Snobbishness

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of people who insist you MUST use fresh lemon juice, not juice from a bottle, for various dishes. In a word… maybe.

Many years ago I got a wild hair and set up a blind taste test. I made chocolate chip cookies. One batch was made with butter, the other with a good margarine. I had everyone who tried test four pairs of cookies. These people were friends who were cooks or ‘high class’ eaters, who were insisting on butter. While I was nice to their egos, only one out of the twenty-odd got all four sets right. It got me thinking, and doing some later tests – with other spices as well as butter.

Result one, and most important relative to the title, is that most people are false snobs. Unless it is dominant or there’s a supplemental cue they cannot tell whether you’re using butter or margarine. This is true of most (not all) spices. For example, the vast majority of people cannot tell if you used vanilla bean or vanilla extract if they cannot see the seed pulp. Unless you use zest most people cannot tell the difference between fresh and bottled lemon juice. With only one or two exceptions (nutmeg, for example) most people cannot tell if the spice cooked with is fresh or dried unless given a visual cue — sprigs instead of chiffonades or stripped, for example.

Result two, there are people who can tell. If so, they can do so almost every single time. Period.

“I can tell,” you say. Maybe. Let’s set a challenge, shall we? Make two pitchers of lemonade: one cup of lemon juice, one cup of sugar, 1/4 tsp of salt, six cups of water. Put identifying marks on eight small glasses. Have a friend randomly pour a couple of swallows of lemonade into the eight glasses from the two pitchers – heads it’s fresh, tails it’s bottled – recording on a sheet of paper which is which. Taste each and immediately decide and write down your answers. If you’ve got the knack you’ll get at least seven of the glasses right.

Now given a choice I use butter instead of margarine but the reason is not usually taste. The reason is health; butter is healthier than margarine. (Browned butter is a taste exception – there is nothing like it.) I use dried herbs, however, some of which I’ve grown on my own and dried on gathering. And I use bottled lemon juice because I can’t tell the difference.

Now re-read what I’ve written — there are things in which you can tell the difference. Free range vs factory/mass production chicken or beef is an example. Fresh veggies in anything but stew, though nobody I know can tell “organic” production by taste. (Another rant, this time on sneaky and false labeling, for another time.)

As a final note, I think there’s a great deal of money for the company that figures out how to package citrus zest. Just saying that Barnum was right.

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