They say numbers don’t lie.
I’m not sure if it’s the same they that fill us with other pertinent information—"looks aren’t everything,” “it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable,” “it causes blindness.” And certainly they never checked Donald Trump’s golf scorecard. But they say it, so we should probably pay heed.
In this case the numbers that don’t lie show a rather interesting contradiction. For instance, an NPR survey found that 75 percent of Americans eat healthy, filling their plates with kale, quinoa, fresh fruit smoothies and such. Yet there are other reports revealing a penchant for indulgence.
No, not indulgence as in almas caviar taken from rare 100-year-old albino sturgeon in the Caspian Sea. Indulgence here means digging into a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or peeling open a box of Twinkies.
Yep, according to a study by the Boston Consulting Group and IRI, Chobani is one of the fastest growing consumer goods companies. But so is Hostess. And Mars, for that matter.
Clearly Americans like to put on a wholesome public face. But in the privacy of our own homes, we are covered in Cheez-It crumbs. It seems like everyone indulges in a few little guilty pleasures—even chefs.
That’s right, after an evening of grilling prime Kobe steaks, shaving white truffles over saffron risotto or tempting us with intricate gruyere tuiles, great chefs head home to munch on Doritos.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Jerry Regester, the chef at Schooner’s Coastal Kitchen in Monterey, known for plating “angry” prawns.
“Doritos are one of my guilty pleasures,” Regester says. “An ice cold IPA and Doritos—sometimes with salsa.”
Yes, he said one. There are more.
“I also like to grab an In-n-Out burger—double-double, animal style,” he adds. “I just wish they’d use cheddar rather than American cheese.”
But hang on a moment. Chef Gustavo Trejo at Estéban in Monterey’s Casa Munras Garden Hotel actually admits to craving American cheese, that plastic orange mat and bane of grade school lunch bags.
“I know people are going to look at me,” he says, acknowledging the shame. He even tries to justify his preferred indulgence.
“We work late,” he explains. “Am I going to make a breaded veal cutlet? No, I’m going to put a slice of American cheese between two buttered slices of white bread.”
And this from a chef who sources fresh local vegetables daily for his restaurant.
If you stop by Buffalo Wild Wings or Wingstop at the right time, you might find Soerke Peters waiting to collect his order. That’s right, the chef who insists on housemade everything—including mozzarella—at Mezzaluna Pasteria in Pacific Grove and Etats-Unis French American Bistro in Carmel fancies wings on his way home.
“The original Buffalo wings with blue cheese—I love those guys,” Peters says. “I could eat 50.”
One chef is currently keeping his culinary demons at bay. Todd Fisher, who oversees fancy kitchens at Seventh & Dolores Steakhouse in Carmel, the Folktale Winery in Carmel Valley and even a counter service space, Monterey’s Pacific Bowls & Rolls, has been guilty pleasure-free for a year now.
Even so, the treat calls to him.
“I know it’s bad, but if I go on a road trip, the first thing I think of is sausage McGriddles,” Fisher says.
And this guy had his own Food Network show. Guilty addictions can level even the most mighty.
OK, OK—McGriddles did not bring Fisher down. He’s riding a pretty good high, opening Pacific Bowls & Rolls and putting the finishing touches on Rise + Roam in Carmel, in addition to the other successes. And he’s beaten his McDonald’s cravings.
“I fight the urge,” he says. “But there’s something about that Mrs. Butterworth’s flavor…”
So why do even people with refined tastes fall for processed foods? “In the American culture, the guilt comes from the combination of our obsession with nutrition and our love/hate relationship with sweets,” Dr. Dina Rose wrote in Psychology Today, where she was apparently obligated to refer to this as a “duality.”
“On the one hand we have a sterile, medical, health-based discussion about healthy eating,” she continued. “On the other hand, there’s the emotional, passionate excitement of sweets.”
Her work specifically targeted candy, but it applies to all the rest. Trejo mentioned it in reference to American cheese. Fisher did the same when comparing the maple flavor in McGriddles to those bottles of artificial syrup stocked in so many American refrigerators. These are often memories from childhood, barely suppressed.
As Freud said, “The conscious mind may be compared to a fountain playing in the sun and falling back into the great subterranean pool of subconscious from which it rises”...which I think applies here. I know it’s more pertinent than “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”
Ah, where is Bill Clinton when we need him?
We could go down that route. In First Bite, Bee Wilson pondered upon the matter, deciding that our notion of guilt—something imbedded in us by religion—had transformed into a secular thing. “Like hypocritical temperance preachers, we demonize many of the things we consume most avidly, leaving us at odds with our own appetites,” she wrote.
This should wrap up the Burning Question nicely. There’s a bit of nostalgia involved, as well as a bit of sinful lust. And let’s face it, some of these guilty pleasure foods are pretty damn good—even if they are loaded with preservatives.
But there’s another factor, one that the eggheads may have missed. Convenience.
Since the beginning of last century—and particularly since World War II—Americans have been more mobile, more suburban and more reliant on ready-made meals. Progress put women in the workforce. The interstate highway system spawned fast food. Technology (and stagnant wages) has us working longer hours.
With two or more paychecks necessary to keep households afloat, there’s often little time to labor over Norman Rockwell-esque family meals.
Besides, kale? Matcha? Pretty sure Flamin’ Hot Cheetos would top them in any survey. At least that’s what they say.
Then again, they were wrong about that blindness thing.