Phenomenology v. Reality: A Case Study of Queso
After a long-term gig as a chef (read: for two months in my apartment), I find myself coming back to the same few dishes. And it’s not just because my repertoire is fairly limited. Following a day of work, nobody wants to think too hard about what to make for dinner. It is both mentally and gastronomically comforting to restore an element of control in life and remake a house specialty (breakfast quesadilla with scrambled eggs and Cholula™).
It’s not just with food, either. It is very hard to start new TV shows simply because there are so many good ones that I already know are comforting and easy to watch. Yet social media tries to impose upon us the importance of novelty. I must watch this new show to stay in the know for (virtual) water cooler banter. I must go to a fancy new restaurant for some overpriced tapas. How do we rationalize the need for new with the comfort of old?
A couple explanations come to mind. Consider first the proposition that everyone is lying. But, you may ask, I certainly enjoy new experiences! No, you don’t. You might think you enjoy them, but that’s only because society has conditioned you to believe new experiences are valuable. Furthermore, by sharing the new experiences you have had, your choices are validated, and the positive feedback loop continues (the phrase “phone eats first” encapsulates this idea and was an alternative title to the post but deemed insufficiently click-baity). The phenomenology — to speak periphrastically and likely philosophically inaccurately — of the experience is directly unenjoyable but indirectly socially satisfying. This reality and the true, visceral emotion associated with new experiences is one of discomfort (I was told uncomfort is not a word by a good friend, but why, then, is uncomforting a word? We’ll pick this up some other time).
A second, game theoretic explanation for the phenomenon of self-deception can be applied here: we are all engaging in a massive game of costly signaling. We want to signal to others that we have the resources (e.g. time, money, attractiveness, skill) to be able to go to new places, watch new shows, or make new food (bonus chewy chocolate drenched peanut butter cornflake crunch fudge brownie points for a combination of all three). It makes us feel desirable and may help us ascend the social ladder. However, the key feature of costly signaling is in the name: it’s costly. And who does it cost? You. Nobody likes tiny plates. We all just want a large order of greasy Five Guys’ fries with Heinz ketchup. Nobody likes running or going to the gym. (The release of endorphins after running is a neurobiological façade that Nike invented to sell more shoes. This, too, we’ll pick up another time). It’s all a game.
There is an alternative explanation: I am lazy. Though largely true, there are a few counterpoints I’d offer. It appears that many people re-watch TV shows, are diehard fans of a particular fast food chain, and get homesick. This is a direct result of the above. Comfort trumps discomfort. People like dependable products and experiences because of this comfort factor. Comfort minimizes uncertainty, and evolutionarily speaking, uncertainty is dangerous. If given the choice between not doing something and doing something, most people would opt for the former. Doing things requires effort and after a draining day of watching Invincible on Amazon Prime, most people just do not have that energy. I certainly don’t mean to imply that everyone is lazy. Rather, I am saying that humans would rather do something familiar than something unfamiliar. And most things are unfamiliar.
This leads me to my most important point: queso. Everyone loves queso. It is comfortable, relaxing, and never fails to hit the spot. Tostitos’ Queso Blanco does just as well as your local Mexican restaurant’s Queso Fundido (whatever that means). See below.
There are a lot of things to like about this video, but Senator John Cornyn in the background smiling like the he just met his childhood hero — which I imagine is an anthropomorphic border wall adorned with cowboy hats — might be the best part about it.
Returning to the main point: Ted Cruz and I don’t often agree, but here, we do. His beautiful, extemporaneous speech — he was a college debate champion, after all — captures the main point of this blog. Queso “just tastes good.” The phenomenology of queso does not require any external validation, frills, or unnecessary additions (notice that unnecessary additions was an unnecessary addition here to preserve the comforting triad structure). For a vast majority of people, a simple queso would be preferred to whatever your coworker paired with the 2017 Sonoma Valley Zinfandel at her—the usage of “her” is likely something about which Cruz and I do not agree—last wine night.
So next time you’re trying to decide what to do for dinner, save yourself some trouble and remember the following mantra. “Queso wins. Comfort wins.”
EDIT: It has been brought to my attention that by writing this blog post, I have fundamentally gone against everything of substance in the blog post itself. Take that as you will.