Chowhounds et al as arbiters of taste
I get an uneasy feeling when I read things like this, from a review of a Baltimore restaurant::
"I wish I could take credit for discovering Grace Garden, but I'm just happy to be able to tell about it now. It is the quintessential off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurant that chowhounds, foodies, the Sandbox (the gang over at Dining@Large) and other assorted mavens dream about finding.
And they have. Chef Chun Keung Li's restaurant has been a pilgrimage for insiders for some time, and I admit to having read and absorbed some of the praise (the pork belly! those fish noodles!) that's been heaped upon it. In fact, when we finished ordering, the waitress said, 'You've been reading the Internet.'"
Does "reading the Internet" lead us out of the wilderness of foodie ignorance, or does it make us elitist front-runners, unable to trust our own instincts and capacity for discover? And what about the restaurant? Does the foodie catechism that some message boards have developed encourage Johnny One-note kitchens? Was the waitress expressing praise for the diner for knowing what was good, or contempt for his not having a mind of his own?
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You do have to wonder how many of the people who sing the praises of that "quintessential off-the-beaten-path, hole-in-the-wall..." yada yada joint would ever have dreamed of getting out of their cars or even venturing into "that" neighborhood in search of the food that "mavens dream about," if somebody else hadn't blessed it first.
Then, when faced with an unfamiliar cuisine and a forbidding menu, we watch them sneak out the newspaper clipping of the "safe" and recommended dishes.
How often do they spread their wings at that place or try other spots in that same ethnic community?
The waitress likely spotted them the second they walked in.
Of course the dishes were good but the kitchen must have gotten weary of preparing the same things over and over again for the "sightseeing" foodies.
We used to eat at a place like that.
They had a steady clientele of Chinese families who ordered from handwritten signs posted on the walls that changed constantly.
There were also waves of people who all ordered the identical dishes. Every one of them, every time.
One of the young members of the family who owned the place laughed to us that they called those dishes "round eye specials." Safe and dependable.
They made money so they didn't really care.
We loved the family that owned it and the food was good. But we usually ordered by watching the Chinese families and asking the owners to just give us an order of what the people at "that other table were eating." Half the time we weren't even sure what it was but it was always good. Well, every now and then, we'd get something really strange, but it was an adventure.
Nah. "Artiters of taste" are figures like restaurant
reviewers and food authors. At one time in France
and other western european countries,the
upwardly mobile wanted to emulate the
nobility. Truffles, faviar the the like. Rated highly
not because of their taste, but because of
their rarity and high price.
Now, for arbiters of taste, we have Millhouse
and his cottage cheese with ketchup.
I'm sure almost everyone on chowhound
takes individual opinions as just that.
I am my own arbiter of taste. I am thankful that people give me insight on where a good restaurant may be, but in the final analysis, I make the decision as to whether or not I like the food I have been presented.
Do I order the safe dishes? Yes, sometimes I do, because, quite frankly, I may happen to like a safe dish and I am paying for it out of the fruits of my labor so I don't care what other people think, nor do I like a dish because some other CH said it was "the best dish ever."
CH is a resource, a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. It isn't a crucible to determine what is or isn't palatable for the unwashed masses.
I know of very few people who solely go where the they are told by Hounds. Sometimes I may take the suggestion to try the new hip place in Scottsdale, but just as many times I stumble into a place I see on the way to do some shopping and pop in for a bite. And sometimes I just get the craving for some Jack in the Box tacos or a Sonic Burger with Tater Tots and a Cherry Lime-Ade.
There are leaders and there are followers. The wise ones are the people who are both.