If All Your Friends Jumped Off a Bridge …

A phrase popped into my head yesterday while I was thinking about something completely different, and I’d like to toss it at you: “challenge food.”

A challenge food is that stuff you’re expected to eat, not because it’s good, not because it’s something you would normally like, but to prove to your friends that you’re tough. Or daring. Or … willing to go along with the joke.

How many times have you heard people rave about chili hot enough to bring tears to your eyes? Or read some story about the search for the hottest-ever chili pepper?

There are other challenge foods. Raw oysters come to mind. Mountain oysters (bull calf testicles). Sheep’s eyeballs.

Considering where I came from, sushi was a challenge food for me. At least until I took my first bite, and discovered it was heavenly!

There are also plenty of challenge drinks. Everclear. Metaxa. Hell, even beer, if you’ve never had it before.

I bring all this up because challenge foods illustrate a line in human thinking, the line between “I should like this” and “This should be good.”

Or, more fully, the difference between

I should like this because everybody says it’s good.

… and …

If I’m going to like this, it should be good.

Do you see the difference? The first one is a follow-along belief that says one’s judgment about what’s good should be based on what other people say is good. The second follows one’s own internal compass, saying that if something’s good TO YOU, you’ll like it, and not otherwise. In other words, the food is going to have to live up to you (your judgment), and not you live up to the food (in other people’s judgment).

I fell for the chili challenge oh-so-many times when I was growing up in Texas. Friends would make the burning hot stuff and gather to rave about how hot it was. “WOO!! That stuff just about burns the hair outta yuh nose, don’t it! Sweet Jesus, somebody git me a fahr hose! I think my eyeballs is meltin’! That chili’ll git the wax runnin’ outer yer ears!”

Until the day I said to myself “Dammit, I don’t want to FIGHT with my food. It’s either gonna be something I like, or I’m not going to eat the goddam stuff.” Ever since, I’ve enjoyed my own very-mildly-spiced recipe for chili, and none other.

I was surprised the first time I tasted champagne. I’d seen it in all the movies, you see, and people were sipping it and laughing, obviously enjoying it. I expected it to be sweet and light and fizzy. Instead it was this … bitter pisswater. I didn’t exactly spit it out, but I took two small sips – the second to be sure I’d been right about the first – and then put the glass down.

In fact, compared to my high school and cowboy buddies, I was very late in taking up drinking at all. I was 22 before I drank down an entire beer, or finished an entire mixed drink on my own. Beer simply didn’t taste very good to me. And even after I started drinking seriously (!) with my cowboy buddies in California, I divided mixed drinks into my own two private categories: Candy and Hair Tonic. Candy drinks – Tom Collins, Rum and Coke, etc. – I would drink. Hair tonic drinks – Martinis, etc. – I would not.

(Bear in mind this is all based on my much-younger sense of taste. Champagne no longer tastes like bitter pisswater, but it also doesn’t taste very GOOD. And still today, a six-pack of beer, which I do buy occasionally, will last me several months.)

Not to say that I wouldn’t try some of that stuff when I was out with the mule packers and had already had a few. I know what Metaxa tastes like, for instance (it probably rises into a third category – Paint Stripper, perhaps, or Human Rights Violation), but I would never, ever order it on my own.

Let’s look at those two mindsets again, though:

“I should like this” is hauled up from the deep, deep well of tribal solidarity:

This is justice because my neighbors say it is. This is right because the Pope says it’s right. This is a justified war because my countrymen say it is. This is good because everybody else seems to think it’s good. This is okay because it’s always been this way. This is the best way to do it because this is how my people do it. I should think this, and agree to this, and go along with this, because that’s what I’m supposed to do. This is real and true because the Bible says it is.

“This should be good” springs from the fountain of individual judgment:

Waitasec, is that right? Hmm, I don’t like this; is there something wrong with ME, or is it something wrong with THEM? Hell, I’m not going along with that. Jeez, I wonder why everybody thinks that’s okay? This tastes awful; I’m not eating/drinking/smoking it. I don’t like the way this is going; I’m outta here. No way am I going to put up with this. Well, shoot, that’s just silly; I didn’t sign on for this. Why is everybody standing around — can’t they see those people need help? Or even: What the fuck is up with you idiots? Can’t you see this is wrong?

I’m not knocking tribal solidarity, but there are limits. I’m pretty sure completely giving up your Self, vanishing totally into the herd, is just wrong. If you’re exactly like everybody else, you don’t really exist. I mean, you might still be walking around and breathing and stuff, but there’s no YOU in you. You become a nebbish, a puppet, a faceless, selfless nothing, pushed here and there by the tides of public opinion, or the will of corporate advertisers, or the driving whip of political manipulation.

If you default on the necessity of being an individual, you vanish in some way. You become a … thing.

But where do you draw the line between the two? On the one hand, there’s the risk you might become a non-entity. On the other, you face the danger of turning into something of an egotistical monster.

It’s not possible for me to really advise you on the thing, but several things come to mind in thinking about it:

First, the unspoken foundation of freethought is a willingness to take on the responsibility of making these kinds of choices. Once you become aware that there IS a choice, you’ll figure out where to draw your own line.

Which means, given the fact that this is the real world, and we’re only human, in the thousand SMALL decisions of daily living, a lot of it will involve the familiar “Go along to get along.” It’s just too tiring to do any different. As long as you realize there’s a small price you pay each time you go against your own values, and you judge either that the price is too small to bother with, or that the benefits outweigh the cost, you’re set.

Second, in the BIG decisions of your life — the health and welfare, life and death of you and your dependent loved ones – it has to be you making the decision. Every time.

Third, if the choice involves another person – a friend or relative, for instance – be sure it’s your decision to make. If it’s them paying the price of the choice, I would suggest it’s not your place to make that choice.

Finally, there is one decision-making arena where you can ALWAYS reliably default to your own personal judgment: Anytime you’re expected to follow along completely, to obey without questioning, that’s the time you must not follow along. The time when you have to back out, call a halt, and take the time to exercise your own ability to investigate, evaluate, and judge.

Whether it’s pressure from peers, the danger of official sanctions, or just a context of unspoken expectations, if the situation suddenly turns your life into a cattle chute, you must — at least in your head — refuse to be a cow.

A good thing to remember the next time you’re asked to go along with a war. Or with a church.



By the way, do click on the photo to embiggen it. It’s one of mine, and of someone I know. The bridge is about 65 feet high, the young man is 19, and … dayyum. (Yes, he survived.)

Looking Past the Bright Sun of Crazy
Beta Culture: Seeing The Brackets
Race and Culture Again: Bessie and Lois
  • Steerpike

    Well put, as usual, Hank. The absolute worst reason to do anything is “it’s always been done this way, I was raised to do it this way, and everyone I know does it.” Yet this is the first and often only reason most people have for following their religious beliefs.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=597316935 ashleybell

    I was thinking about this very recently. It seems to me that the cuisines of Sweden and Japan are made up entirely of ‘dare’ foods. Kirsch (astringent bitter cherry liquer that you’d think would be delicious, it’s cherries for cryin’ out loud)and fermented herring for the swiss, and live octopus (an average of 6 peopole die each year from the suckers attaching to the throat) and Dragonfruit that is illegal to cut open in public without a license because it smells like the foulest raw sewage imaginable.

  • Dunc

    I generally agree, but there is a counterpoint – if lots of people like something and you don’t, it may be that you just haven’t tried hard enough. Some tastes are acquired, and worth acquiring.

    For example, I don’t really like seafood. That means there’s an entire class of food that I’m basically shut out of. Now, I suppose I could just say “That’s just the way I am” and move on with my life, with only the occasional awkward moment in social situations where seafood is presented to me. However, I’d be missing out! It’s a big, diverse range of stuff, and I’m mature enough to distinguish “I don’t like this” from “this is no good” – I can tell that there’s a lot of really good seafood out there, and I resent that I can’t really enjoy it. So what am I going to do? I’m going to keep trying seafood, on the basis that if I work at it long enough, I’ll acquire the taste eventually. OK, I’ll probably never be a raving seafood addict, but I’m already much more amenable to it that I used to be. Find a way in, and work from there… Like with whisk(e)y – I started out on bourbon, which suited my younger palate, but I wouldn’t touch the stuff these days. Now I drink proper single malt Scotch whisky, mostly from Islay – the really smoky, peaty stuff. If I’d started on that, I’d have hated it. Now I love it.

    Oh, and you’ve got to buy a pretty bloody good champagne before it starts living up to the hype. It’s one of those things – it’s a status marker, but a lot of people don’t really know what it’s supposed to taste like, so you get a lot that really isn’t very good at all.

  • lorn

    Tastes change. Age, a more mature palate and, possibly, less sensitive taste buds, help. But the situation and environment can change your taste also. The idea of eating raw fat in great quantities is quite revolting for many people. In normal situations they simply wouldn’t do it. But it was noted by many Arctic explorers that they developed a taste for whale and seal blubber after a few days. When they returned home the idea of eating fat was considerably less attractive.

    I’ve observed a similar situation dealing with salty sports drinks and water with cider vinegar and/or salt when people are sweating heavily.

  • Nathaniel Frein

    I think we’re focusing too much on his individual examples of food, and less on his overall point: That we need to trust our instinct that “this isn’t right” or “this isn’t me” and examine the situation before committing.

    And tribal bonding can be important. I’ll suffer through that spicy chili with my buddies (not often) because the enjoyment comes from watching all of us suffer. It’s fun, it’s not about the food, per se, and it’s only fair for me to join in as part of the group. But that’s within my comfort zone. Hanging out with my buddies while they smoke pot is within my comfort zone. Smoking pot myself isn’t (I despise the stuff personally). My buddies respect that. If someone tried to push me into doing it because “everyone was doing it”, I’d simply walk away.

    We all have to submit to group wishes sometimes, just to keep the peace in the community. I keep my grass trimmed even though I’d be happier with it a few inches longer. I don’t let my tree overshadow my neighbor’s solar panels. My neighbor doesn’t let his son practice his guitar at two in the morning.

    The point of this article, I think, is to say that we cannot let this go too far. We have to listen to our own judgement and decide where we need to stop and say “no, I’m not going along with this.”

    OT: Personally, I prefer the “hair tonic” drinks. I drink pink gin (gin with bitters), and I enjoy it. I drink Guinness and other dark beers because I like the taste (I also love very dark chocolate).

    @Ashley: You’re looking at what America reads about “crazy Japan”. The bulk of Japanese cuisine is quite “tame” by anyone’s standards. Katsudon, ramen (oh, what I wouldn’t give to have a good ol’ ramen stand nearby again), bariyaki, etc. Even sushi isn’t really a “dare” food. It comes from the fact that Japan was predominately a fishing community for the longest time. It’s the same as looking at Philippino cuisine and focusing on the dishes like Balut and completely missing the stuff like pancit or lumpia. These dishes are analogous to the “rocky mountain oysters” that Hank mentioned.

    And lets be perfectly honest: I’m sure there are plenty of people who legitimately enjoy eating Lutfisk. I know plenty of people who LOVE natto (fermented soybeans), which you’ll never catch me eating.

  • lochaber

    Nice post.

    I ran into a lot of this when I was in the military. Guys would give me crap, call me a wuss/sissy/redacted, etc. for ordering something ‘mild’ or picking out the jalapeños and what not. A lot of these guys I would end up passing around 6 miles into the run, or end up carrying their pack for them on the next hump. I just don’t like overly spicy stuff. I’m perfectly willing to accept that lots of others like it, it just isn’t for me (and plenty other people).

    Funny thing is, one time in the field, some guy was offering something like $15 for one of us to drink something like 5 of those Tabasco bottles (little tiny ones in the MRE’s, like a couple ml each) at once. No one else seemed to take him up on it (I don’t like hot stuff, even Tabasco, but realize that’s pretty mild to some of the things people come up with), which really confused me. He paid up when we were out of the field though, he said that he viewed it less as a bet and more at an ‘entertainment expense’.

    Aside from that, I think I read someplace (can’t remember where) that humans are unusual, in that our tastes aren’t entirely genetic/instinctual, and that there are a large number of acquired tastes (natto, beer, coffee, etc.), and a lot of them tend to be bitter.

  • http://pallets-for-sale.com/ Dennis Brown

    Speaking about challenge food, I remember the tv show, “Fear Factor” wherein players are required to eat challenge foods.. The menu included things like bugs, mice, and other things that will test your fears.. I watched a video where some particular countries eat the challenge foods as their normal food.. I think it’s just kinda weird for most people though we don’t have the right to judge their habits.. Thanks for sharing!

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