It’s not enough to land the fly in the right spot. The fly has to alight convincingly. At the slightest hint of mischief or deceit, the fish won’t bite. The art of fly fishing – from the craft of “tying” flies and lures, to deploying them successfully – is a sophisticated game of hide-and-seek.
Be it fisher or hunter, success is determined by how well prey is fooled. And because of this, since time immemorial, the survival of man has hinged on convincing artifice.
In restaurant vernacular, the word “soulless” is commonly used to describe a restaurant, or more specifically, the food at the restaurant. Even though most understand what it means, in this usage, the word is abstract. Attempts to explain or define this word in this context have been unsatisfying. Approximations like “uninteresting” and “emotionless” are equally abstract and inadequate.
For more than a decade, I have struggled to quantify this concept of “soullessness.” What are the specific and enumerable aspects of food and cooking that make it “soulless”?
A recent meal sparked a renewed consideration of this issue.
By any measure, this multi-course dinner was flawless. The technique was sophisticated. The cooking was precise. The food was not only flavorful, but the flavors were complex as well. And all of it was beautifully presented. On paper (or described here), it merited all of the accolades the chef and restaurant have received. And yet, it was forgettable, uninteresting… soulless.
Scrutinizing the menu the next day, I realized something that was plainly obvious – about that dinner, and countless other “soulless” meals – that I hadn’t isolated about food before. Nearly all of the dishes had been plated in such a way to ensure that I’d get a taste of everything in each bite. There was a uniformity to the way the food was arranged, with an even distribution of ingredients, sauce, and garnishes throughout. Herbs were tweezered to cover every inch of the plate at even intervals, vegetables were shingled with perfect symmetry. No matter how you cut or spooned it, you’d get equal proportions of everything.
That is not how humans naturally experience food.
Normally, flavors and textures are experienced in mosaic. No two slices of pizza are likely to have all of the toppings in the same proportion. Even within a slice, the distribution is patchy. One twirl of pasta may have more sauce, more tang; the next may have more meat, more cheese. Salads present endless patterns.
This uneven journey through a dish is not only how humans normally experience food, but it keeps us motivated to continue the journey until we’ve collected as many pieces of the puzzle as possible.
When this isn’t the case, we get bored (at least I do). If the second bite is no different from the first or third, why continue? I’m not learning anything new. This repetition not only makes the food “uninteresting,” but it’s a manipulative attempt to control the way we experience food. It’s not a genuine, human experience. I think that’s why “soullessness” is often used interchangeably with “emotionless.”
Trout and deer aren’t the only animals sensitive to artifice. Humans are too. As animals, we’re instinctually adept at seeing and sensing it. Manmade objects, however small, stick out on an otherwise beautiful landscape – an electric pole, a fence, a candy wrapper in the distance. No matter how clever the camouflage, plumbing and vents in aquariums are hard to hide. Inevitably, they become a distraction in an otherwise, magical diorama of the underwater world.
I’ll allow that some are more bothered by artifice than others. And I’ll also concede that this kind of artifice may not entirely encompass the meaning of “soullessness” when it comes to food and cooking (for example, knowing that something is copied from a prior pioneer may yield a similar verdict). But it gets me a lot closer to articulating what I mean when I use the term.
Perhaps I’m more animalistic or primal than most when it comes to eating. To those who know me, it’ll come as no surprise that I have a low tolerance for artifice in cooking; a thin quantum of soulless. It’s not that modernist cooking can’t be flavorful, or that modernist plating doesn’t represent a legitimate form of craftsmanship and artistry, with highly sophisticated techniques. Rather, much of my distaste for modernist cooking and plating comes down to the artifice that is common to it.