Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Why Jay Rayner was wrong

A week and a half ago, Jay Rayner, food writer for The Guardian, wrote an article concerning the horse meat controversy happening in the UK right now. I found it surprising, and a bit galling. Before I go off, I'll let you read the piece:


Now, I have a few issues with this article, but I will try to keep them as logical and simple as possible to be as clear as I can.

1. The Headline
Let's start with the headline and its subheading. Here, Mr. Rayner claims that as bad as the scandal was, it was "compounded"by the reaction of "foodie Indiana Joneses." 

This is false. The reaction of the food adventurers was a byproduct of the discussion, but it in no way compounded or worsened the problem. The real problem here was the lack of transparency of the food providers about what kind of products they were processing and selling, and the full on betrayal of public trust by outright systematic lies. People claiming after the fact that eating horse is no big deal is not compounding or worsening this. It's a footnote.

In fact, the subsequent article ignores this entire argument and goes on to simply call out food adventurists as poseurs. The headline is a red herring, and more likely than not, just trolling for reactions from people like me. Mission accomplished.

2. The Logic
In logical terms, the article is a complete mess. Here's how I read the logic in the piece (I'll spell it out so that if you disagree, you can feel free to argue with my logic):

JR: "Culinary adventurism" is faux sophistication and just an example of machismo for its own sake. It has no real cultural or culinary worth. Culinary adventurers who replied to the scandal claiming that eating horse meat is fine were just ridiculing the masses for being less sophisticated than they are.

While I don't disagree that this may be the reason many of these folks eat the strange things they do, I'd stop short of painting this group with such a wide brushstroke. In fact, it seems very subjective to judge them as such on simply the retort that horse meat is fine to eat. No matter what your subjective thoughts are on the subject, millions of people objectively choose to eat horse meat. That is a fact. If you do not know this, you are culturally ignorant, not better or worse, just lacking in the information.

In fact, culinary adventurers are actually the unsophisticated eaters, because they only eat the "odd" food to impress others, not because they taste good. We should not be impressed because the "crazy" food they eat is not objectively good in taste or flavor. His example is anecdote of a restaurant that served insects could not draw a crowd in London, thus proving his point. Mr. Rayner concludes that this is the reason that the "triumverate (sheep, cow, pig) dominates." These foods are objectively better, the numbers prove it, and, therefore, food adventurers should stop trying to claim otherwise.

The logic here maps out as follows:
  • All people should eat what tastes good.
  • Proof of objective good taste is what the majority choose to eat. 
  • If it is not eaten by many, it is not good.
Therefore, the best tasting foods in the world are... McDonald's? Pizza Hut? Also, caviar, truffles, and lobster must not be good because few people eat them. El Bulli closed, so molecular gastronomy must not produce very good food. Some studies claim that goat is the most consumed meat in the world, so what does that mean for the triumvirate?

This opens the cultural relativism argument. Where does Mr. Rayner draw the line? In Mexico, insects have been eaten for thousands of years. Horse is still popular in Italy. What is considered "normal" in Japan or in Sweden? Does that mean that those cultures are just showing off? Or is it about only eating what is part of your culture? I'm assuming that this logic would mean that most people should be monolingual, and all those crazy multilingual people are just showing off.

Finally, even though some might claim that because he enjoys offal that he is just as guilty as those he is attacking here, he claims that it is different because they are part of England's cultural heritage, a smart use of resources, and objectively taste good.

At this point, his conclusion and his defense seem to completely conflict. If food should be objectively understood as good by it's popularity, then offal should be objectively considered bad because it has been shunned by most English diners. If restaurants that serve offal have closed for bad sales in the UK, it's proof that food is not good. Other foods that are native to their lands are good use of resources, and in fact, for the most part cows are awful for most environments and an awful use of resources. And if Rayner claims that pigs' trotters and brains taste good, much to the disdain of the rest of the country, he should just stop showing off and get himself to a Nando's.

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