Everyone’s A Critic

I was recently a judge, the only U.S. representative, at the 8th Annual Mountain Cheese Festival, held this year in the Jura, which is the northwest corner of Switzerland.  (Jura refers to a mountainous range in both France and Switzerland.)  Along with about 99 other judges, from France, Switzerland, Germany, and Italy, most predominantly, we tasted cheeses and ranked them from 1 to 15.  My category was, “Semi-Hard Smeared Cheeses,” and for four hours I ate bits of about 45 cheeses and judged them across three criteria, which is the point.  That is, the criteria were established and agreed-upon by independent judges.  (All of us were writers, producers, or buyers of cheese.)  The criteria were: Appearance.  Texture.  Taste.  The value of our judgments made me think, again, about the limitations of restaurant and food criticism and the people who write them.  Typically, there are no established criteria.  (Ironically, since the critics are anonymous and amateurs, Zagat’s comes the closest to having criteria.) Subjectivity is a fine thing, how we live, but when critics are judging without making clear what it is they are judging, the value is diminished.  The DSM-IV–Diagnostics and Statistics Manual–in the field of mental health is deeply flawed, but at the very least all its readers know what criteria are used in judging mental illness.  Without established criteria for a restaurant review or “best bacon” or “best bagel in NY,” or whatever is being judged, the criticism or the reviews of “best of’s” tells us more about the observer than the subject.

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One thought on “Everyone’s A Critic

  1. Your idea of having agreed-upon criteria for restaurant critics would, in my opinion, make things much worse than they are. Notice how the more elaborate a star system used by a publication, the less their reviews are worth? Zagat is a perfect case in point. It isn’t innacurate, but survey responders simply repeat what they have read in newspaper reviews, and then a computer would talley the results.

    This would be like, in psychiatry, doing a study of the results of a particular medicine by taking all 38 studies, large, small, well-constructed, not — and giving each one vote as to how well it worked, then printing it as a scale.

    The truth about restaurant criticism is that it is not quantifiable because restaurants change so quickly, and because public taste varies more widely than the flavors of cheeses. It has the attractions for a writer that AJ Leibling described for sportswriters covering boxing: There are no statistics.

    The minute you have a star’s rating system, the prejudice toward a bell-curve takes over the mind of the writer, and it is all downhill from there.

    The most reliability you can get in a restaruant critic is a veteran with established tastes and preferences. If your own are paralell, you are all set. If your own are different, you must make a few simple calculations: Critic X says the place is pretentious; the last time he said that I loved it anyway. So I may not be pretentious, but I probably will like a place X doesn’t on that issue. Similar for Y, who loves Asian food, but I don’t. No point following Y’s recommendation unless she is writing about French or Italian
    food.

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