Quotulatiousness

April 25, 2015

They called it “hardtack” for a good reason

Filed under: History,Military — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 02:00

An army may march on its stomach, as Napoleon is reputed to have said, but what filled that collective stomach might well turn our modern ones:

The origin of Hardtack’s name itself is a source of some disagreement. Many argue that it stems from the texture of the item combined with British sailor slang for food, or “tack.” Others say the term originated during the American Civil War. Some maintain that the name derives from the biscuit being “hard as tacks” – somewhat uninspired.

In a time before refrigeration, pasteurization, canning, or preservation through chemical additives there were only so many ways a food could be kept without spoilage. Salting and dehydrating foods was a relatively easy way to make them last. Baking cereal grains into a dense biscuit made for easy transport and a reduced risk of spoilage (although, as we will learn, vermin were a different story). Most importantly (especially for operational planning), it was cheap. A form of hardtack was given as rations to Roman armies under the name bucellatum and during the 16th Century, British sailors could expect a daily ration of 1 gallon of beer and 1 lb. of hardtack.

While hardtack was issued right up until World War I, the most recent and descriptive accounts of the food come from the American Civil War. Soldiers often referred to the biscuits as “worm castles” because all too often they would become home to maggots and weevils. One soldier recalled the sorry state of hardtack that he and his comrades were to consume:

    A brigade officer of the day called out sharply to some of our men as he passed along the line: “Throw that hard tack out of the trenches. Don’t you know, men, you’ve been told not to throw your rations in the trenches” Prompt to obey, the men threw out the hard tack, saying as they did, “We’ve thrown it out several times, sir, but it will crawl back.”

    When the hardtack wasn’t infested with insects, soldiers needed to soften the biscuits for consumption in a variety of ways, including whacking them with the butt of their rifles, soaking them in coffee, or softening them in water to then be fried in pork fat. Delicious.

April 24, 2015

Relative and absolute poverty

Filed under: Economics,History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

We in the west are so rich, in historical terms, that we are losing our grasp on what poverty really has been for the majority of humankind for the majority of our recorded history:

People generally just don’t get what poverty actually means. This is a charge often enough aimed at me and people like me, well off white guys who pontificate upon economics. But those making that charge often enough don’t actually understand what real poverty means. So, here’s a nice example of it. There’s a campaign in New York to insist that SNAP (ie, food stamps) should not be cut. Views on that can vary either way: I’m generally in favour of a larger welfare state than the one the US has at present so I’m probably against such a cut. But that’s a political point and not the one I’m interested in here. Rather, I want to point out just quite how rich someone getting food stamps is on any global or historical basis.

Yes, you did read that right: how rich someone getting food stamps is. As one example, the food stamp allocation in New York State appears to be $29 per person per week in a family receiving the full possible allocation. That, on its own, is a yearly income of $1,508 and that’s an amount that puts you, on its own, in the top 50% of all income recipients in the world. No, really, you can look that up with this little calculator. More than half of humanity is poorer than someone who only gets the New York food stamp allocation.

All of which gives us an interesting little look into the difference between absolute poverty and relative poverty. For, obviously, the people who are receiving food stamps in New York are those we consider to be poor in our own society. And in our own society, they are indeed poor, as Adam Smith pointed out with his linen shirt example. It’s not necessary for a working man to have a linen shirt, he’s not poor because he cannot afford one. But if you live in a society where you are considered to be poor if you cannot afford a linen shirt, and you cannot afford one, then in that society you are of course poor. This is relative poverty, more usefully known not as a measure of poverty but of inequality.

April 22, 2015

“Victorian style poverty” in the UK

Filed under: Britain,Economics — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In a recent Forbes column, Tim Worstall pours scorn on the recent claim that some British children are living in “Victorian conditions”:

There’s a very large difference between arguing that we have Victorian style (for those unacquainted with British practise, this means late 19th century style) poverty in the UK and that we have Victorian style inequality in the UK. That second is at least arguably possible, although untrue, while the first is simply a flat out untruth. There is nothing even remotely akin to 19th century poverty in the UK today. Nor is there, of course, in any of the industrialised nations. The problem stems from people simply not understanding how poor the past was.

The claim is made this morning in The Guardian:

    Many children are living in Victorian conditions – it’s an inequality timebomb

That second assertion could be true but is a matter for another day. That first is just wrong.

    I was reminded of this by the teaching union NASUWT’s warning this week that there are children in this country living in “Victorian conditions”, turning to charity for regular meals and going without a winter coat.

“Going without a winter coat” might be something we’d like to remedy (and yes, I think we would like to do so) but it’s not a reminder of Victorian levels of poverty, it’s nothing like it at all. It’s necessary to actually understand what Victorian poverty was. Late 19th century Britain had some 25% of the population living at or below the subsistence level. This subsistence level is not a measure of inequality, nor of the lack of winter clothes. It is a measure of gaining enough calories each day in order to prolong life. This is the sort of subsistence level that Malthus and Ricardo were talking about. The sort of level of poverty that the World Bank currently uses as a measure of “absolute poverty”.

This absolute poverty is set at $1.25 per person per day. No, this is not the number that can be spent upon food per person per day. This is the amount that can be spent upon everything per person per day. This covers shelter, clothing, heating, cooking, food, education, pensions, health care, absolutely everything. This number is also inflation adjusted, so we are not talking about $1.25 a day when bread was one cent a gallon loaf. This number is also Purchasing Power Parity adjusted: so we are not talking about lentils costing two cents a tonne in India and £3 a kg in Tesco. We are adjusting for those price differences across geography and time.

Just to note, by these PPP and inflation adjusted numbers, being on the minimum wage in the UK puts you in the top 10% of all income earners in the current world. Being on nothing at all but benefits would put you into the top 20%.

Up to 25% of the population of Britain were that badly off in the late Victorian era: “Actual real starvation to death as a result of poverty was not unknown, even that late, as late as 1890.”

April 17, 2015

QotD: Bitterness about bitterness

Filed under: Quotations,USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

And if I may insert a personal plea: could the bittermongers please knock it off with the sneers? Somehow, in the collective cocktail consciousness of America’s hipsters, “bitter” has become synonymous with “sophisticated”. Bitter beer is good beer, bitter cocktails are good cocktails, and the louts who like things thin or sweet deserve what they get, which is everyone else at the bar struggling to conceal their bemused smile. Yet there are many of us who hate, hate, hate bitter flavors not because we haven’t been exposed to them, nor because we’re unadventurous slobs who would really rather be hooked up to a glucose IV. Personally, I find bitter flavors like Campari so strong that even a sip is on the verge of being physically aversive, as if you were punching me in the tongue. That’s not a matter of sophistication, but a matter of personal chemistry. There are people who can taste bitter compounds in broccoli and soapy-tasting substances in cilantro that make it completely unpalatable, while the rest of us dig into our veggies and say they don’t know what they’re missing. In fact, we’ve got it exactly backwards: we don’t know what we’re missing — and we’re moralizing our deficits.

Megan McArdle, “Dinner, With a Side of Self-Righteousness”, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-27.

March 31, 2015

Latin America During WW1 and Who Are You Guys? I OUT OF THE TRENCHES

Filed under: Americas,Europe,History,Military — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Published on 30 Mar 2015

Indy sits in the chair of wisdom again and answers your questions. This time he explains the situation of Latin America during World War 1 and you get to know some of the people behind the camera of our channel.

March 19, 2015

I know it’s been cold around here this winter …

Filed under: Cancon,Randomness — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

… but I hadn’t heard that Hell had actually frozen over. Because that’d be the only possible explanation for a headline like this one:

Is Scarborough, Ontario the dining capital of the world?

Wednesday night I was taken on a restaurant tour of Scarborough — four different places — plus rolls from a Sri Lankan locale, consumed in the office of the Dean of UT Scarborough and with the assistance of Peter Loewen.

After that eating, and lots of driving around and looking, I concluded Scarborough is the best ethnic food suburb I have seen in my life, ever, and by an order of magnitude. I hope you all have the chance to visit Scarborough, Ontario.

Update, 20 March: The Toronto Star‘s Lauren Pelley reports on Tyler Cowen’s recent visit to Scarborough and his discovery of the area’s impressive range of high quality ethnic food.

Over the phone from his office at George Mason University in Virginia, Cowen noted that people in Toronto seem to perceive the new, hip restaurants to be elsewhere. “But it seems to me, you don’t come close to this part of town,” he said.

Rick Halpern, dean of UTSC and Cowen’s tour guide last Wednesday, agreed that most people are fixated on the downtown core. “No one goes east of the DVP,” he lamented.

Cowen’s post is making the rounds online, and sparking discussion on blogs and Reddit. Scarborough is “a foodie’s best kept secret,” as one commenter put it, though it’s no secret to locals.

“I would say that people who are into food, and who have a car, explore Scarborough and other suburbs,” said Jennifer Bain, the Star’s food editor, who has highlighted many of the area’s offerings over the years — including Uighur fare from Scarborough’s Chinese Muslim community, sweets from local Filipino bakeries, and the global flavours of Hakka Chinese food, to name a few.

March 17, 2015

QotD: Subjective economic value

Filed under: Economics,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Properly understood, all economic values are subjective. Some items have useful applications, but the relative value of those applications is itself subjective; there’s nutritional value in a pound of cauliflower, and there’s nutritional value to an ounce of Beluga caviar, and the difference in the price between the two is based on no objective criterion. Even scarcity does not explain the difference: There are more diamonds in this world than there are autographed photos of Anthony Weiner, but try giving your wife the latter for your anniversary and you’ll get a short and possibly violent lesson in the subjectivity of value. In fact, it is the subjectivity of value that makes exchange possible — if our values and preferences were perfectly aligned, we’d never trade anything for anything else, because we’d all value every item and service at precisely the same level, and there would therefore be no incentive to engage in commerce. That our preferences should be non-uniform ought not be surprising — our lives are non-uniform, too. If I operate an apple orchard, I am probably not going to buy apples from you at any price, unless perhaps they are a different sort of apple than the ones I grow. The rancher and the fisherman each assigns a different value to beef and fish than does his opposite number. Disagreement is fundamental.

The crude version of exchange — which is, unhappily, the common version — is inclined to suspect that there is an objectively correct price for a good, and that profit comes from duping somebody into paying more than the correct price for it. That error is fundamental to Marxism and other anti-capitalist philosophies, and it is implicit in such social phenomena as the anti-advertising movement, “Buy Nothing Day,” and similar political tendencies. But that bias does relatively little harm in the heads of greying Marxists, peddlers of “profit is a crime” banalities, and Occupy riff-raff. Where it is truly destructive is in the disorganized thoughts of the large majority of ordinary people with no particularly strong political commitments or economic orientation. Consider these phrases: “An honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay,” “just wages,” “fair price,” “obscene profits,” “price gouging,” “excessive executive compensation.” For any of those phrases to have any intellectual content, then there must be a price that is in some non-subjective sense the correct one. But if economic values are subjective — and they are — then “an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay” can only mean one thing, that being the payment of an agreed-upon wage for an agreed-upon performance of labor, with “honest” referring only to the fulfillment of the agreement and saying nothing substantive about the terms of the agreement itself.

Kevin D. Williamson, “The Profit Police”, National Review, 2014-06-30.

March 5, 2015

In search of healthy eating

Filed under: Health,Science — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Mother Jones, Kevin Drum talks about all the things we’ve been told about healthy eating … that just ain’t so:

For several years now I’ve been following the controversy over whether the dietary guidelines that have developed over the the past 70 years might be all wrong. And I’ve become tentatively convinced that, in fact, they are wrong. For most people — not all! — salt isn’t a big killer; cholesterol isn’t harmful; and red meat and saturated fat are perfectly OK. Healthy, even. Sugar, on the other hand, really needs to be watched.

Before I go on, a great big caveat: I’m not even an educated amateur on this subject. I’ve read a fair amount about it, but I’ve never dived into it systematically. And the plain truth is that firm proof is hard to come by when it comes to diet. It’s really, really hard to conduct the kinds of experiments that would give us concrete proof that one diet is better than another, and the studies that have been done almost all have defects of some kind.

Emphasis mine.

Randomized trials are the gold standard of dietary studies, but as I said above, they’re really, really hard to conduct properly. You have to find a stable population of people. You have to pick half of them randomly and get them to change their diets. You have to trust them to actually do it. You have to follow them for years, not months. Virtually no trial can ever truly meet this standard.

Nonetheless, as Carroll says, the randomized trials we do have suggest that red meat and saturated fat have little effect on cardiovascular health — and might actually have a positive effect on cancer outcomes.

At the same time, increased consumption of sugars and carbohydrates might be actively bad for us. At the very least they contribute to obesity and diabetes, and there’s some evidence that they aren’t so great for your heart either.

So where does this leave us? As Carroll says, the literature as a whole suggests that we simply don’t know. We’ve been convinced of a lot of things for a long time, and it’s turned out that a lot of what we believed was never really backed by solid evidence in the first place. So now the dietary ship is turning. Slowly, but it’s turning.

His primary take-away from all this: moderation is probably your safest bet, unless you have a condition that requires you to avoid certain foods or types of foods. Oh, and avoid over-indulging in packaged food that uses lots of preservatives. This is certainly one area where the science sure didn’t turn out to be settled, after all.

March 2, 2015

Food naming oddities

Filed under: Cancon,India,Randomness — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

David Warren on the oddly named “Digby Chicken” and “Bombay Duck” along with a paean to the joys of food shopping in Parkdale:

Parkdale, which is to say, the inner core of the Greater Parkdale Area, in which the High Doganate is located, is a melting pot of innumerable overlapping ethnications. Among our most exotic immigrants are those from the far east: Nova Scotia, for instance, and Newfoundland. Shopping, at least for food in Parkdale, is a treat. We have every sort of specialist grocery, and in effect, groceries within groceries. One gets one’s Tibetan yak sausage, for instance, from a Serbian butcher whose store is cowboy-themed; ingredients for one’s Somali maraq from the Sinhalese grocery (via their Maldivian connexion); but the exhilarating, cardamom-infused gashaato instead via the Sikh Punjabis, as supplement to their Bengali sweets. Note, this culinary cross-dressing is the opposite of multiculturalism. Rather I would call it, “downmarket fusion.”

This being Lent, I try to avoid fish on Fridays. There’s enough of that for the other days, beans on rice will do, or perhaps sinfully on the last two Fridays, I indulged a craving for sweet potato in a Siamese red sauce. I woke this morning with a craving for salt, as well as protein, and as God is merciful, recalled to mind a little platter of Digby chicks in my fridge — obtained some days before from the Maritime ethnic section of a cheap local supermarket.

Digby Chicken has long been Nova Scotia’s answer to Bombay Duck. The latter, also salty, and so powerful in flavour and scent that it requires careful packaging, is actually a fish, the bummalo. Gentle reader may already be trying to construct an etymology from that, but there is no hope for him. The fish is actually harvested from the waters off Bombay. It was transported from there by rail, in the good old days of British Imperialism, aboard the Bombay Dhak (i.e. the Bombay Mail), which gave rise to such expressions as, e.g. “You smell like the Bombay Dhak.” Surely, that will be enough to go on.

February 27, 2015

QotD: Decades of official dietary guidance … “Oops, our bad!”

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,Health,Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Americans, prepare to feel angry: After years of watching our cholesterol, sacrificing shellfish and egg yolks and gloriously fatty pork and beef, and enduring day-glow yellow and too-soft tubs of butter substitute, Americans are about to be told by our government diet experts, “Oops … we had it all wrong.”

The Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, which is charged with reviewing the government-issued dietary guidelines every five years, is preparing to release its “new and improved” guidelines any day now, and leaks from the deliberations hint at a reversal in the committee’s decades-long guidance that Americans should eat a diet low in cholesterol.

What are Americans to think of this new guidance that says cholesterol doesn’t really matter after all, that it is no longer a “nutrient of concern,” that eating food high in cholesterol may not be connected to heart disease?

Devotees of protein-rich, low-carb diets may see this as validation and reason to celebrate. Others will no doubt feel deflated, confused, and just plain bitter that for years they’ve been fed a lie that cost them, quite literally, the joy of eating delicious food, and possibly better health. Still others will misunderstand this new guidance and think butter and other high-cholesterol foods are now in the healthy column. In reality, those foods still ought to be consumed in moderation — particularly by people with preexisting conditions such as diabetes.

Yet there’s a bigger story here. Government really ought not be in the business of providing nutrition advice in the first place. Nutrition is a personal issue, and what’s best for one person may not be best for another. Moreover, Americans have ample access to information in the private sector on health and nutrition. In other words, Uncle Sam, we don’t need you anymore.

Julie Gunlock, “Government Dieticians Tell Us, Never Mind Our Decades of Bad Advice”, National Review, 2015-02-13.

February 11, 2015

Everything the government has told about “healthy diets” is wrong

Filed under: Government,Health,Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 07:01

Well, maybe not everything, but a lot of government advice — which may well have been a major factor in the rise of obesity — was based on very little empirical evidence:

Whenever standard nutritional advice is overturned — as it has been this week by a study which effectively rubbished government guidelines limiting the intake of dietary fat — I am instantly reminded of a scene in the Woody Allen film Sleeper, first released when I was 10. I expect a lot of people my age are.

In the film Allen plays Miles, a cryogenically frozen health food store owner who is revived 200 years later. Two scientists are puzzling over his old-fashioned dietary requirements, unable to comprehend what passed for health food back in 1973. “You mean there was no deep fat?” says one. “No steak or cream pies, or hot fudge?”

“Those were thought to be unhealthy,” says the other scientist. “Precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.”

This was meant to be a joke rather than a prediction, but it’s beginning to look as if we may not have to wait until 2173 to see it validated.

[…]

Of course the new study isn’t comprehensively refuting the association between high saturated fat intake and heart disease; it’s just pointing out that dietary guidelines first adopted in the mid-1970s were not, on reflection, based on any real evidence. In terms of what one should and shouldn’t be eating, I sometimes feel as if I’ve spent the past 30 years in a freezer.

February 2, 2015

The Burger Wars of the 21st century

Filed under: Business,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The old burger wars were between McDonald’s and its similar-but-slightly-different competitors like Burger King and Wendy’s. Peter Suderman says the new burger wars won’t follow the same pattern. The new battle will be more like plucky bands of humans hunting down woolly mammoths, as the smaller-but-nimbler chains start to encroach on the big chains’ traditional territories:

Hamburger fans, rejoice: Better burgers are winning the fast-food wars.

On Wednesday, McDonald’s — the biggest and most successful brand in fast food — announced that its current CEO, Don Thompson, would be stepping down. The departure comes on the heels of a lackluster earnings report and a steep drop in overall sales as competition from new entrants has increased.

This morning, shares of Shake Shack, a rapidly growing burger chain that grew out of a hot dog stand in Manhattan, shot up in price during the company’s first day of public trading. The restaurant chain has just 63 locations, but it’s now worth an estimated $1.6 billion.

The problems facing McDonald’s are obvious: Because it is so well known and so dominant, it has a hard time changing in response to market demand. Its success gives it access to tremendous resources, but its all-things-to-everyone approach, and the inevitable bloat that tends to accrue at any successful legacy business, leaves it vulnerable to new players that can do fewer things better — like, for example, Shake Shack.

It’s hard to imagine the fast food market without McDonald’s, but it was a very different world then. Here’s Mark Knopfler’s tribute-of-sorts to Ray Kroc, who turned the McDonald’s brand into one of the world’s most well-known and profitable companies:

i’m going to san bernardino ring-a-ding-ding
milkshake mixers that’s my thing, now
these guys bought a heap of my stuff
and i gotta see a good thing sure enough, now
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, yeah
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
kroc-style
boom, like that

the folks line up all down the street
and i’m seeing this girl devour her meat, now
and then i get it, wham as clear as day
my pulse begins to hammer and i hear a voice say:
these boys have got this down
oughtta be a one of these in every town
these boys have got the touch
it’s clean as a whistle and it don’t cost much
wham, bam you don’t wait long
shake, fries patty, you’re gone
and how about that friendly name?
heck, every little thing oughtta stay the same
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
kroc-style
boom, like that

you gentlemen ought to expand
you’re going to need a helping hand, now
so, gentlemen well, what about me?
we’ll make a little business history, now
or my name’s not kroc call me ray
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
kroc-style
boom, like that

well we build it up and i buy ’em out
but, man they made me grind it out, now
they open up a new place flipping meat
so i do, too right across the street
i got the name i need the town
they sell up in the end and it all shuts down
sometimes you gotta be an s.o.b.
you wanna make a dream reality
competition? send ’em south
if they’re gonna drown put a hose in their mouth
do not pass ‘go’ go straight to hell
i smell that meat hook smell
or my name’s not kroc that’s kroc with a ‘k’
like ‘crocodile’ but not spelled that way, now
it’s dog eat dog
rat eat rat
kroc-style
boom, like that

February 1, 2015

India’s experiment in improving how welfare services are delivered

Filed under: Bureaucracy,Government,India — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Tim Worstall looks at a recent book on an Indian experiment that investigated how to improve poverty relief programs:

In terms of the Indian experience one of the reasons that these trials worked well was because they were trials. Effort was put into making certain that those who were supposed to be receiving the cash were in fact receiving it. Such care and attention to people getting what they’re supposed to get is not an outstanding feature of the various welfare systems currently in use in India, as the book makes clear. So, just making sure that people were getting those modest amounts that they were supposed to get is going to be an advance. And it wouldn’t be possible to simply roll out such a scheme across the country, however beneficial, without a lot of preparatory work to make sure that the right people really would be getting the money.

It’s also true that the current systems fail badly in other ways. Purchasing grain to ship it around to special shops where it will be sold hugely under the market price is always going to be a leaky system. Some number of the middlemen will be sorely tempted to divert produce to sell onto the market and there’s considerable evidence that some succumb to that temptation. If people simply have money to buy on the standard market in the normal manner then it’s a lot easier to keep a control on that sort of thing.

However, the most important thing for the design of the American welfare system is the points they make about how the poor value being given goods as against being given money. $100 (far in excess of the amounts being discussed here) is worth more than $100 of food for example. Or $100 worth of medical care. There’s two reasons for this. One is simply that everyone values agency. The ability to decide things for oneself. And money does that. It’s possible to decide whether you want to purchase food, or to save a bit and buy a goat next week, or more fertiliser for the fields and so on. What the peasant on the ground would like to do with any increase in resources is most unlikely to accord with what some far away bureaucrat thinks said peasant ought to be doing. So, the choice itself increases value.

[…]

So, we could actually make poor people richer by abolishing food stamps. Assuming, of course, that we just gave them the same amount of money instead. The same would be true of Medicaid and housing vouchers of course. Yes, I’m aware that there are arguments against doing this. But it is still true: converting goods and services in kind into cash would make the poor richer at the same cost to the rest of us. So it is at least something we should consider, no?

And the main reason switching to cash from the current system is … paternalism. Governments really do think that they are better equipped than the recipients of aid in how to spend that money. And it’s quite true that some welfare recipients would blow the payments on booze or drugs or what-have-you, but the majority of peoples’ lives would improve if they got cash rather than food stamps or other in-kind assistance.

January 24, 2015

Pairing appropriate cheeses with wines

Filed under: Wine — Tags: — Nicholas @ 11:24

Wine and cheese are a natural pairing, but finding the right match to optimize the experience may not be as obvious. On Google+, B-Winegrower offers some recommendations:

CheeseWinePairing1Image from B-Winegrower on Google+

January 21, 2015

“Sir, please put the Sriracha down. Now!”

Filed under: Cancon,Health,USA — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Megan McArdle worries that the otherwise welcome introduction of spice to the awesomely bland North American diet of yesteryear may have gone just a tad too far:

It has come to my attention that some of you are becoming unable to eat good food unless it is spiced to within an inch of its life.

I’ve been noticing this for a while. It started with friends who put hot sauce on everything, even on dishes that were perfectly good without hot sauce. With dinner party hosts who proudly declared that the secret to good cooking was just to douse something in Cajun spices until you noticed the powder forming drifts on the side of the pan. With people who reported that an Asian restaurant was “good” because it had left their taste buds numb for hours.

Then, during the holiday season, I saw a Slate food writer declare that American apple pie is not as good as French apple pie because it is “bland and goopy,” and I began to suspect that something had gone seriously wrong with our food culture. When I saw an article on restaurant chefs who are daring to bring back prime rib, I became sure of it.

I’m as excited as anyone about the majestic spread of foreign food throughout our nation’s urban downtowns, its strip malls and cookbook aisles, its fruited plains and amber waves of grain. I can’t think of a national cuisine I don’t like, and that includes foods that will sear the taste buds off a water buffalo’s tongue at 20 feet.

I love me some spices … but I also like the idea of not feeling my tongue in pain for hours after I’ve finished eating my meal.

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