I realize that “good” is somewhat subjective, but most food-minded people can agree on a spectrum of dishes that are intelligently conceived, reflect a clear ideology, demonstrate proper execution, and accuracy.
1. Intelligent conception
This idea can be a bit nebulous because conversations about food, like this one, often blur the line that divides “ingredients” and “foods” from complete “dishes.”
Ideally, many foods and most dishes are well-conceived and balanced with regard to elements such as saltiness, acidity, savoriness, sweetness and texture. However, because judging intelligent conception depends on the food having a clear ideology or “intent,” it may be the case that some successful culinary concepts require a lack of balance.
2. A clear ideology or intent
The food’s intent must be clearly broadcast.
For example, a cook may intend to feed you something he or she wants you to find comforting and reminiscent of your childhood—perhaps mac and cheese.
Traditional mac and cheese doesn’t have much acid, is minimally sweet, and lacks any great variation in texture. In this case, the lack of balance may be necessary for the dish to be successful as comfort food.
A clear ideology and intent also allow the diner to judge the food’s execution. Was the macaroni supposed to be al dente, or was it just undercooked? Was the steak meant to be “black and blue” or was the grill too hot? Good food will have some form of context to inform the diner.
A food’s “accuracy” is important—and by accuracy I mean how close the actual dish is to what it’s supposed to be. Whether specifically or abstractly, the accuracy of a given dish can often be judged by our collective cultural-culinary knowledge and memory.
Some foods and dishes may appear more loosely tethered to a familiar concept than others—some not at all. Foreign cuisines may be difficult to judge for a diner with little or no knowledge of its corresponding culture.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, I’m working from the perspective that most—if not all—restaurants in the U.S. offer at least some notion of context to frame the food.
An example of an accurate dish would be the abovementioned “mac and cheese.” The dish is pretty much what its name says it is, and because most Americans think of remarkably similar—if not identical—dishes when they hear “mac and cheese.”
Conversely, the charm of some dishes is their glaring inaccuracy.
Take, for example, a dish served by Grant Achatz’s crew at Alinea: root beer float. (It could be called “root beer flout.”) Achatz’s RBF is a clear, solid, bite-sized cube served on a plate. This dish thumbs its nose at convention and is successful precisely because—except for the flavor—it’s not accurate at all.
I love clever and tasty dishes like that. But I wasn’t led to this topic by a trail of RBF cubes.
The catalyst for this blog was the frequency with which people express surprise that several seemingly coarse or painfully mainstream foods are found among my favorites.
Whether foie gras with figs, or fried okra with ranch, I’d like to think my food preferences are all equally meritorious and subject to the same, um…rigorous evaluation.
People seem surprised that hot wings are a favorite of mine.
I find the intelligence of hot wings in the contrasting textures and in the wings as vessels for a sauce. The wings’ ideology values accessible, indulgent junk-food that can pair well with beer.
I usually prefer breading over skin, so I go with the boneless “wings.” Also, if you don’t have to handle them or smear them all over your face, you have the option of ordering scorching hot hot wings. (Yes, by “scorching” I mean the kind of wings you “interact with” the next day.)
Regarding execution, good hot wings have at least a little spicy kick and are served with piping proud irony “fresh from the fryer.” Good hot wings are also tossed with enough sauce to just be coated with flavor, but remain crunchy outside as a counter point to the juicy, tender interior.
Because wings are so simple, a well-executed wing is also an accurate wing. With hot wings, I’m usually looking for xerox copies of all the other wings I’ve enjoyed.
And just as some parts is good parts, some purées of parts is good, too.
Though I often grind meat to make my own sausages, I like boiled hot dogs and steamed buns like you get at a baseball game. Often the best ones are adorned only with thin, restrained stripes of red and yellow.
The ideology of the ball park frank is anti-cerebral. The hot dog doesn’t want you to think while you’re eating—its tenderness is meant to comfort and fill without distracting. A well-executed, tender dog with squishy condiments and squishy bun are just what the doctor ordered. And chalk up another point for properly xeroxed food.
I assure you it’s pure coincidence that both wings and dogs go well with beer.
Blood sausage is another one. Though they are both considered “sausages,” blood sausage is not much like a hot dog. I love blood sausage—especially the Swedish version, which uses cinnamon, clove and raisins—among other flavorings—to elevate the dish above that of simple utilitarian sustenance.
Granted, I do love blood sausage’s practicality and resourcefulness. It’s another beautiful way to use as much of our edible animals (redundant?) as possible.
Blood sausage says “waste not, want not.” And when it’s sliced, pan-crisped in a little butter or bacon fat, and topped with a dollop of lingonberry jam, it’s really a beautiful, complex food.
For us, blood sausage’s accuracy may be fuzzy—not a lot of Americans eat it, and recipes for blood sausage vary widely around the world. It does offer an added bonus: it has “blood” in the name, which totally gets you gross/cool food points.
Another favorite that garners gross/cool food points: head cheese.
My list of favorite foods is long, but I’ll spare you additional evaluations. It should be noted, however, that this isn’t a rubber stamp operation here. Not all foods meet my criteria.
The following is an incomplete list of foods that failed inspection:
- Circus peanuts. I tried, but couldn’t discern the intent of giant orange earplugs that taste like rotten bananas.
- Chit’lins. I haven’t given up hope, but it’s like the U2 song, “I still haven’t found someone who can properly cook a poop chute.”
- Jell-O Salad. Is it possible to make one that’s edible? Yes, but no one seems to be doing it. My Jell-O salad-phobia is focused especially on those made with mayonnaise, cheese, cucumber, celery, olives and bananas and formed in a tall Bundt cake mold.
Whether named or not, the philosophical concepts of Platonic idealism are at the heart of this discussion—and, as I’ve shown, can serve us well in order to justify eating crappy or crazy food while our friends and family look on in horror.
But you don’t need to carry an old Greek book or even a short checklist to make the most of your gastronomic indulgences. The crux of our “theory of successful food forms” can be summed up thusly: “Good food? I’ll know it when I eat it.”