In Bad Taste
It’s Tuesday, loyalty card double-stamp night at my neighborhood sushi place in Oakland. It’s the kind of spot where the sweaty owner in a headband and his kid assistant slur “irasshaimase!”—welcome!—in tandem when you push open the chime-tinkling door, no matter how harried they look. It’s a place that gives customers what they want: inside-out dragon rolls, seven-dollar glasses of Chardonnay poured nearly to the rim, the NBA on a TV cantilevered high in the corner, and pale, shaggy-battered shrimp tempura as meaty as a kitten’s flexed hind legs.
At the next table, beneath a Mondrian wall grid of squares and rectangles filled with primary colors (cool in the ’90s, washed out now), two women are most of the way through a dinner that has sprawled across several plates. One is talking about her daughter’s skeevy boyfriend. She clutches her phone, which is scrolled to an Instagram pic that busts him with another woman, I guess, and turns it to show her companion, who makes an O-mouth gesture of shock.
Her friend has the last piece of salmon nigiri clenched between slivery, pale wood chopsticks and is dangling it above a sauce dish, which, though shallow, shows a hefty volume of soy sauce cloudy with wasabi. I watch as the friend, focused on dispensing sympathetic outrage, lowers the rice end of her nigiri into the slurry, swabs the dish with it, rotates her wrist so the salmon tile faces down (its free ends, the parts ungripped by chopsticks, flop lazily sauceward), and gives it even more swipes through the soy mixture. The thing she raises to her mouth appears soaked, like a shore bird after an oil spill. She chews and goes right on talking, looking unaware that she has just done something heinous, violating the integrity of a small, rectangular piece of orange-pink flesh striped with dental-tape strands of connective tissue. The former food critic in me winces. This is a crime against taste.
Crimes against taste aren’t prosecutable, of course, but they are clear offenses. By drowning a nice, fresh hunk of raw salmon in soy-wasabi slurry, my table neighbor was guilty of a kind of murder. She’d killed whatever subtlety was in that fish (the faint tang of raw flesh and the mineral richness of fat). Did she even know what she obliterated in that toxic wash of salt and heat? (And for sure, in a modest sushi place like this, there wasn’t a speck of wasabi rhizome in her pea-green paste—only tinted mustard-seed powder. It’s cheaper than real wasabi, hotter, and, for the thing being dipped, an even deadlier poison for ruining flavor.)
But who can say what’s “better”? Do crimes against food need to be policed? Who plays cop? And should anyone, even a professional restaurant critic, dictate the terms of another’s pleasure? Yelp and Instagram have remade food into a realm of boundless relativism, where extracting a thread of universal, objective truth about what’s delicious and what’s gross can be as hard as piercing an algorithm’s code—unless “universal” and “objective” are themselves the problem.
There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture.
Some days my Instagram serves up a scroll of atrocities: cake-topped #freakshakes, Bloody Marys bristling with bacon swizzles and sliders on skewers, Luther Burgers with glazed doughnuts stunting for the bun, brownie-batter “hummus,” glitter-scurfed pink-and-blue unicorn Frappuccinos, and activated charcoal soft-serve so black and glossy it resembles roof-patch polymer. Social media is a major enabler of crimes against taste (their visual representations anyway; see the new popularity of “dark cuisine,” or hei an liao li—fantastical, thrillingly transgressive dishes trending on Chinese social media), but it is, after all, only food porn.
Let’s pause to consider the definition of “crime,” or at least to say what it is not. There are plenty of dishes that appear brutal, bizarre, or disgusting through the lens of culture. My introduction to Filipino food was the murky bowl of dinuguan (a stew of mixed pork innards in a sauce of vinegar and blood) my future mother-in-law served me for breakfast one morning nearly 30 years ago. As I slurped politely, I gazed longingly at the box of Cheerios on top of the fridge. If I’d stopped there, rejected a cuisine I didn’t understand and that seemed intent on assault (especially so early in the morning), my brush with the food of the Philippines might have gone down in dinner-party stories as a tale of staring down evil in a bowl and living to talk about it, or at least of shuddering in the face of grossness. Thanks to love for my husband-to-be, I suppose, I persisted. I came to see beauty in a bowl of blood and offal stew—the way a handful of economical cuts from a butcher’s market stall can transcend utility, honor an animal gone to slaughter by elevating its twistiest parts, and express an immigrant’s longing for a place on the other side of the world. A dish that looks, smells, and tastes like a crime can merely be misunderstood, evidence of an accusing prosecutor’s failure at grasping meaning or context.
“What’s often good to you or not good to you is irrelevant,” the late Los Angeles Times food critic Jonathan Gold told USC students in 2015, “because that’s often letting your cultural preconceptions come into play.” Gold was speaking about the proper role for restaurant critics, usually the loudest umpires who determine what food rises to the status of delicious, and what belongs in the criminal underworld.
This was a subject that Gold would return to, time and again, over his decades-long career. Once, to students, Gold described his first taste of stinky tofu at a Taiwanese restaurant in L.A. “You bite into it,” he said, “and it’s like, you know—it’s an overflowing dumpster on a hot August day.” Instead of merely blasting it as gross, Gold went back to the dish 17 times to understand what was good about it, the thing aficionados prize.
Often what we blast as crimes of taste are the objects of socioeconomic shaming.
Context is king in interpreting food. “You’ve got to break on through,” Gold said. “There are French cheeses that, if you accidentally stepped on them in the street you would spend a half hour trying to scrub off your shoe, but yet when you eat them in the proper context … it’s just completely delicious.” Yet context can sometimes elude even the smartest, most catholic, and experienced of eaters. Gold himself wasn’t shy about accusing San Francisco’s famed, hefty Mission burritos as crimes against good taste. “Monstrous things,” he called them, “filled with what would seem to be the entire contents of an entire margarita-mill dinner.” (Gold preferred what he described as the “spare, minimal, slightly crisp burrito from East Los Angeles.”)
The context of that enormous, heavily stuffed Mission burrito, though, is the agricultural fields of northern and central California, where it served as portable all-day fuel for farm workers. That it adapted remarkably well to the price and calorie needs of stoned, post-college, rent-scrounging video-store clerks in perennially expensive San Francisco is no fault of the Mission burrito.
Often what we blast as crimes of taste are the objects of socioeconomic shaming: forearm-sized burritos for the broke or thrifty, sure, but also the foods we imagine on the tables of the culturally unsophisticated, whether from our own time or not—like the hideous fancy dishes from Anna Pallai’s 2016 photo book 70s Dinner Party (or on her Twitter account of the same name, with its more than 114,000 followers). Garishly food-styled heads of hollowed-out iceberg packed with pimiento cheese, or baked beans in aspic, bolster our own superior sense of ourselves. Like the Instagram freakshake, they are fantasy transgressions against which we define our superior awesomeness.
Policing taste crimes has become a subset of call-out culture, a kind of oppression. The late Anthony Bourdain often blasted people who ate atrocious things for their moral failings. In 2016, in a seven-point list of food crimes that included truffle oil (“it’s not food … it’s lube”), brioche burger buns, and Chicken Caesars, Bourdain suggested that the real perpetrators of crimes against food aren’t chefs but diners, the people too ignorant, disrespectful, or vain to notice that what they’re eating is shit. “Your sushi chef loses all respect for you,” he tells anyone who’d drown nigiri sushi rice side first in soy and wasabi. “You may as well spit in his face. Seven years learning rice and you just shat in it.” He suggested that any guy who’d order meatballs or burgers misleadingly labeled Kobe on a menu has masculinity issues. (“All I can say is I’m truly sorry about your penis.”)
“Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”
For Bourdain, the really unforgivable food crimes weren’t honest sins of inexperience but vices of arrogance, by people too slavish to status or fashion to trust their senses to really taste. Rage against arrogance surges through the best-known pan in restaurant-reviewing history, New York Times critic Pete Wells’s 2012 takedown of Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen and Bar in Times Square. This is a searing piece of rhetoric, each sentence (except the last) posed as a question, as if Fieri were on trial for taste crimes, an indictment with a hundred separate counts. Wells is a prosecutor on fire. He grills Fieri with “Were you struck by how very far from awesome the Awesome Pretzel Chicken Tenders are?” And “Hey, did you try that blue drink, the one that glows like nuclear waste? The watermelon margarita? Any idea why it tastes like some combination of radiator fluid and formaldehyde?”
When it published, Wells faced his own critics: Unless he had a personal beef with Fieri, why would an egghead critic jump the tracks to pan a tourist hole? Would anyone likely to eat at Guy’s even care how a critic more at home at the omakase counter really felt about the Cajun Chicken Alfredo? Wells looked cynical, making easy jokes at the expense of the popular TV chef with the flame highlights and a reverse raccoon-mask spray tan. “It had all the appearances of Pete shooting fish in a barrel, lording it over people,” says Brett Martin, a writer and food critic for GQ. “In reality Pete’s anger was that the cynical one was Fieri; that he was being the disrespectful one.” Navigating anger and cynicism isn’t always easy.
Chris Ying is a San Francisco writer, cofounder of the defunct magazine Lucky Peach, and editor most recently of the 2018 book You and I Eat the Same: On the Countless Ways Food and Cooking Connect Us to One Another. He’s one of the most reflective, least incendiary food writers I know, yet even Ying finds himself getting pissed at watching someone at a restaurant disrespecting a perfectly nice piece of hamachi.
“I’m much harsher when it comes to other people’s taste,” Ying tells me. “Garlic fries are disgusting. I have trouble sitting next to people at a sushi bar, judging everything they’re doing. I’m angry about it. Upset! Drowning their fish in soy and wasabi!” Food writers like Ying see a purpose in describing what’s delicious as a form of bringing up the culture, of breaking down fears and prejudices, as Gold and Bourdain tried to do, about so-called other people’s food (my first bowl of dinuguan, for instance, before it became mine through marriage). Learning how to eat adventurously is a discipline. Being able to separate the crimes from the merely unfamiliar takes time. Also practice.
For Bourdain, the really unforgivable food crimes weren’t honest sins of inexperience but vices of arrogance.
“It’s this sense that the knowledge of the quote-unquote right way to eat something is a hard-won thing,” explains Ying, still theoretically watching somebody drowning their sushi. “I’ve had to pay for my sophistication, whether through experience or money, and the other person hasn’t and they’re still sitting next to me.” This makes him, Ying admits, something of an asshole. “I also feel like a privileged elitist shithead,” he says, “watching you at the sushi bar, shaming you about it.”
Of course, shaming can have a political agenda. In February 2017, a reporter, acting on a tip that the freshly sworn-in president was headed to BLT Prime by David Burke, a steakhouse in Washington’s Trump International Hotel, camped out at a table there. Sure enough, POTUS arrived and headed to table 76, planked in by Secret Service guys and, beyond them, regular folk gawking. A waiter (who requested anonymity to the Independent Journal Review) described what Donald Trump ate that night. “The President ordered a well-done steak,” the unnamed server reported. “An aged New York strip. He ate it with catsup as he always does.” This was a double crime against taste, to ask for beef beyond the point at which it holds its sapid juices (in the language of the ordering guide on BLT Prime’s menu, “no pink, hot center”) and then drag the taut, gray slices through ketchup (calling the condiment “catsup,” as the server allegedly did, couldn’t make it seem any less of an atrocity).
The cynic in me says Trump’s tastes are manufactured to seem populist, to resonate with some imagined white working-class voter.
The nation’s food writers shook their heads. “For real, Mr. President?” asked Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema. In a piece titled “Actually, How Donald Trump Eats His Steak Matters,” Eater’s Helen Rosner identified a failure of character in the president’s always liking meat well done and dunked. “A person who refuses to try something better,” she explained, “is a person who will never make things good.” Months later, David Burke himself, a high-profile chef with nine currently operating restaurants scattered up and down Washington and the Northeast, told Eater that while the president does like well-cooked steak, the catsup on table 76 that night was probably for Trump’s fries, but by then it was too late to cry fake news and expect anyone to believe you: members of the food-crimes inquiry had long since voted to impeach. A Public Policy Polling survey of registered voters found even some wearers of MAGA hats among the 56 percent who disapproved of ketchup on a steak.
The cynic in me says Trump’s tastes are manufactured to seem populist, to resonate with some imagined white working-class voter whose idea of a big night out is to order a steak and slather it with something, like ketchup, that’s familiar and delicious and unequivocally American. Ultimately, though, as I watch the woman next to me at the sushi bar enjoying the afterglow of an egregious crime, I find myself envying her. She seems unself-conscious, even happy. “There’s this grade-school saying,” Martin says. “ ‘Don’t yuck somebody’s yum.’ It’s not my job to take away something that somebody else is enjoying. Then again, it’s not my job to pretend I enjoy it.”
Adds Ying: “My day-to-day experience living and consuming food and culture is a constant lesson in humility.”