Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving us most of the world’s music in a smartphone app—it offers us myriad new chances to learn about the tastes, and distastes, of others.
For several years, leading up to the 2016 publication of my book You May Also Like: Taste in An Age of Endless Choice, I dove into the latest research on consumer behavior, via social science, psychology, and neuroscience. Now, to help you navigate the confusing landscape of endless choices, to choose wisely, more efficiently, and with greater self-awareness, I have distilled some of that research into the form of an advice column—though in this case I also supplied the questions, based on real questions that arose during my research, and which I have subsequently heard from friends and readers.
A few months ago, Christina Tosi met a cookie she expected to be meh. “It was called salted caramel crunch, and I thought it was going to be a total snoozefest,” she said. After all, these days a cookie carpet-bombed with salt is old hat. But this confection, discovered in an airport, blew Tosi’s mind. “Imagine a butter cookie with raw sugar on top, with hints of kosher salt — it was toffee bits and these pretzel rounds folded in so every time you thought you were getting a toffee bit, you got this amazing, salty, multi thing.”
It wasn’t simply that it was delicious, it’s that it was familiar. “It makes me laugh because I’m like, I did that,” she said. “Like, no one put pretzels in cookies. Like, holy shit, nine years ago this was not a real thing in the world.” When Tosi first started peddling baked goods, it was the halcyon days before Instagram. Before unicorn freakshakes, rolled ice cream, and Oreos with Oreo filling — back when people could still get it up for flourless chocolate cake on a square plate. Her creation, this airport cookie’s godfather, was laden with potato chips, coffee grounds, butterscotch, chocolate chips — and pretzels. Tosi called it the Compost Cookie (later registering the trademark because she’s smart) and it was weird. Subversive, even. It, along with a black hole of butter and two kinds of sugar called the Crack Pie, ushered in the era of the Stunt Dessert — FOMO-inducing, insulin-spiking sweets consumed as much for the performative pleasure as for the sugar rush, from slutty brownies to anything off the Cookie Dough Cafe menu and the incalculable number of crummy Cronut clones.
There’s little precedent in Europe for the lightly cooked, lightly sauced, yet intricately plated dishes, what the late writer and critic Josh Ozersky called “tweezer food,” before it appeared suddenly and decisively in France in the 1960s. A great deal of nouvelle cuisine’s innovations, in fact, paralleled classical aspects of Japanese dining, especially the movement’s emphasis on shorter cooking times; minimalist, playful plating; and a focus on extracting the essential aspects of an ingredient, rather than transforming it. Perhaps not coincidentally, from the time that French chefs began visiting Japan (and Japanese chefs began training in France) in the mid-1960s, fine dining has become increasingly like Japan’s most formal dining tradition, kaiseki.
So it turns out I can no longer speak English. This was the alarming realisation foisted upon me by Matthew Engel’s witty, cantankerous yet nonetheless persuasive polemic That’s the Way it Crumbles: The American Conquest of English. Because by English, I mean British English.
Despite having been born, raised and educated on British shores, it seems my mother tongue has been irreparably corrupted by the linguistic equivalent of the grey squirrel. And I’m not alone. Whether you’re a lover or a loather of phrases like “Can I get a decaf soy latte to go?”, chances are your vocabulary has been similarly colonised.
It seemed a little silly to think a single essay could change one’s life. Yet I knew what she was asking: Had agents and publishers beaten down my door after the essay appeared? Modern Love, which began in 2004, has become mythic among aspiring writers—a literary equivalent to winning American Idol. The column’s longtime editor, Dan Jones, estimates that 50 to 60 book deals based on Modern Love essays have been struck to date. Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s recent essay, “You May Want to Marry My Husband,” prompted a lucrative film rights bidding war ultimately won by Universal Pictures.
My essay, “A Measure of Desire,” did not inspire such a dramatic response. Still, on the eve of my first book’s publication, five years after the essay appeared, I have to admit that Modern Love has indeed had a significant impact on my life and career. And having spoken to several other writers about their experiences, it is clear that I’m not alone.
It is the vivid attention to detail, both in “Ulysses”, James Joyce’s masterpiece, and in “Solar Bones”, which make both these novels resonate like that evening bell.
Elizabeth Day’s sly fourth novel is an enticing mix of social climbing, barely hidden lust and possible crimes. The story rests on two central questions: Why is Martin Gilmour, a minor success as an art critic, being interrogated at a police station in the Cotswolds? What happened at the lavish 40th-birthday party of his aristocratic best friend, Ben Fitzmaurice, to make Martin squirm under the detectives’ glare? The novel’s underpinnings are much richer. Building on generations of fiction dissecting the British class system, Day carries that theme into the 21st century, adding the swift pace of a psychological thriller.