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?

28 comments

  1. Hey Adam! I’m rounding on the final chapter of The US of Arugula, and I’ve really loved all it has taught me (and I’d actually forgotten the Claiborne/chicken thing till your brought it up. Perv).

    Anyway, I think this subject is addressed in a roundabout way in Steingarten’s opening essay to “The Man Who Ate Everything.” He taught himself to get over his food dislikes (which he calls food phobias) by just diving in and eating them in their best possible form. Its something I’ve been forcing myself to do, too. For example, pistachios! It turns out that pistachios do, objectively, taste delicious. For years I’d convinced myself that I didn’t like them, but then finally I put one on my tongue, clearing my mind of all my past prejudices, and crunched on the salty sweetness of it all. And yes, objectively, I can say it was delicious.

    So I guess this is a very long winded way of agreeing with Dean & Deluca. Balsamic vinegar tastes good. Processed cheese does not.

  2. I think almost everything is judged both subjectively and objectively. Sure there are often standards that most people would agree are the standards but an individual’s own opinions can often (very often) override those. If you hit all the ‘objective’ standards in cooking, you would probably be less likely to disappoint people overall (and that’s the best way to be successful selling to a mass market) but you can’t please everyone.

    And are the standards really based on what everyone believes individually or just a few people who deem to know what is best? I think it’s that way with art too – once a few people with some clout make a decision that something is great, others will tend to follow like sheep but would everyone really have come to that decision on their own? There are plenty of great artist who never became famous.

    So while I agree there can be a successful objective formula for creating art or food, it seems a bit like snobbery to discount the dissenters as uneducated or brainwashed.

    Of course, I wouldn’t order the cola or the wine – I’d just have water or unsweetened iced tea.

  3. The whole notion of objectively better food is the foundation of the Slow Food movement and Chez Panisse. Petrini et al didn’t want to protest McDonald’s right to exist; their protes were all about providing better options so that McD customers would decide not to go there.

    I think there are objective measurements of quality, but you have to be in a position to perceive them. Taste your first sip of wine and it doesn’t matter if it’s one of the best wines ever; it’ll still taste harsh and shallow and acidic to the first-time taster.

  4. Frozen sweet and creamy and fresh sweet things go together though – had a pinkberry treat in Soho yesterday that was fab.

    Also – does anything exemplify food objectivity better than Popcorn, Indiana’s Kettlecorn – with the sweet ans savory battle constantly being waged? It’s the ultimate character, conflict, an escalating structure.

  5. I believe that we as human being wish for food to be more objective than it truly is. We want our tastes to be validated by group consensus, and our decisions to be easier. Who are our great artists? We aren’t born respecting Picasso. We are TAUGHT to respect Picasso.

    Dean’s point of view suits himself and most likely his business plan. Items are considered “the best” because Dean and Deluca stocks it. It makes consumer selection easy and justifies the prices he puts on the items. He is selling a pricepoint and a lifestyle by branding “beauty”, aka “quality”, as indisputable fact in his food items.

    I recall an olive oil experiment where you were almost dismayed that a cheap, common, oil tasted much better than a pricy, artisianal oil. Percieved objective quality may be an easy way to distinguish product but it is certainly not the rule. It becomes even sadder when people like Hung use this as an argument to tell people what is and is not pleasing to their own tastebuds.

  6. No. Of course good food and art are not truly objective.

    What you and the chefs are pointing to are the existence of shared human standards. Naturally we have standards for good food, or good art, or good playwriting. We can hold one another accountable to these sets of rules, and we ought to. We can certainly say that some sets of standards are better than others.

    But these standards are not *objective.* Objectivity implies that there is no other way it could be; rational human beings would always agree that aged Burgundy is better than Coca Cola. That there is something inherent in aged Burgundy that goes beyond any human meaning attributed to it. If it is objectively good, that means it would be good even if human beings had never drunk wine, even if human beings lived in a culture that thought wine was gross.

    And this is silly. We ARE taught to appreciate good wine, and fresh food, and pistachios. My two-year old daughter would MUCH rather have the Coca-Cola. She’s not exactly “wrong” about that — the alcohol in wine is a poison, after all. She just hasn’t learned the standards yet. She will. But it’s learned, subjective behavior — not inherent.

    Moreover, when your teachers tell you what makes a good play structure, they are basing their knowledge on what has worked according to the Western tradition of theater and film. This is something we’re all taught, that is shared knowledge, and generally accepted knowledge — but it’s taught nonetheless. Would someone who lived their life in isolation, never in contact with another human being, find The Sopranos well-written? Of course not. It’s part of our cultural milieu.

    This insistence that good taste is “objective” strikes me as at best ungenerous and at worst dangerous. If I travel to Tanzania, and they don’t seem to enjoy the picture-perfect fresh French supper I cook for them, does that mean they just don’t have objectively good taste? Of course not. They haven’t been immersed in the sets of standards and values I have in my cooking experience. We can choose to align ourselves with different sets of standards, but we’re in trouble when we start to decide ours are the real, “objective” ones.

  7. What kind of statement is this??

    “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.”

    The reason we all agree on who the great artists are throughout history is because we all read the same books, listen to the same opinions and regurgitate the same opinions further down the line.

    Human beings don’t agree on anything be it food, art, what kind of gas to put in your car. Sure we can recognize technical prowess. Thats how we tell the difference between a painting by Titian and that of a 4th grader, but beauty happens somewhere in between objective technical prowess and subjective appreciation.

    I can recognize that a Lambourgini is a beautiful car, but I can also see that a VW Thing beautiful thing in its own quirky way.

  8. “So you’re saying that sweet and creamy don’t go well together?”

    Bah! The itunes version of top chef did not have this comment which caused me to wonder why Hung said “That is why I called him out”.

    But on the topic – yea food can’t be measured objectively explained already in the previous comments. Hung is an example of someone who is well trained and has excellent techniques but can’t deliver great food.

  9. If quality food is an objective measure then we woudl still regard as quite tasty the rotted fish garum sauce the Romans so enjoyed. Food has fashion, just as everything else does.

  10. I kind of feel like this question is a bit irrelevant. If there is an objective standard for food, that still won’t change whether or not people like the taste of the thing that’s ‘right’. And if there is no objectivity, it certainly doesn’t prevent people from eating or choosing things that are ‘better’ (to them).

    Also, people taste things differently. Some people taste bitter or salty or sweet more (or less) than other people do. Some people have negative learned associations with food. You can only have objectivity if everyone could experience the food the same way, which is physically impossible.

  11. Every person prefers different things, because, naturally, every person is different. But, at the same time, there are things we all have in common that keep us all in the category of human beings. I think subjectivity and objectivity both exist in terms of food. The subjectivity comes from, say, me hating asparagus and you loving it, whereas the objectivity comes from the very fact that asparagus is a nutritional vegetable that people frequently eat.

    Now, how do we categorize what foods in this world are better? Social status of course. People aren’t just people. They have subcategories. So, yes, foods only afforded by higher class people may be considered “better,” which is why morels get a lot more hype than your button mushrooms. The best meals are those that you find among every social class.

    As always, great post Adam!

    P.S. Loved the Hung on Top Chef reference. I think Hung is on speed, especially when using a knife! Poor Casey!

    P.P.S. I’ve had a half written objectivity essay/blog entry sitting on my desktop for a month. You’ve just kicked my ass into gear about finishing it! Thanks!

  12. What makes a good chef, a pianist, poet isnt the rules or even practice (although both are necessary). Its a critical mind. You need to know the semantics but the art comes from somewhere else. Think this is why there arent many women chefs: they seem to be bound by a recipe. That does not mean there are no chefs who happen to be women. Hung knows the notes but it looks like he cant play from his heart.

  13. I’m sorry Dennis, but are you saying that women aren’t good chefs because they’re not critical and creative enough to deviate from standard recipes? And that any chefs that “happen to be women” are aberration? I do believe I take exception to that comment. Pretty sure it has a lot more to do with social dynamics than it does with the fact that women are robots in the kitchen.

    I don’t think taste is objective like morality or mathematics are objective. It’s more like free speech: I may not like what you eat, but I’ll defend to the death your right to eat it. You could make the argument that quality is objective, or as objective as it gets: fresh is better than frozen, ingredients you get at a farmer’s market will make a “better” meal than those you buy at MegaMart.

    But cooking is an art, and art is about expression, and expression is based on opinion and original thought, so I don’t think it’s possible to say that either the fine or culinary arts can be called objective. Like someone else said, it’s cultural, subject to trends and time and availability of foods. Cooking is historical, not objective. And to say that a fine burgundy is the pinnacle of liquids is like saying that people who can only afford Coca Cola, or who don’t drink alcohol, or who just don’t like burgundy are somehow morally reprehensible. That sort of thing gets people into all sorts of trouble.

    Great post, Adam!

  14. Hey, Adam. Figured I’d comment in, since I went to those classes with you. See, I don’t think that all those classes were about defining what objective criteria were for creating a good play (or in my case, spec script). I think that it’s more about defining what makes something unacceptable. If you write something that has no characters, conflict, or escalating structure, then you’ve made something that’s incomplete. But just because you put all those into your work, that doesn’t mean that your job is done. There needs to be something more then just the minimum. The same is true in the kitchen. Just because you know what the rules are, that doesn’t mean that you’ve made something wonderful. I feel that there are some objective descriptions of what is bad, but no objective descriptions for what is necessarily good.

    Speaking of what I know, I hate most movies that people love. I also tend to hate most movies that people hate. All in all, I think most of it’s crap. Sometimes it’s because I can recognize what’s not in it. Other times, I don’t see a lacking in any structure, but I just think it’s put together sloppily.

    You can’t consider rules to be objective qualifiers of worth. Rather, you have to consider them to be guides. These standards are minimum requirements. They don’t tell us how to find what we’ll love.

  15. peanut butter, bacon, lettuce and mayonnaise – my father’s favourite sandwich and absolute proof that food is subjectibe NOT objective

  16. A developed, experienced, uh, *cultivated* palate will detect

    what an undeveloped, uncultivated palate would simply miss. I’ve experienced this phenomenon myself as I’ve grown to ‘know’ foods and preparatons. As a child, for example I was totally satisfied by inexpensive frozen orange juice ( and it was the only liquid other than water that I would drink for a year or two) until I had fresh squeezed. I could never go back to frozen.

    Same goes for art. When I lived in DC where the Smithsonian hosted major traveling exhibits for free, I was super cheap and cynical and dismissed the value of the taped audio tours as a tourist scam. When I finally decided to see if there was anything at all to them, I could not believe I’d been so ridiculously ignorant. I learned so much that was totally not even remotely personal opinion, but things I would genuinely have missed had they not been pointed out to me in the tape simply because my lack of experience kept me from even knowing they existed. I am forever grateful for the lesson.

  17. Quality is objective. Individual taste is subjective. People become chefs after they have trained themselves to know quality and to be able to “think” a combination pretty well before doing it.

    I live in Italy and I have met people who said the food at Olive Garden is better than real Italian food. I have met people who said the pizza they ate in Brooklyn was better than in Naples. I figure they’ve trained themselves to like homogenized versions of things and to suspect real things. Most visitors do not say these inanities!

    I am also a woman chef and I create new recipes every single week. Why recipes? So someone far away can duplicate what I make if they like. Saying that women are recipe slaves is insulting. After all, for many women there is a family who has to eat a failed attempt at throwing things together randomly. I have to eat my failures, too, which makes me cautious about putting a new sauce on anything expensive the first time. Throwing something out is wasteful of precious resources, which to me is just wrong.

    If it is your hobby, then attack your kitchen with no cultural or experiential guidelines and go for broke. Create foams and gels and paste things together in unheard of ways. Then eat it.

    If you are feeding people, then I recommend SOME basis in fact for what you do. A lot of the cultural and culinary fact you have was produced by women.

  18. It’s funny that people really think there can be “objective culinary standards” and that men can meet them and women can’t. Those people are joking, right?

    I think it’s fine if we Westerns want to play around with the notion of “objectivity” when it comes to something that by its very human nature is inherently subjective. This “making of standards” is in itself a cultural act that lets us ascribe a sense of importance and superiority to the things with which we hope others will identify with us, and gives us something to look out and down upon – and lets us say petty things about one another’s likes/dislikes and talents/shortcomings. It’s a game as old as humanity that we continue to this day to play along racial, economic, gender, and cultural lines.

    As long as we can see our “objective” standards for what they are – as a particular, culturally specific window into Western European foodways I believe such standards can serve their – again, culturally proscribed – purpose.

    Answer this: what would practitioners of the other, historically “great,” non-Western European cuisines of the world have to say about our set of culinary standards?

  19. Judith has some great points, unfortunately, I have come across far too many armed with “culinary degrees” who pride themselves on being “chefs” who seem to lack a real ability to determine quality. Either that, or they are forced by their bosses to produce dishes that include subpar produce that is nowhere near ripe or really even palatable, or is so out of season that no matter what intricate sauce is put on it, it still tastes like cardboard (hello, allegedly fine restaurants that serve “fresh” asparagus dishes in New York in the middle of November!!!).

    And quite frankly, some of the previous season’s contestants on Top Chef seemed to fall into the category of cooks that were overwhelmed with their own ingenuity and creativity when it came to technique…yet could they truly understand quality? I dunno…some of what they did to food was beyond dreadful, IMHO.

  20. Just as in medical school, some are top of the class and others just squeaked through. In practice they often get better. Same goes for chefs/cooks. In a perfect world, the chefs/cooks would order all the food. You can see Chef/owners often in the markets earlier than anyone else, picking out the best before you are even awake. Otherwise, someone makes a deal with a supplier and as long as the stuff shows up and isn’t half rotten that’s it.

    I don’t know anything about TV cooks. You are describing striving TV cooks, yes? Once upon a time, TV chefs were really chefs, but now they seem to specialize in personalities who can show you a quick, almost home made type of cooking, so I expect that the result sells supermarket items and doesn’t increase culinary knowledge among the watchers. I don’t see it, so ignore me.

  21. I agree with several comments about the objectivity of quality, and that there are certain “minimum requirements,” so to speak, in achieving success in writing, creation of food, etc.

    There is definitely subjectivity in taste–I have seen several movies that I know are not really well-constructed froma plot or character perspective, but I still enjoyed them because of a specific actor, the music, a scene I enjoyed. The whole package, objectively, was not good, but I still enjoyed the experience.

    I really appreciated ShannonT’s point about context. I think that is an extremely important distinction. What is a delicacy in some cultures is the lowest form of garbage in others.

    P.S. I’m only sad that the Dean & Deluca piece referenced WisPride cheddar in a crock. Please, please know us for our wonderful Carr Valley cheeses or the Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Upland Dairy…

  22. This back and forth is, interestingly enough (to me, anyway), illustrated in the movie “Ratatouille”. (Which I just saw on Saturday)

    SPOILER ALERT! Do not read further in my post if you haven’t seen the movie and want to keep it a surprise!

    Last Chance!

    Ok…Ego (the food critic) has ostensibly been eating food and critiquing food for long enough that he knows good from bad. He’s learned enough to be objective.

    But! When Ego is served Remy’s Ratatouille, the movie so artfully shows Ego’s thought process, his process of feeling, his process of connecting the “peasant dish” to his childhood. Something in that dish, that artfully prepared dish, appealed to his memory, the comfort of having that dish as a boy. Ego’s objectivity as a critic is trumped by his subjectivity. But it’s something in the preparation that enables that wall to be broken down.

    And yes, I know it’s just a movie. :)

    The “goodness” of food can be objective, but what we bring to it is subjective. It was many years after having drank too much tequila as a youngster that I was able to appreciate the flavour of it, and what separates a blanco from a resposado from an añejo. I’m able to be objective now that I’ve moved past the subjective. :)

  23. I think there is an argument for objectivity in taste, just as there are good arguments for objective beauty and morality. Taste isn’t overwhelmingly subjective or objective, but it falls closer to the objective. While individual deviations exist, there are overarching notions of good taste that are quite stable. Something that is truely delicious, beautify, or moral has a quality that is undeniable.

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