A simple little distinction between “I like that” and “That was good” has created battles between friends on college campuses and among people walking out of a restaurant or movie. Some people refuse to acknowledge there’s any distinction between the two – a kind of laissez-faire, libertarian aesthetic that basically goes, “Yo, I liked it. It was good. Lot’s of blood and boobs. You don’t like it, I can ram this fist down your pseudo-intellectual throat.”
Okay, it only feels like that’s what I’m hearing, but what is the big deal? What is the distinction, what does it mean, and why is it so important?
The premise behind the distinction
The more know about something, the more detailed your understanding of what went into its creation (from a car to a cartoon) and the greater your enjoyment. Some people hate that; it triggers insecurities that would be put to better use elsewhere.
Moi, I would love to become a restaurant critic, but I don’t know enough. I happen to be an excellent cook and love it, but I haven’t studied like my friend Annie, who has about 500 cookbooks, which makes up most of her nighttime reading, and has been attending cooking classes for years.
I was at a small dinner party once where the other two men were wine fanatics. I love wine and have a pretty impressive cellar. These guys were lunatics. One of them actually took notes on the wines during dinner. Before dinner, however, the host brought us each a glass of white wine and asked his friend (he knew I’d be lost) what it was. His friend went through the pretentious act of swirling the wine (which was in the proper glass) and sniffing. He took a small sip.
“Chardonnay?” he guessed, and I silently guffawed. Most of the great wines are made from Chardonnay grapes. That’s like giving someone a Milky Way; he takes a taste and asks, “Chocolate?”
Of course the answer was no, but then this fellow took another sip, then another, and proceeded to name two Italian grapes I’d never heard of, explained that they only grew on the South or North side of a mountain just outside somewhere, Italy. Then he named the wine and got the year with one – it was a nine-year-old win; he guessed ten. Clearly these two guys tasted things in the wine that I, who could tell, “Hey this is good,” will never know.
I used to do theater reviews and would sit there with a pad on my lap taking notes and looking all over the stage. Inevitably, if I had a date, she’d ask later, “How can you enjoy it when you’re tearing it into all these little pieces?” What makes a play great? A fine script, great actors, and a director who knows how to bring the actors into their roles. I can tell when that’s not done. There are problems you can blame on the actor and others that the director’s responsible for. Poor lighting can have you squinting and bring your attention to the wrong part of the stage. Bad costumes can make the whole thing a joke. I firmly believe my knowledge of plays means I understand them better than someone who just goes and takes it in.
Okay, so what does it mean?
The first thing to get over is that one isn’t better than the other. “I liked that” is a perfectly acceptable response as is “That was very good.” In fact, “I liked that even though it sucked” isn’t a contradiction. Take The Three Stooges. They’re terrible; the movies are stupid, repetitious, and insulting. I love ‘em, but they’re not “good.”
It also means you vary your aesthetic filter to the experience. If one approaches a 3-star Michelin restaurant in Paris with the same expectations of a trip to TGI Fridays, one is going to be very unhappy. When I was reviewing theater, I used different standards for a community group than for Long Wharf Theater in New Haven. How can you hold a part time group of actors to the same standards of one of the best Repertory theaters in the country?
This doesn’t mean all opinions are created equally. People study various taste genres to develop a sophistication that allows them to appreciate it at a level denied to us who won’t put in the time. If you take a three-year-old to the best restaurant in town, whose opinion would you pay more attention to: the kid’s or a restaurant reviewer you respect?
Finally, why is it so important?
As a chocoholic, I’ll eat and enjoy just about anything, but if you take a piece of chocolate out of a Godiva box and compare it to one from a Leonidas box (a Belgium chocolate maker), you should be able to tell with one taste why the Belgium chocolate is three or four times more expensive.
It’s an important distinction also because we want to remember and cherish those great artists of the past, which you can’t do if you can’t see the difference between “I like” and “It’s good.” Julia Child, Marcella Hazan, and Craig Claiborne, to name but three, are among the great chefs and cookbook writers we will ever see. To put them in the same class with 99 percent of the TV chefs today would be an outrage – but one only a foodie would understand.
Taste can be learned. I might go so far as to say that taste must be learned. Enjoyment, on the other hand, is something we’re born with – or without. My father’s idea of a great dinner was two fried eggs when the yolk didn’t break. When I used to visit, I’d bring along a bottle of 18-year-old Macallen because he drank rotgut scotch. I found out when he died that he gave the Macallen to one of his friends because he knew he couldn’t taste the difference. In fact, I think he preferred his rotgut, but he was too embarrassed (and secretly pleased) that I bought it for him.
If you like or love something — be it food, cigars, wine, plays, movies, or books — the more you know, the better your taste. The choice is yours, but to confuse the two is wrong. It’s self-limiting because you’ll never grow beyond that wonderful feeling of the Reese’s cup melting in your mouth.
In Jameson Veritas