Tuesday, September 14th, 2010

The Dumpling Effect: The Trouble with Coolhunting your Dinner

BADGESI'm in Chinatown, on my way to somewhere not Chinatown. Chinatowns, in whatever city, or China-strip-malls, in whatever small city or town, are a great place to land before going elsewhere, because they are a zone that exists outside of the context of the neighboring contexts. Good for a deep breath. I take the opportunity to grab a plate of fried dumplings, or "dollar dumplings" as I call them, because in my Chinatown they cost a dollar. They are fast and cheap, plus also they are more delicious than they have any right to be. It's a dumpling house in a quiet corner, and it's a beautiful evening, with the setting sun just so and a volleyball tourney on the school tennis courts across the street just wrapping up, and I wonder to myself, "Should I Tweet how awesome this is? Should I Yelp this particular dumpling shop? Do I Digg it?" And before I can swallow what I'm chewing (awesome delicious fried dumplings) I check myself: "And ruin it?"

This is a tiny philosophical problem: when you find the hidden treasure, the off-the-beaten-path-gem, and you are a digital citizen, do you pimp the hidden treasure, or do you keep your trap shut? The cost/benefit analysis is not clear-cut. Publicize the hidden treasure, and you benefit the proprietor of the hidden treasure, but you run the risk of the hidden treasure, through success bought with this publicity, losing some of its hidden-ness and eventually some of its treasurability. Withhold the information, and then you get to have the hidden treasure to yourself, but the proprietor, who surely could benefit from an elevation from hiddenness, does not benefit at all. Plus you pass up the opportunity to claim to have discovered a hidden treasure.

Since we're talking about food and not a band or a comic book, it should be noted that in the past five years a very dedicated subculture has developed, comprised of a couple tens of thousand people who record their meals, the meals they cook or purchase, and share them with everyone, online and obsessively. They have blogs, they have message boards, and they even have entire Web communities that can afford to gainfully employ people by virtue of the size of their audience. And beyond the online aspect of this subculture, there are entire television networks and tens of hours of prime time programming devoted to these people. (In addition to the already extant publishing industry, which has waited for this moment for decades.) They have their totems, like ramps or Himalayan salt, and they have their extraneous hobbies, like calculating energy footprints of potatoes and arguing over proprietary blends of hamburger meat. You may know a member of this subculture, or even be one yourself. If you have ever waited more than ten minutes for a slice of pizza, if you have ever taken a picture of a sandwich, then congratulations-your membership card is in the mail. Foodies, as they are known, or, more derisively, Gastrohipsters.

If you are a member of this subculture, then, this dumpling house? You become its Foursquare mayor and then you blog the holy heck out of it. And if your post is linked somewhere good, your street cred skyrockets. Your neighbors will stop and remark with a wink, and your parents will be proud. You are the king of Chowhound. Foodies are a large, well-defined affinity group, and the respect of an affinity group is currency. And only a fool doesn't like currency, at least until the Singularity brings non-scarce resource allocation, in which case you'll be sitting on some sweet sweet Whuffie. And eventually a TV producer reads your blog or the reblogging of it, and soon the dumpling house feeds Adam Richman many many dumplings and then has a fried dumpling Throwdown with Bobby Flay. And you did that. Victory is sweet.

But on the flip side, that moment after Flay's film crew wraps and drives away, you will never get to eat a fried dumpling again at that dumpling house. With success comes leverage, and with the skyrocketing demand the fried dumplings will now cost an hour's wages, and you will have to make reservations just to wait in line for them. And if you endure all this, will that plate of fried dumplings be the same plate of fried dumplings that you fell in love with originally? Or will they have become fetishized into some commodity that has nothing to do with the Ur-fried dumpling in your head?

It is a dilemma, and a nifty one.

This is not meant to rail against culinary trends. Someone somewhere is deriving pleasure from the designation of the flour in their pizza, and some other person gets out of bed in the morning to argue for chives on lobster rolls. They're just trends; once, people wore Mork suspenders in public. They are not meant to be anything but something to be briefly exploited and then tossed out the car window at a high velocity, or at least to eventually appear on an Applebee's menu. Some trends are more pesky than others, on a subjective level, and the only thing more fun than being annoyed is complaining. So this is not meant to be the beginning of the Gastrohipster Counterinsurgency. (Though if one starts up, call me.) Foodies are not going anywhere and the damage they do is negligible. Tracking down gbegiri and stalking the most authentic taco truck is an awfully lot less time-intensive than starting a band or a zine, two erstwhile leisure pursuits of those of a specific age.

My personal concern is that fetishization begins to replace the actual experience. Were I to opt to fully share my fried dumpling experience with the World of Foodies, then I would take notes on the meal, photograph every element and then spend a good chunk of time composing my initial post detailing the experience and then spend more time ensuring that the post is brought to the attention of the right people. Having done that, what portion of the event is comprised of "eating fried dumplings and finding them awesome"? And if I keep it to myself, or at least just tell friends and family about it with my actual mouth, what then is the portion of the event is "eating fried dumplings and finding them awesome"? See also: people who attend weddings and/or concerts and watch the entire thing through the screen of their mobile phone, which is being used to record, a kneejerk mediation of experience. There is something to be said for Just Experiencing something and letting the sole record of it be your memory. It's worked for centuries.

It's a question of coolhunting. The verb "coolhunt" is of course now an archaic term: "so [x] (where [x] = [some date a few years before now])." But it lives on to this day. At this point, instead of an occupation that's a subject of a Wired feature, it's a game we all play at home, as the Internet shifts the load-bearing structures of cool away from the William Gibson protagonists to anyone with a WordPress username. We identify objects, in situ, and tag them. It is hunting, but, coming from a family of actual hunters, it is the lamest kind of hunting because the hunters are not eating what they kill. That sneaker, those vintage eyeglass frames, and, yes, those fried dumplings are definitely cool in the context of where you find them, but they will be less so once their heads are mounted in your study. The coolhunter destroys cool just by geotagging it.

And in the same sense that coolhunting negates the cool of the coolhunting target, the codification of organic cultural processes (liking things, sharing said likes) into "coolhunting" negates cool entirely. Or if not negates, at least transmutes it into some new substance entirely that only has anything to do with the shadow that cool casts. Cool was a shabby little beast, powered by archaic means like word-of-mouth and peer pressure. Now, even the personal interactions with cool have been commodified. Cool used to be something that happened to you. Now, even teens are manufacturing competing versions of artificial cool, each iteration more weaponized than the last.

And so here I am worried about the fate of fried dumplings, when what's at stake is cool itself, as the realization creeps in that there is no longer any such thing as cool, or at least that there soon will not be-I personally am largely stuck in a nostalgia loop, so I'm the wrong person to ask. But that notional canary is either dead or wheezing desperately.

Maybe cool is now the Bakelite handset telephone that anyone over a certain age remembers but mostly exists now as an expensive collectable, an artifact to impress visitors with the ironic glorification of the mundane and obsolete. Maybe nostalgia as it exists now feeds primarily on nostalgia for cool itself.

This is the source of my reluctance to publicize fried dumplings, or any other modest discovery involving hitherto unrenowned food that actual people eat. While I'm ecstatic to propel the proprietors of the dumpling house into wealth and acclaim, the way that the "cool" sausage is made now is terrifying in its machine-like ubiquity. It's a game you don't want to play unless you know you can win, and I'm not so interesting in winning anymore.

I'm interested in delicious awesome fried dumplings, the location of which I am happy to share, the next time I see you.

Brent Cox is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY.

32 Comments / Post A Comment

Justin Lam (#6,860)

If you are writing about Prosperity or Vanessa's, they're already overrun with white people getting off on such bargain ethnic authenticity.

Just enjoy your food and let the MSG take over your brain. Stop overthinking everything.

migraineheadache (#1,866)

I miss pre-computer-order Vanessa's.

I'm convinced food tastes worse if it is photographed before eating. The amount is proportional to the cost of the camera.

You wanna take a deep breath in Chinatown? In summer? In New York city??

Rod T (#33)

And that's when I almost hit close tab.

HiredGoons (#603)

Sushi-Oxygen bar I THOUGHT OF IT FIRST!

City_Dater (#2,500)

Forgive me for having a Camille Paglia-ish Senior Moment, but if you young people would just experience things rather than worrying about documenting them for a vast, mostly imaginary audience, you would be much happier.

Rod T (#33)

The theme of my upcoming birthday is "tech-free". All cell phones, cameras, etc are to be left at the door (with your shoes).

HiredGoons (#603)

Some of us document as a comment on how people document everything now.

mickeyitaliano (#2,202)

Your fried dumplings is my Tom Hardy 6 or seven years ago. Good article…

Rod T (#33)

I've been doing this awhile, 'blogging', granted not nearly as long or as earnestly as you (author), or you (reader). In that time, I've never written about my favorite dive bar, my favorite East Village pizza place, my favorite dyke bar, and a litany of other things. My way of deciding whether 'to' or 'not to' is more business-headed.
– Look at the establishment you are in and the way it is run.
– Do you think the management would be strong enough to keep what is good about the establishment intact if customer traffic increased?
– Do you think the concept/management/result could function given success on a multi-unit level? Is it franchisable?
– Does the business seem to be healthy/prospering at its current level or could it use the boost of extra attention?
You'll note that none of the above are about me. I don't know that you would want to go to my favorite place for Chinese. (It's Halal and in my neighborhood and always perfect, for my tastes.) I don't need a self-esteem boost as being perceived as a "taste-maker". Taste-makers are generally assholes. (I'm an asshole, too, and I resent their encroachment on my turf.)

Aaaaand …. scene.

mickeyitaliano (#2,202)

My favorite Lesbian Bar closed about 4 years ago due to lack of business. That said, I have also worked in some restaurants that have been featured in the under $25 column in the NYT and these "people" for lack of a more hateful word come in, holding the article like a circular for the dollar store and proceed to want everything the reviewer had (less his taste buds). They act like Cheng/Eng restaurant reviewers so they may tell their un-interested co-workers how they 'know' this place. I lost interest in so many bands that I felt I "discovered" when they hit the big time, good for them/always bad for me. I have zero interest in being one with the masses unless I am on the subway. I do not read a book so everyone see's that I am reading such book, and I could give 2 shits if I am the only person in the movie theater. As far as restaurants go, I worry if they have customers only for the fact that they are moving their product and I do not get sick. BTW…I think the owners of these places who serve awesome stuff are well aware of the fact, hence opening a specialized place (cuisine),and I think word of mouth, works best…Same with the places that suck.

Abe Sauer (#148)

This was Dr. William David McCain's argument! (Ha. Kidding. He didn't think about it this deeply.)

Seriously though, I may be with CityDater above and in need of a help the aged moment, but (and of course this seems to suppose that you control the well being on the place in question) the core argument here is one of selfishness. (Coincidentally, the word "selfish" curiously never appears in this interesting tech-thought piece). That there would be any decision to be made about helping a (probably) struggling business you admire when you have the opportunity to is, I think, a sad commentary of some sort. The whole side argument about coolness and finding that coolness and how it is totally dependent on who controls the information about the products and not who makes the actual product is a small-scale model of a problem that, on a bigger level, is highly destructive.

NinetyNine (#98)

This problem doesn't exist outside of maybe three dozen zip codes. But people in those three dozen zip codes probably winced when they saw 'Coolhunting' in the headline.

Sakurambobomb (#1,722)

I think you have some interesting points in you general argument about how cool is created and will, seemingly, eat itself soon.

But, wwhat will the post-cool landscape look like? – feels like pseudoanthropological anxiety.

Bittersweet (#765)

Everyone will be enthusiastic and sincere and pleasant to each other, and just enjoy what's good out there.

(And then I'll wake up.)

Cool is too cool to eat itself. The post-cool landscape will be dominated by our robot slavemasters.

scrooge (#2,697)

Weird, really, that you can be cool — or uncool — simply by virtue of what you put in your mouth…

rudepete (#7,464)

I haven't seen anything more over the top, food-wise than the original Iron Chef (Japanese). Each episode opened with Brillat Savarin's famous quote, "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you what you are."

Whoa! A whole dollar! Look at the big spender here!

El Matardillo (#586)

This would make a great entry in a William Gibson fan-fiction contest.

Excellent article! But the problem of cool has ever been thus, and will always be. The only change is that ubiquitous sophisticated technology is accelerating the process to deafening speeds. Used to be you had to wait for a glossy mag or altweekly to ruin your favorite dive, now some dyspeptic yelpers can do the same damage with the flick of a button. Yet cool persists, and it's far more palpable in meatspace than in the virtual rooms we carelssly furnish with opinion. Experiencing good things is still cool, and it always always will be, at least until the robots enslave us all.

bradluen (#1,384)

1. In the last two cities I've lived in (Berkeley and Portland, but still), there are no unknown restaurants. Every place open more than a week has already been written about. You can try to affect the consensus if you get in early enough, and though you can occasionally do this without being annoying, there are better reasons to post about a place.

2. To me it seems unrealistic to think to expect that an amateur review will send more than an extra customer a week to a place that doesn't already have a buzz. But maybe things are different on the East Coast.

3. "man Avatar was awesome why'd you got to think about it afterwards"

deckfight (#7,444)

feel like i just read a william gibson novel

Lucia Chan (#7,446)

Welcome to what happened to Joe's Shanghai. Formerly an efficient, delicious establishment turned into a dining nightmare. Wait staff rudely push you into sharing a table with other people, the line is ridiculous, and by the time the buns come, it's not even worth it anymore.

Robert Martinez (#7,448)

That's not a bad article but it's nothing that couldn't be said in 1/3 the time.

BTW, the author knows this. His "Dumpling Effect" is a play off the "Observer Effect."


Ex Aequo (#7,451)

This was a longer version of footnote six of consider the lobster.

umblepie (#7,454)

let me share a related story. when i first moved to a "major" chinatown area, i sad-yelped for local banh mi because i may have been a lil overwhelmed with the local options and may have just sort of stooped to yelp out of desperation and raw hunger. just like a literal hunger.

started going to the waaaay best rated banh mi place and was really enjoying the $2.50 sandwiches until an entire 3 inch cockroach was discovered like basically as if my sandwich bread had been used to kill the cockroach violently – so violently that the whole thing had gotten lodged in the outside of the bread.

so if i was in your story where i was like a broody, contemplative man, i would have had all these thoughts about what to do. like how soon should i alert my fellow whites on the yelp to this big problem with their favorite banh mi place? should i opt for the "DON'T EVER COME TO THIS PLACE AGAIN!!!" or the "well, love their sandwiches and you can't beat the price, but be carful, lol!" post? should i do something else entirely? what would the effects be? i would maybe have some macro feelings about what had to happen to put me face to face with the cockroach in the first place – like societally wise.

but instead i guess i may have gone with "punish yelpers forever by not telling anyone on yelp that their 4.5 star place was using sandwich bread to murder their cockroaches." civic thinking :\\\\\\\

in conclusion, fuck the haters. my "funny food blog" blog – i would be honored if you would read it: http://umblepie.tumblr.com/

A.J. Kandy (#7,460)

Regarding cool: It's covered extensively in Nation of Rebels (aka The Rebel Sell) and its follow-up The Authenticity Hoax. We want to "preserve" things to keep them "authentic" but of course this "authenticity" is as specious as the scare quotes I just framed them in. Basically, cool is the leading edge of mainstream taste. If we weren't competitive consumers, it wouldn't matter.

SeaBassTian (#281)

The diminishing return of the dumpling would surely be worth it for easy access to that OCD Freak Badge.

Tony C (#7,529)

and another side effect of coolhunting: http://blogs.laweekly.com/squidink/food-trucks/food-truck-taco-pastor/ . Department of Public Health shuts down al pastor stand 1 day after LA Weekly covers awesome $1 tacos. :sadface:

robdesign13 (#7,597)

If this "delema" happens all over a city and tens or even hundreds of thousands of great unique places get pubicized for being good, then it nullifies being cool…. and therefore only starts to publicize businesses that produce quality products and disregards places that don't (REGARDLESS OF ADVERTISING BUDGETS) and therefore the real winner is everyone. Everyone gets more better products because those who produce better products rise and those who dont fall and eventually fail. Perpetuating the good. It's not about being "Cool" If I wanted to be "Cool" I'd eat at a boby flay's restaurant every night. I'd rather eat good.

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