Sunday, June 18, 2006

I love you so bad

In his spanking fresh music blog, my brother has been talking about bad music. He is more interested in how particular kinds of music come to be deemed bad than in identifying badness as an intrinsic aesthetic value. He actually likes bad music, or at least some kinds of it.

In the comments to his post there is some discussion of the inadequacy of "bad" to describe the various products to which it is attached:
it includes "guilty pleasure" type music (like rock musicals), well-made but trite music like Kenny G, underdog commercial music, and just plain weird stuff of different stripes. I do, however, like the use of "bad" in journal titles like "bad subjects," which suggests uncooperative, mischievous, or subversively anomalous. Do you think there is a way to retain the term "bad" if these connotations are stressed?
I am especially intrigued by the first two categories in this taxonomy, the guilty pleasure and the good-but-bad. These seem like the mirror image of each other and both suggest to me parallels to bad food. Bad food, much of which I do love, can be bad in various ways, some of which don't really have a musical equivalent. Bad food can taste bad because it's badly prepared; it can be made of bad ingredients like margarine or saccharine; it can have bad cultural connotations, e.g., "white trash" food like pork rinds; and it can be bad for your health according to the prevailing wisdom of the day. I'm most interested in those subcategories of bad that are partial or ambivalent, like the guilty pleasure, because these seem especially revealing of contradictions in contemporary thinking about food and culture.

1. The guilty pleasure is something that we admit to liking despite a collective negative judgment of it. For the guilty pleasure to "work" as bad, the person who likes it has to buy into the cultural consensus of its badness. Thus the guilty pleasure is always a product of hierarchies of taste. Guilty pleasures are things you both like and dislike. This reminds me, the other day I was shopping for greeting cards and you know how they come in the various categories like "birthday" and "father's day from dog"? There were some cards there in the category of "almost funny." Guilty pleasures are almost pleasures. But they may also be intense pleasures because of the subversive element, the charge one gets from defying the taste consensus.

Guilty food pleasures are problematic because as taste democratizes, more and more foods shift from the bad to the good column. In the 1970s, Calvin Trillin's stories about eating squirrel in rural Ohio while trying his best to avoid the official good food of the day, the revolving restaurants that he dubs "Maison de la Casa House," was part of a large-scale inversion of the traditional hierarchy. It becomes hard to find pleasures to feel guilty about when barbecue and hamburgers and chili are recognized as national treasures, but I suppose today's reigning ideology of fresh-local-organic-sustainable-slow food makes eating at fast food restaurants and more upscale corporate chains like P.F. Chang's into a guilty pleasure for some. You know you should eat someplace local, someplace with real rather than focus-group food, someplace with a chef rather than a "kitchen manager," someplace with a soul. But like Hollywood movies, corporate American food can be so...good. Foodie culture seems to make membership contingent on the denial of this, which is why the Bruni fast-food-a-thon was such fresh air.

(I haven't seen it but I'm sure that some of the appeal of Super Size Me is that most people, even indie documentary audience type people, really do like McDonald's. They judge it, condemn it, despise it even, and still they want it.)

Related perhaps: the so bad it's good notion familiar to all hipsters. I have a strong negative opinion of this cynical posture. If it's that bad it's can't be good, and if it's really good it can't be that bad.

2. The good but trite is an interesting one that I hadn't thought about quite in that way. My brother is saying that Kenny G is good in the sense of technically skilled, but bad in the sense of having low aesthetic value within a community of connoisseurs. Important distinction from #1: if you think something is bad because trite then it's hard to like it, whereas with the guilty pleasure you recognize that by liking something you are defying the taste consensus that you are supposed to buy into, and this is intrinsic to the pleasure.

Good but trite food might be what you find in expensive restaurants that are more interested in wooing an affluent clientele than producing fantastic food. Every decent-sized town probably has too many of these places. They serve dishes like filet mignon encrusted with gorgonzola, grilled salmon, and créme brûlée. The more ambitious ones might include some trendy items like raw seafood and short ribs. While the chefs are well-trained, the ingredients are of good quality, and the food comes out the way you order it, the cooking is overly fussy and depressingly unoriginal. Typically the prices are 30% too high, but sometimes it's more like 100%. These restaurants are the Maison de la Casa Houses of our time.

I would almost always prefer to eat at P.F. Chang's than at one of these places and not just because P.F. Chang's is cheaper. It's because I don't like the context of affluence, the aspiration to tastefulness, the eagerness to impress, the parade of "quality" that this kind of fancy restaurant represents. Sure the upscale casual places have some of all that too, but it's offered up in a context of populist, democratic American culture. (I don't know, maybe I'm giving PFC too much credit as an alibi for my hankering for some kung pao shrimp.)

As for the just plain weird stuff of different stripes, who doesn't love that?


Blogger the sad billionaire said...

Hey Haverchuk, thanks for mentioning the new blog! I was secretly hoping you might take up this meme, and I think this is a rollicking good discussion of "bad" food!

A couple of questions.

1. One appealing to your cooking expertise: When I cook for friends, I become aware of how eccentric my own taste-profile preferences are. Do you? Or does one reach a point of confidence anticipating what an "average" palette will desire? In music, I feel like I know what a plesant sound that will make an "average" listener happy is, and I make choices to respect or transgress this knowledge according to my creative whims. But in cooking, I feel like my sense of taste is my only guide... I can barely imagine a different set of tastebuds.

To me, certain kinds of garlic overkill or spice combos are necessary for dishes to taste right, but perhaps my guests find this appalling? Especially in this age of taste vs. health cost-benefit analysis, it is hard to tell! To some, saltiness and fat might be in and of themselves "un-tasty" because they promise imminent death... but does their absence in bland and unsatisfying healthy recipes signify "tastiness" for these people? Or have they just made peace with the fact that eating food will always sort of suck, the way friends who keep kosher occasionally acknowledge? In this way we might have an analogy with music like Marchbox 20 or Maroon 5. I can only imagine that having decided certain aspects of other music are too overwhelming to deal with (e.g. too loud, too dissonant, too political, too intellectual, too dumb, too hard to buy, too long, too short, etc.) fans of these bands just settle on this music as some sort of default entertainment... which unfortunately feeds the perception that this music is what people want, rather than what is left over when everything really pleasurable has been ruled out.

2. Just as certain friends sing or play instruments in a technically incorrect or formally bizarre way, but for that reason you might love their music even more, do you have any experiences eating other people's food that is tasty precisely because it is so wrong-- odd or unconventional?

Finally, what do you make of food like the Cheesecake Factory in light of this discussion? Commercial bad/good taste engineering like "Since U Been Gone" or trite like Kenny G? (BTW, Kenny G is famous for bragging in interviews that he is a better, more in-tune, technically proficient sax player than the greats like Charlie Parker and Sonny Rollins... which of course annoys jazzers like crazy. What G seems to miss, of course, is that nobody cares about the technical issues he values-- if anything the cleanness of his sound is what makes it so painful to most of us. Is there a food equivalent of this-- a priveleging of precision and technique that actually starts making food taste worse?)

O man, now I am hankering for some mall food-court orange chicken balls...

1:25 AM  
Blogger Pyewacket said...

Here's my story about good-bad: A few years ago, my boyfriend and I were driving up to Northern Maine. There's not a lot to choose from along the road, and we really wanted to get the six hour drive over with as soon as possible, so we decided to stop at a roadside Burger King. Neither of us ever eat at fast food restaurants, so we were kind of excited, in that good-bad way. We were going to be naughty and eat something that was terrible for us, but soooo good. So we went in and got our burgers and sat down and ate a few bites, and then we looked at each other. Finally I said it, "This tastes like crap." It really did, it was like a punishment.

Now, that's not to say that all guilty pleasures actually taste like crap to me. I still have occasional yearnings for yellow Hostess cupcakes (the snack of my childhood), Nutter Butters, and Doritos Cool Ranch tortilla chips. But generally, I find that the longer I am away from a good-bad, guilty pleasure food, the less it lives up to my expectations. I haven't had a Cool Rnach Dorito in years, and I suspect that I wouldn't like them very much if I did. Lends credence to the idea that the subveriveness is a big part of the appeal.

Here's an exception, the trash-food of my dreams: Pineapple Delight. This is mini-marshmallows, soaked overnight in a can of crushed pineapple, with plain unsweetened whipped cream folded in at the end. This was my favorite dessert through most of my childhood. Apparently there's a version in which pistachio pudding mix is added and nuts. Blasphemy. The whole point of Pineapple Delight is its purity - sweetness, creaminess, tanginess, softness. I made this once a few years ago on a lark and was amazed to find I still loved it. Some day I'm going to work out a dessert that doesn't contain mini-marshmallows that achieves the same cream-pineapple-sweetness balance.

10:20 AM  
Blogger mzn said...

I believe that the grilled boneless, skinless chicken breast is the culinary Maroon 5. Vegetarians aside, everyone can agree that it is edible but that's the best thing to be said for it.

I can't imagine having different taste buds but I also know that an individual's taste changes, which is what pyewacket is getting at in describing revisiting the crap foods of youth. Once I loved fast food but now I think most of it is dreck. I do appreciate some things as guilty pleasures, though. Also, one's tolerance of (spicy) hot food is definitely a matter of experience and habit. I remember the first time I tasted a drop of Tabasco sauce straight when I was 13. I thought I would never recover. And familiarity/unfamiliarity is also really important. If you have never tasted a fresh strawberry in season then the big stiff midwinter ones might seem good, but once you've had the real thing there is no going back.

I always adapt cooking to the intended eaters. I cook for one differently than I cook for two or three and when people are coming over we always think about what to have in relation to who is coming. Mostly this is a matter of dealing with dietary restrictions--vegetarians, kosher folks--but it's also a matter of taste. This is how most people think about serving food. It's like language, changing according to the speaker's environment. But I actually think that you should serve guests food you really love. When I eat at someone else's place I would rather be served their favorite dishes than something they think I am going to like.

I don't know if there is a culinary equivalent to Kenny G's sound. If there is it's the tasteful unoriginality I was talking about in #2. But I don't know that the chef world has the same investment is denying the quality of certain chefs or styles as the jazz world has in putting down the likes of Kenny. I suppose that if there is anything the chefs might denegrate it's home cooking but most are more respectful than that. An exception: some PBS cooking show I saw a few years ago in which the chef condemned the standard triangular plating of protein-starch-veg as boring, then proceeded to plate things vertically as a big cylindrical tower. I'll take boring over ostentatious any day.

I intended P.F. Chang's to stand for places like The Cheesecake Factory too because in our town, the only branches of these chains are in the same mall. I actually think of PFC as the Asian Cheesecake Factory.

Pyewacket: Pineapple Delight sounds pretty great.

3:50 PM  

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