What’s in a Grade?

What earns a dish an A or a B? Or, I dread to think, a C? Why did The Professor deem the beet risotto an A+ but give my pasta with kale and walnut pesto a B+?

You, dear readers, have a right to know. In fact, you need to know, so that you can decide whether or not to trust The Professor’s opinions. So one recent evening I made the case. My argument (and you must have a strong argument when dealing with a professional philosopher) was part candidate Obama (“Transparency promotes accountability …” and so forth) and part Food Network. “Think of Throwdown! with Bobby Flay,” I offered, knowing it is one of The Professor’s guilty pleasures. “The judges use an established system for scoring dishes. On Iron Chef too.”

He was convinced. Below is an explanation of The Professor’s grading system — his logical approach to evaluating a meal.

Taste — First and most important, he evaluates the taste of a dish. Is it flavorful? Are the flavors well-balanced? And while a simple dish can be delicious, it can also leave your taste buds underwhelmed, so he’ll also look for  depth of flavor and evaluate a dish’s complexity.

Satisfaction — Some dishes taste good or even great, but don’t satisfy. Or at least, they don’t satisfy The Professor. With 6’3″ to fuel (and despite a relatively sedentary lifestyle) he wants a hearty meal — not a heavy meal, but one that fills the belly, satisfies the brain, and doesn’t leave him thinking, “that sure would have been better with some pork.”

Interestingness — The Professor is easily bored. I think that’s why he was drawn to philosophy, with its gnarly questions and debates so deep and complex they evolve over centuries. A meal isn’t likely to sustain our interest over time, but it shouldn’t bore you before it’s even over. So The Professor looks for a variety of flavors and textures that combine slightly differently with each bite. He looks for surprising ingredients and/or unusual combinations.

He’ll grade a dish along each of these three dimensions, and combine the grades to determine the final score.

Of course, The Professor is no logic machine. Inevitably, the grades he gives will be influenced by personal preferences, by likes (basil, ginger, crispy pizza crusts) and dislikes (dill, coconut, okra, and anything “mushy”) that you may or may not share. So to bring a bit of transparency to the subjective side of grading, here is a brief history of The Professor’s tastes.

As you know, he is from the South, and grew up eating typically Southern food: fried chicken, collard greens, and lots of Jiffy corn bread. Typical family meals included pot roasts, baked pork chops, and fried fish most every Friday. Most of their vegetables were canned or frozen, and they were almost always cooked with some kind of pork. Spaghetti sauce came from a jar.

He didn’t taste duck, lamb, or any ethnic food (with the exception of Chinese) until he moved to the Midwest for graduate school. There, Indian and Middle Eastern food soon became staples. His culinary education continued when he took his first job — two colleagues (and, he says, “serious foodies”) introduced him to homemade pesto, wine and the idea of cooking with fresh vegetables.  Today, he is no food snob, though he does enjoy a nice meal at a top Zagat-rated restaurant, and vacations abroad are as much about cuisine as they are about museums. He likes strong, complex flavors and has a high tolerance for spice.

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