Thursday, March 5, 2015

A quantum of umbrage: Boiled eggs, 60-watt light bulbs, and the lonely death of Swiftian irony

It is allowed on all hands, that the primitive way of breaking eggs, before we eat them, was upon the larger end; but his present majesty’s grandfather, while he was a boy, going to eat an egg, and breaking it according to the ancient practice, happened to cut one of his fingers. Whereupon the emperor his father published an edict, commanding all his subjects, upon great penalties, to break the smaller end of their eggs. The people so highly resented this law, that our histories tell us, there have been six rebellions raised on that account; wherein one emperor lost his life, and another his crown.

Jonathan Swift,
(1726), Chapter IV
One of the things that amazed and amused me when, years ago, I left Indiana (the state where I was born but not the state that I'm from) to live first on the east coast (Philadelphia) and later and longer on the west coast (Portland and thereabouts), was the vehement reaction of many non-midwesterners to Miracle Whip. A reaction not simply to its taste, although that's certainly a part of it, but often to its very existence.

(For those who haven't taken the plunge, Miracle Whip looks similar to ordinary off-the-grocer's-shelf mayonnaise and is typically marketed in a similar-shaped jar on the same grocery aisle. Without knowing the recipe specifics beyond oil, vinegar, and eggs, I would generally say that they have the same texture but Miracle Whip is somewhat sweeter and generic mayonnaise is slightly off-white in color. I suppose the best analogy, culturally and gustatorially speaking, would be that Miracle Whip is to generic mayonnaise as sweet pickles are to dill pickles.)

I bring this up because I stumbled upon an amusing video on YouTube, in which pairs of west-coasters were invited to sample various mainstays of Indiana cuisine: Sweet pickles, fried cornmeal mush (one fellow makes his happy peace with that one by renaming it "Indiana Tortilla Sticks") sugar cream pie, yet another variety of sweet pickle with which I am unfamiliar, and a (suspiciously un-Hoosier looking) pork tenderloin sandwich (the meat is too thick, it doesn't stick out the edge of the bun enough, the breading is too dark, and what's all that healthy vegetable stuff doing on it?).

The video is the product of a real estate enterprise and appears intended to soften up young prospective home-buyers from California on the idea that moving to Indiana wouldn't necessarily be the worst possible thing that could happen to them. (There are similar videos for Ohio and Michigan.) I imagine the logic is that young buyers, priced completely out of the California homeowners' market, might find it easier to bite the bullet and buy a starter home in the Rust Belt – assuming they could deal with the local dietary customs.

At this point, I must make a confession. Among my favorite Facebook friends are some who can be trolled into making utterly predictable responses at the drop of a hat, or the click of a Post button, given the right topic or the right way of framing it. They simply can't resist. I don't do it often, but sometimes I put things out there just for grins and giggles, and note the time. I posted the Indiana Food Taste Test video, with this status line:
Interesting, but they ducked the most important theological debate of our age: Mayonnaise versus Miracle Whip. Nations have gone to war over this.
Yes, it was click-bait. I admit it. But I held the hope that the mention of both theology and war on such a silly culinary topic was such an obvious Swiftian nudge-nudge-wink-wink, that most people who responded, getting the joke, would take it up in much the same spirit. (So I suppose I thought that made it good click-bait.) Nevertheless, I noted the time I posted it. No, I'm not entirely proud of this, but you probably have amusements you'd rather other people didn't know about, too.

It took eleven minutes – or slightly less time than it takes to make two soft-boiled eggs with yolks that are just beginning to set – for someone to denounce Miracle Whip as not only not a food, but perhaps not even a food product.

This claim, as with many theological arguments, is really founded on an ontological category error, i.e.: Miracle Whip resembles generic mayonnaise, but it isn't, so it shouldn't exist. One might as well say the same thing about ranch dressing and bleu cheese dressing, or Bosc pears and 60-watt light bulbs.

I just find that odd. Even in Indiana, everyone knows the difference between the two products, and in a lifetime of eating Indiana food I don't believe I've ever been served Miracle Whip on a restaurant sandwich. You only end up ingesting it if you intended to.

Sitting at my elbow as I write this is a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My taste for it is probably a function of time and class and culture, as much so as with some of the other foods under discussion. (Plus, I imagine, a soup├žon of simple brand-selection laziness.) And over the years I have gotten the stink-eye from many of my craft-beer enthusiast friends when I order a PBR (the idea that I might not want a hint of blueberry finish in my beer never seems worth serious discussion). The same often happens when I mention to my Mayonnaise Orthodox friends that I have eaten Miracle Whip (it tastes far better on a peanut butter sandwich than generic mayonnaise ever will, if you want to know) and have lived to tell the tale – as well as every suspect item on that video's menu, plus chicken livers, and beef liver and onions. And tuna casserole, and marshmallow fruit salad.

But I won't touch gizzards or calamari. And I have watched the look of creeping horror on non-Hoosier friends' faces when they asked the local server "is the fish fresh?" and the server nodded brightly, "yes – fresh frozen!" – leaving them to imagine the unlucky diner who got the fish that was frozen after it was no longer fresh.

Twelve hours later on Facebook, I'm still getting declarations of preferences on white spreadable condiments, but nothing about Indiana, California, real estate prices, or anything else except unironic responses to the throwaway joke in the status message (except two: my sister from Indiana put in a good word for sugar cream pie, and David Neiwart showed he clearly got the drift by chipping in with another regional delicacy that makes non-locals go "Ewww!"). I strongly suspect most readers made it through the set-up message and never went any further. This serves me right for playing the click-bait game, I suppose.

People, this is simple. If you don't like it, don't buy it. If you don't want it, don't eat it. No need to choose up sides in a war.

Spend your time productively, arguing which Darren was better.

(Postscript: As I was writing this last night, a currently-turning-vegan friend stopped by to chat and when I mentioned what I was working on, she told me about this. The website has the following endorsement:

“I preferred the taste of their Just Mayo to 
Hellmann’s, my ‘must have’ brand. In a blind test.”
Andrew Zimmern
Travel Channel Host & Celebrity Chef

Let the battle begin!)

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