Objectivity, Subjectivity and Food (a discussion)

Last night I wrote a big essay about objectivity, subjectivity and food and then–perhaps ironically–Safari ate it. Maybe, though, that’s for the best. It was a bit long-winded. The truth is that I’d rather have a discussion with you, my readers, than rant and rave like a loon. The prompt for the essay was a story out of “The United States of Arugula”–the story of Dean & DeLuca. Young Giorgio DeLuca’s high school A.P. history teacher, Jack Estrin, said that beauty and truth were not subjective but objective. “All us kids went, ‘No, no! Art is not objective, it’s a matter of opinion, a matter of what you like,'” recalls DeLuca (on pg. 199). The teacher said he “didn’t know what we were talking about.”

Later, when DeLuca met Joel Dean–his highly cultured upstairs neighbor–it was Dean who confirmed his teacher’s message. “I told him what Jack Estrin had told me,” DeLuca continues. “Dean was the first person to say to me, ‘That guy knew what he was talking about. Art is objective. Beauty is objective. Otherwise, you couldn’t agree on who all the great artists were through the ages.'”

Together, then, they translated this philosophy into their eponymous food store: “A lot of this was in reaction to the processed food that America was starting to live on: the Swanson’s TV dinners, the Tang, the fucking WisPride cheddar in a crock,” DeLuca concludes. “Americans were losing their ability to taste. I wanted to show that some things are better than others. Americans are taught just the opposite: ‘Whatever makes you happy. You like Coca-Cola and this guy likes fine Burgundies? You can’t say one is better than the other!’ Can you imagine the absurdity of that? But that’s the underlying philosophy that Americans are brainwashed into.”

I find this subject fascinating, especially because I spent two years in graduate writing school being taught that there were objective qualities to good writing that we should all seek out for ourselves: character, conflict, an escalating structure. All of our teachers pointed to Aristotle. And yet some of the worst writing came from those who tried to cobble together what should have been “objectively better” plays–with schematic, diagrammable plots–but plays that were incredibly uninspired. Objectively, all the elements were there: subjectively, though, they were tortuous to sit through.

A good example of this conundrum is Hung on “Top Chef.” He’s got the objective criteria down pat. Did you hear him last week when he paired berries with something creamy, “Because sweet things and creamy things go well together.” He said it like it was a hard and fast rule. And when the judge criticized his dish for not working, Hung was outraged: “So you’re saying that sweet and creamy don’t go well together?” he snapped back.

I’d say more but I have to head out. What do you think, A.G. readers? Can food be measured objectively? Or is most of it subjective? What will you be drinking with lunch: Coca Cola or a fine Burgundy?

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