I was thinking about food. No, this isn’t going to be one of those posts about how literally the first part of my moniker should be taken. But I do think about food a lot, and yesterday, I was thinking about xiaolongbao. Xiaolongbao is one of Shanghai’s most sought-after snacks. The small soup dumplings, usually filled with pork and savory broth, are the holy grail of a Shanghai food quest.
They were also a part of my first meal here. We went to Din Tai Fung, a Taiwanese chain that is supposed to be one of the best restaurants in the world. Their xiaolongbao are also rumored to be superior. There is a schism between DTF and Nanxiang Mantou Dian, a smaller shop that specializes in the dumplings. D (how I will henceforth refer to my boyfriend) thought our bao were fantastic. However, reviews of both restaurants are swamped with largely negative comments.
The platonic ideal in the back of our minds, both in art appreciation and foodie culture, is an essential part of the experience. Many reviews described with an air of expertise what a xiaolongbao should be shortly before declaring that the product in question wasn’t quite it. If the two best places to get something aren’t that good, than what standard are we even using? You can fill in the perfect burger, chocolate chip cookie*, slice of pizza, etc ad nauseum. The siren song of perfection is an inescapable phenomenon. I don’t think we critics would have it any other way! From average Yelp users to the most esteemed food writers, an entirely positive review is incredibly rare. There is a fear lurking below the surface of critic culture that once we give our love to something entirely, we aren’t credible. We pride ourselves on being perpetually suspicious.
There’s a bit more to it than that, even. Admitting that we’ve found the perfect xiaolongbao makes the entire experience less attractive. We have to stop, accept that this is it, and live in the present. The hunt is off! Art historians are guilty of the same thing. Of course we need to evaluate art constructively instead of deifying artists, but sometimes I think academics, critics, and joe-museum goer get too obsessed with keeping their guard up. It’s fine to love things. It’s ok to decide that the black olive, banana pepper, and sun-dried tomato slice in your hand is the nonpareil of pizza. But let’s all admit it: the platonic ideal in our heads is just as important of a measure, if not more so, than cheese to sauce ratio….I mean designo.
*A wise person once told me that there really isn’t such thing as a bad chocolate chip cookie – just different degrees of great.