Why We Like Not-So-Great Food

Sometimes we prefer mediocre food

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By David Hammond

When our three daughters were growing up, we'd get a panettone every holiday season; we'd eat it on Christmas Day. The panettone came in a box; it was not expensive nor was it very good; this store-bought panettone was probably made by a machine in some baking factory. Filled with preservatives, this panettone could last for weeks unopened. My children loved it. It was squishy and sweet.

Last Thanksgiving, friend Ava brought to our house a panettone that she baked at home. It was probably the best panettone I'd ever had: firm, flavorful, and not-too-sweet, made of good quality ingredients, with care and attention. My children were lukewarm to it, I believe, because it wasn't what they were used to: it wasn't the usual, traditional, relatively mediocre version of this Italian classic. 

Sometimes we prefer -- even "like" mediocre, not-so-great food.

Kraft Macaroni & Cheese is a good example of this. Several people have confessed to me that it's their favorite. Friend Susan told me that she prefers this packaged version to "better" versions, which I totally get. If you grew up with Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, as we all did, you may have a certain softness for it, and you may actually prefer this version with powdered "cheese" to homemade versions with four good cheeses and a finer grade of pasta.

Sometimes, food we've had in hard times becomes food we like. Genmaicha tea, green tea "extended" with toasted rice, was consumed by the Japanese during WWII when tea was rationed. It was a sad time, and the food identified with that time is now fondly consumed.

Fry bread, a beloved snack at pow-wows across the country, was a product of reservation culture when Native Americans were forced into concentration camps and given non-traditional ingredients like white flour and cooking oil. The interred indigenous people improvised and came up with fry bread; this simple snack is now perhaps the most popular food of native peoples, recalling perhaps the saddest period in their histories.

White Castle sliders, a grotesque food when considered objectively, are fondly remembered by those who perhaps enjoyed it in their youth, either with their family or after a night of boozing with college buddies. No person with a healthy palate and without previous experience with this "food," would crave anything like it were it not for the fond memories it provokes.

I'm writing this after waking up from a dream that involved eating my mom's spare ribs, the kind she made maybe once per month in the 50s and 60s. My mom was an okay cook. Her ribs were dipped in Open Pit sauce and routinely overcooked in the oven until they were hard and leathery. I have had a lot of good ribs in my life, but I guess I prefer my mom's, which were good in ways that rise above flavor.

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