The Qualities of Quality
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - January 31, 2007 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Archive
See also: English Muffin History
There’s a local pub that I frequent, more for their Stoli martinis than their food. It’s one of those quiet neighborhood places, no riffraff, small, and cozy. I know the chef, the bartenders and the wait staff. Like Norm on “Cheers” I have my usual seat at the end of the bar. The food is average but as I’ve stated, that’s not why I’m there. A peaceful drink after work, particularly with my wife or best friend who sometimes accompanies me, is more satisfying than the occasional meal I order there.
One day this week while keeping my customary seat warm and sipping my Russian elixir, I was privy to a conversation between a man and a woman sitting next to me. Each was espousing the merits of the food in this establishment. Meanwhile, I had just finished a bowl of carelessly washed steamers. As I licked the remaining pieces of grit from my teeth I was struck by the contrariety between my experiences and their opinions. Likewise, I’ve periodically dined with friends at restaurants they’ve chosen and praised only to be egregiously disappointed, sometimes by revoltingly poor food.
One might point out that I am a chef and thus, maintain a higher standard of quality when it comes to food. Of course. That exemplifies the point of this article: That for a variety of reasons, there exists great disparity amongst individuals when it comes to assessing food quality. Each person’s unique characteristics and experiences influence their perception of quality. Welcome to the realm of the subjective.
I’ve written before on the differences in people’s backgrounds, (and minds) and how that affects the foods they like and dislike. Genetic variations in taste, childhood experiences, culture, and all sorts of kooky ideas about certain foods can impact individual food choices. Although related, what I’m trying to get at currently is not why our tastes differ, but why our appraisal of food quality does. Why do some people think Domino’s pizza is good while a past friend of mine quipped that it was better to eat the box?
I think the foremost issue is how we define quality. Naturally a trained culinary professional embraces standards that the lay person may not even be aware of. Much like someone devoid of construction knowledge admires a charming house while his professional counterpart sees the flaws in design. But for the purposes of the present discussion let’s just stick with how the average Joe defines quality.
Most people equate quality with taste. If the food tastes good, then it’s good food. Many chefs would recoil at this unilateral definition of quality. Nevertheless, this solitary dimension does carry a lot of weight. Who cares how fresh, perfectly cultivated, flawlessly cooked, or artfully presented any food is if you don’t like the taste? Conversely, who cares how simplistic a food is or how casually it is prepared if you love the taste? I have to admit, I think Taco Bell makes the best tacos I’ve ever had. (Right now some of you are probably thinking it’d be better to eat the wrapper).
A second facet to the definition of quality is the food’s physical attributes. Just like taste, people tend to associate a food’s quality level with how well its physical or cooked properties coincides with their preferences. Examples abound: Do you like your pizza crust crispy or doughier? Do you like your vegetables firm or closer to mushy? Do you shun brown eggs? How sweet do you like your rice pudding? How lean your steak? How crusty your bread? Any way you slice it, your declaration that any food is “good” is mediated by all the little nuances that are dear to your heart, and not necessarily some external, objective criteria.
Another issue with evaluating food quality involves foods whose appreciation necessitates an acquired taste. There is no doubt that our palates broaden and become refined with experience. With that experience comes a sharpening of our senses and a broader base for comparison. For example, you would be in a compromised position to judge the quality of a specific caviar based on the first time it entered your mouth. At the very least, you’d have nothing to compare it to. At the most, the “palate-shock” caused by your initial exposure to the novel and strong flavor can interfere with your ability to judge it fairly.
Not only does greater experience with any given food increase our capacity to evaluate it, but also experience with higher quality examples of that food. (This is also very true for wine). If you’ve never had a prime grade, dry aged steak, you’re more likely to think the pub specimen is pretty good. In fact, maybe the pub steak IS the best one you’ve ever had. Similarly, if you’ve never or rarely been exposed to the level of culinary diligence demonstrated by upper echelon chefs, your comparative scrutiny is restricted. Thus, having never or rarely experienced top-notch ingredients nor top-notch cooking, one’s standard for quality immediately becomes relative to their narrowed range of familiarity.
Interestingly, even when exposed to the highest quality cuisine, some people respond with indifference or displeasure. Inevitably this disqualifying response to superior quality stems from the aforementioned lack of experience with gourmet food and professional cooking. If you patronize a four star restaurant once in a blue moon, clearly you will encounter ingredients, combinations of ingredients, and culinary procedures that are foreign to you. Average Joe could very well dine in a top-of-the-line French restaurant and come away wondering what all the fuss is about, (and be just as satisfied with his pub steak). To surmise, one’s level of experience with food influences assessment of food quality.
And then of course are the ultra-subjective factors that shape our appraisal of food quality, namely the irrational beliefs, misconceptions, phobias, and sometimes outright lunacies that a growing number of Americans harbor about food. A perfect example is the fat-phobes who think extra-lean meat is high quality. The reality is the opposite. The greater the intramuscular fat or marbling, the higher the meat is graded. This is because a well marbled steak will be tenderer, juicier, and more flavorful, all legitimate indicators of meat quality despite what you may believe about fat.
Much like beauty is in the eye of the beholder, quality is in the definition of the taster. That definition is riddled with subjectivity. Nevertheless you should pursue what you think is quality and what makes you happy. As for me, I need another Stoli. I still have grit in my teeth. Skip the olives this time. They’re not that good.