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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 ...

                      1. I must preface this with a 'no offense':

                        I'm sure some people just prefer bigger, more strident flavors, just as some people seem to prefer subtler foods. But I disagree that liking the former necessarily means you can't appreciate the latter. Perhaps part of the problem is that people don't articulate exactly why they dislike some foods - just saying 'no flavor' is easier.

                        Take Primanti Brothers. The problem isn't that the ingredients are flavorless - it's that the fries contribute a huge amount of starch to every bite and really do drown out the other ingredients, regardless of how flavorful they are on their own. They would make far better - and simpler - food if they used the cured meats and coleslaw to make a sandwich and served their mediocre fries (they'd be much better off importing their fries from The 'O' next door) on the side - that way you could actually taste the flavors of the foods you're eating. With the magic of poor combination, they make a whole that's less than the sum of its parts. That's a cooking sin in my book.

                        Of course, my opinion is subjective, and you're welcome to eat what you like. But I don't think a criticism of Primanti Bros indicates that someone needs huge amounts of salt, sugar, or spice in all their food. I dislike them, while I still like other foods that are quite subtle. The problem with Primanti Bros is precisely that they drown out the subtleties of their ingredients.

                        I'm right with you though on your steak example. Even more so for me - pork. Give me some spare ribs or a pork shoulder, a weber grill and some salt, and I'll make some meat that doesn't need any more spices or accompaniments. Just juicy, porky deliciousness.

                        1. Where I am, there's been several years of overly complex food at, particularly, upper end restaurants. Foams and fusion spring to mind. Whilst I don't decry that and there's certainly a time and place to enjoy such dishes, I think that time is coming to an end. I see more places now serving much simpler dishes which draw on traditional regional cooking. Meat, a carb, seasonal vegetables pretty much unadorned, a simple sauce. I had such a meal last week at a Michlin starred place and it was just great.

                          1. I've also experienced that "flavorless" critique at places I like to go to. There's an izakaya nearby where the chief complaint is that the food is underseasoned. To me, the seasoning (usually a simple teriyaki or mirin sauce) is just enough to enhance the grilled items. It forces you to taste more of the meat or the seafood or the vegetables. Perhaps it's like Campbells adding more and more salt to their soups and claiming it's because people's tolerance for salt has increased over the years. Or perhaps its the sort of snob appeal that something can't be good if it has less than 47 ingredients in it. But I've found that the more sophisticated the palate, the greater the need for simply prepared food: broiled fish with a little lemon or butter, lightly prepared vegetables, a roast bird. There was a book out a while ago where the author asked a series of famous chefs--chefs who made their careers out of preparing complex, labor intensive meals--what their last meals would be. Almost without exception, they were simple meals they enjoyed as children: roasted meats, lightly dressed pastas, the bread their mother made.

                            Or maybe people are just jerkier nowdays and there's more of them.

                            1. Thanks for all of the replies. I honestly didnt expect more than a handful on this topic. Let me clarify a couple of things. First of all, I am not "extrapolating a couple of posts" and applying it to all of humanity. I'm commenting on something I see as a trend in restaurant critiques (many of which I found on TripAdvisor or Urbanspoon, etc), as well as what I perceive as a changing landscape of eating establishments. I'm reaching a point where national chains like Applebees, TGI Fridays, etc have become more than just "run of the mill," but flat out unappealing. Seasonings and sauces have evolved. Applebees "Bourbon Street Steak" is no longer spicy (not that it ever approached "hot), but it is now a salt-laden slab of cheap beef-like substance. Couple that with the reviews of restaurants that claim "tasteless" food when in reality there are many flavors present, and you get my initial question.

                              I also wanted to address Cowboyardee's comment. This has nothing to do with a criticism of Primanti Brothers. As I said in my own review of Primanti's, I didn't grow up on it. In fact, I didn't eat there until I wasin college. I happen to enjoy it, and some don't. My question is not about someone's negative opinion of a place I like. In fact, I made reference to that in my initial post. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and virtually every restaurant review has some level of subjectivity.

                              I think most of the responders here are got the idea, especially Karl, Sunshine and Cbauer. All three highlighted what I found with the reviews of Lombardo's in Lancaster. In addition to the questionable complaints about a lack of flavor, the negative reviews were highly pretentious and clearly depicting unreasonable expectations of traditional Italian food. This is not to say that every human going to Lombardo's is required by law to enjoy it.

                              I don't know if I'd call myself a "foodie" or not. I like to eat, and I like a wide range of foods from siimple to complex and my skills in the kitchen are at least adequate for my family and I. I hope those reading my post don't think that I'm suggesting that everyone conform to the same tastes (again, I mentioned that in my inital post). Sometimes I just like to know "why."

                              6 Replies
                              1. re: medium_rare


                                I think your original post, your comments, and this latter post are quite correct. I also agree with Karl S above who made the comment about Americans - "Many Americans love Bigger! Bolder! Flavor! indeed."

                                1. re: medium_rare

                                  I do think that simple foods need to be well prepared with good ingredients to really be worth it. A good steak, well aged and properly grilled, with nothing more than salt and pepper is delicious. Add a baked potato made with a flavourful base, and baked so it's slightly crunch outside, and fluffy inside, and season with a pat of butter, then maybe some steamed broccoli, fresh, cooked so that it's tender but not mushy and bright green, with drizzle of olive oil and a brief squeeze of lemon juice. Serve with a side salad of flavourful greens with oil and balsamic vinegar. For dessert, a bowl of home-made vanilla ice-cream, topped with a bit of fresh, in season fruit.

                                  Cooked well, from high quality fresh ingredients, and you've got a fantastic meal of simple flavours. If the execution isn't good, though, you've got a tough boring steak, bland potatoes, mushy over-cooked flavourless broccoli, and iceberg lettuce with sour dressing, and chalky ice cream with under-ripe fruit. But you can compensate for that by coating the steak in black pepper sauce, cooking up the potatoes with garlic and chives and butter and sour cream and cheese, dousing the broccoli in cheesy garlic butter, coating the salad in a pre-made dressing, and drenching your sub-par ice-cream in chocolate sauce and sweetened fruit topping. And you've got more of a chain restaurant steak dinner.

                                  I would argue that the processed, pre-packaged food that makes much of many people's diet is a type of food that generally doesn't do simple flavours well - you need the chemical soup and added flavours and sauces to make people eat the product.

                                  1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                                    I think this is a key -- spice and sauce cover a myriad of sins, so when a restaurant is starting with mediocre ingredients and has employees with a fast-food mentality (i.e., just process it and send it out) -- you end up with meh.

                                    One of the biggest indicators of a kitchen's calibre is something incredibly simple -- a good-quality (read: non-factory) chicken, roasted simply in salt and pepper and a little oil can make your eyes roll back in your head...but plain roasted chicken isn't attention-getting, so nobody learns to do it!

                                  2. re: medium_rare

                                    "I also wanted to address Cowboyardee's comment. This has nothing to do with a criticism of Primanti Brothers..."
                                    I guess what I meant was really more of a comment on the ubiquitous 'It had no flavor' criticism. Namely that while some people undoubtedly make that criticism because they prefer big, bold, spicy, unsubtle flavors, there seem to be plenty of times when someone makes the same comment because they cannot articulate a very real problem with the construction or execution of a dish - usually that the flavors or ingredient proportions are out of balance.

                                    Something else occurred to me since my last post. Everyone on this thread keeps talking about subtlety vs overkill from the perspective of us diners. Well, for one I don't quite agree that most diners prefer big flavors and overkill - take a look on the Homecooking board and you'll find lots of simple recipes and techniques; take a look on General Topics and you'll find plenty of people who say they dislike spicy food; take a look on pretty much any regional board and you'll find people talking about how much they love often-subtle Japanese food made traditionally. Which is to say nothing of all the people who would never visit CH but for whatever reason prefer their food not just subtle but deliberately bland. The point is I feel American tastes are still very much a mixed bag.

                                    But also, it's not only the diner's perspective that matters.

                                    From a chef's perspective, making very simple food can be problematic. Chefs usually want to make a name for themselves. And regardless of how much they personally enjoy meats seasoned with only salt & pepper, or plain but well made pasta pomodoro - it's harder to make a name for yourself with these dishes. Of course there are a few chefs who've managed to, but for most it's far easier to try some novel combination - something that reviewers can pontificate about without worrying that they're boring their audience, something that sticks out in the diner's mind, something that could become a 'signature dish.' From a chef's perspective, it's not always only about what's delicious - it's also about what pays the bills and helps their career. That's the business - novelty creates buzz; buzz puts butts in the seats; extra butts means extra buzz which reinforces the value of novelty.

                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      It seems to me that you are conflating Chowhounders with non-Chowhounders or the General Populace. I suspect the two are not synonymous. The reviews and folks the OP (and others) refer to may be folks who post on Yelp, or Urbanspoon, or on Google, or on other blogs (their own included) or whatnot. Perhaps the culinary sensibilities of the posters on the various boards or blogs may not, uh, "match".

                                      1. re: huiray

                                        I wrote of Chowhounders in one sentence and non-Chowhounders in the next - I'm well aware that CH is no microcosm for the rest of the country/world.

                                        Technically speaking, you can definitely develop a tolerance to spice (as in capsaicin) and salt. Possibly also to sugar. Probably also to things like garlic. But that's nothing new. By all accounts, my great grandfather who died more than 50 years ago drowned all of his food in hot sauce. It's not that I don't think the people MediumRare writes about exist - I'm just questioning if that's really the zeitgeist now any more than it has been ever since people started learning chefs' names. The food scene in the US is far more diverse than it had been a couple decades ago, and it takes all kinds.

                                  3. The term, according to the FDA, is Culinary ADD

                                    1. I'm glad it's not just me that sees this taking place. In my opinion, it's about more than just food. Think about this. Look at everything we see around us. Cartoons used to be cute, simple and hand-drawn, and now they are either computer generated and more "realistic" than the real thing or so distorted and abstract looking that they don't resemble people/animals, whatever. Restaurant and hotel logos used to be simple, colorful and unique to the establishment. Now, everything looks like a "splash" or like it was made for a children's book. Blackberries and iPhones that retail for $600 or more aren't good enough without a hot pink cover that had an unfortunate run-in with a Bedazzler. Why was the original Burger King logo (the words "Burger King" between two halves of a bun) not good enough and needed to be slanted and swooping? Every package on every shelf of a grocery store is splashier than the last version, all with the bold declaration of "New look! Same great taste!!!!" (I didn't add any extra exclamation points). I think in that context, I can't say I'm surprised by the food trends and the direction peoples' tastes are going. Either that, or I'm the most old-fashioned 34 year-old on the planet.

                                      1. I think what you spoke of has some truth to it. I am not sure how widely spread it is, but it is true on certain levels.

                                        I know people get drawn/addicted to hot spicy foods. So much so that when they taste non-spicy foods that they find it very bland. I have also seen people salt their foods in great amount that they find anything less to be tasteless.

                                        I used to cook fairly mild and subtle tasting food and I still do, but at one point, I started to learn to cook Indian foods, and I used many spices according to the recipes. The Indian foods I made tasted very favorful and exciting. However, when I went back to my original subtle foods, I found them to be bland. It took me a week or so to get back use to my original cooking and find the subtler taste in them.

                                        So based on my observations and my personal experience, I think you are correct. Again, exactly how important and how wide spread, that we don't know, but you are certainly onto something.

                                        1. I can't speak for self-proclaimed epicures, but I have certainly noticed in my own personal experiences that American people, in general, are less able to enjoy the natural flavor of things. It's been mentioned in the above comments, but so much exposure to processed food and cheap fast food has killed the general public's taste buds. How many non-foody people do you know who enjoy the taste of a good water? Or who like the flavor of oats (real oats, no sugar or other things added)? I rarely use condiments or salt, except as ingredients, because I enjoy the natural flavor of food. But I had an ex who threw some kind of sauce on every.single.thing. he ate. Didn't matter if I'd made a full country breakfast, Indian food, a stir fry, or even a simple sandwich - he had to slather it with some kind of sauce. I really believe many Americans are being "trained" to expect certain flavors - they don't want to taste a sauce that compliments and brings out the natural flavor of mushrooms. They want to taste the same salt/sugar/stabilizer blast that they are used to from their Chef Boyardee.

                                          Anyway, I suppose this comment is pretty far afield from your OQ, but it's a sore subject for me. /endrant