The other day, a prominent member of the food community, whose work I respect immensely, asked his Twitter followers if they would rather eat bad nachos or a bad hot dog. This sort of question is one of my favorite parts of talking about food. Who chooses the hot dog? Who chooses nachos? What is the reasoning behind their choice? And the root question I love to ponder: why is there such a wide range of choices and reasons? I love talking about food preferences, especially junk food preferences. I knew exactly what my answer was. I think about this stuff a lot.
Nachos are my jam. One of my favorite foods, probably. I like all versions of nachos, from decked out fancy ones to clear plastic ballpark trays full of semi-stale tortilla rounds and a compartment for nacho cheese. Hot dogs, I’m pretty lukewarm on. If I find a hot dog cart when I’m drunk, I’m down to eat one, but I’m never going to search one out. I’ve never craved a hot dog, but I’ve certainly craved nachos. I answered the poll, and I also tweeted, “though I will say I would also rather eat bad nachos than a good hot dog”.
He replied with “you haven’t had a good hot dog.”
This interaction left me feeling a little surprised and disappointed. It felt unnecessarily assumptive, like I was being weeded out of the very exclusive group of People Who Know What Tastes Good. There is no conceivable way to enjoy bad nachos more than a good hot dog. The hot dog was the correct answer and I was wrong.
The problem with that is that food preferences are never wrong. This interaction really cemented this idea for me. Preferences are not like knife skills or picking good produce. You learn preferences, but there is no correct set of preferences. There is no one way to appreciate food. Some people are more adventurous than others, some people believe they have a more refined palate than most. Regardless, the tastebuds of people with less refined palates and a love of simple foods are no less important. Loving shitty nachos doesn’t disqualify you from some Elite Food Smarty status. People know what tastes good to them, and respecting that is an important and exciting part of learning about food.
There are probably a couple people reading this essay right now thinking, “But what about the strips, Erika? You’ve talked shit about people choosing chicken strips over fried chicken. I can find the posts, there are a lot of them.” To this I say, yeah, I was wrong. And I’ll assuredly be wrong again. Such is the curse of words existing forever on the internet. When I received that tweet, I realized how people who aren’t very interested in food must feel when they’re told their preferences are wrong, silly, immature, or fussy by someone who knows more about the subject. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and it made me want to discontinue the conversation altogether. I realized this was the exact opposite of how I wanted my readers and commenters to feel. I want conversations about food to be accessible to everyone. As a veritable spokesperson for food, especially food on the simpler end of the spectrum, I shouldn’t have told someone their preference was incorrect, no matter how delicious chicken skin is.
Though I now disagree with the way I approached it, I learned a lot about what people value in food from talking about strips versus skin. Someone who values chicken strips for their convenience and ease of eating will have different opinions about restaurants and meals than someone who loves messy, inconvenient, bone-in chicken because they get to have some chicken skin. Neither opinion is invalid or wrong, but each one gives insight into different overarching themes people look for in a food experience. Though I wax poetic about my specific food preferences, they are not gospel. When I say I have found one of the best cheeseburgers in Seattle, this does not apply to everyone. I have found one of my favorite cheeseburgers in Seattle, and at the very least, I think you will enjoy it too.
A while back, I posted an essay about that cheeseburger. In that essay, I described the litany of reasons why I prefer shredded iceberg lettuce on my burgers. A friend commented on my Facebook politely disagreeing with me, which led to one of my favorite food conversations ever. We went back and forth for a bit about her reasoning before she said “…I think I just don’t like shredded lettuce. I am having more feelings than I anticipated.” She didn’t even anticipate her feelings about shredded lettuce, but they were at least as numerous and passionate as mine. Her own thoughts and feelings toward a pile of unremarkable roughage surprised her, and that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.
This is what makes the world of food so interesting to me. People have latent food thoughts and feelings that guide their decisions everyday. Our brains are quietly, almost involuntarily passionate about the subject, and I think there is nothing more fascinating. We’re all born with the same set up. We all have a tongue, covered in tastebuds. We all have to eat to live, but the spectrum of choices we’re able to make in a day is staggering. It is incredible to me that one person enjoys their coffee black while another loves five Splendas and a quarter cup of soy in theirs. I find it interesting that there’s one guy in my office who eats burgers for lunch, while another guy makes himself a fruit platter. I am intrigued by the idea that so many pizza toppings exist and everyone’s favorite is different. I love that every single person making every single food choice has a reason behind that choice, every single time.
Even the staunchest anti-food person has well-thought out reasoning behind their preferences. A lack of preference is still a preference. Their thoughts about food, like everyone else’s, are informed by a lifetime of emotions, tastes, and memories. Some people look at their relationship with food as a journey, others have never needed to tend to their feelings about eating. Some people can’t afford more than three bowls of Top Ramen per day, others eat Wagyu steak for lunch. Some (like me!) care more about food than any other part of their day, others wish they didn’t have to bother with it at all. No matter your feelings toward food, they’re easily the most compelling part of what you’re eating. There is no subject more vastly relatable, no category further reaching. Everyone has a history, a set of beliefs, some dealbreakers, even if they’ve never given it a second thought. Isn’t that fucking cool?