Sprigs of Sage Advice
It has now been just over ten months since I took on—reluctantly, I will add—the arduous, thorny task of reviewing restaurants for this magazine. From that moment to this, I have been persistently dogged by three philosophical questions: Are you a foodie? What experience do you have? and Do you expect us to take your opinions seriously? To which I usually respond: no, none, and no. Let me explicate.
Foodie status. As someone who has eaten food his entire life (not including a three-day cleanse I received courtesy of the Long John Silver’s in Sharpstown a few years back), it would be very easy for me to claim this, in the same way I might be considered a breathe-ie or a drinkie. But that would be wrong, as Wittgenstein points out in his pioneering Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. A foodie is not a thing but a fact, he says, a relationship. In other words, there cannot be foodies unless there are also free, restaurant-sponsored grazing sessions that publicists invite them to because they write for blogs no one has ever heard of.
Experience. This too would be easy to claim, as I have extensive knowledge of the restaurant industry, all of it gained during the eight months I spent waiting tables at the Red Lobster on Hollister St. decades ago. Given that, some will question why I have not trumpeted my experience as a waiter, and that is because they have never seen me as a waiter. Among those who have, brains have been permanently stained by the memory, and sometimes clothes as well. I won’t go into details for fear of triggering a PTSD flashback of severe debilitation, but suffice it to say that there are people in this world who once loved strawberry daiquiris and love them no more. On the other hand, there is an existential argument to be made here (I’m speaking of the Sartrean model), namely that one cannot logically be an expert on disastrous meals unless one has actually served one, and I have served many. How many food critics, one wonders, have had popcorn shrimp thrown at them in retaliation for bad table service? A precious few, I’ll bet.
Opinions. I stand by the assertion that my opinions should be taken with a grain of salt, and the same is true of everyone else’s. And that’s because restaurant reviewing, even more than other fields of endeavor, is peculiarly vulnerable to the precepts of Cartesian skepticism. To wit, no one knows anything about anything.
Consider the case of poached cod, a dish currently featured on one of our finer local menus. Over the past several months, dozens of writers have passed judgment on the same spongy, beige, two-inch parallelepiped. One proclaimed it “lovely stuff,” another said it was “all about textures,” while a third pronounced it raw and sent it “back to the kitchen for further cooking.” A partial list of further verdicts returned by the Internet: “good,” “inedible, under-cooked, tough,” “flaky delicious.”
Ergo, the truth about poached cod will remain forever unknowable, but this should not surprise us. As Heraclitus recognized long ago, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river, he is not the same man, and one doesn’t typically find cod in a river.”