The Dumpling Effect: The Trouble with Coolhunting your Dinner


I’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.