Free Thoughts #5: The Apple Pie Problem

Let’s say you’ve got yourself a little diner in the States.

You want to offer pie to your customers, but you’re running a low budget operation, so you can only offer one particular type of pie. To figure out what kind of pie you should sell, you ask some of your regular customers what their favourite pie is, but you get a whole bunch of different answers: pumpkin, key lime, pecan, lemon meringue, tart cherry served heated up with a scoop of vanilla icecream on the side, etc.

That leaves you without much to go on, so instead you ask these same customers to fill out a little survey ranking ten different pies in descending order of preference. You find, looking at the data, that although no one actually picked it as their favourite, apple pie ends up being the one that averages out to being the least objectionable and most consistently “okay” with people. So you decide to serve apple pie, and thanks to your maths and research, it ends up selling better than any other pie you may have chosen instead… even though it isn’t any of your regular’s actual favourite.

I’m pretty sure this is exactly why apple remains the flavour that McDonald’s consistently sells while the other couple flavours they offer rotates throughout the year.

What this tells us is that there is a very clear distinction between what people really want and what people are okay with settling for in the absence of being able to get exactly what they want. It also demonstrates an important distinction between preference of an individual and “preference” of a group.

This distinction is very important in understanding how late-capitalist mono-culture works. It’s part of why we’ve got a situation where people routinely walk away from Blockbuster films feeling unsatisfied, never really loving those films, but they’re still the ones that make the most money. It’s why creative gambles are rarely taken in any majour, mainstream media. It’s why mono-culture is able to make enormous profits, and thrive, even while producing inarguably mediocre product.

It’s not that we, as human beings, are really that crass and tasteless and dull. It’s just that what a group will most happily settle for is different from what an individual actually wants and desires.

Of course there are niche markets. Of course there are creators who care about making quality art and media and entertainment. Of course there are consumers who put in the effort to hunt down what they’re really going to enjoy. Yeah. But the mainstream, the mono-culture, isn’t the specialty variety pie shop. The mainstream is McDonald’s, and it wants to sell as many pies as it can relative to investment and risk.

This understanding of how human preference works can be important for understanding other issues too. It can be helpful in understanding how cultural normativities work as well.

For instance, the beauty standards against which we compare (and shame) ourselves. Is that image we see ourselves as failing to live up to actually what people actually see as beautiful? Or is it simply the apple pie, the least-objectionable averaged-out mediocre film that people will settle for seeing and not complain about too much?

Do we need to shame ourselves just for being a nice slice of sweet potato pie with a dollop of whipped cream, that maybe a diner isn’t willing to take a gamble on selling, but someone, somewhere, will be absolutely thrilled to find being served?

Beauty standards aren’t the only things that might work like this. Maybe talents, too. Personalities. The lives we lead, the experiences we’ve had. Aspirations, goals, desires, dreams. Human beings.

We can spend a lot of time feeling kind of shitty about ourselves for not living what mono-culture positions as the normal, ideal life, or being possessed of a normal body or normal identity or whatever. But maybe that isn’t a life that anyone really leads, and maybe it isn’t what any of us would ever really be happy with anyway.

The thing about our lives, though… we don’t have to settle. We don’t have to arrive at the decisions we make about who we are and what we want from our lives by group consensus. We’re the ones constructing them, and we’re the ones taking the risks, and we’re ultimately the ones on whose behalf our lives are being led.

If you’re baking in your own kitchen, why not make your favourite kind of pie?

I’m kind of in the mood for pecan.


  1. LeftSidePositive says

    I’m not feeling very articulate at the moment, but damn–this post is awesome on so many levels!

  2. says

    Great to have you back. I was glad when the Internet and such took off. Now we no longer need to settle for whatever other people near us are willing to buy. (Well, you could always drop $40 at Suncoast before that. Since you live in a major city, you may have had an easier time of it.)

    We can also make whatever freinds we want on the Internet instead of having to settle for whoever’s in walking distance as it was a hundred years ago.

  3. Tamsin says

    I love this post. Thanks, Natalie.

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about the problems of capitalist mono-culture and norms when it comes to finding clothes for “different” body shapes – many mainstream shops just don’t sell clothes that fit me, because they’re all designed for what someone has decided is the “average” body type. Sure, you can find clothes that fit “other” body types, but they’re usually quite a bit more expensive. Bras are a particular problem, I think, as many of the women with whom I’ve discussed this issue have had to buy the wrong bra size because the right size is either non-existent or hideously expensive – and wearing the wrong bra size can cause some pretty nasty problems, at least for larger-breasted people (back pain, shoulder straps leaving bruises or blisters, etc.)

    The thing about our lives, though… we don’t have to settle. We don’t have to arrive at the decisions we make about who we are and what we want from our lives by group consensus. We’re the ones constructing them, and we’re the ones taking the risks, and we’re ultimately the ones on whose behalf our lives are being led.

    If you’re baking in your own kitchen, why not make your favourite kind of pie?

    Quoted for truth.

    • says

      That’s even true in menswear; I’m skinny and long-armed, and I can’t find a shirt that fits properly in the sleeves and the torso. Also pants in the right size.

    • Kate from Iowa says

      Same goes for plus size clothing. Yes, you have it in my size, but it’s still constructed for a size 2. It’s not going to work, people will want to know when the baby’s due. Yes, it’s the right size and you made some adjustments (like properly fitted arm holes on the inside of the sleeves,) but it’s styled for a size 2. It’s not going to work. People will think I stole a tent from the boy scouts. And then ate the boy scouts. Yes, it’s the right size, and yes, there is a properly tailored leg hole, but it’s following a trend meant for those who are a size 2. It’s not going to work. It will look as if my thighs are snacking on my enormous bedazzled romper, and nobody wants to see that. (Well, some people might. People in general are pretty wierd.) Anyway, when doing said survey, make room for the people who can’t have pie, or need really big pies. Or really small pies. Or very tall pies. Or pies without sanding sugar and edible glitter on the top crust. There is no one size fits all pie, and the garment industry barely even acknowledges that.

  4. says

    While I agree with this post and what you’re saying as a generality, I find it hard to apply to the way I’m increasingly viewing myself and my life. The image, in all areas, that I see myself as failing to live up to is my own ideal, and definitely not the averaged out ideal of society as a whole.

    So, I don’t know. I like a pecan cinnamon and custard danish, but what if I don’t have to knowledge or ingredients to make it in my own kitchen? What if all I can make is something that I don’t really want, but it’s the best that I can be satisfied with using what I have available to me? If I can’t fulfil what I actually want, is that not still settling in the end?

  5. khms says

    As far as clothing sizes go, I seem to recall that there were some efforts over here to figure out what sizes people actually needed, by just measuring a lot of people all over Europe, or something like that.

    Turns out clothing (and shoe) producers were actually significantly off in their expectations.

    Moral: If you don’t do the survey, but just guess at the result, you might guess wrong.

    Also: what you describe is one of the better methods of electing people (which, after all, is a group thing). It allows you to first vote for who you like most, without having to fear that if they don’t have a chance, your vote is going to be wasted. This actually gives exotic candidates a better chance. I wish it was used more often.

    Plus more proportional voting. That also improves chances for new parties.

    • Kate S says

      Yeah, here in BC we’ve had two provincial referendums attempting to change our voting system to essentially that, and both failed.

  6. kim says

    Lemon poppy muffins. Blueberry scones. Rhubarb cottage pudding.
    Oh, this wasn’t the list your favorite desserts post?
    Lets all email Natalie some pecan pie.

  7. says

    Adaptation in evolution happens by variation and may actually have something to do with why we are wired to get bored and try new things. The nature of that capitalist system is to try to constrain and suppress humanity itself into a commodified and easily exploited kind of monoculture. Not only is it soul crushing but I would argue: maladaptive.

    Certainly there is still biological variation though that may be hampered by the manipulation of sexual preferences by these “monoculture” trends, and they certainly tend to produce a monoculture of thought.

    Consider Stephen Jay Gould’s quote:

    “I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein’s brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops.”

    This also comes to mind:

    His examples about Google’s “20 percent time” speak to the vast amounts of human creativity wasted by “monoculture” living:

    20% time is where allow their “engineers to spend one day a week working on projects that aren’t necessarily in our job descriptions. You can use the time to develop something new, or if you see something that’s broken, you can use the time to fix it.”

    • says

      So, the monoculture of thought is often that which is promulgated by those with power, since power is usually prerequisite to having the time and resources to spread ideas into the public sphere through mass media and official institutions.

  8. Ma Nonny says

    I don’t usually like pie, especially fruit pies, but I do love a chocolate pecan pie. Mmmm! Also, I make a mean tomato pie (think tomato, onions, and cheese).

    Going with the metaphor meant by the post, however: if only we tolerated more interesting diversions from “normal” so that we can get some variety in there, though! I feel like it’s hard to find some of the niche markets, or interesting recipes, even when you are looking, so in turn the average person surely won’t even know some of it exists! What if you didn’t even know that your favorite pie was really choco-peanut-caramel-toffee-mocha-delight if you can’t even conceptualize that such a pie could be made?

  9. says

    Good stuff as always, Natalie. That was a very concise summation of what’s going on, in a way that I hadn’t really articulated for myself before.

  10. Robert B. says

    Strawberry rhubarb! It’s the anchovy pizza of pies – delicious, but I can never have any because hardly anybody else likes it.

  11. says

    Last year, a friend of mine suggested that we make rhubarb ice cream when she came to visit me. I’d never had rhubarb ice cream and neither had she, but it sounded yummy so I went hunting for a recipe. I found one. The result was unbelievably yummy. Corporate mono-culture would never serve me rhubarb ice cream. They have no sense of adventure.

  12. sphex says

    I am so happy (and relieved) to have you back! I missed you! (And I worried about you, because I’m a worrier.) This post demonstrates *exactly* why I missed you. You make good sense, you have compassion, and you make me feel and be better. Thank you.

    I’m really sorry you’ve had such a rough week. Virtual hugs, if you want them.

    Also, too: @Robert B. #12: I dont’ generally go for sweets (I prefer savory, and yes, anchovy pizza!), but Strawberry Rhubarb pie (with Vanilla ice cream) ROCKS!

  13. says

    Seems related:

    Unless you’re cooking from scratch, a lot of sweet things have vanilla in them. Some people like the taste, some don’t mind it. I sometimes feel alone because, at best, vanilla leaves me with an intense awful aftertaste; at worst, it makes me sick. I have to be careful about various foods, and I know people with celiac disease and other conditions who have to be infinitely more careful than I.

  14. says

    I used to work at McDonald’s, years ago. The best thing ever was to put one of those apple pies on a plate, and put some of the caramel the put on the ice cream sundaes on top of said pie. I don’t know how well that would work with other pie flavours, but it was awesome with apple.

    Now I’m craving apple pie with caramel. Alas, I have neither.

  15. says

    That leaves you without much to go on, so instead you ask these same customers to fill out a little survey ranking ten different pies in descending order of preference. You find, looking at the data, that although no one actually picked it as their favourite, apple pie ends up being the one that averages out to being the least objectionable and most consistently “okay” with people.

    Instant runoff voting? Perhaps also a recipe for mediocrity?

    • says

      Instant runoff voting? Perhaps also a recipe for mediocrity?

      The Australian parliament seems to be bear this likelihood out…

      • Suido says

        Still better than the alternative – the duopoly would only be further entrenched in the lower house if preferential voting were removed. Goodbye greens, goodbye any other 3rd parties.

        I think the mediocrity in Aussie politics is due to other factors, namely the lack of public interest in pre-selection/platform decisions within each party (especially with regards to the union stranglehold on labor) and the zero-sum game that is compulsory voting (meaning that only centrist swing voters matter).

  16. Suido says

    Awesome writing (as usual). I don’t have great tastebuds, so the intricate delights of many flavours escape me, but chocolate orange is nom. On the other hand, I don’t like watermelon, for which I get many strange looks in summer*, but, you know, I’m a rebel, so fuck the rules, amirite?

    *I was going to write the list of ways I’m a member of the privileged and how I’m cruelly oppressed for not liking watermelon, but as the list got longer, it stopped being an amusing caricature of MRAs/Christians/etc and looked more like taunting. Point being, the first thing I learned from your blog was the word cis, and I’m aboard the Dunning-Kruger train to improvingmyknowledgeville. Thanks!

  17. The Vicar says

    Meh. This, while true, is not actually the explanation of most of the mediocrity in the market.

    The real explanation: most people would rather pay a small amount of money for something which almost works than a larger amount of money for something which works perfectly. And they’d rather pay nothing for something which barely functions at all to either other option.

    (Oh, and if you consider time a form of payment, then this becomes not just common but practically overwhelming. An option which is crummy but cheap and fast will outsell anything which costs more — even if the higher price is still relatively cheap — and takes more time, no matter what the quality may be. Which is why McDonalds does a roaring business while your locally-owned cafe with wonderful food and reasonable prices barely hangs on.)

    Start watching markets where there are directly-competing alternatives, and you’ll see this happen again and again: the victory of the mediocre on a fairly small difference in money or convenience. Practically everyone agrees, for example, that iPhones are better manufactured, have a better-thought-out interface, and a healthier software ecosystem than Android phones. They are also more secure; Android is turning out to be about as secure as Windows 98. And the courts are ruling that Android devices are sufficiently derivative of Apple’s designs to justify injunctions against their sale. But Android devices tend to be between 5 and 25% cheaper than Apple’s devices so people buy them. (And then are shocked when they discover that the manufacturers don’t intend to spend any money to provide upgrades to the OS. You get what you pay for.)

  18. weakswimmer says

    This post is fabulous.

    @ Marja Erwin, #16:

    You’re not alone. My mother doesn’t like vanilla. She says the aftertaste is nastily chemical.

  19. says

    That was a great, thought-provoking post.

    By the way, I’ll have some kind of chocolate cheesecake. I’ve heard that USians(not sure about Canadians) consider cheesecake a kind of pie because it has a filling on a crumb base. Or something.

  20. J. Goard says

    It also demonstrates an important distinction between preference of an individual and “preference” of a group.

    The most interesting thing to me in this interesting post was the lack of scare quotes in the first “preference” of this sentence. It seems to assume (in my view, quite mistakenly) that individual preferences and inclinations are typically transparent to introspection, with the further implication that asking people is a great way to find out about them. In my case, as I study more about the brain and language (and just as I get older) I find myself feeling more and more that I don’t really know what various factors are really influencing my ultimate behaviors, and also that this fundamental fact usually isn’t a matter to worry much about.


Leave a Reply to Marja Erwin Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *