Saturday, December 17, 2011

Better than real

Have you noticed how striking the taste of restaurant food has become? Or how rich and bold scenes looks in our movies? It all seems to me, well, better than real.

I try to make good-tasting food for dinner. But the impact of my flavors cannot compare to the vibrant sensations of the palate created by most food I eat in restaurants these days. Granted, everything tastes better when someone else makes it, but still my homemade entrees seem inexplicably dull by comparison. I talked to a friend recently about this phenomenon and she agreed--and she is a much better cook than I am.

What's the deal, we wondered. Maybe, just maybe, I proposed, the restaurant guys are putting in a secret ingredient. It's the same one in the processed or frozen dinners in the grocery freezer cases. I have certainly read those ingredient lists, but which chemical produces this effect, of all those listed, I can't even guess at. But I think it's in there. The street name for it could be the "you-can't-make-it-taste-this-good-at-home" enzyme.

I'll go further. I suspect this tantalizing enzyme is addictive. Sure, prepared foods contain plenty of fat and salt, and those alone are alluring enough. But our national craving for toaster pastries, waffle fries, and strangely flavorful Waldorf salads cannot be so easily explained. And in this tough economy, it's hard to account for why Americans seem to eat fewer and fewer meals at home.

Now, we have the same sort of hijinks going on in movies and television. Look at those green fields! Look at that perfect serpentine road descending toward the deep blue waters of the bay! Even on vacation to stunning locations, the scenery just doesn't look this good. But when I take those vacation photos into Photoshop and up the contrast and color saturation, voila--they are so much better! And do I dare bring up the elaborate improvements made to people on screen and in print (Look at that young woman's red lips and perfect skin and stunning figure!)?

So I'm afraid that we are all being taught to expect things--food, scenery, women, men--that are far better than reality can ever make them. Looking around, how dull things look, how flawed. As we become subtly dissatisfied with the real world, won't we spend more and more time in the enhanced world of delicious additives and super-saturated beauty? I worry about this and am reminded of a quote by author and critic Edward Dahlberg (1900-1977):

"We are always talking about being together, and yet whatever we invent destroys the family, and makes us wild, touchless beasts feeding on technicolor prairies and rivers."

A man ahead of his time, and a warning for those who will listen.

Photo by Michael Doyle.

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