Posted by: justawriter | March 25, 2010

Far Afield – Keep your hands off my food

I have a confession. I like to cook.
It’s mainly a side effect of being a bachelor who likes to eat. I make no claims to being a gourmet but I do seek out unusual and quality ingredients. I collect interesting and unusual cookbooks and books about food. When I get a chance to cook for other people, they generally appreciative and free with their complements.
As part of the my interest in food, I regularly peruse food magazines and web sites for new and interesting ideas. Going through the articles and blog posts, I see a lot of reviews. Or at least what passes for reviews. More of them are critiques rather than reviews.
I learned fairly early on that there is a significant difference between a critic and a reviewer. A favorite author of mine once explained that he had been offered a book column in a major publication. He told the editor that he would only accept the position if could be a reviewer and not a critic. He explained that a reviewer gives the reader information necessary to decide whether or not they would like a book. A critic tells the reader what he or she should like.
There are certain topics – mainly food, music and politics – where people with no experience and little insight seem to think they know more about the topics than people who have been working in those fields their entire lives. What they lack in expertise they try to make up with volume and venom. But that isn’t the their defining attribute. No, just about anyone can be an ignorant, obnoxious loudmouth. I think it’s even in the Constitution someplace. No, it is the firm belief that they know the “One True Thing” about something and will defend their definition of reality to the end that makes a critic.
It’s the nature of the Internet, I think, that has created a golden age of the critic in our society. Now anyone with a laptop and an opinion can create his or her own forum for their expertise.
I think my first exposure to real food fanaticism on the ‘net were the Great Chili Wars. I knew about the BBQ wars with Texas, Kansas City and just about every other state, town and bend in the road laying claim to the “One True BBQ” stand. But let me tell you, those folks are one big happy family compared to the veterans of the Chili truth squads.
The partisans of the various styles of chili – ending with an I, mind you, the peppers end with an e – remind me of religious schisms. There are the ultra-orthodox for whom any ingredient other than beef and chiles – with an e – are automatically excommunicated. The mainstream allows for tomatoes and onions in the mix, with branches differing on whether it should be a thick stew or a soup. All branches look down on the addition of beans, which makes the cook a heretic or something like that. Other variations like Cincinnati chili, which can be flavored with cinnamon and cloves I guess would qualify as cults.
What stood out for me was how firmly the partisans stood behind their various recipes, even to the point denying the existence of alternatives. Even if you could get a grudging admission that someone else made a pretty tasty product, you would be dismissed with, “It might be good, but it ain’t chili.”
As for myself, I decided that in matters of taste, I would take a different path. A critic brings to the table every plate he or she has ever eaten. Whatever is in front of them must be measured and ranked with the hundreds of other bowls of chili they have ever eaten. If it doesn’t match up, it must be denounced with great vigor. I try to take a different tack thinking about food. I take the food in front of me as standing on its own. Is it thick or thin? Does it have lots of meat? Is it spicy or mild? Is it a satisfying bowl of chili? That way I can give a description of the meal that will give a reader an idea if he would like to eat that bowl of chili, or if he would be better off with the next restaurant down the road.
I think a lot of things would be better off if people examined what they had in front of them instead of comparing it to some theoretical ideal. I have been lucky enough to have eaten some things that have made me sit back in wonder at how good they have tasted. Those opportunities over a lifetime are few and far between. Knowing those moments exist shouldn’t detract from joy we can take from plates of good, plain, satisfying food that lift up our everyday spirits. The peaks may define the mountain range, but life thrives in the valleys between them.

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