Food Hyperbole

I went to New York this past weekend and I met up with some friends of mine who all have deep and interesting comments on a host of issues.

One thing that came up in this trip is eating. First, I think my friends and I are kind of gluttonous. I don’t mean that in the catholic-sinful way, but in a mild semi-disturbing kind of way. We all love to eat and we spend a pretty serious amount of time planning where to eat next, and having so decided we then plan together on what to order, and then finally, on what to share with each other after the food has come. O yea, and then we usually debate a dessert place.

This is very different from my daily eating habits, in which my food environment is carefully controlled. Not only do I not spend very much time eating, but I also don’t have a lot of choices and I eat much smaller quantities.

However, the really interesting thing that came out of my discussion with friends about food is the way that hyperbole creeps into our feelings about what to eat. Someone swears that they had the best pizza ever at so and so location and others rave about a sandwhich shop or a thai place. Inevitably, we visit these locations eventually and find them, almost inevitably to NOT live up to the hype. Why is that? And why the disjunction between fantasy and culinary?

I think the answer is that people tend to think that the only thing making up a good dining experience is the food being served. But this neglects the fact that eating is an experience, and that when we remember our favorite food (and so think that this dish can be made for us many times and still have the same transcendental effect each time), we are really remembering a whole host of factors, many of which cannot are very difficulty, if not impossible to duplicate.

We already know that we like things more the hungrier we are, but there are other more subtle ways that the environment gets into our taste buds. For example, this study shows that the type of music being played influences the way we report the tastes of a wine. Heavier music = heavier taste, etc. I think part of these studies might be due to the fact that we really have no idea what wine tastes like (maybe some experts due, with their vocabularies of fruity, nutty, gingery, tobacco-ey, whatever), but the point I think is still right, which is that many things influence a meal. For example, I really like a burrito place in Dallas. It’s really good, and at one time, I thought these burritos were transcendentally good — that they could singlehandedly make a bad day right. I don’t think that anymore, but when chewing on a bite from this restaurant, I can taste the nostalgia. Their burritos remind me of home, of Dallas, and they are special to me for that reason.

So next time you feel tempted to take someone to a place that serves THE BEST X Y or Z, remember that great dining experiences perhaps have to be chanced upon after creating the right circumstances rather than ordered like an entree.


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