While you're recovering today from Daylight Savings Time, our Sunday Long Read this week from food critic John Birdsall will help you deal with your favorite guilty comfort food pleasure, the one that nobody else would touch with a ten foot pole. Turns out it's okay, and that America has a real problem with "taste shaming" because hey, foodies are class snobs and a lot of us grew up eating porkchops and applesauce because it was what we could afford.
It’s Tuesday, loyalty card double-stamp night at my neighborhood sushi place in Oakland. It’s the kind of spot where the sweaty owner in a headband and his kid assistant slur “irasshaimase!”—welcome!—in tandem when you push open the chime-tinkling door, no matter how harried they look. It’s a place that gives customers what they want: inside-out dragon rolls, seven-dollar glasses of Chardonnay poured nearly to the rim, the NBA on a TV cantilevered high in the corner, and pale, shaggy-battered shrimp tempura as meaty as a kitten’s flexed hind legs.
At the next table, beneath a Mondrian wall grid of squares and rectangles filled with primary colors (cool in the ’90s, washed out now), two women are most of the way through a dinner that has sprawled across several plates. One is talking about her daughter’s skeevy boyfriend. She clutches her phone, which is scrolled to an Instagram pic that busts him with another woman, I guess, and turns it to show her companion, who makes an O-mouth gesture of shock.
Her friend has the last piece of salmon nigiri clenched between slivery, pale wood chopsticks and is dangling it above a sauce dish, which, though shallow, shows a hefty volume of soy sauce cloudy with wasabi. I watch as the friend, focused on dispensing sympathetic outrage, lowers the rice end of her nigiri into the slurry, swabs the dish with it, rotates her wrist so the salmon tile faces down (its free ends, the parts ungripped by chopsticks, flop lazily sauceward), and gives it even more swipes through the soy mixture. The thing she raises to her mouth appears soaked, like a shore bird after an oil spill. She chews and goes right on talking, looking unaware that she has just done something heinous, violating the integrity of a small, rectangular piece of orange-pink flesh striped with dental-tape strands of connective tissue. The former food critic in me winces. This is a crime against taste.
Crimes against taste aren’t prosecutable, of course, but they are clear offenses. By drowning a nice, fresh hunk of raw salmon in soy-wasabi slurry, my table neighbor was guilty of a kind of murder. She’d killed whatever subtlety was in that fish (the faint tang of raw flesh and the mineral richness of fat). Did she even know what she obliterated in that toxic wash of salt and heat? (And for sure, in a modest sushi place like this, there wasn’t a speck of wasabi rhizome in her pea-green paste—only tinted mustard-seed powder. It’s cheaper than real wasabi, hotter, and, for the thing being dipped, an even deadlier poison for ruining flavor.)
But who can say what’s “better”? Do crimes against food need to be policed? Who plays cop? And should anyone, even a professional restaurant critic, dictate the terms of another’s pleasure? Yelp and Instagram have remade food into a realm of boundless relativism, where extracting a thread of universal, objective truth about what’s delicious and what’s gross can be as hard as piercing an algorithm’s code—unless “universal” and “objective” are themselves the problem.
Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.
Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.
There's no accounting for taste, which is why I always chuckle at people who say ketchup should be reserved solely for kids who haven't reached driving age yet, or that grits are trash food for trash people.
What did food ever do to you that made you hate other people eating it?