The functional equivalent of eating through a tube.

15 08 2011

A new option has arisen, called online learning portals, that might make college superfluous. For example, a company like Learning Counts allows students to create portfolios that document their knowledge and skills. College professors examine the portfolios and certify what the students know and what they can do. This can, of course, lead to college credits. But it can also lead to a classic “cutting out the middle man” phenomenon: students bypassing college and taking the certifications directly to prospective employers. After all, in a real sense a college education is merely a means to an end, and if a better means turns up … well, you get the picture.

– Bob Roper, “Online learning tests campuses,” Columbia (Missouri) Daily Tribune, July 31, 2011.

Wow. When I wrote about education as a means to an end I never expected to read someone taking that so literally! Where’s the joy in an online learning portal? Now remember this quote, while I continue this post by discussing a completely different subject…

While I haven’t noted it lately, I may be the only vegetarian in the world who’s an Anthony Bourdain fanatic. No Reservations is pretty much the only thing I watch regularly on TV these days (at least until Fringe comes back) because I desperately want to travel more and because I can treat all the meat-eating on the show as a cultural/historical learning experience.

This is a clip from a recent show where Tony visited the legendary Spanish restaurant El Bulli before it closed:

If you watch to about four minutes in, you’ll see the part where Bourdain notes that the chef, Ferran Adria, really enjoys himself while eating. “I love that you’re having so much fun at your own restaurant,” Tony notes. Apparently, Adria used to eat the ever-changing, 52-course menu each week in order to make sure that the diners enjoyed it as much as he did. This seems like a no-brainer to me since customers were undoubtedly paying big bucks to eat there, but apparently it’s rather novel in the restaurant world.

Like an expensive dining experience, higher education ought to be infused with a lot of customer service and at least a little bit of joy. Learning is not just something we do to get a job. It’s supposed to be fun. You might not like all of the 52 courses you get served during your expensive college banquet, but ideally both the chef and the diner should enjoy the experience.

I’m not a big fan of the student as customer model, but if technology destroys the authority of professors in the classroom to look out for educational matters, perhaps it is appropriate to ask why students should settle for compromises when getting an education that nobody would ever accept while eating out. If you went to a restaurant that cooked your meal in one gigantic pot a thousand miles away, you’d send it back. If they gave you warmed-over versions of last year’s meals, you’d send it back. If they handed you a clicker and said “Press ‘A’ if you want more pepper,” you’d leave the restaurant immediately.

Perhaps you don’t like black truffles. Suppose McDonald’s is your kind of place. That’s fine if it makes you happy. Food is a means to an end too (that end being not starving), but think of all the wonderful dining experiences you’d be missing! If you don’t care about the taste and texture and smell of your food, you might as well get all your nutrients through a tube.

I bet getting your nutrients through a tube would be much cheaper than actually eating if the packets hooked up to the other end of those tubes from your arm were mass-produced. Think of the time that would save! No more trouble finding a place to park! No more sitting around chatting with your friends while they cook your dinner in the kitchen! [Making someone’s meal to order is so inefficient.] No more need to tip the waitstaff to bring your food around! No more need to cook at home will leave plenty of extra time for watching TV! [I could watch even more Bourdain!]

If we’re really, really lucky, maybe someday they’ll figure out a way for us to get all our nutrients over the Internet. Happy happy, joy joy.


I can live without the New York Times.

17 03 2011

I used to think that I couldn’t live without watching the CBS Evening News every night. I haven’t watched the CBS Evening News since 1996.

I used to think that I couldn’t live without meat. I’ve been a vegetarian since 2007.

I used to think that I couldn’t live without paying $60/month for Internet through a cable modem from the worst company in the world. I’ve been getting great coverage from the mobile hotspot on my wife’s phone since January.

I used to think I couldn’t visit (let alone live) in any country where the primary language wasn’t English. Worst mistake of my life. Didn’t fix it until my late Thirties.

I used to think I couldn’t live without the New York Times. I actually paid for it the last time they put up a paywall. I’m not going to make that mistake again. This paywall is weak enough so that I won’t even have to go cold turkey. Perhaps I’ll go back to reading their paper regularly again when this paywall inevitably fails, or perhaps by then I’ll no longer care.

Culinary context and the history of taste.

10 10 2010

This weekend, both Randall and Ralph have linked to Mark Smith’s essay in the Psychologist on the history of the senses. While it’s certainly worth a read, the piece has almost nothing on my favorite sense (at least in historical terms): taste. Luckily, my friends Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick covered that ground very well in a JAH Forum on the history of the senses (subs. req.) two years ago. Reading that piece again after reading Smith and having taught food history for a couple of semesters now, I see it’s both a good review of the literature and an interesting discussion of the obstacles in recreating how food used to taste. I also realized that I’ve become something of a taste history nihilist.

Here’s Fitzgerald and Petrick towards the end of their essay:

“Just as M. F. K. Fisher could invite readers to taste the perfect spring pea through her writing, historians can also convey a sense of past flavors. As historians, we can adopt some of the stylistic elements food writers employ as well as learn to read and interpret a variety of documents with our sense of taste. Cooking and eating these foods and then writing about their flavors can enhance our understanding of previous generations.”

It’s not as if I object to that advice. I’m just not sure it’s really going to work. First, there’s the problem of breeds. Assuming you can get an heirloom vegetable, there’s no guarantee that it will taste the same as did in its heyday. Then there’s the problem of terroir. Nothing is going to taste exactly alike unless its grown under the same conditions. Of course, everyone who’s bothered to think about the history of food knows this.

Smith assumes that every food historians knows this too:

[S]ensory histories, written by a variety of historians in multiple subfields, tend (quite rightly) to stress the preeminent importance of context for fathoming the role a particular sense played in shaping the meaning of the world for contemporaries. Most sensory historians do not assume that what smelled foul to a medieval English nose is the same thing as what modern English noses would deem stinky. Sensory historians correctly understand that the definition and meaning of what was sound and what was noise, what was stench-ridden and what was perfumed, what functioned as permissible forms of touch and what didn’t, and what certain foods tasted ‘like’ is and was highly contingent on who was doing the sniffing, tasting, touching and listening, the various technologies underwriting the meaning attached to sensory evaluations, and the particular political, economic and social contexts that shaped what the senses meant.

Certainly, unless we have a job at the Food Network, historians of food aren’t just interested in food for food’s sake. This subject should be interesting to historians of all stripes as a vehicle for getting at larger social and cultural questions. I can’t remember who said this first but it’s something of a truism now to see that human beings spend so much time acquiring, preparing and eating food that it’s really strange that historians haven’t spent more time on the subject until now.

But what about the effect of culinary context on the history of taste? Obviously, your second beer will not be as yummy as your first beer because you will be partially impaired. I think that applies to chicken too. I had already given up beef when I became a vegetarian. It was a family decision that came at the end of a vacation in Maine. We had all had chicken at nearly every lunch or dinner for a span of two weeks and it suddenly dawned on me that it had become tasteless and bland. What’s worse, I realized that it was probably tasteless and bland already! On the other hand, the proverbial immediate beneficiary of Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot” policies would have had a totally different reaction to the same chicken. I don’t think I can ever unring that bell and ever go back to a time when chicken would be new to me again (but the fake chicken for vegetarians is definitely the best of all the faux meats currently on the American market).

The funniest thing about teaching the history of food is listening to students try to explain why they like some things and not others. They always try to rationalize it some way or another, but it increasingly strikes me that we like what we eat because we eat it regularly and we don’t like what we don’t like because we don’t. It didn’t take much training for me to like mushrooms after I became a vegetarian, even though I used to claim I hated them before. It’s the mozzarella and basil on those Italian sandwiches that got me over the hump. My daughter couldn’t stand shrimp until we started cooking it in batter for her. Now she’ll eat them plain gladly, and not just because we make her. On the other hand, I have a colleague from Maine who hates seafood. The explanation for that has to be too much of the stuff while growing up.

Context really is key for understanding the history of so many things. I’m simply afraid that when considering the history of taste, that context can’t really be reconstructed.

The most bizarre “Bizarre Foods” that I’ve ever seen.

9 05 2010

What I always find funny about watching “Bizarre Foods” is that most of what Andrew Zimmern eats isn’t all that bizarre. Seriously, if you’re going to eat meat, why is the pig’s butt acceptable but the intestines somehow disgusting?

In Cambodia, however, just about all of what he ate was truly bizarre:

You can find the whole episode on YouTube in pieces if you are so inclined.

Their food is better than our food.

10 08 2009

Tristero, in a long post at Hullabaloo which is well worth reading, explains my philosophy of food in a nutshell:

Americans have been trained since birth to eat cruddy-tasting food and think it tastes great. It’s not that burgers taste bad: they don’t, they can taste great. It’s rather that the burgers – and the fries, and the shakes, and so on – made available to the typical American taste awful, with fake flavors that pretend to taste good. But once you have, say, really great chocolate – and, hard as it is to believe, few of us have – you’ll never, ever go back to the fake or adulterated stuff currently marketed as “chocolate.” Other foods are harder to taste than chocolate, of course, but the principle’s the same.

For me it was pork. When we lived in Romania, every ounce of pork we bought was pure white, lean and juicy and totally unlike any other piece of pork I had ever had at home. At first I thought it was just a different cut than what I was used to, but then I realized it’s more like an entirely animal. Their pigs are fed better feed and kept leaner. As Romania is a pig and chicken country (to quote my old landlord), it’s all local and fresh too.

I tried the best pork at Whole Foods when I came back just to see if it captured the same taste, but even that couldn’t. Having better meat helps explain why I became a vegetarian about a year and a half when I came back to the states. Once you had the good stuff, it’s impossible to go back. Nevertheless, if I ever make it back to Romania again, I’ll seriously have to consider backsliding.

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