subsequently a movie deal. Both women are quite representative of their eras, as well as the technologies of their eras, Julia Child’s popularity wouldn’t have been so great without television. Ms. Powell’s popularity would be non-existent without blog technology, even if she strongly feels the need to disassociate herself with the blogging generation.

The old-school/new-school debate was put forth once again by Virginia Willis, a food writer and photographer who was brought in old school traditions, even as she embraces new school technologies. She had an in-depth exploration of her feelings a week or so back. The entire thing is worth a read, but this is the part that took me in:

I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse?

(snip)

People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!

Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.

I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.

There’s so much I want to talk about with her perspective, I don’t know where to necessarily start.

For the most part, i don’t think that many individual food bloggers count themselves as food journalists. Granted my sampling is based off of those sites I happen to consume on a regular basis, but those I read come more from a personal memoir/diary perspective, with a tad bit of research thrown in to provide context. Not all food writers are food journalists, and to equate the two is doing a disservice to those who explicitly do not do food journalism.

But let’s talk about expertise for a moment. Can people who simply consume food without knowing its context be considered experts? If not, does this lack of expertise diminish their experience, or make that experience less important?

First and foremost, food is a reflection of any given culture, regardless of the era in which they live. Each culture has its own ignorance of items relating to their culture. Is Pliny the Elder’s position on beer to be dismissed because he didn’t know of yeast, nor of beer’s importance to the tribes of his enemies? Are the cooks of the Renaissance less important to food culture because they didn’t know the etymology and evolution of the recipes they were using? Of course not. The same can be said of those who simply mimic recipes and discuss their value on food blogs or other similar mediums. Their input has inherent value. Just because one knows the importance of Poulet au Bresse does not mean that their insight has more cultural value from one who does not.

So if cultural currency isn’t the issue, then what is? My guess is something I call “Institutional Relevancy”, or how important one person is to the institution they serve, in this case: food media.

Here’s an observation I have that most American food writers don’t want to hear – the majority of Americans don’t care about food, or at least not in the way the experts would like them to. There are many anecdotal statistics I could throw out there to support my position – the popularity of fast food restaurants, the ratio of sales of prepared food versus fresh produce, the number of people who call Kraft Singles “cheese”.

“But Kate!”, one might exclaim. “What about the popularity of The Food Network?”

Granted, The Food Networks growth over the past ten years or so have been impressive, but let’s take a look at the shows they have on. Some of them a pure entertainment, (Ace of Cakes, Iron Chef, The Search for the Next Food Network Star), others are recipe shows that have approach cooking from a very simplistic point of view (Rachael Ray, Sandra Lee, and others), and still others are simply border line food porn (Paula Deen). My point here is that the largest food media institution has succeeded because it either treats food as entertainment, or as a dumbed-down commodity. There are exceptions on the network, to be sure, but these tend to be the exceptions, and not the rule. On the Food Network, Poulet au Bresse is afforded the same respect as any other chicken.

The proliferation of food blogs that take this simplistic approach reflect the current standard of American food knowledge. That is to say, we are how we eat – kind of mindlessly.

But this is changing. I doubt the local food movement would be as successful today without blogs, the same could be said for the organic movement five years ago. And each of these movements have entered our culinary vernacular, and have made us smarter when it comes to food.

I will admit to one trend that I find disturbing – the proliferation of food blogs who do little more than regurgitate press releases and video links. I am not a fan of Slashfood or Eat Me Daily, who seem to believe that recapping Top Chef or providing obituaries about the Taco Bell Chihuahua are relevant to cooking or restaurant going. But this is a personal bias. I’m of the belief that the more we take these sites seriously, the more likely we’ll regress in our collective food knowledge.

Let me end on this – I’m a fan of Julia Child, and I believe her place in American food history is deserved. Her French Cooking cookbooks are near required for anyone’s cookbook library. But how effective was the method of her message when a mere generation later, someone following her cookbook didn’t understand the relevance of poulet au Bresse?


The Death of Molecular Gastronomy?

Okay, death is likely too harsh a word. Perhaps Fading from prominence is a better descriptor. Over the past few years it it seemed to me that Molecular Gastronomy, like most trends, was more fad than revolution. Lisa Abend over at slate, presents the case for exactly this:

..from the beginning, some critics have scorned a mode of cooking that relies, in their opinion, too heavily on technology (as if an oven weren’t a machine) and often chooses form over substance. Twenty years into (Ferran) Adria’s revolution, those criticisms have only grown. In a recent e-mail, Gerry Dawes, an American expert on Spanish food and wine, wrote, “I am getting a little weary of the Catalan-driven techno-cuisine. Many of these ‘experiments’ would be better off if they didn’t show up anywhere but at chefs’ conferences.” His words sum up the critical attitude: It was fun at first, but enough with the chemistry kit! I’d like some real food now, please.

I always get a little skeptical when people talk about how revolutionary anything is, let alone food. And while I thought porcini cotton candy and raspberry foams were interesting, they felt more of a novelty to me, than something that an average eater would be enthralled with.

The other aspect here is the “Been there, done that”, which Lisa infers in her article. From my own point of view, unless a food is both amazing and readily accessible, I’m simply not going to eat it that much when there are so many other options in dining available. I’ve never been to the top tier places, so perhaps there’s there’s a dish or three that I’ve missed that better represents this genre. But even this implies that it’s the skill of the chef, and not the food itself which is important. This is hardly a lesson that’s new to anyone.

This is not to say that I think that this type of cooking is going away. As the conclusion to the article states, parts of it will take their place into restaurant culture. In the end, it will simple become another option available to consumers, no better, no worse.

What these kinds of food have done is cemented my theory that there is a huge divide between the fans and purveyors of upscale restaurant dining and…well…everyone else. While many people knew and loved the food of Adria and his disciples, exponentially many more have never tried nor even heard of the foods.


The Passion of the Dippy Eggs

It is the simplest of dishes; soft boiled eggs broken over chunks of bread, and then a judicious amount of salt and black pepper thrown on top. As a meal, it’s hardly notable. If I were Pete Wells, I’d dismiss it out of hand as being…oh I don’t know…common?

But I am a Pittsburgher, and dippy eggs are part of the culture, and played a part in my education whilst I was a youngun’. Whether it was disputing that they were soft boiled eggs or fried eggs served over easy, or if they should be served over bread that had been toasted or not, it was the first “dish” that made those of us who were paying attention realize that food could be vastly different even when the ingredients were the same.

Dippy eggs are but one of only a handful of foods that can transport me back to when I was a child. Sure, candy and boxed cereals remind me of my youth, but dippy eggs, as well as strawberry shortcake and beef stroganoff, were foods that I remember being made for me, as far back as pre-kindergarten. How many foods can make that claim in anyone’s life?

I have spoken of dippy eggs to very few people in my life once I became an adult. My thinking was that if you lived outside of Western Pennsylvania, well you simply wouldn’t understand. Eggs and bread! With the tasty yolk? What’s not to love? But it was it’s name that would turn people off I believed.

But when I offhandedly mentioned the dish to Tara one day, she was instantly intrigued. “When are you going to make this?”, she asked me from time to time. I would pretend not to hear, thinking to myself “No. You wouldn’t get it.”

But this weekend I broke down, and made plans for the great unveiling. Dippy Eggs were to be served with Scones and a cup of coffee. The only change to the recipe I made was I used a batard for the bread instead of Wonder Bread. Even for a recipe that reminded me of my youth I could not be convinced to buy cheap, sliced white bread.

The results? Anyone who was not from Western Pennsylvania was less than impressed. It is, after all, only eggs over bread.

But as I ate my dippy eggs, a small smile came to my lips. Yes, it is only eggs over bread, but what it represents made it that much more delicious.


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.