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Is overstimulation hampering our ability to enjoy simple food?

This post stems from reading a few negative reviews of restaurants that I've come really enjoy. I'm not questioning the validity of the reviewers' negative opinions as everyone has their preferences, but I'm starting to notice a trend. Maybe it's been around forever, I truthfully don't know, but I'm looking for others' ideas on this.

I am seeing complaints, if you will, that certain restaurants' food has "no taste." Again, not off the wall in and of itself, but looking at the context of these ideas makes me wonder a bit. In a review of Primanti Bros. in Pittsburgh, one reviewer claimed "no taste" while expressing shock and surprise that "the fries weren't even seasoned!!!!" (I added a few of the exclamation points). My initial reaction was, between cole slaw, cured meats and fries, how much more flavor does one need in a sandwich? Similar complaints popped up in reviews of an Italian restaurant in Lancaster, citing "flavorless" sauce when in my very humble opinion it was quite robust with a clear spice presence of red pepper (I eat exceptionally hot food, so it isn't an oversensitivity to spice).

My question is this. Are we so overstimulated that we can't enjoy a simple sandwich? Does every sauce have to knock us out with "extreme" flavors? In "sit down" chain restaurants, I've ordered steaks, chicken, or other grilled meats that were so overloaded with seasoning that I couldn't detect the flavor of the meat itself. Moreover, in those same chains, Italian sauces are generally closer to marinara than traditional red sauce, which by definition contains more vegetables and spices. Perhaps it is a result of using cheaper, lower quality meats that can't carry any of the flavor load on their own. Maybe it is a lack of real skill in the kitchen. Either way, has anyone else noticed this seasoning "obsession," or am I just out to lunch, so to speak?

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  1. Many Americans love Bigger! Bolder! Flavor! indeed.

    Some of it is aging (sense perception declines; it's one reason people get used to certain foods they formerly hated)

    Some of it is palates coarsened by too much processed food

    Some of it can even be addiction related (several people I know in recovery have commented on the tendency of certain substance addicts to need greater sensory stimulation in their food).

    4 Replies
    1. re: Karl S

      Makes sense. I hope no one gets me wrong on this, as I enjoy a nice robust Cajun rub, spicy sauces,"bolder" seasongs, etc as much as the next guy. Yet somehow, I can still appreciate a good quality steak grilled to perfection with nothing more than a light sprinkling of salt and pepper. I guess I just find today's expectations to be interesting.

      1. re: medium_rare

        Yes. And my examples were not universals, just different trends that exacerbate things.

        To my mind, one great example of this is an inability to appreciate Marcella Hazan's rightly famous tomato sauce with butter and onion. It's exceedingly simple. There's nothing more than tomatoes, butter and onion (which is removed) and salt. A lot of people can't believe it has no herbs (basil or oregano) or garlic, and think that adding those is just an adaptation. They are free to add them, of course, but it's a completely different thing when an herbal or garlic element is added; you've lost the distilled balance of acid and sweet, vegetal and dairy, et cet. A lot of people don't like the sauce as given; and they are very entitled to that opinion. But it's a great test of the ability to appreciate subtlety without confusing it with boring.

        1. re: Karl S

          Karl, it is really interesting that you said that. I had the exact opposite response. I was actually, to a degree, agreeing with the "no taste" crowd.

          Hear me out: I have been to quite a few places that, well, in the example given above, had all sorts of ingredients in a dish (like cured meats, fries and slaw) and all I could think is, "All of these ingredients and none of them have any flavor). And, I would have been much happier with fewer things, like a simple Tomato sauce that had some basic flavor to it (like good butter, onion and, maybe above all, a proper amount of salt).

        2. re: medium_rare

          ^ OMG - all about this. A good steak or for that matter a mediocre steak just needs some salt and pepper, maybe a compound butter on top (a little bit). I like a good marinated/flavored steak as much as the next person, but hubby and I had an experience that was just horrifying. A Long Horn steak house opened up near us. We had never been to one, so we thought we would try it, I mean, seriously, how bad could it be? OMG - besides the service being awful (which I will forgive since it was fairly new and they were probably still working out the kinks) I'll just stick to my review of the steaks. We both ordered filet mignon, he with sauteed mushrooms and onions, mine, just plain. The were horribly seasoned with some God awful something that I couldn't even identify, and his steak didn't come with what he had asked for until 15 minutes into the entree and they even got that wrong. Not to mention our appetizers, after we asked about them came AFTER the meal and they were horribly done.

          But back to the subject at hand, I agree, many places just go over the top just to "go over the top" in seasoning when it is completely not necessary,. For a chain place, let's, for the love of God and everything holy, just do something not "complicated",

      2. and some of it's just plain ego. There are a lot of people who turn the word "foodie" into a vile f-word just because they have to impress everyone how erudite they are and how very very refined their gourmand palate is. Pfft. Whatever.

        Stuff like "the unctuous liquid slipped down my throat, leaving the flavor of sweet, sun-drenched tomatoes with just the slightest kiss of basil organically grown, fertilized with unicorn droppings and watered with the tears of virgins shedding tears of joy."

        Give me a fricking break. Sometimes a bowl of tomato soup is just a bowl of tomato soup...and it's okay to just say that the tomato soup isn't anything fancy, just really good tomato soup.

        4 Replies
        1. re: sunshine842

          What brand unicorn droppings? Male or female?

          btw I think you and OP are right.

          1. re: chocolatetartguy

            and grass-fed, or corn-fed unicorns?

            Ugh. That stuff makes me want to just shout "shut up and eat your soup, already".

          2. re: sunshine842

            It's honestly as a reaction to florid speeches like that that I love Ruth Bourdain.

          3. More people feeling comfortable sharing their opinions means more people with bad, or simply ignorant, taste will share their opinions. A downside to the democratization permitted by the web. A brief review of the political opinions of many posters on sites that promote such discussions will illustrate the same phenomenon.

            1. I quit making sushi after ten years because everyone forced me to put hot sauce on their fish and turn all their sashimi into ceviche. I got so sick of waking up in the morning to go to the fish market, working all morning to prep the best product that was humanly possible for me to serve, and then have someone ask me to cover it with mayonnaise, bake it in the oven with sriracha on top and turn it into a "Volcano" roll or something like that. I think if people had a closer relationship to natural food in this country we wouldn't have such a problem, but with most people growing up on processed food and never learning how to cook, the market isn't that great for good simple food.

              5 Replies
                1. re: la2tokyo

                  I shop for produce almost exclusively at the smallish farmers' market in Berkeley. I find that I am very happy with the simplest preparations: corn on the cob steamed and eaten plain (no butter, which I love elsewhere, or salt); beet greens sauteed in olive oil, etc.

                  1. re: la2tokyo

                    I think it is true in the US. I've read that in Spain food is prepared very simply and is delicious. This is only one blog I've read but he gives a lot of examples. The best ingredients simply prepared is what I like.

                    1. re: givemecarbs

                      They don't skimp on salt in Spanish food, however.

                    2. You're taking a few select posts on Chowhound as a sample to extrapolate to the rest of the human population?

                      Even Michelle Bachman would be hesitant to go out on a limb like that ...