What is “Good”? (aka…playing with an idea)

(Note: I’m just playing with an idea here. My conclusion at the bottom should not be considered as “definitive”)

The last chapter in (gratuitous plug alert!) my upcoming book Sweet Tooth, asks a question to which I have yet to find a comfortable answer: What makes “good” chocolate?

We could apply this question to many a product, not just chocolate, and get answers as vast and different as the people trying to take a crack at this puzzle. What is “Good”?

As philosophical and abstract as the answers may be, the question is still an important one to ask, especially in light that part of my job in writing about food, is to hopefully lead you to an answer that you can live with. There is an article of faith, that you, the reader, are taking any time you read someone else who carries an air of authority about them, regardless of how formal or informal the voice of the writer. By reading my stuff, or Anthony Bourdain’s, or Gael Greene’s, the goal, I believe is to have some understanding of whatever topic we are writing about that leads you to some new insight that leads you to choose something better than you would have chosen previously.

Oh, and hopefully you would be entertained while reading it, but that’s a separate part of the story. Let’s stick on the question for a moment.

The first place people go to when asking “what is good food” comes down to taste. But taste is highly subjective, even among the fooderati. What jazzes Ruth Reichl may not jazz Mario Batali. And, while they may respect a certain type of food, drink, or even a chef, they may not particularly like them enough to seek them out on a regular basis. I believe most people who write about food inherently understand this, but not to speak of it, for whatever.

This is further complicated by comparing one good product versus another. Do you think that the average person can tell the difference between one Chianti rated 92 by Robert Parker, and another, similar Chianti that had been rated a 90? While Mr. Parker may have the palate to distinguish such a difference, most people can’t.

So, if the above assertions are true (and someone may be able to convince me otherwise), if being able to communicate the finer points of “goodness” is subjective, then what’s the point?

Well, as I alluded to above, entertainment is one factor. While food writing may not be a lucrative career, it indeed does have romantic elements to it that allow readers to live vicariously through the author’s perspective. This is an important element, and one that should not be overlooked. But good writing is different from good food, and it’s the latter I wish to focus upon.

Over the past generation or so, “Good Food” has had new criteria added to it. Everything from Locavorism, to vegetarianism, to sustainability, to ensuring that the producers of the food can make a livable wage from their work, all of these questions are now being asked of food, and many people use these answers to determine whether or not their food is good. But these new criteria being asked really are based around questions of morality politics, and science. And these questions are often at odds from those being asked by the likes of Alan Richman and his ilk to a majority of food blogs out there.

The conclusion I have (just) arrived at is that there’s a vast difference between the quality of the experience of food versus the quality of the food itself. We see examples of this all of the time, and Alva Noë recently highlighted this dissonance:

It turns out most people won’t notice the difference between paté and dog food, so long as the latter is suitably presented with the right sort of garnish. And as for our ability to discriminate wine, even experts may confuse a white wine with a red when it is served at room temperature in a dark glass. And we’ll enjoy soggy old potato chips, it turns out, if our chewing is accompanied (over head phones) by the satisfying sound of crunching.

What are we to make of this?

I think there is a temptation, when we learn of these studies, to feel that we have been somehow unmasked, exposed, revealed to be, well, inauthentic in our pleasures. After all, if we can’t really taste the difference between cheap beer mixed with vinegar and an expensive micro-brew, then surely this means that our preference for the finer stuff is, well, a pretension.

Dr. Noë states that context matters, and when we apply this to food writing (and food media of all sorts, really), we’re not buying food, we’re buying the context in which it’s presented. And that context? That context is shaped by preferences shaped within us by our environment. A dinner in Paris sounds sexy to us because we’ve been told again and again that eating dinner in Paris is sexy.

Dr. Noë sums up:

We can discriminate dog food and paté, red wine and white, holding hands with someone we love and holding hands with a stranger. But what we are discriminating, when we do this, is not neural events in the mouth or hand, but what we are doing. And when the wine expert, or the lover, describes what matters in the flavor, or the caress, he or she is not identifying marks or features of the intrinsic qualities in the nervous system that only the expert of the lover can discern; taste is not a kind of measurement. Rather, the expert is calling attention to features of the flavor and the action that are precisely there for us to think about and pay attention to (emphasis mine – Kate).

In other words, “goodness” results from paying attention to the subtle differences and nuances within the context, not necessarily within intrinsic quality of the product being consumed. Taking the 92 rated Chianti mentioned above, I will be willing to bet my last dollar that drinking that Chianti at a wine tasting event in a hotel room outside of Indianapolis with a group a strangers is a far different experience than sharing that same wine with a lover while watching a sunset at the Grand Canyon. Ask a person to rate the wine at both locations, and you’ll get far different answers.

Or, to put it another way, the reason why Robert Parker rated one Chianti a 92 and another a 90, is that, perhaps, just perhaps, he got laid and/or paid on the day he gave out the 92 and didn’t on the day he gave out the 90.

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