The Psychology of a $666 Burger, and Other Haute Cuisine

Why are people willing to pay exorbitant prices for gourmet foods like the "Doucheburger'"?

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What's the most you've ever paid for a meal?

If you're like most Americans, that number probably has three digits. Not all of us can afford to dispense with $5,000 in order to fully experience the best cuisine that our nation has to offer. And of course, few things are seen as more obscene in today's economic climate than walking past the unemployment line to spend rivers of money on haute cuisine across the street.

The insult is made worse, however, when the trappings of luxury are applied to foods known for their populist origins. There are two front-runners in this arena at the moment in New York. One is 666Burger's $666 Doucheburger, a hamburger which began as a joke made from "gold leafed Kobe beef formed around foie gras, then topped with cave aged gruyere, truffle butter, lobster, caviar, and kopi luwak bbq sauce", and wrapped in three greasy $100 bills. The other, a $2,300 hot dog at the rooftop bar on 230 Fifth, counts onions caramelized in Dom Perignon and sauerkraut made with platinum oscetra caviar among its ingredients. The spiral-cut wiener costs as much as outfield season tickets to the Mets.

Yet even as we decry the indulgences of the super rich, those of us who have the means will still jump at the chance to enjoy a lobster dinner, or spring for that fancy goat cheese with the jam on top before a dinner party.

What makes a dish stand out so much that a (presumably) sane person would spend twice as much -- or ten times as much -- as she would on the meal's déclassé cousin? Is there something innately superior to foodstuffs like foie gras and truffle oil that justifies their astronomical cost? The answer begins with the rags-to-riches story of one of America's most famous delicacies.

Lobster: Poor Man's Protein

The first settlers to reach the North American continent were greeted by more than just a few local tribes of Native Americans. When they arrived, the shores that the Europeans landed upon were most likely knee-deep with lobsters.

The crustaceans were so plentiful that they would wash ashore in piles up to two feet high, and were often as large as 40 pounds . They could be easily harvested from the tide-pools and, when wrapped in seaweed and baked over hot rocks, provided an essential source of backup protein for the tribes during lean years and long winters.

The lobster's humble origins earned it a reputation as the "poor man's protein", and it was served ad nauseum to slaves, apprentices, and children for over a century. The practice was so common that it became standard practice for servants to negotiate riders in their contracts that guaranteed they would not be served lobster more than thrice weekly.

If you've ever looked closely at a lobster, you probably noticed that its anatomy is one of the strangest known to man. The brain is located in the throat, the teeth in the stomach, and the kidneys in the head. If you didn't know any better, would you be at all inclined to crack open a lobster's shell and swallow its tail? It was only in the 1880s, when lobster meat began to gain a cult following among diners in Boston and New York City, that the animal began to belie its reputation as a bottom-feeding sea creature fed to slaves.

Prices rose immediately, and by the time of the second World War it was considered a delicacy, and hence not subject to rationing. Those who profited most from the war effort devoured lobsters more quickly than ever, setting in motion the commercial lobstering industry that would eventually cause populations to reach dangerously low levels. Today, lobster sells to restaurants at anywhere from three to four dollars a pound (seasonal price changes do occur, but their effect does not travel far).

Diamonds in the Kitchen

The culinary history of lobster suggests that foods are not blessed with intrinsic value; rather, the price paid for them is based on a combination of desirability and rarity.

Diamonds are the prototypical example of a product that derives its value from scarcity. By the 4th century B.C., when they first appear in the archaeological record as markings made by drill bits found in Yemen, they were already considered a valuable material.

Even when technological advances allowed diamonds to be extracted at an unprecedented rate, they were almost all under the control of De Beers, whichmaintained a near-complete monopoly until recently (prices have plunged since). Throughout the twentieth century, De Beers artificially restricted supply at the same time they blitzed the market with ads fixing the rocks as symbols of commitment and luxury.

Truffles are the culinary equivalent of diamonds, so much so that the humble European mushroom was nicknamed "the diamond of the kitchen" by the early food critic Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The mushroom's flavor is subtle yet unmistakable, and has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity, finding its way into everything from chocolate to french fries.

The fungus grows wild in France, Italy, and Croatia, and historically resisted efforts at cultivation. Trufficulture, as it came to be known, was only made possible in the early 1800's, when Joseph Talon sowed acorns from infected trees which later formed the basis for the French truffle forests.

Sadly, the post-war rural exodus in France brought trufficulture mostly to a halt. Today truffles are exceedingly rare, and current populations are being threatened by global warming . Predictably, prices doubled last November as the rain-starved Italian forests yielded a pitiful harvest.

Like truffles, most delicacies are blessed with a unique flavor, one which is not easily imitated by cheaper alternatives. But unlike truffles, the flavors that underlie many of those foods are not quite so subtle (just ask anyone who hates asparagus). How is it possible that one person will pay hundreds of dollars for a dish that will ruin another's day just by looking at it?

You Say Tomato, I Say Disgusting

One of the most difficult predilections new parents must deal with is their child's desire to eat everything in sight. (Freud noticed this phenomenon as well).

With the exception of a few evolutionary triggers -- such as a positive response to sweet tastes and a negative response to bitter, irritant, or otherwise strong tastes -- babies have no food preferences. Until the age of about two years, children regard pretty much anything as a potential snack .

Much of a child's early education involves learning what is and is not edible. By the time we become adults, we are laden with a culturally-specific framework that dictates which foods are acceptable, which are most desirable, and which are off-limits. These preferences vary wildly across cultures; this scene from Sky1's An Idiot Abroad, where English everyman Karl Pilkington tries sushi with fish that has been fermented for three years, illustrates this cultural relativity in excruciating detail.

Within the limits of our cultural biases, however, our perception of food's taste and desirability is surprisingly elastic. The prevalence of acquired tastes, e.g. for coffee, or moldy cheese, or even humanity's oldest friend, alcohol, is a testament to the malleability of our food preferences.

As we grow tolerant to strong, previously unfamiliar tastes and aromas, we are better able to appreciate the subtle flavors that lie beneath. And, of course, some foods, like those which are spicy, caffeinated, or alcoholic, have beneficial or otherwise pleasurable effects on the body, reinforcing their consumption. All this without considering the effect that our upbringing has on which foods we prefer most.

The Finest Wine, or the Finest Label?

Our sense of taste and smell is not solely influenced by familiarity. As it so happens, our appreciation of the things we eat is also tinged by the food's perceived quality.

Wine is one area of culinary appreciation where this effect is especially pronounced. Wine's flavor is extremely complex, comprised of multiple layers, and people can (and do) spend years learning to distinguish between different regions, vineyards, and vintages. Yet the primary factor in consumers' perception of a wine's taste is the price. In one experiment at the California Institute of Technology, researchers presented the subjects with five different wines clearly marked with the price, while secretly filling the two most expensive bottles with the same wine from the two least expensive bottles.

This would be unsurprising, were it not for one detail: the subjects were expert wine tasters. Even those who have been trained to spot fakes can be fooled through manipulation of a wine's perceived value.

In another study by Antonia Mantonakis, associate professor of marketing at Brock University, participants were asked to guess a wine's rating in a competition based solely on photos of the labels. The research suggests, among other things, that wines with difficult-to-pronounce names are perceived as being of higher quality than their more banal competitors.

Wine isn't the only food that benefits from surface enhancements, however. Edible gold has zero nutritional value, and yet it has been used to enhance the perceived flavor of everything from 16th century Italian risottos to luxury sake and chocolate pralinées.

What does this mean for consumers? Is it really worth spending money on fine dining when so much of the happiness we experience is simply our brains fleeing from cognitive dissonance? The answer depends on one's motives. If, as Thorstein Veblen first noticed in 1899, a person wishes to signal their status to others (possibly as some sort of primitive mating ritual), then engaging in the occasional harmless game of "Did You Eat It?" might make perfect sense.

Remember: as any pharmacologist will tell you, just because something is caused by the placebo effect doesn't make it any less real. The best way to appreciate a good meal, regardless of price, is to forget about everything except eating.