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 Food for Thought - Mark R. Vogel - - Mark’s Archive

There was a time when mankind literally thought it was the center of the universe.  The earth was the omphalos of the cosmos, the sun and everything else revolved around it, and humanity was the apotheosis of creation.  In a word, humans were special.  Well along came Copernicus and numerous scientists since to burst that bubble.  We exist on a nondescript piece of rock, circling an unremarkable star, far from the focal point of an ordinary galaxy that is but one in 100 billion.  The only thing that revolves around us is the moon, and our projected egocentricity. 

     Nevertheless there are those, including a few members of the scientific community, who persist in the conception that there is something unique about humanity.  They further extrapolate that intelligent humanoids scarce at best in the universe.  They contend that a perfect storm of improbable variables must converge to create advanced life.  The "Rare Earth Hypothesis" is touted as evidence for why we have yet to encounter extraterrestrials.

     Conversely, the "Mediocrity Principle" asserts that there’s nothing special about earth, its inhabitants or its ontogenesis.  Proponents of this humbler perspective profess that the universe is probably teeming with life.  Our failure to establish close encounters of any meaningful kind is easily explained by the incomprehensibly vast distances between stars, the seeming impossibility of interstellar travel, and our exploration of only a pinprick of the galaxy.

     I think the Mediocrity Principle can also be applied to the American culinary landscape, particularly the restaurant world.  I was reminded of this recently when my wife and I dined at a local Italian eatery for the first time.  Everything was mediocre from the service to the food.  Nothing tasted bad, but nothing impressed us either. 

     Is it just me or does the average restaurant today seem so, well, so average?  Obviously I’m insinuating that the average is really below average.  Knock! Knock!  Well look who’s here…...our old friend Mr. Subjectivity.  Amazing how often he visits us.  Can’t seem to ponder the nuances of most scenarios without him.  OK, come in, have a seat and join the conversation. 

     To reiterate my point, (before I was so rudely interrupted), I am maintaining that average restaurant food is really below average.  From a mathematical point of view, a true average does exist. 


Take every restaurant in the country, somehow quantify their quality level, perform the calculations and voila, you arrive at the average.  But based on personal and subjective evaluations of that numerical value, what people consider “average” will vary.  Clearly one’s palate, culinary experience, and personal taste influence what is appraised as average or not.  (Mr. Subjectivity is beaming).  Someone raised on canned vegetables and microwaved meals will have a different notion of average than a chef or a gourmet.  Not only will personal taste cause individuals to differ on their definition of average, but also the degree to which average food is acceptable.  In other words, even if Joe Schmo and I concur that a particular restaurant is average, he might be content with it while I’m crossing it off my list and griping to Mr. Subjectivity.  Yeah I know, talk to the subjective hand.

     Let’s approach this from another vantage point, one that Mr. Subjectivity won’t like because it’s logically irrefutable but too bad; I’ve had enough of his company.  Whatever average food is, no matter how it’s defined, appraised or appreciated, it could be better, or else it wouldn’t be average.  Even if you wish to debate how to judge “better” there is a higher level of quality that is not the standard; that is above average.  (Slam!)  Mr. Subjectivity just left in a huff.

     So why is average food so average?  I propose a number of explanations.  First and foremost is economics.  Superior food costs more at every step from the producer to your plate.  The higher the level of quality demanded, the more expensive the raw materials, agricultural methods, preservation and transportation factors.  That cost is passed onto restaurants, thus increasing their outlay. 

     Next, fabricating those raw materials into superior dishes raises expenditures.  Stellar cooking ineluctably involves not only pricier ingredients but a greater number of them, as well as more elaborate methodology, and the abandonment of many parsimonious tactics in the interest of excellence.  It also means higher waste.  The more preeminent a restaurant, the more likely they are to forego items that are past their prime.  It also requires greater skill to produce superior food and like any profession, more experienced workers can demand higher remuneration. Bottom line:  it’s cheaper to produce average food, not to mention less work.

     But the consumer is also partially responsible for the proliferation of average food.  Many people are satisfied with average food for a variety of reasons.  Like the restaurant, economics and labor come into play.  Countless individuals can’t afford, or don’t want to spend inordinate money on better food.  Some people deplore cooking or have schedules inimical to home cooked meals.  Harried lives mired by long work hours and child care necessitate quick, cheap, labor saving victuals.  The majority of American restaurants readily fill that niche.

     I would also argue that the American palate is less demanding.  Generally speaking our culture doesn’t cherish food to the degree that other cultures do.  Food is not reveled in America.  Sadly, the opposite position is gaining ground.  I refer to the pandemic of food neurosis whereby multifarious foods are villainized, deemed politically or morally incorrect, and most importantly, are judged detrimental by the health fanatics.  For throngs of Americans, food is not something that enriches their life.  It is a potential danger that is agonized over.

     For these folks it doesn’t matter that the soup is bland, as long as it’s low in sodium.  Who cares if the organic vegetables are a little icky, as long as their devoid of pesticides?  So what if the pork chops are dry?  The fat-phobic public wants leaner pigs.  It’s not about flavor.  It’s about avoiding salt, sugar, carbs, fat, red meat, pesticides, MSG, dairy products, mercury, caffeine, alcohol, calories, etc. etc. etc.  In essence it’s about NOT eating.  

     Be it economics, expediency, health fanaticism, or political and moral issues, when these elements are paramount they trump the factors that render food truly satisfying.  Restaurants and food producers seeking to capitalize on cultural trends permeate the market with food commensurate with these extraneous criteria.  Sumptuousness takes a backseat, resulting in mediocre food.

     In summary, too many restaurants and/or consumers want cheap food.  Time saving food.  Labor saving food.  So called “healthy” food.  Environmentally friendly food, etc., etc.  Not food that I, an unabashed epicure, would personally assess as above average food, based on my definition.  Knock! Knock!  Oh no,…………guess who’s back.

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