There Are Two Kinds of People

“There are two kinds of people, A) my love and I, B) other,” sings Stephin Merritt in a very short song on his masterpiece, the 1998 album 69 Love Songs, with his band The Magnetic Fields. The song’s brevity feels like part of the point. You only need so many lyrics to split the world. Merritt tell us that love sets him and his lover apart from everyone else, an absurd idea we have all entertained at some happy juncture in our lives. His joke pokes fun at love’s absurdity by welding the timeworn formula of “two kinds of people” onto a context which isn’t about kinds at all, but about people who happen to be in love, a condition in which the nature of different people—the “kinds” or types they represent—is often less important than the coincidence of their meeting at the right time. But consider the jellied eel. The jellied eel carts of London serve their delicacy in little paper cones, with a little spoon, and the “eel” involved is not chopped up bits of huge moray-esque eels, but tiny little guys. The “jelly” seems like a kind of flavorless aspic that makes the eels slip and slide. I tried, but failed, to finish a cone-full, mostly to please my mother, during a visit to London. She was excited because, during a wander through the East End, we had found the jellied eel cart of Tubby Isaacs, that is to say, the cart that bore the name of our possible East End ancestor, Isaacs being our family name. As I tried the eels I thought to myself “there is someone who likes this.” That is, there is someone divided from me by loving jellied eels. There are two kinds of people, ey?

I am as uncomfortable as anyone at being “typed,” but I often write about food, and I know there is an affinity between food and sorting. Where does this affinity come from? Begin with the binaries that often seem to define the world of food and drink: kosher or treyf; caffeinated or decaf; omnivorous or vegetarian; pure and impure; raw and cooked; sweet and savory; alcoholic or non. Naturally, we often sort ourselves into kinds of eaters, because of differences of taste or of physiology. Some people can enjoy the taste of cilantro, and others cannot, because they have genes that produce taste receptors sensitive to the aldehydes (a class of organic compound) in the plant’s leaves, making cilantro taste like soap, rather than a delicious garnish for a bowl of chili. There are divisions of dietary need, as when someone with celiac can’t ingest gluten without damaging their small intestine. But there are different kinds of kinds. The binaries created by biological conditions are unlike the elective binaries made by taste. Some people love chocolate, others prefer fruit. Some differences in taste are entirely personal: coffee people versus tea people; people who relish, well, relish, versus people who prefer mustard. Other differences are national, such as the American love of ketchup on French Fries versus the Canadian love of vinegar. Other differences involve taking sides in long-running regional conflicts: bagels from Montreal’s St. Viatur, or from its rival, Fairmount? In Los Angeles, do you prefer Philippe’s French Dip sandwiches, or Cole’s? Some of these differences hardly seem like binaries at all (plenty of people join me in putting both mustard and relish on their dog) while others are the stuff of spicy debate. There is power in disunion; an entire advertising campaign ran on the notion that two groups of beer fans might love the same beer but maintain a heated rivalry over why to love it: “tastes great!” “less filling!”

The affinity between food and sorting may come from a deeper place, stemming from the fact that cooking itself demands inventories, lists, and sundry tasks of managing small objects in order to make a single dish. After organizing ingredients, we transform them, an additional differentiating act. Cooking is the art of making things change state, as when the bread dough bakes into a loaf. From before to after, raw to cooked, cooking naturally divides the world in a binary fashion. I suppose you could remove the loaf from the oven half-baked and say, triumphantly “no binary!” pointing to your pallid and half-baked material evidence, but this would be arguing, and baking, in bad faith. Unbaked dough and baked bread each represents a known and accepted type. The half-baked bread is not a working, healthy synthesis of two things, but the result of an interrupted process. The transition between states does not eliminate the binary difference between raw and cooked. Rather, the transition illustrates that difference, for in most cooking, the middle state between the two is not much of a state at all.

The binary works whether the things involved can change into one another, or whether they are immutable opposites as if fixed in the cosmos; whether they are complimentary, like sweetness and sourness in an agrodolce, or hostile, like milk and lemon juice. It works because two things seem opposed. We create the salient dimensions of their difference in our minds. Perhaps we do so because it is in our natures to do so; at least, this is the lesson of mid-twentieth century structuralist anthropology as formulated by Claude Levi-Strauss, and presented in his 1964 The Raw and the Cooked. It is also the lesson taught by another anthropologist, Mary Douglas, in her 1966 Purity and Danger, which explained cleanliness and purity practices at work in cultures both “traditional” and “modern.” Both anthropologists pushed against the common idea that modern societies have a different relationship to culture than do traditional ones. In that same year, 1966, Levi-Strauss also published his influential “The Culinary Triangle,” which showed that structuralism was as comfortable with trinities as with binaries by analyzing three ways of cooking meat (boiling, roasting, and grilling) in relation to three states of food (raw, rotten, and cooked). Structuralist anthropology’s legacy for food is the dream of understanding the most complex aspects of social reality from the most basic food practices, from agriculture to cooking to seating arrangements at dinner. Our plates, bowls and cups speak the deep grammar of our societies. It’s alimentary.

Levi-Strauss did not begin his scholarly life as an anthropologist. He trained first in law and philosophy, completing his agregation at the Sorbonne in 1931 and writing a thesis on

“The Philosophical Postulates of Historical Materialism with Specific Reference to Karl Marx.” Levi-Strauss’s conception of structural oppositions would later display a philosophical inheritance, the idea that thesis and antithesis will oppose one another and then some resolution will take place, through synthesis, as when the raw becomes the cooked. But structuralist anthropology took many years to develop. During his wartime exile at the New School for Social Research in New York, Levi-Strauss met the Russian linguist Roman Jakobson, from whom he absorbed one of the twentieth century’s most consequential shifts: structuralism, originally a development in the work of Swiss linguist Ferdinand De Saussure (about whom Stephin Merritt would also sing, also on 69 Love Songs). Languages build meaning through contrasting phonemes, and for Levi-Strauss this aspect of language would become a master-metaphor for the production of meaning through contrasts in all elements of life; decades later, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan would claim that the unconscious itself is “structured like a language.” With this gesture he echoed Levi-Strauss’s earlier hope that a structuralist approach to meaning could unify culture and nature.

Structuralism can find meaning in the tension between the refrigerator and the hot stovetop, or between the parts of an animal we consider meat and the ones we call offal. Admirably flexible, structuralism also risks reducing a subject, a meal, to the dynamic tensions between its parts, as though what mattered were not the specifics of a case, but its capacity to yield up a diagram. The attraction of thinking in terms of kinds of eaters—jellied eel people versus non-jellied-eel people—can vitiate the meaning of what divides them. There are, again, different kinds of differences between eaters. There are differences of health or genetics, and then there are differences of taste, and taste is not a state of being, a “kind,” but the play of individual personality in relation to a set of experiences contoured by culture, place, and time. This is something that the structuralist worldview, which makes of our lives a system of common and shared meanings rather than personal ones, simply isn’t properly attuned to catch. There is something in Levi-Strauss’s structuralism that recalls Immanuel Kant’s account of aesthetics, in which he granted a new intellectual dignity to taste, but distinguished objects about which we can make “disinterested” judgments of beauty, like music and paintings, from objects in which we are more personally “interested,” and that grant us merely “agreeable” sensations; Kant’s own example was canary-wine. Those aspects of human experience that do not yield up universalizable judgments had to fall by the wayside, and a pulled pork sandwich dripping with vinegar may be delicious, but for Kant its deliciousness would be merely particular.

Taste is a tangle of meanings. There is the sensible character of a substance, and then there is sensation. There is the kind of taste one possesses, which in the context of food and drink means a cultivated relationship with a specific food or beverage: whisky, say, or wine. There is a further difference between having a taste for something (say, Twinkies) and having good taste in something (Twinkies again, if you think industrial snack foods share some characteristics with wine). One of the most famous lines in food writing comes from Brillat-Savarin, author of the 1825 The Physiology of Taste: “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” a line that even made it into the opening credits for the show Iron Chef. According to Brillat-Savarin, our choices put our identities on the table. But much depends on how we understand this. A taste is an intimate preference. It suggests familiarity with a field of possibilities. It may—though it need not—imply a cultivated sense of judgment, even when our taste is for something that seems uncultivated, like diner coffee that has been slowly “cooking” on a hot plate for twenty-five minutes after brewing (NB: I hate this, but I think I also understand the appeal). To proclaim a taste is to say something about your past, your present preferences, and likely your future ones too.

Brillat-Savarin wrote what you are, not who you are. We may feel that our selection from a menu conveys something about us, that what we cook conveys our individual personality and flare in some way, but Brillat-Savarin was writing as a diagnostician of kinds rather than from an “expressivist” picture of what we do with food. The line, which appears in a list of aphorisms in the text, immediately following “The destiny of nations depends on the manner in which they are fed” is also translated as “Tell me what kind of food you eat, and I will tell you what kind of man you are.” After all, Brillat-Savarin was laying down the principles of gastronomy, taking it to be a science, and he defined it thusly: “Gastronomy is a scientific definition of all that relates to man as a feeding animal. Its object is to watch over the preservation of man by means of the best possible food.” For Brillat-Savarin, our tastes do define us, which makes sense given that he wanted to establish gastronomy as a system of knowledge. But Brillat-Savarin was not concerned with what taste might mean to the individual person—of what it means to me to love coffee, or to enjoy “doubles,” a Trinidadian dish available on the streets of London, consisting of two flatbreads sandwiching a bit of curry, a Caribbean remix of South Asian flavors. The precise appeal of jellied eels continues to slip away from me, however.

I am not comfortable with a world of types. I want my statements of taste to express something about me, personally, and I resent that my tastes, once announced, can then be used to tag me, to sort and group me with others. I wish Brillat-Savarin had written who you are. I want my statement “I am a coffee person” (as opposed, say, to a tea person) to say who I am, and I end up saying, to a classifying ear, what I am. Is this just personal discomfort with labels? I drink, and enjoy, both coffee and tea, with a powerful preference for coffee before noon, but if you hail me with the question “coffee person or tea person” I become instantly alert to the associations these two terms might have within the North American context in which I live. One way to see this predicament is that living in a world of types, of kinds of people, is as inescapable as any social convention. I want my tastes to announce me, personally, not sort me into a world of kinds. The fact is that they can do both.

I think of my tastes as special, but I did not develop them in a vacuum. I arrived at my preferences in a social world, from infancy and childhood through adulthood, my attitudes to meats, fruit, vegetables, rice and bread all shaped by the people around me. If I worry about structuralism’s tendency to lose local details in its impulse towards abstraction, I also think one of its insights is correct: we live within orders of meaning that we do not ourselves determine. Enjoying inari sushi (a bean curd skin wrapped around rice, sometimes containing bits of pickled daikon) holds nostalgic meaning for me, because it was one of my favorite foods in childhood. It is also relatively sweet, when compared to other kinds of sushi, and unchallenging for a child not familiar with the textures and flavors of, say, sea urchin or mackerel. When I eat inari as an adult, I think of the fox spirits (the Inari) who protect the rice, in Japan, and for whom inari sushi are a favorite food. I think about childhood, not necessarily my own. But I have also chosen a vegetarian item, not a form of meat. I have chosen something sweet, or something (when it contains pickle) that juxtaposes sweet and sour, rather than something savory. I do not get to choose the social meanings of my tastes, any more than I get to choose the personal meanings.

Do I have so little choice as that? No, this goes too far. I have, you have, at some point in our lives decided we wanted to broaden and deepen our experience of something: music, clothing, food, drink. We found that we liked certain things and not others. We cultivated our tastes. We learned things about what pleases us, and the answers may have surprised us. A high-cacao single-origin dark chocolate may be very interesting, tasting of tangerine or rose petals, but I will reach for a lower cacao milk chocolate because I like its richness and I dislike the chalky mouthfeel of most high-cacao chocolates. I still enjoy something about single-origin chocolate; some chocolates teach me the different things that cacao can do, when carefully processed and prepared, just as there are coffees I’m glad I tried, though I wouldn’t drink them on a daily basis. Just as there are different kinds of kinds, there are different kinds of tastes, and they suit different occasions. I think that one of the reasons people dislike being teased as wine snobs, beer snobs, insert-the-consumable-thing snobs, is that they dislike their cultivation of personal taste being used as a pretext to label them as an example of a type.

Thinking in terms of kinds—of eaters, drinkers, readers, theater-goers, pigeon-feeders, and so on—offends me with its laziness. It is a form of what Theodor Adorno called “ticket-thinking,” thinking as if done automatically, like reading off the numbered ticket you take at the deli counter. But the predicament of thinking in terms of kinds is its seeming inevitability, not only for the reasons structuralist anthropology reveals, but also because of the nature of the social world in which we cook, eat, drink. It is a world of supermarkets and carefully designed packaging, a world in which large corporations think about consumer choice and hope to guide us to their products. I may personally resist being describable in demographic terms, but I can’t help it. In the documentary City of Gold, food writer Jonathan Gold describes the Jewish delicatessens of his L.A. childhood, associating each one with a different economic class: Nate and Al’s (wealthy), Label’s Table (working class), Junior’s Deli (middle class). We are kinds of people, it seems, whether we like it or not. Sometimes we even take pleasure in it, taking a seat at our favorite restaurant counter or bar and feeling part of something larger than ourselves, something we might dare to call community. To affiliate is to flirt with kinds. To be a local, to be known, at the taco truck or the café, is to surrender our control over how we are known. Come to think of it, this is the predicament of human connection itself. We have to trust that someone will want to know us, and to know our tastes, more deeply than they can through labels, categories, and group identities. When we meet them, we’ll know. They’ll be our kind of person.