For the past couple of months, my friend Nikki has posted the occasional status update on Facebook posing a choice between two foods, framed in these terms: “If you were forced to eliminate one of the following from your diet forever (you could not consume it in any form), which one would you KEEP?” The matchups were interesting and, at times, posed impossible choices – Potatoes versus rice? Lemons versus limes?
On Tuesday, I finally cracked and asked Nikki to hook me up with the evil mastermind who developed this strangely compelling exercise. Nikki put me in touch with David Logue, a behavioral scientist at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. Logue explained that he used to play a “most essential musician” game with his labmates, which became a “musicians” bracket to correspond with the NCAA tournament last March. Late in 2009, Logue – an avid cook – conjured another tournament to determine the essential food. Not wanting to exclude vegetarians, he structured the tournament as a battle of the plant products.
Wednesday morning marked the start of the Final Four, pitting squash (which Logue dubbed “the least disliked of all vegetables”) against garlic (“the Michael Jordan of aromatics”) in the East, and tomatoes against wheat (“the sensual goddess or the strong hand of patriarchy? Mama’s sauce, or Dad’s tuna sandwich?”) in the West. Logue and I discussed the tournament, which has engendered some heated debate at times.
Q: Since this is your bracket, do you cast a vote or do you prefer to remain neutral?
A: I am mostly neutral. If there’s a tie, I vote. This has happened twice. Before the comments, I’m pretty neutral. Afterward I may give the voters a wag-o-the-finger or tip-o-the-hat. [Note: Logue broke a tie between wheat and beans in the Elite Eight, noting: "Sorry beans, you are tasty and nutritious, but you are not pasta, you are not udon, and you most certainly are not the Body of Christ... but wouldn't that be a fun-loving religion?"]
Q: Have there been any major surprises in any of the brackets? Are you rooting for a particular food?
A: Most of the votes are pretty easy to call, but it is baffling that cucumbers made it to the round of eight, beating mushrooms along the way. [Note: Of the rise of cucumbers to the Elite Eight, along with ultimate Final Four contender squash, Logue stated: "I never, ever, would have guessed that these two would have emerged from the veg category. Yet they are apparently more essential than olives, mushrooms, or lettuce (seriously!?). Obviously democracy doesn't work.]
When I did a music tournament last year that included all kinds of artists from a wide breadth of genres. In the end, it was the Beatles against Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles won. My point in bringing that up is that the tournament voting format doesn’t produce a ton of surprising upsets.
Q: Wheat has had some close calls – in particular a tie with beans [in the Elite Eight]- which you broke, citing wheat’s versatility. Do you believe the increasing popularity of gluten free diets has played a role? Similarly, beans defeated corn soundly in the first round – do you think publicity concerning high fructose corn syrup and its role in obesity/health issues may have been responsible?
A: Several of my friends don’t eat wheat. One of them actually has her own website promoting a gluten free diet
(http://www.glutenfreetastefully.com/), and several others seemed to indicate that wheat consumption carried moral baggage. So yeah, bad press played a role in wheat’s early struggles. Of course, when you go to college in San Diego, like I did, you make friends with a lot of bean fans. I suppose corn’s negative PR didn’t do it any favors either. But really, does anybody love corn syrup? It’s really just a cheap substitute for cane sugar. I think/hope most corn voters were thinking about kernels and tortillas.
Q: You said you put together this bracket because you like to cook, and everyone likes to eat – so it seemed universally relevant… Do you consider yourself more of a cook, or more of an eater? Based on your personal acquaintance with the people who have voted, do you think cooks tend to vote differently than eaters? If so, what differences have you observed?
A: I think of myself more as a cook than an eater. As for whether the two kinds of people vote differently, most of the ingredients are pretty familiar to everyone. You have some opinion of lettuce, and it doesn’t much matter whether or not you can make a good salad. I’ve wondered if the olive loss (to mushrooms in round one) is attributable to non-cooks. People who might have bought pure olive oil, or fried an egg in EVOO, and decided that it’s nothing they need in their lives.
Q: Regarding the cook vs eater question – I guess I’m curious not so much about the role of kitchen skill, but more whether you think cooks might be more likely to vote based on versatility and utility, while eaters might be more likely to vote based on their enjoyment of the specific food. I like mushrooms more than olives as eating food, but I consider olives more useful than mushrooms because of oil, and I would have chosen olives.
A: That’s an interesting question. The foodier types do stress versatility and substitute-ability when rationalizing their decisions, so maybe you’re on to something. To my mind, all food is eating food, but people who cook have a better understanding of what they are eating.
Q: How did you choose the matchups? Were you concerned that matching up similar foods in the early rounds might lead to distorted results? I notice, for example, that in round 1 in the southeast, onion is pitted against garlic. It totally makes sense, because onion and garlic are both alliums and are both aromatics (principally, anyway). Arguably, though, onion and garlic also are both culinary heavyweights. So it’s sort of like pitting a #1 seed against a #2 seed in the first round. Did that worry you? I’m seeing, for example, that the Eastern Final is a faceoff between squash and garlic. That hardly seems a fair fight! [Note: in the interest of full disclosure, I voted for garlic in the Eastern final, commenting that "This is like seeing Duke matched up against, like, North Dakota in the final four due to some improbable series of events."]
A: A voting tournament is not the optimum way to determine the best (most essential, whatever) of a group of things. In my real life, I’m a behavioral scientist, and I would never design an experiment to determine people’s favorite food in the form of a voting tournament. That’s not the point (it’s not my point). The journey, as they say, is the destination. I want people to connect and talk about these things, post one-liners, and get invested in the horse race. I’m not concerned about who wins or even how fair the whole thing is. A totally fair poll would not be very fun to participate in. Having liberated myself from the burden of fairness, I tried to make it interesting in every round. If the first round was a bunch of blowouts, why would anyone want to play? I toyed with the idea of rearranging the bracket between rounds, but it seemed too phony … also too much work.
[Note: I mentioned earlier that this tournament has spawned some heated debate. The seeding methodology has proved too controversial for some observers, who formulated a rogue bracket based on new rules. Nikki, who introduced me to the tournament, described the issue as follows:
"Well, they didn't like the pairings, [be]cause seedings are supposed to work with #1 vs #16, like that, as opposed to big heavyweights going up against each other in the first round. Also, didn’t like that in each vote, all the things that got voted off magically came back. So here are the new seedings and rules:
For the purposes of this round, every vote is independent of every other, and no food have been eliminated from the world yet. For each subsequent round, everything that was voted off in the previous round is now gone.”
Logue noted in a Facebook comment that the new rules were good, but change the game. “It becomes about the best survival food rather than the most “essential” food,” he explained, noting also that “allied foods will be disadvantaged. For example, if olives (and thus EVOO) were eliminated, tomatoes would be less valuable. My vote at that point wouldn’t just be about tomatoes, but about tomatoes in an olive free world.”]
Q: To your knowledge, is anyone betting on vegetables in Vegas or Macau? Which vegetable did you think was the longest shot going in, and is there a Vegetable Cinderella Story you think the tournament has told to date?
A: People talked about betting, but I don’t think it happened. Squash’s run to the final four surprised me. It was in the “vegetable” bracket with lettuce, mushrooms, and olives, all of which seemed to me to be way more essential. The other members of the final four were all high seeds. I also thought coffee and grapes would do
well going into it, and they both made it pretty far. [Note: Grapes rose through the ranks on the strength of wine, to lose 19-3 to tomatoes in a battle between "the finest fruit in the garden and an indispensable sauce base" versus "the fruit of the vine, the blood of Christ...[which] represent self worth to a legion of cork dorks.”]
Garlic is going to beat squash, but the last two days should be good. Today is wheat vs. tomatoes, and then the winner of that takes on garlic. A garlic/wheat final would pit practicality against romance. That’d be perfect.
Thanks, David, for getting us to think in strange and interesting ways about our food preferences! We’ll post the winner here at the tournament’s close.