Over at Unfogged, Heebie-Geebie links to this article by Keith930 over at Daily Kos about commercial efforts to breed a spiceless Jalapeño pepper.
The linked article is a rant about foods are getting blander. The story goes something like this. A Mexican restaurant somewhere in the central US makes and serves a salsa using the original, spicy Jalapeño pepper. A lot of people try it. Many of these people do not like spicy food at all. Maybe they are unusually sensitive to capsaicin. Maybe their bodies do not release the usual endorphins in response to spice. Maybe they just aren’t used to it. Regardless, there are people who do not like it, who ask for something milder. But they still want a salsa made with Jalapeños. This is the thing that puzzles me, and I’ll come back to it later, but for now we’ll accept this as a given: they do not like spicy food, but they want to eat a salsa – a mild, unspicy salsa – with Jalapeños.
So the restaurant has a few options. They can refuse to accommodate their customers, and either teach them to appreciate spice, or lose their business. They can make the salsa milder by putting less Jalapeño in it. They can try to sell the customers something different than what they asked for. Or, they can do the least convenient possible thing, and try to change the constitution of the Jalapeño pepper itself. Naturally, they do the least convenient possible thing, and demand a hot pepper that is not hot.
If I try to put myself in the shoes of this Mexican-American restauranteur, it becomes clear to me that the first approach has severe disadvantages. If I refuse to modify the salsa at all, I am not giving the customers what they want. Since they are free to leave and not come back, I am unlikely to see them or their money again. It would be one thing if I were teaching a semester-long course in salsa-appreciation, in which case I might have the power to make them sit the and sweat through it, so that at the end of the semester I will give them a good grade. But I have no such power. Restaurants do not give diners grades, there are no semester-long courses, only one meal at a time. If they don’t like this one, they will not stick around long enough to learn how to appreciate it. They will just go somewhere else. So not only is this approach costly in money and time, but it does not even do what I want it to do.
Then there’s trying to sell the customer a milder sauce by reducing the amount of Jalapeño in it. Why don’t people just do that? Make a salsa with little or no Jalapeño in it? If you want the color and texture, dice up a green bell pepper. Well, the trouble there is that you are not telling the truth.
Is that a good reason not to do it? That it involves telling the customer something that is not strictly literally 100% true? This might seem a little hokey – after all, there are a lot of ways in which we accept being misled about what we put into our bodies. That pasta is “handmade” in a factory halfway around the world. That salad is full of “seasonal” (they were in season wherever they were grown – and in a hydroponic greenhouse everything is always in season) “fresh-picked” (they were fresh when they were picked) vegetables. The nationality of the food may have little to do with the nationality of the servers, the chef, the restauranteur, or even the country in which the food was invented. (I don’t think it’s too uncommon to, for example, be served a Caesar salad – invented in Mexico – by Albanians in an “Italian” restaurant. And of course in the US many of the kitchen staff will be immigrants from south of the border as well – not from Italy.) “Mexican” food seems a little more likely to be authentically Mexican in some ill-defined way, but even so we are not walking into a place run by Mexicans for Mexicans and sampling a genuine indigenous experience as strangers in a strange land – as non-Hispanic Americans have gotten used to Mexican food, the Mexican food has gotten used to us too – the portion sizes, the amounts of cheese and sour cream, the balance of flavors, the expected customer. When Taco Bell tried to expand into Mexico, their plan was to market their food as “American.”
But these heat-averse midwestern diners have a hang-up about changing the nominal ingredient list, and eating a mild “green pepper” salsa when their fellow diners are eating a “Jalapeño” salsa. And lying about what goes into the food is out of the question (although somehow it’s become okay to lie about what kind of white fish you are serving, or omit the butter from the ingredient list, so again, why the scruples when it comes to hot peppers?). So if you want to change what “Jalapeño salsa” refers to, and you can’t lie and you can’t just redefine “Jalapeño,” you have to make the hardest possible change and modify the Jalapeño itself.
We’ve tied ourselves up into such a knot that the easiest way out of our disappointed expectations is to alter the very natures of the substances we are disappointed about. It is like something out of a Borges story:
After ten long years laying siege to Troy, Agamemnon finally accepts that he is unlikely to ever take this city, the one he has encamped around with his thousands of ships and tens of thousands of Achaeans. But he is unwilling to break his pledge to take Troy, the city where Alexandros is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away.
So instead of sailing back to Troy in defeat, Agamemnon orders a third of his soldiers to found a new city, here, on the bank of the river Scamandros, and call it Troy. They build this city without walls, to make it easy to conquer. He finds a woman from among the many prisoners of war, renames her Helen, and marries her to Menelaos. He arranges for a boy in the new city of Troy to be named Alexandros, and prepared from youth to reenact the seizure of Helen. Tens of years later, the new unwalled Troy is a prosperous city, a center of trade, at peace with its neighbors, and its inhabitants consider themselves Trojans every bit as much as do the inhabitants of the old Troy, perhaps still ruled by Priam, perhaps now ruled by Alexandros, who is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away.
Menelaos invites the second Alexandros from the second Troy into his home. The second Alexandros is able to seduce and sneak away with the second Helen, bringing her back to the second Troy. Menelaos demands that his brother finally fulfill his promise. Agamemnon reassembles his army and is easily able to take this new, peaceable, unwalled Troy, destroy its buildings, loot its treasures, enslave its inhabitants, in accordance with his his pledge to take Troy, the city where Alexandros is living with Helen, Menelaos’s wife whom Alexandros has stolen away, thus preserving his integrity in a perversely literal way that could not possibly satisfy anyone
Except that it does.
Modern food technology allows us to purchase food satisfying almost any desire. (Although there are still differences in quality between the “best” which you need either a lot of time or a lot of money to get, and mediocre versions of something recognizable similar.) We can have any or almost any arbitrary combination of tastes, textures and smells, not limited by the things we find in nature (much less the things we find in our particular part of the world) and a limited set of labor-intensive transformations using a limited set of available tools. It is confusing and disorienting to have so many choices. We get anxious deciding what to eat. It is nearly impossible to figure out what we most prefer. If anything is possible, what should we be impressed by? What should we turn up our noses at? What is it “better” to like, and what is vulgar? Is it like fashion, changing what we put into our bodies at the same time and for the same reason we change what we put on them?
But you’re supposed to know what kind of food you “like.” So we have at times retreated into the realm of admiring things made under constraints – wines of wildly different flavors made with only grapes, yeast, and wood-barrel-aging. Beers produced according to the constraints of the 17th-century German cheap-bread policy known as the Reinheitsgebot. If we don’t know whether we like it, at least we can recognize and respect the obvious skill required to make “authentic” “ethnic” cuisines produced with the same set of ingredients and techniques that would have been available and in common use in certain areas at certain times. Dining out as a period piece. The upscale version of this is dinner theater like Grant Achatz’s Next. The downscale version of this is the Mexican restaurant that uses “real” “Jalapeños” in their “Jalapeño salsa.” Using green bell peppers instead isn’t just a problem because it involves telling the customer that they don’t know what they want – it’s a problem because it contradicts the whole point of having a “Mexican” restaurant instead of just a 24-hour “Greek” “Diner” where one of the frozen, reheatable meals from Sysco is labeled “enchiladas” instead of “stuffed cabbage,” “quesadilla” instead of “grilled cheese,” “salsa” instead of “tomato sauce.”
And just as upscale “Molecular Gastronomy” (because unlike any previous type of cooking, modernist cuisine involves food made of molecules) can delight (or at least momentarily distract) diners paying $200 a seat with kumquats that taste like grapes, and steak with the texture of ice cream (or vice versa), middlebrow Mexican food flatters its customers with “Jalapeño salsa” that tastes like a chopped salad. Presumably they are also breeding a Cilantro that tastes like parsley, to avoid offending those who think that “real” Cilantro tastes like soap.
The truth is, a lot of people don’t really care whether they’re getting a Jalapeño salsa. But they very badly need to be sure that they are getting a “Jalapeño salsa.” Because in a world in which food comes from a can or ready to eat at a table, where you’ve produced your food only in the most abstract possible way, mediated not even by little green pieces of paper with pictures of old Presidents anymore, but by numbers you may not even look at being notionally reattributed from one account to another, where it can taste salty without being from the ocean, sweet without fruit or honey, fresh and green in the winter, ice-cold in the summer, fizzy or alcoholic without being fermented, smoky without touching a fire, where the “natural flavors” are what artifically makes your sugar water taste like a different type of sugar water, we don’t know which way to come up for air, but at least we can know which way is “up.” In a world where the things obey our every command, we can’t let ourselves use words with equal freedom.