I’m walking around the monkey forest in Bali. The first thing to fly out of my mouth is, “This is like India, except with way less aggressive monkeys.” I don’t think anything of this as I say it. In fact, it’s a true statement. It’s exactly how I would describe this place. It does look like India but with less aggressive monkeys. So really, this is accurate
A few months before, I said something similar in Lisbon. Trekking up a miradouro that overlooks the city, I remarked to my friend, “This is like San Francisco, except it’s cleaner.” Once again, an accurate description in my eyes of how to describe this foreign city.
Familiarity bias runs rampant in my travels and in my eating habits. THIS ice cream flavor is like the one I used to make at the restaurant (needs more salt though). THAT croissant is like the one I ate in Paris. Familiarity bias keeps me stable and knowing. And sometimes a little annoying (“We get it, you went to Paris.”)
Do we act on familiarity bias to stay comfortable, or because the thing we are experiencing really isn’t net new? In our current pop culture world of reboots and remakes, it’s entirely possible. Maybe making new experiences is too hard to do. Maybe we’re maxing out, and comparisons are the only way we connect to what is around us.
But then I ate a babka and threw all these musings out the window.
I don’t remember exactly when I first ate babka. But I remember it was from Wise Sons, our famed Jewish deli in San Francisco. Babka didn’t have the nasal intonations of my beloved French croissants or the childlike simplicity of American cookies or cake. It looked like a loaf but also like a roll, whorled with glossy mahogany-colored chocolate. It looked messy (at least to eat) but also meticulously organized. There wasn’t a crumb out of place in its sweet whirlpool.
I needed this.
Without any basis to judge its appearance, I had even less basis to judge its taste. And it was nothing like anything else I had tasted before. Chocolate gave it density, but yeast gave it air. Each bite altered the chocolate-to-bread-ratio depending on which part of the swirl I encountered, so each bite was a new experience. It also pulled apart easily, making it an unexpected finger food that I didn’t know I needed in my life.
Finally—I had found a pastry that I couldn’t compare to anything else. And trust me, I’ve tried. I brought my version of babka, swimming with crushed Oreos and candy canes, to a brunch and stuttered my way through describing it. I ended by saying, “Ugh, it’s babka! Just eat a slice and you’ll see.”
There’s no babka hybrid or knock-off. There are few ways to improve upon it other than swapping out the filling for your favorite ingredients. Since I love desserts with a touch of whimsy, I swirled mine with crushed Oreos and candy canes. You can do the same, or crush up Thin Mints when it’s Girl Scout cookie season (which is soon, right?). Or you can add whatever else you want.
The only way to make a babka is to make it yours. Take the flavors you love and layer them in. As I write this, I realize I’m telling you to take the familiar tastes you like and add them in. So I guess familiarity bias really is how we connect to the world and create comfort. And if that comfort comes in babka form, that’s all good with me.