Sunday, June 9, 2013

A review review

I'd like to talk for a few moments about food. Unfortunately, I inevitably talk about it for more than a few moments and then I run to the kitchen to break my diet and eat things like chocolate cookies wrapped in deli meats. It is one of my many weaknesses -- I like to eat. I have other weaknesses but let us not go too far afield right now. I like food.

One of my challenges when it comes to food is my insistence, repeatedly, that I am on a diet. I actually am on a diet if we define diet simply as the sum of the food consumed by an organism or group, marked by specific selection (based on the wiki material that appears in the google search). If we define diet as something even more broad like "whatever you got" then I am even more so on a diet. My diet may be religions (I eat kosher foods, so I am on a "kosher diet") and it may be a weight-loss diet: I select foods which will contribute to the illusion that I am trying to lose weight. So with that limitation in mind, eating is sometimes a challenge. Mix in my reluctance to go places and spend money, and I become a tortured gourmand. So, in order to satisfy my craving for food while not overstepping my tendency to sit at home and do nothing, I like to read restaurant reviews. To me, they are the spoilers of the industry, though that is an unfortunate word for a description of food -- I get the sense that I had the meal without having to leave the house, pack on the pounds or spend money and have the meal. Crazy, but it works.

Here's the thing, though: I live in Bergen County, USA. When I do want to eat, I have to eat at the restaurants around here. Even if I read reviews from experts and lay people, and know from my own experiences what the food around here is like, I still feel like I am missing something. I just don't know of the food that I prefer (with a million restaurants here, I tend to go to the same 3 an order the same thing at each every time. I'll explain with a specific. For some reason, I find that the local kosher Chinese food restaurant makes the best crunch chicken wings. Ever. Maybe. Note, I am not getting any remuneration for that link. I just really like the wings. I recall, though, that I once had really good wings at a kosher Chinese place outside of Philadelphia [the Dragon Inn, maybe?] So my question isn't "would you please review the Chinese food which is within 2 miles of my house and tell me about the food which I have been eating for 15 years" or eve "would you please review a Kosher Chinese place I will never get to go to again" -- I need something else.

I need to know how my local restaurant compares to similar restaurants in other communities. I want to know if the wings here have a flavor profile or composition which is unique or which is better or worse than a similar product elsewhere. A review of a Chinese place in Los Angeles is meaningless to me if I can't compare the product to a known entity. Television shows about food (which I enjoy watching) that have experts travel around and enjoy and love every thing they order anywhere they go are not helpful because I can't put their comments in a context of my own experiences. You think that is a good pastrami sandwich? WHY? How does it compare to a pastrami sandwich anywhere else? It seems that certain foods are so basic and unadorned that they would end up being the same anywhere -- a piece of meat thrown on a fire is going to be the same. If there are differences which are worthy of note, please explain them. Is there a continuum of mac and cheese? Please place the mac and cheese in the range so I can see what it compares to. Maybe I LIKE the one you didn't, so if you say that the mac and cheese in Wyoming is too like something you hate, I know see that it might be something I prefer. This is a review. I don't need to hear that some hidden expert thinks that there was "too much salt" or that the presentation could have been prettier. I want to know that the product reminds him of some standard that I have interacted with so I have a basis for comparison. And yes, I think that this is a vitally important methodology for all communication which attempts to codify and assess experience. You liked that opera? Why? Did it remind you of something I can relate to? If not, your preferences are meaningless to me. There is nothing new under the sun -- every food has to be tied to sense that I have and food that I have tried to I can decide if my experiences are lacking. You, the reviewer, are traveling on my behalf, not your own. So stop enjoying and help me understand.

And, of course, if I find myself in another place, ready to sample the foods, I can start by selecting ones that I have on record as being similar to or strikingly different from what I am used to based on what I want at that moment. I don't want the element of surprise in my meal. If I have gone through the trouble of leaving the house, suspending my disbelief in my own weight, and allowing myself to spend money, I want something that I can predict, but not because it is necessarily identical to what I could have were I to stay home but because it will add an experience I want to have (a reminder of my home product or a welcome departure from it). If I fly to LA, I want to have Chinese food chicken wings because their comparison to wings I usually have is intriguing. I want to know how my local venue stacks up and see how the rest of the world defines the experience of eating chicken wings.

This, to me, is a review. It taps into the knowledge base of the reader and establishes the reviewer not as the subjective and variable taste buddhist* (did I use that wrong) who gets to be one with all his food, but as the representative of me out in the world: the guy who can look at me and say "the ones you eat taste just like the ones 500 miles away except that they serve them with a lemon sauce. Yours are better...stay home."

*Not a formal footnote, but did you know that when I just checked on google, there were ZERO hits for "taste buddhist"? Always blazing new trails on your behalf, people.

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