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judgment and the foundations of taste RE taco-flavored doritos: how disingenuous is imitation?

by sam. 24 nov 2011

"Be content to seem what you really are"
-Marcus Aurelius
(probably not originally said in English)

Since Day One Review One, tacosmog.com has taken careful note of the parallels between our hivemind and all-around-famous-dude-philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius. The similarities are obvious: skill at quelling rebellions amongst the Parthians, reputation for stoicism, diet consisting entirely of royal jelly.

But how does food fit into the Marcus Aurelius/tacosmog worldview? Is not the act of spicing a dish simply an attempt to make it something its' not? How can we define the essence of, for example, a taco? To enjoy a carne asada, must we classify it as a completely separate dish as the constituent pork, pineapple, and spices, thus ignoring the intermediary steps wherein it attempts to shift from what it really was to what it really is? Or, is it more dependent on the presentation of the food - do we look down on the dishes which are claiming to be something they're not? And, most importantly, is there a difference between the flavor of a food and what it really is? View the (at this point) anonymous packaging below for context.

doritos!

These and many more tough questions were raised somewhere between the Belvidere Broasis and Chicago on a recent tacosmog.com-sponsored taco-tasting expedition to a small metropolis outside of Gary IN. Marcus Aurelius' broad questions are in some ways be addressed by thinking back to David Foster Wallace's Authority and American Usage. In the context of reviewing Bryan Garner's Dictionary of Modern American Usage (a tome absolutely never consulted by the typing-fingers here at tacosmog.com), DFW lays out the linguistic contrast between prescriptivists - those who support a codified version of acceptable use for language - and descriptivists - who believe a word's meaning is defined by those who use it and, thus, constantly shifting (semi-relevant quiz: how many usage errors can you find in this article?).

DFW forced valued business associate Erin and myself to consider whether food should be consumed with a prescriptive or descriptive mindset: 'How does this compare to the ideal?' vs. 'Does this feel good in my mouth and belly?'. As the extremely successful proprietor of the internet's #1 taco-reviewing website (this one), most people would assume I fall into the prescriptivist camp. Unfortunately, for this collective of business associates it's not so cut-and-dried. While I enter a given taco restaurant with some broad expectations upon which to base my review (exempli gratia: that I will have food served on a tortilla, that it will generally contain either meat or a hearty tuber or vegetable, that there will be some sort of salsa or sauce which can be applied to the top), I also allow for a great deal of freedom in the interpretation of a taco (see, for example, the favorable response to non-traditional tacos such as Tulcingo's tacos arabes or Burrito Beach's airport concoctions). Without getting into too much detail, it's fair to say that there is an unavoidable semiconscious standard for tacos which must be met but the interpretation of a taco is largely up to the proprietor of a restaurant; and, while any drastic deviations from my taconic ideal will be judged on their own merit, the necessary sum of evidence must be larger to convince me of their merits.

Now that we've broadly established a context about which we think of foods, we can return to the question of flavor: is it to be judged standalone?

And is conscious and stated imitation a request to be judged as a deviation from that which is being imitated? Doritos (subs. Frito-Lay subs. PepsiCo, Inc.) asks to be judged from a prescriptivist setting. The problem Erin and I here ran into is their (deliberate?) vagueness. As their finger-pick graphic points out, these chips are taco flavored. In fact, that's almost entirely the reason I bought them. But, as anyone who's read a tacosmog.com taco review knows, there are multiple flavors of taco (an article is, someday, forthcoming). It's unclear which specific flavor they are attempting to imitate. An investigation into the constituent parts of these chips is necessary.

made of a bunch of stuff

There is no clear indication as to what taco-comparison should be prescribed. I have had many tacos with cheddar cheese, but never a cheddar cheese taco (the uninformed would here point out that 'what is a quesadilla but a cheddar cheese taco' and be firmly rebuked); several tacos with sour cream, but never a sour cream taco; and never before (hopefully) a taco containing Yellow 5. This is no knock on the Doritos, simply another step towards establishing the framework for evaluation. After all, would it even be an imitation if it used the same ingredients? (and why have I just realized that I've inadvertently conflated the terms imitation and flavor? The former's negative connotation outweighs the latter's positive. Am I inadvertently establishing a dichotomy between 'good flavor' [that simple set of primaries flavors: savory, sweet, sour, &c.] and 'bad flavor' [that flavor which attempts to be what it is really not]? Attempting to consciously suppress this.) (It required all of my writing skills to merely ensure the previous parentheses were properly closed). Taco-baseline thus not established, we had no choice but let our desciptivist impulses take over: open the bag, throw caution to the winds, and taste what we would taste and evaluate what we could.

the treasure within!

A brief detour into the nitty-gritty of the matter: the bag of Doritos contained 37 chip-equivalents (cEq) where 1 cEq is defined as a surface area approximately equal to the of your 'standard Dorito', which I estimate at a triangle with a base of 2 cm and a height of 3.5 cm (surface area 3.75 sq-cm = 0.58 sq-in = 9.27e-8 acres). The 'NEW BIGGER SIZE!' cost $1.49 at Woodman's, for a price of $0.04/cEq. The chips were consumed on November 11th (Veteran's Day) at approximately 5PM in a Honda-brand automobile traveling south on Interstate-90. Food consumption in the previous couple hours had been limited to a shared carrot, apple, and hard-boiled egg. The best-before date was 6 weeks away so the chips were presumed 'fresh'. I had a cleaning at the dentist's earlier in the afternoon so my teeth felt especially nice. I have not been authorized to speak for business associate Erin, but I do not think it a leap to say that both of us were in 'good' moods at the time of consumption. I do not remember the music we were listening to. The chips were first eaten out of the bag (classic technique) until the quantity was sufficiently small to eat off a road atlas (platter technique).

doritos! 1 cEq

thumbthumbthumb

The scent of the Taco-flavored Doritos was weak but very obviously that of a Doritos-brand product. The scent was most similar to Nacho Cheesier Doritos (unfortunately I will take the journalistic low road and describe Doritos in terms of other flavors of Doritos. I assume the readership and myself have had a shared experience of eating every flavor of Doritos imaginable over the course of our youths [a valid assumption for every American; unclear whether this holds for those born and/or raised in other nations]). The first bite of chip (1 entire cEq) very blatantly did not pack a punch. The chips had a fairly vague flavor, and it remains difficult to describe. There was still no clear evidence as to what taco Doritos is referring to. Dominant flavors were salt, cumin, and that generic Doritos flavor (presumably a mixture of MSG and other random stuff nobody's ever heard of). The flavor increased with each subsequent chip; the maximum amount of flavor occurred when I licked my fingers after eating several chips (Erin: in the interest of full business transparency, I regret to inform you that you may unfairly have lost some of your taco-flavoring to this process. Every effort will be made to rectify this oversight immediately).

It has long been the opinion of the tacosmog.com editorial board that Doritos deliberately undersaturates their chips with flavor. Here is our interpretation of their plan:

Assumptions
-Doritos have the perfect flavor
-Nobody will get full from eating Doritos
-People want to have more Doritos flavor in their mouths at all times

Business Model
1. Underflavor chips
2. People will want more Doritos flavor
3. People will eat more Doritos to get that flavor
4. People will buy more because they run out of Doritos faster

This business model is staggeringly capitalistic. Doritos is in sole possession of the perfect flavor - something which, if released freely, would immeasurably increase the common good - and deliberately withhold it to increase profit; and the public has little justification for demanding open access. Doritos, a private enterprise, invested considerable time and money into developing this resource. Once successful, the public clamors for more; had Doritos failed, PepsiCo, Inc. wouldn't have received any reimbursement for their efforts (despite their debut in the freewheeling 60s). But are the chips effective? Yes, in some ways. My business associate and myself discussed our lack of total satisfaction upon completion of the Doritos bag. In fact, had we been in possession of another bag of Doritos, I have no doubt we would have opened and consumed it almost immediately.

The flavor's lack of obvious basis in any sort of taco-reality makes it impossible to judge these chips from a prescriptivist mindset, and the mildness of flavor leaves the consumer unsettled as to why they want additional Doritos - introspection during a period of manic Doritos frenzy is a difficult and dangerous task indeed. It felt that my business associate and I were not searching for deliciousness, but the alleviation of a base desire. "Be content to seem what you really are" - would Marcus Aurelius enjoy eating a bag of Doritos? Contentment is the antithesis of the Doritos business model, yet it's what the consumer seeks. The flavor of the Doritos, or lack thereof, is in most respects irrelevant. What Doritos seem to be is a delicious chip; what they really are is a split-second of relief from longing and a gateway to hedonism.

*Corrigendum*
The Doritos connoisseur will here note that I have not mentioned Doritos' ill-fated Late-Night product line from several years ago, which featured a "Tacos at Midnight" flavor. Other products on the line were All-Nighter Cheeseburger (never sampled) and Last Call Jalapeno Popper (never sampled), I made every effort to acquire a bag of Tacos at Midnight Doritos for a comparison, but failed. The questions as to whether the problem was branding or flavor will remain unresolved for now.f