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Robert St. John

Restaurateur, author, enthusiastic traveler, & world-class eater.

This or That

February 12, 2018

For as long as I remember I have been playing “this or that” type games with my friends and family. I don’t remember the first this-or-that I ever proposed to someone, but it was probably in the late 1960s and went something like this, “Who’s the best band, The Beatles, or The Rolling Stones?” A few years later, that discussion probably turned to “Who’s the best drummer Keith Moon or John Bonham?”

The sports world is full of this-or-that’s— Yankees or Red Sox? Lakers or Celtics? Brady or Montana? Football or baseball?

Everyday life is full of the same type questions— Mac or PC? Laptop or tablet? iOS or Android? Dogs or cats? Fishing or hunting? Glasses or contacts? Shower or bath? Beach or mountains? Ski or swim?

These this-or-that dilemmas are everywhere. We make— or have made— these decisions every minute of every day. In the home we choose blinds or curtains? Carpet or hardwood floors? Car or truck? These decisions cover everything, down to toilet paper placement, over or under? And storing coffee cups in the cabinet, right side up or upside down?

The most heated this-or-that questions might be the ones that deal with food. Tea or coffee? Pancakes or waffles? Wheat toast or white toast? Soup or salad? Chocolate or vanilla? Hot dog or hamburger? Salt or pepper? Fruit or vegetable?

Some are slam dunks that need no discussion. In the bacon or sausage debate, there can only be one answer. No matter who you are, or where you live, the only answer to that particular question is bacon, and if you don’t agree, we can’t be friends. I have nothing against sausage, it’s just that bacon is one of life’s greatest pleasures and will always win that debate. It’s bacon. Period. End of discussion.

The cookies or brownies this-or-that question is a little tougher. I eat more cookies than I do brownies. Oatmeal-raisin cookies are my go-to, but there are several varieties that I like. Brownies are good, but I’d rather lick the bowl of the brownie batter than eat a cooked brownie, so I give the edge to the ever-popular, gosh-almighty cookie.

The most contentious this-or-that question in the food world might be the cake or pie quandary. Marriages have ended after deliberating this issue. The question is certainly as important as the bacon-or-sausage question, but it is not as clear cut. Legitimate and reasoned arguments can be made for both sides.

Cake lovers will argue that their dessert of choice is more complex, layered, and multi-dimensional. Pie enthusiasts will maintain that perfection is found in simplicity. Still others might tout the skill needed to make a perfect and flaky pie crust. Cake lovers will get bogged down in discussions of icing vs frosting, but, in the end, will argue that— whichever is chosen— both are better than anything that would top a pie. The trump card held by pie lovers would then be played, and the argument would be made that ala mode beats icing and/or frosting any day of the week.

Pie lovers— even though their dessert of choice is simple and pure— can turn a little snooty when the discussion turns to pie or cobbler? Pie lovers look down their noses at cobbler eaters, and that’s just not fair. Though turnabout is fair play as tart enthusiasts have a deep-seeded disdain for pie lovers and their lack of refinement and layered complexity.

The pomposity of some dessert snobs— typically rooted in French culinary formality— is genuine. The supercilious torte crowd looks down on the cake masses in the same exact way the tart devotees thumb their collective noses at pie people. Torte and tart lovers think cake and pie are just, “silly.”

To my mind they can keep their toffee-nosed tarts and tortes and give me a slice of cake or pie, any day, and every day. Though when diving deeper into the greatest food this-or-that of all time, it really boils down to what type of cake and what variety of pie. Chocolate cake is better than coconut pie. And apple pie is better than coconut cake. Actually, a sawdust tart or torte would be better than a coconut pie or cake. The only justifiable reason to add coconut to any confection, is if it is an Italian cream cake, and the coconut is buried so deep in the mix that it only serves to make everything moist. That being said, Italian cream cake beats strawberry cake.

Apple pie is the king of all pies and can only be bested by a perfectly made peach pie in the peak of the summer season. Key lime pie is better than Boston cream pie, and not only because Key West is better than Boston, and Ernest Hemingway is better than Nathaniel Hawthorn (save the emails, I know Hemingway was born in Illinois and lived all over, but this is my column, and my argument, so I’m placing him in Key West. Now go eat a rhubarb tart while reading your copy of “The Scarlet Letter”). In the end, when it comes to cream or custard-based pies, slightly sour is better than slightly sweet.

Yellow cake with chocolate icing is better than chocolate cake with vanilla icing. Caramel cake is better than carrot cake. Pound cake is better than angel food cake. Pecan pie is better than sweet potato pie, and strawberry pie is better than blueberry pie. Though, if given the hard choice of having to choose either cake or pie— it’s a very close call— but I’d have to say it depends on the season. In the summer I’m eating pie, and in the winter, I’m eating cake.

And just to set the record straight: The Beatles, John Bonham, Yankees, Celtics, Brady, football, Mac, laptop, iOS, dogs, hunting, glasses, shower, mountains, ski, curtains, hardwood floors, truck, over, right side up, wheat toast, tea, pancakes, salad, chocolate, hamburger, salt, and fruit.


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