Posted by: terrapraeta | January 13, 2008

Taste Test

Is it worth the waiting for?
If we live ’til eighty four All we ever get is gru…el!
Ev’ry day we say our prayer — Will they change the bill of fare?
Still we get the same old gru…el!
There is not a cust, not a crumb can we find,
Can we beg, can we borrow, or cadge,
But there’s nothing to stop us from getting a thrill
When we all close our eyes and imag…ine

Oliver Soundtrack, Food, Glorious Food

While surfing, yesterday, I ran across a video that I found rather interesting. It is a presentation given by Malcolm Gladwell at the TEDTalks Conference in early 2004. Its about spaghetti sauce. No, really, I’m not kidding, it is about spaghetti sauce. Of course, if you are a fan of Gladwell, as I am, you immediately realize that for all its saucy-ness, it also has a much more insightful purpose.

I first discovered Gladwell, pretty late in the game, when I read The Tipping Point back in 2004. I was attending a conference of my own and this was one of the display books for participants. I picked it up Friday night, completed it on Sunday and managed to participate in all of the conference events. It became a running joke to ask if I was done with the book yet. When I started saying ‘yes,’ I think I shocked a few people. But it was that intriguing to me. Then I picked up Blink a few months later and absorbed that one through pure osmosis.

See, Malcolm Gladwell takes social science and interprets it for the masses. While I am not intimidated by the hard core stuff, many people are. And even I find that I often don’t have the time to wade through jargon, reference notes and obscure tangents. (and sometimes, I suspect, intentional obfuscation!) So when I read his books and find them useful, and then realize that they are best sellers, I am inspired by what that implies.

So, I assume by now that you have viewed the video (if you have any intention of doing so) , and I can discuss what I found so interesting in his presentation. Gladwell introduces us to a gentleman by the name of Howard Moscowitz, a psycho-physicist, who spent his career working with the food industry. His contribution to the food industry was a complete re-evaluation of what people want. You see, Howard suggested that there was no ‘perfect flavor, perfect recipe, platonic standard’ for foods. Rather, if the food industry honestly wanted to provide better products then what they needed to do was provide greater diversity of products.

Now, you know me well enough by now to realize that I like diversity. Especially when the idea of diversity is introduced and perceived as a good thing, as something we want more of, in our daily lives. I think we have lived in a culture that has thrived on stereotypes and one-size fits all assumptions for far too long, and anything that affects that status quo is potentially useful. But that’s not all! Following on the spaghetti sauce revolution, Grey Poupon stepped into the market with their gourmet, dijon style fancy shmancy, super overpriced mustard, and excelled:

…and everyone’s take home lesson from that was that […] the way to make people happy is to give them something that is more expensive, something to aspire to, right? is to make them turn their back on what they […]think they like now, and reach out for something higher up the mustard hierarchy, a better mustard, a more expensive mustard, a mustard of more sophistication and culture[…] and Howard looked at that and said ‘That’s wrong! Mustard does not exist on a hierarchy. Mustard exists, just like tomato sauce, on a horizontal plane. There is no good mustard or bad mustard, there is no perfect mustard or imperfect mustard. There are only different kinds of mustard that suit different kinds of people. He fundamentally democratized the way we think about taste.

So we find not only diversity as a philosophical ‘good’, but also egalitarianism as a philosophical ‘good.’ Granted, we’re talking about food and taste,and certainly many people still think of food and taste in a hierarchal context: a lobster dinner is fundamentally better than a slice or a street hot dog vendor, right? But, maybe not so much. Its become sort of trendy to explore the more gauche aspects of culture with equal fervor as that expended on the ‘finer things.’ Does that have anything to do with this subtle change of philosophy in the food industry? I don’t know, but I suspect it does.

What I really want to know, however, is how many ‘little things’ like this it will/would take to reach a tipping point where diversity and egalitarianism become assumed good rather than circumstantially good? I hope I see that day.

(Originally Posted October 17, 2006) 


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