Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A Parable

I find parables, both of the religious and secular variety, interesting as a literary device.  Specifically, it's interesting to me that parables are supposed to impart a universal truth, yet they are often subject to one or more interpretations, sometimes radically different or even diametrically opposed to each other.  That they can both be described as "explicit imperatives" and "inkblot tests" speaks to both their strangely variable nature as a means of conveying an idea.

With that in mind, I've tried my hand at a parable myself.  It's also a true story, if you're interested, but that's neither here nor there.  It's one that I wrote with a particular fanfic (and a particular fan thereof) in mind, but that's also neither here nor there; these things are supposed to be broadly applicable, after all.  In any case, click below to read...

The Parable of the World's Saddest Philly Cheesesteak

Once, when I was in college, I and some friends got drunk.  Being drunk in the presence of equally drunk friends is always a good way to come up with bad ideas, but for the most part the crowd I associated with was pretty tame.  To whit: on this particular night, the bad idea we came up with was to create "the world's saddest Philly Cheesesteak."

A Philly Cheesesteak, if you've somehow managed never to have one, is steak and swiss cheese on a bun with grilled peppers and onions.  For the record, they are also delicious.  How could they not be, with an ingredient list like that?  Our goal, though, was to make an evil twin to this sandwich, one which used junk processed food equivalents ("sad food") for all those delicious elements which make up a Philly Cheesesteak.  Our goal was to produce something that would reduce you to tears through the sheer soul-crushing-ness of its constituent parts, if you actually tried to consume it.

We quickly assembled the ingredients which we had lying around the house:

In place of a bun, we used Wonder Bread,
In place of steak, we used Spam,
In place of real cheese, we used spray cheese, and
In place of grilled veggies, we used Funions.

The end result looked as unappealing as it sounds.  Immediately, I was dared to eat the entire thing.  Still being more than a little drunk, and not being one to back down from a challenge regardless, I did.

Honestly, I kind of liked it.

I initially assumed I just found it palatable because I was intoxicated, but I made another one for myself a few days later with the leftovers and decided that, no, it was pretty alright.  I wouldn't say I loved it, and I definitely wouldn't say it was "good" for any meaningful definition of the term, but I've made it for myself several times since, without any dares involved.

I've also made my "signature dish" for many of my friends in the years since, usually as a (for them, at least) morbid curiosity after hearing me talk about it.  Many won't even try a bite.  Most who do find it as unappealing as I and its other creators had initially hoped.  A couple thought it was okay.  Regardless, the fact that I willingly eat these things has become one of those defining bits of trivia about me within my social circle.

A few weeks back, I went to get sushi with a small group.  Now, I'm not a big sushi eater, and when the guy who'd recommended the restaurant asked me what I thought of my dish, I said something to the effect of, "It was fine, but I guess it wasn't really for me."

His response?  "Yeah, but we all know you have a terrible palate."  When I raised an eyebrow at that, he clarified, "What?  You're the guy who invented the World's Saddest Philly Cheesesteak."

I'm not particularly defensive about my palate; I like to think I have good taste when it comes to taste, but I wouldn't take it personally to be told otherwise.  And so, I laughed along with everyone else and agreed that yes, I probably just couldn't "appreciate" the food.  Heck, it was probably true.

However, liking World's Saddest Philly Cheesesteaks doesn't disqualify me from having a good palate, any more than liking Hercules In New York disqualifies me from appreciating good movies, or reading the Vampire Hunter D novels disqualifies me from having valid opinions about literature.  There's a big difference between liking something, even liking something unironically, and saying that it's objectively good.

The World's Saddest Philly Cheesesteak is not good food.  If I said it was good food, it would be a lie, one which others would be right to correct.  But, I still like it.

And that's okay.


  1. Once in college, the nearby McDonald's was having a deal: 2 quarter pounders for $2. I was only hungry enough to eat one, so I took the other back to my dorm. We had a fridge in the room, but I thought I'd eat the thing for dinner just a few hours later, so I left it on my desk. Now, this was in winter, and my dorm was the first one on the steam heating circuit, so the rooms were blazing hot. We often left the windows open. And there the burger sat, on my desk, right next to the radiator. For five days. Then, I got a hankering for it and figured the microwave would kill anything that had evolved therein. Tasted just fine, and nothing bad happened.

    Bottom line: food stories are fun.

    1. Bottom line: McDonalds products are not food.

  2. I've lately become known as the guy who will eat just about anything once, and share it with you if it's awful.


    1. I've had both, didn't care for either. Never had Australian Vegemite, though, which I understand is slightly different than everyone else's.

  3. Well said. I've often used Birdemic as the example of something I absolutely adore, even while it is quite literally the worst film I have ever seen. But there I would argue that my experience watching that film made me more aware of the elements that go into a good film, which made me a better critic of films overall. Perhaps the same can be said of the palate of one who enjoys the World's Saddest Philly Cheesesteak.

    1. Yes, exactly! You can't know what to do right if you don't know how it can be done wrong. It's essential to compare things good and bad, or else it's impossible to identify what makes something good rather than bad.

      This link gives a psychological explanation for this, as well as a pretty good demonstration of the principle:

      Hope it helps! ^.^

  4. Almost sounds like this was written for me; always a good quality in a parable. Just because I like Anne Rice, Michael Crichton, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and cheesy gay romance films doesn't mean I have all-around poor taste. Nor does the fact that I can't get into Lovecraft or Lieber... on second thought, I may have no taste after all

    Philly cheesesteaks always sound so much better than they taste, though that may have to do with the poor quality of cafeteria food. They're just so dry! If I'm ever in Philadelphia, I'll have to see what a proper one tastes like

  5. Personally, I've always believed that the quality of any taste is down to personal opinion and that trying to quantify it into right and wrong is stupid. You can make an argument that a foodstuff is objectively better because it's healthier and more care has been taken to prepare it, but if it makes me vomit then I'm going to call it garbage. I don't see how anyone can say that a person is wrong to think something tastes good or tastes awful, because personal taste is not objective.

    Literature's the same really. You can perfect or utterly fail at literary elements like grammar, characterisation, pacing, or whatever, but in the end you still have to factor in what the reader actually likes reading about, and sometimes that trumps everything else.

    1. Gonna have to disagree with you. While people may display differences in tastes, this subjectivity has an objective foundation. This can work in multiple ways: we might occupy different points on a scale, so that we might disagree on what's good or bad while agreeing on what's better or worse (like Chris with his sad cheesesteak), or we might have subjective preferences due to our personal experiences. A recent death in the family, knowing someone who's been raped, etc. may cause us to dislike something we may've otherwise enjoyed, and sometimes we may like something more because it deals with certain subject matter (such as if it elicits a sense of nostalgia)

      We also need to qualify what we're measuring, rather than lumping things into vague categories like "good". Philosophy 101: without agreed upon definitions of terms, debate is meaningless. So your foodstuff might be "healthy", "delicious", "sweet", etc. But then that scale I mentioned becomes an issue, so we have to discuss things in relative terms like "healthier" or "sweeter"

    2. Well, obviously I was generalising for the sake of brevity, but you're right, of course. The point I'm trying to make is that while it may have objective foundations, personal taste is still very much a matter for individuals, and while it's possible for a person to see something as high quality while still disliking it, there are also times where those same qualities with an objective basis can be used to reason why something is just plain bad.

      In my previous post, I should have clarified that by "good" I meant "tastes pleasant to me," because healthiness and other such things have never been an issue to me and I judge all food by how much I enjoy it.

      To use an example of something I do NOT enjoy, there's a particular Turkish pastry I tried on a holiday once that I found outright disgusting for how extremely sweet it was. And I mean sweet beyond the scope of possibly anything we have in the western world. I can't even describe the thing if you haven't had it yourself. It's something you need to experience.

      While I do agree I can think of something as being quality food even if I don't like it, that's not something I'd think of this thing. It was just terrible, no question about it. But other people must like its taste otherwise they wouldn't sell it.

      The thing is, while I believe I can argue with objective reasons why I think it tastes bad, citing things like the texture, extreme sweetness, etc. other people may like it for exactly those reasons.

      And my stance is that while I'd disagree with those people and I think that what they're eating does not taste good, I can't call their tastes wrong just because they differ from mine, even if I have objective reasons for my opinion, because so do they.

      Therein lies the subjective element: Different people interpret objective measures differently, so we can't always rely on objective measures to judge the overall quality of something. On a certain level, I think a person's enjoyment matters when judging the overall quality of anything, even if it's not really the only factor.

      That's not to say objective stuff is always of secondary importance, I'm just saying that I think personal tastes definitely matter and need to be factored in.

      And I apologise if I'm not explaining myself very well, by the way. Please point out if I said something confusing or vague.

    3. I was able to follow, so no need to apologize. German philosophers could learn a thing or two from you

      Your reasoning seems to match my own thinking, so there's not much I can add unless you - or anyone else, for that matter - require clarification on my end. I've prepared mathematical formulae (that is so a word, Firefox) if that helps!

      I will say that I have no intention of eating that Turkish pastry, as I find even colored icing to be too sweet... Lord, I sound like an ol' fogey!

    4. Well, good to see I was clearer than I thought I was. Though, you've got me curious now. German philosophers? I feel like I'm missing a reference to something.

    5. Germany philosophers, particularly Hegel, are notorious for being incomprehensible, something they're said to actually take pride in. Schopenhauer had some choice quotes regarding Hegel, in which he more or less accused him of deliberately abusing language to masquerade his philosophy as something other than unintelligible nonsense (not unlike some college graduates these days)

    6. Seems kind of counter-intuitive when the point of language is to communicate. That's like a chef poisoning everything he ever cooks in case someone tries to eat any of it.

    7. Well, if he didn't want anyone to know how bad it truly tasted...

  6. This is how I defend my love for the Harry Potter series.

    1. Has anyone ever been reduced in their fellows' esteem because they liked Harry Potter? There are other books and book series that have a certain stigma attached to them, like Twilight (and its bastard spawn 50 Shades of Gray) or Eragon, even certain authors (Rosamunde Pilcher immediately springs to my mind), but I've never seen or heard anything like this in regards to Ms Rowling's magnum opus.

      Of course, we are debating all these matters of taste on a My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic blog, which might look strange to an outside observer already. We have already dared to go beyond what is deemed appropriate for men our age (I admit I'm making assumptions here, and I apologize to any women reading this for it, but at a guess, most of those who read it are male and just a tad outside the target age for the series).

    2. I'm in the same boat. As soon as anything gets popular, it'll attract a group of haters hating on it's popularity alone, but I completely have not seen that with Harry Potter. Weird.

      But maybe I'm missing something.

    3. The HP haters are out there, obviously, but they've never made inroads into the general consciousness like the Twilight haters did, nor did it become the default mode to not like it if you weren't the target audience, like with romance novels. Perhaps these people knew that if they tried to push their hatred, they would be pounced on by the "at least the kids are reading again" crowd? Really stretching for an explanation here.

      Then again, perhaps it was simply that the books were better written than Twilight or most of the romance novel crap, so the haters only had their subjective view to fall back on. Hating something might work better if it has actual, massive flaws.

  7. A parable is supposed to simplify a message. This simplifies the domain (taste in books => taste in food) instead, making the message even more confusing, because anything that tastes good is by definition "good food". Food can be tasty or healthy, and either is an acceptable definition of good, and nothing else is. Saying you like these cheesesteaks but they aren't good... I can't make any sense out of that, even less than I could out of saying I like Tom Clancy's novels but they aren't good.

    If this parable simplifies things, it's by making it seem more clear that something we like is good, by definition, and that there is no such thing as "good for everyone", and no point trying to develop better taste.

    1. Fun fact! The reason I started following you on FIMFic is because you are the most [vocal + seemingly intelligent] person I know who subscribes to the theory that whether something is good or not is entirely arbitrary, i.e. based on personal preference without regard to the reasoning behind that preference. That's a viewpoint I associate with low-information and/or low-empathy consumers, especially children, and the fact that you don't appear to be any of those things makes me wonder what the logic I'm missing is. I keep hoping one of your posts will someday help me understand the reasoning there, but it hasn't happened yet.

      Oh well. Until then, take solace in the fact that I find the idea that you'd say "I like Tom Clancy's novels, therefor they're good" just as mystifying as you'll find it when I say "I liked Red Storm Rising, but I definitely don't think it was a good book."

    2. Apparently:

      I'm in a quibbling mood 'cause I'd like to quibble with two of your definitions. First:

      A parable is supposed to simplify a message.

      I'd say rather that a parable is supposed to illustrate a message. When asked who exactly the neighbor is in the phrase "love your neighbor," Jesus in Luke's gospel doesn't simply tell the guy, "Love everybody regardless." No, he makes up a story, the parable of the Good Samaritan, designed to give a concrete example of his message.

      Franz Kafka was doing the same thing when he wrote: "Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony." Though he's making a slightly different point, I guess... :)

      Still, I'd go so far as to say that parables are yet another example of "show, don't tell." Plain, factual non-fiction is all about telling whether it's math or philosophy or just straight up opinion. But taking that non-fictional message and turning it into a story shows it to us and makes it come alive.

      And second:

      anything that tastes good is by definition "good food"

      I don't like shrimp. I'm not allergic to it or anything: it's just the taste and the aroma and the mouthfeel of it all combine to make me gag. And yet, there are hundreds of millions of people who define shrimp as "good food," and I would agree with them. The same way that I agree with those who like Robert Heinlein and call him one of the founders of science fiction, or those who like Jane Austen and call her one of the founders of modern romance. I just don't like the taste of their stuff.

      Though this is the opposite of Chris's point, I assume similar squishy bits of skull meat are involved in making us think the way we do.


  8. Understanding that people like objectively low quality things and dislike objectively high quality things is very important as a reader, writer, or reviewer/critic.
    But knowing how to differentiate those things as well as knowing when they are being differentiated is vital.

  9. It may be relevant to your parable, in a sidelong sort of way, to observe that in the opinion of actual Philadelphians, a *proper* Philly is made with Cheez Whiz, although American or provolone are also acceptable.

    That is to say, even the canonically acclaimed proper foodstuff has a certain amount of bright orange, pasteurized process cheez food product at its heart.