No it Isn’t!
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - June 13, 2007 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
On April 13th, 1111, in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Pope Paschal II crowned Henry V as Holy Roman Emperor. As the story goes, a German bishop by the name of Johann Fugger was to attend the coronation. Fugger, quite the oenophile, sent his servant ahead of him to scope out the inns along the journey that served the best wines. His servant was to identify these establishments by writing “Est”, (Latin for “it is”), on their wall in chalk. When the servant reached the town of Montefiascone, Italy, he was so enthralled by the wine there that he exuberantly etched Est! Est!! Est!!! on the wall of the inn. Legend has it that the bishop agreed, so much so that he never made it to the coronation but spent the remainder of his days in Montefiascone.
The wine so lauded by the bishop is now eponymously named after his servant’s histrionic exclamation. Est! Est!! Est!!! is produced in and around Montefiascone which lies in Italy’s Latium region, (Lazio in Italian), north of Rome near Lake Bolsena. It’s a light, dry, white wine made from Trebbiano, Procanico and Malvasia grapes. Despite it’s repetitively enthusiastic designation, Est! Est!! Est!!! is an unremarkable wine, unworthy of it’s endorsement. Thus, the bishop might have thought it magnificent but the majority of the wine world is unmoved.
OK, fast forward almost 900 years. At the urging of friends we all had dinner at this restaurant they were raving about. It was one of those places they just HAD to take us to. Immediately I envision the “Lost in Space” robot swinging his arms yelling “Warning! Warning!” This is because I’ve had so many lackluster meals at places extolled by others. In any event, let’s cut to the chase because this plot certainly isn’t difficult to predict.
To begin, the Caesar salad was hopelessly over-dressed. Every bite seemed like a mouthful of dressing with a nuance of lettuce. In a dish of shellfish over pasta, the calamari, shrimp and mussels were like rubber. Clearly they had been overcooked. All but one of the dishes were strikingly under-salted with the lone wolf being over-salted. I had the pasta with clam sauce and if you’re a regular reader you know one of the banes of my existence: the clams were, once again, inadequately washed and I was treated to a sprinkling of grit in every bite. Clearly I wasn’t going to be the “bishop” in this tale.
Gastronomic recommendations are frequently not all they’re cracked up to be. Why? Because any recommendation’s merit is a function of the affinity between the recommender’s and the recommendee’s palate. Palates are mediated by innumerable psychological, biological, environmental, and cultural factors. Thus, every human being brings an array of idiosyncrasies and biases to the table. In fact, the influence of personal subjectivity can be so great as to obscure any objective, reality based aspects of the quality of the food or wine in question. But more importantly, the chances of your palate perfectly matching with the recommender’s are slim.
Let’s return to my disenchanting dinner and review it in light of the above factors that affect personal taste. How could this unseasoned, overcooked, and ill-prepared food earn such praise? Maybe my friends are biologically more sensitive to the taste of salt, or are salt-phobes, (which they are). Either way, genetics or psychic anomaly, the preponderance of unseasoned dishes at this restaurant did not deter their kudos. In fact, the blandness may actually have contributed to their recommendation. Continuing, maybe the food is dear to their cultural upbringing or heritage. Maybe the staff has always treated them well and this has clouded their judgment. Maybe they shared a special romantic moment at this restaurant. Maybe they have undeveloped palates and limited food knowledge and think that the rubbery mussels are normal. Maybe most of the restaurants they go to, (and I’d bet my best bottle of Bordeaux on this), serve rubbery mussels so this has become their norm. Just maybe, when you combine biological and emotional biases, American food neurosis, culinary ignorance, and a palate accustomed to the mundane, you can produce a glowing but terribly misplaced recommendation?
Of course I realize that another prospect is that the restaurant was having an off night. Maybe the head chef was out sick and the staff was more lax. Maybe a series of uncommon mistakes by a number of the cooks caused a rare comedy of errors. Logic forces me to acknowledge this possibility but I’d bet another bottle of top-notch Bordeaux that it’s not the case. (Of course you’ll have to take my recommendation that the Bordeaux is top-notch). The odds are far more likely that this establishment is yet another typical American restaurant as opposed to a superior kitchen that fell victim to multiple flukes.
So how do you beat the system? How can you circumvent the subjectivities that cause so many recommendations to fail? Well, you can try to get several recommendations. The more opinions you acquire the less chance that the perspectives have identical subjectivities. Of course this isn’t always practical. If a friend recommends a new restaurant you’re not necessarily going to wait until someone else offers an opinion to try it. You’ll probably just go and give it a shot. But allow me to give you a recommendation of my own. Bring some chalk. Next to Est! Est!! Est!!! on the restaurant’s wall, you may choose to scribble “No, it isn’t.”
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