Monday, September 12, 2016
Food, Art and Emotion: The Art Menu at Topolobampo
by Dwight Furrow
The question of whether food preparation can be a fine art turns on two issues:
Does food have the rich assortment of meanings typical of fine art? and
Does food express emotion in the same sense that music or painting does?
As I argued in American Foodie, both these questions depend on whether food can function as a complex symbol or metaphor. Food exemplifies or shows what it's trying to say via its flavors and textures, just as a painting displays its meaning in colors, lines, and brush strokes or a piece of music in its melodic/harmonic structure and timbres. As a conceptual matter these questions can be answered in the affirmative. However, the problem is that chefs must satisfy hunger, cater to taste preferences, and make a profit, and these practical constraints often limit their artistic aspirations.
Thus, when restaurants make an effort to highlight the artistic aspirations of their chefs, it is a special occasion, so I could not resist a trip to Chicago to sample the Art Menu of Rick Bayless and his chefs at his restaurant Topolobampo. Bayless is the acclaimed auteur of refined Mexican cuisine. Each summer his chefs create a tasting menu in which each dish expresses an emotion. The chefs then select works of art from the restaurant's collection of Mexican art that expresses the same emotion as each dish—all explained and depicted in a helpful brochure that is given to guests who order the menu. This is a fascinating experiment in cross-modal metaphor that if successful adds another data point favoring the artistic credentials of food.
The first course on the menu, a bright, fresh interpretation of Snapper Veracruz using salmon sashimi as the fish was labeled as exuberant, an appropriate description of this dish that features the kinetic energy of olives, capers, jalapenos, and sea urchin all orchestrated to flatter the buttery slices of salmon. As an opener setting an exuberant mood, the dish was superb. But "exuberance" was less successful as an interpretation of the painting, Tierras by Rolando Rojas . While I get the exuberance of the figures that are depicted as if swimming in rippling tides of color, their wraith-like, ghostly presence haunts the painting suggesting death or decay. This points to a potential problem with these cross modal references. While dishes often express a simple emotion, paintings are sometimes more complex embodying conflicting often negative emotions that a dish might have trouble expressing.
The exuberant sashimi is followed by oysters poached in chile/truffle broth rimmed with sliced truffle and drizzled with creamy foie gras and caviar (pictured above). This dish exudes desire. Oysters, of course have long been a symbol of the erotic, and the voluptuous texture of this dish and the deep, carnal flavors are sensual in the extreme.
The painting Bicicletas Y Constelaciones by Enrique Flores was perfectly paired. The dark night sky is etched with finely drawn outlines of lovers in sexual embrace as if forming constellations overlooking a brightly-lit colorful scene dominated by gendered bikes absent their riders, parked on a dense bed of luscious flowers in the foreground. Where are the riders? The sky tells all. A very successful dish and reading.
Desire is then supplanted with uncertainty (as it so often is). Carne Apache, two tartares, of yellowtail and ribeye, were capped with a guajillo pepper gelatin sheet, radish, and drizzled with a Szechwan pepper/ponzu sauce. (Pictured below) Because the flavor of tartar is subtle and the flavors of citrus, Szechuan pepper and guajillo are bold it was sometimes difficult to tell if I was eating fish or meat. And of course the dish hovers between Asia and Mexico in its influences so uncertainty seems the appropriate label. There is an issue about emotion in art that this dish raises. Uncertainty is sometimes a state of mind with no emotional content. But sometimes uncertainty is a feeling state if the thing you're uncertain about matters. The issue here isn't whether the dish made me feel uncertain. It didn't. The issue is whether it expresses uncertainty. Just as a sad song need not make you feel sad, yet can still express sadness, a dish can express uncertainty by exemplifying it.
Regarding the painting, an untitled work by Rodolfo Morales, "uncertainty" as an emotion label is at best incomplete. The inset painting on the bottom left of the work depicts a starkly furnished, darkened, room with no inhabitants. In the upper right is an inset painting of a doorway with the feet of a prone body lying across the threshold. Is the body dead or alive? Nothing in the painting provides a clue. There is the uncertainty; the uncertainty of interpretation. But the faces that dominate the painting are stoic with a hint of sadness in the line of the eyes of the middle face. I sense loss and the necessity of endurance in this painting, none of which is captured by the label and I have no idea how to capture it in a dish.
After the strains of desire and uncertainty we are ready for a little serenity, represented by Pastured Chicken resting in a squash-blossom porridge. These flavors brought immediate memories of chicken pot pie or perhaps a thickened chicken soup--very comforting indeed. The gentleness of the soft, yielding chicken and creamy porridge was interrupted only by the spiciness of the roasted serranos that was subtle enough to remain in the background. This was not the most interesting dish on the menu but it was comforting and calming as was the painting by Filemon Santiago with which it was paired. This untitled work of earth tones bathed in soft yellow-tinged light is an evocation of the simple, wholesome foods enjoyed by peasants in a farming community. Another successful joining of visual, gustatory, and emotive metaphor.
The final savory dish, advertised as an expression of nostalgia, was braised short rib with mushroom bread pudding, resting on a puree of greens and sweet potato supported by chile-infused beef broth. I suppose whether this evokes nostalgia or not depends on your own food memories. The painting, entitled "Iguana Is Eaten in this House" by Roman Andrade LLaguno, and the chefs explanation of his thought process, suggest the dish should remind us of family and friends. It surely is comfort food in that it is rich, warm, soft, and filling, with earthy, familiar flavors. Yet there is something more complex going on in the painting. In the painting, all of the characters save one are women. The most prominent aspect are their intensely concentrating, parallel eyes as well as hints of female companionship if not lesbianism. The only man in the painting has offset eyes showing clear cubist influences suggesting something is not quite right with him. The iguana, although an important traditional source of food, has more symbolic import in this painting. Iguanas in fact have a third "eye" on the top of their head thus resonating with the "eye theme" that dominates the rest of the painting. And, since the latter decades of the 20th Century, iguanas have become a symbol of feminine power thanks to a photo of a Oaxacan woman carrying iguanas to the market on her head that became iconic. Although there is clearly something nostalgic about the painting it has layers of meaning that suggest some tension with an easily recoverable past. The painting troubles nostalgia, even as it expresses it.
Resonating colors are the theme of the first dessert, with the white coffee ice cream, white chocolate/coconut ganache, white yogurt foam with pour-over chocolate sauce and a splash of raspberry complementing the colors of the painting, which is entitled El Grito (The Cry). Betrayal is supposed to be the emotion here. If you are a dark chocolate purist, you may feel betrayed by the mere appearance of white chocolate, which the chef describes as the point of dish. There is good thematic continuity here; but thankfully this luscious dessert did not make me cry.
And at last a joyful dessert, called Pinata Dulce, named for its crispy meringue that must be penetrated to get at the medley of sorbets and lemon cookie with lemon verbena crema. It had surprising, explosive flavors and complex textures, although it lacked the alien, fantastical, terrifying aspect of the creature in Miguel Linares's painting Alebrijes. It was anything but joyful since it signaled the end of the meal.
What are we to conclude from this flavorful tour through Mexican cultural heritage? In the interpretation of art and food, it is important to distinguish how the work makes you feel from what the work expresses. A work of art can express anger without making you feel angry. A dish can express joy without making you feel joyful. Of course food (and art) makes you feel emotion as well but expression is a different matter. No doubt food can express emotion, but it isn't obvious that it has the capacity to express complex, conflicting, often negative emotions in the way some works of art do. Food must taste good and be harmonious. That makes expressing negative emotions difficult, although perhaps not impossible. There was after all conflict expressed in the Carnes Apache, the dish with the two tartars described above. What would a meal expressing anger, fear, and resentment be like?
Thus, I think we are better off thinking of food as representational, as representing (i.e. exemplifying symbolically) food traditions and cultural sensibilities. Emotional expression is part of food appreciation but is perhaps not as central as it is for music because music has a wider and deeper emotional range from which to draw. In fact I think wine does a better job of expressing conflict and negative emotions than food does although I'm open to being dissuaded of that.
At any rate, this was a thought provoking meal, and the presentation was superb. Some dishes were more successful than others but emotions are like that as well—some hit their mark, some miss by a mile. There were no wide misses here.
Mr. Bayless and his staff are to be commended for this stimulating meal and if you are in Chicago I highly recommend a trip to Topolobampo.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine, visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.
Monday, August 15, 2016
Wine and Epiphany
by Dwight Furrow
Almost everyone connected to the world of wine has a story about their "aha" experience, the precise moment when they discovered there was something extraordinary about wine. For some that moment is a sudden, unexpected wave of emotion that overcomes them as they drink a wine that seems utterly superior to anything they had consumed in the past. For others it's the culmination of many lesser experiences that overtime gather and build to a crescendo when they recognize that these disparate paths all lead to a consummate experience that should be a constant presence in their lives going forward.
For me it was the former. As a casual and occasional consumer of ordinary wine for many years, I had my first taste of quality Pinot Noir in a fine Asian "tapas" restaurant. I was blown away by the finesse with which the spice notes in the food seemed to resonate with similar flavors in the wine. The wine, I now know, was an ordinary mid-priced Pinot Noir from Carneros; Artesa was the producer. But to me in that moment, it was extraordinarily beautiful and I resolved to make that experience a regular part of life.
A simple Google search will turn up any number of these stories. The Wall Street Journal's Lettie Teague interviewed several wine lovers about their "aha" moment. One became intrigued by wine while an art student in Italy, another when he discovered he had a discerning palate, many report childhood experiences of being impressed by the serious conversations about wine among the adults in their lives, others were intrigued by wine's complexity or the sense of adventure and risk involved in the winemaking process. Teague herself reports the wine talk of her study-abroad family in Ireland as the catalyst that launched her career as a wine writer.
These stories have two things in common. In each case the experiences are motivating. Like all experiences of beauty we don't passively have them and move on. The recognition of genuine beauty inspires us to want more.
As philosopher Alexander Nehamas writes comparing our response to beautiful persons with our response to art:
A work we admire, a work we love, a work we find, in a word, beautiful sparks within us the same need to rush to converse with it, the same sense that it has more to offer, the same willingness to submit to it, the same desire to make it part of our life. (Only a Promise of Happiness, 205)
The second feature of these stories is that the "aha" moment happens only after the stage has been set. A novice with little prior experience with wine or engagement with wine culture will not have the discernment to have an "aha" moment. It is fundamentally an experience of difference which can have an impact only if a storehouse of ordinary has already been established. Only after we build an intuitive sense of what wine should taste like and what quality means can the conditions for an "aha" moment be present. Some of the above reports are of people who experienced their epiphany when very young, but in these cases they had been exposed to wine and wine talk over a significant period of time and were already thoroughly absorbed in wine culture.
These two features, the motivational dimension and the need for stage-setting suggests that the "aha" experience is more than just an experience of pleasure. It is falling in love.
To the uninitiated this probably sounds peculiar. Wine talk is often criticized for being pretentious and without substance and wine lovers can be the subject of derision when their obsession is on display. Shouldn't the word "love" be confined to our feelings for persons, pets, or spiritual beings? For those who have not yet swooned perhaps wine seems too insignificant to be a proper object of loving attention.
To see why this dismissive attitude is mistaken we need to explore the nature of love.
As I argued more extensively in an earlier essay, love is a response to the perception of value. We love something when we discover consummate value in it. But we don't love something because we have reasons to do so. Love isn't primarily an intellectual apprehension like assenting to the conclusion of an argument. It's a matter of emotion, a feeling of strong attraction, but based on perception and sensibility. When we love something we sense that it is pregnant with possibility. This is especially true of wine since our experience of it is rooted in sensation.
Even ordinary, everyday perceptions are infused with implicit value judgments that are related to possibilities and our expectations about them. I don't simply see the bus hurtling down the street, but judge its trajectory as benign or threatening, as normal or abnormal, and these value judgments are as much a part of our perceptions as sensing a color, shape, or flavor. This is especially true of what we ingest. When we taste something we immediately make a value judgment-- we like it or we don't, it's familiar or unfamiliar, apparently safe or potentially dangerous.
But these judgments we make as part of our perceptual sensibilities are not judgments of something static. The things we perceive are disposed to change. A glass bowl is disposed to break even when sitting comfortably on a shelf, a disposition that becomes more evident when the shelf tilts. This expectation of change, the intuition that objects exist on a trajectory of ordered transformation related to an object's possibilities, is built into our perceptual judgments and we therefore, without deliberation, reach out to prevent the bowl from falling. Part of our perceptual sensibility is recognizing the potential of a situation, and often this is nothing more than a pervasive feeling of rightness or wrongness that motivates us to take action.
And so it is with love. The initial affinities that ultimately become full blown love emerge from this pervasive quality that things have as we encounter them in experience. The example above of a generic bowl sitting on a generic shelf was of a simple object with a limited set of dispositions that issue in routine expectations. It isn't pregnant with unfolding possibilities—it most likely will just continue to sit there, mutely and obscurely doing its thing. It is unlikely to be loved without some very special circumstances that allow it to acquire more potential. But many persons, objects, or practices that we encounter have deep and diverse potential based on the recognition of developing but incomplete patterns in their nature some of which our actions can help complete. We see in them, the potential for further involvement, not as a plan or policy but as a felt richness when they seem tailor-made for our engagement.
Wine offers this kind of engagement. In wine once we have some knowledge and experience with it, we sense many dimensions influenced by a vast array of unpredictable factors. It is only fermented grape juice but it displays a seemingly infinite array of different ways of being delicious, all of them reflecting significant geographical variations across much of the globe, deeply embedded cultural traditions, as well as the imaginations of dedicated winemakers all in symbiotic relation to the foods we eat, and all in constant change. This potential is what immersion in wine culture enables us to sense.
This is the real meaning of "quality"—a set of dispositional properties that promise more than superficial engagement because they have great variety, intensity or provide a deep contrast with static, familiar, completed patterns. This felt potential for further engagement is a natural lure, an attractant that demands our active engagement.
What we sense in that aha moment then is a world opening up that seems to have no boundaries yet draws all of life together. In this respect, wine is no different from other things we love. Everything we encounter in experience is an opportunity for a continuing transaction, whether through attraction or repulsion. The things we love—our children, romantic partners, friends, activities or objects such as wine, music, sports, books, etc.—have an initial grip on us because we sense that they are redolent with possibilities. Sensation has a holistic, agential quality; the restless energy of curiosity commandeers our sensory mechanisms employing them as probes seeking intensity, qualitative contrast, and potential patterns to be completed by further actions. The value judgments we make about objects, activities, or persons begin as this affective "standing out" against a background of normalcy.
The precondition of love is this recognition of quality. We sense that some objects, persons, or practices are pregnant with potential because they afford us opportunities for engagement. Of course whether we fall in love or not depends on how that engagement proceeds, but the initial impetus toward love is aesthetic. The "aha" moment is possible only when we have enough acquaintance with wine to sense all of this.
The love of wine, then, is not just a passive, pleasurable response to a stimulus. It is shot through with expectations and judgments. And like anything else we love it involves mystery. The "aha" moment is a moment in which you taste something you have never tasted before. It's an experience of depth and a recognition that there is more here than one might expect, that the wine and the wine world have more to give, that my engagement hasn't reached its full potential. Beauty draws us in because the patterns we sense are incomplete.
Is wine uniquely capable of producing this experience, at least among beverages? Far be it from me to argue with beer or scotch fans but only wine seems to have the strong connection to place, traversing the boundary between nature and culture that becomes more fascinating the more "nature" disappears. That something so cultured and refined is subject to the vagaries of geography, and utterly dependent on farming, is one of the enduring mysteries of wine, a transformation to which bearing witness deserves to be called epiphany.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
Monday, July 18, 2016
The Aesthetic Value of Simplicity
by Dwight Furrow
However, traditional Western aesthetics apparently demurs on this point since it enshrines complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value. Works of art are considered great if they repay our continued attention. Each new contact with them reveals something new, and this information density and the way it is organized to reveal new dimensions is what brings aesthetic pleasure. Achieving unity in variety is the sine qua non of aesthetic value according to most accounts of our aesthetic tradition. Unity, balance, and clarity are valuable only if they are achieved by organizing complex phenomena. Novelty and the availability of multiple interpretations in part define the kind of interest we take in aesthetic objects. Monroe Beardsley in his influential work Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism (1958, 1981) went so far as to argue that complexity along with unity and intensity provide logically necessary (and perhaps sufficient) conditions of aesthetic value.
It's worth noting that in my own small corner of the world of aesthetics, wine-tasting, complexity is admired and simplicity a sign of inferior quality. Legendary and high scoring wines all exhibit complex flavor profiles and extensive evolution on the palate. Simple wines might be enjoyable for dinner but seldom induce rapture.
Since complexity and simplicity at least superficially appear to be contradictory criteria it would seem that simplicity has no role to play in Beardsley's attempt to codify aesthetics. Of course, as I noted above, there are art works that apparently don't exhibit complexity, and today Beardsley is regarded as over-reaching if he intended his criteria to be logically necessary or sufficient. Such definitions have fallen out of favor in most philosophical circles to be replaced by generalizations that hold only for the most part. Yet, complexity, unity, and intensity are useful reference points for evaluating works of art despite the exceptions.
Perhaps Beardsley is guilty of cultural prejudice in ignoring the role of simplicity that characterize other aesthetic traditions, but the prominence of complexity as a fundamental aesthetic value does raise questions about what role simplicity should play in our aesthetic judgments. No doubt we sometimes enjoy simplicity but the question is whether it is a fundamental value or not and how we are to understand that value.
To be fair to defenders of complexity, they need not deny that simplicity can sometimes enhance aesthetic value. Beardsley's criteria (complexity, unity, and intensity) interact and influence each other and none can be maximized. Too much complexity is just confusing and undermines the unity of a work. Complexity without organization is meaningless and bringing unity to a work often requires that an artist heavily edit, i.e. simplify, initial drafts or sketches. Art and music composition students are constantly enjoined to simplify because simplification can make the focal point of a work stand out. But this demand to simplify treats simplicity as having instrumental value only. Its purpose is to make a work more coherent. The aim is not simplicity itself but rather to utilize simplification as a way of achieving other artistic aims such as unity or intensity.
Similarly, pauses in music or negative space in painting are deployed because they create tension and contrast; both make use of simplification to achieve an effect. But that appears to be a strategy that aims at intensity rather than adopting simplicity as an independent value. Similarly, we often welcome simplicity as a contrast to sensory overload. After viewing several disturbing and difficult paintings in a museum we might welcome a simple landscape; after listening to Wagner or Mars Volta, we might really appreciate Erik Satie or some homespun blues. But again this seems to be an instrumental use of simplicity to achieve balance in one's experience or to relax and prepare the mind to appreciate more complex works. At most simplicity seems to be a secondary value, a useful tool for achieving more fundamental aims.
However, Japanese aesthetics provides insight into how we should understand the appeal of simplicity. Simplicity seems central to the goal of Shizen, which means to be without pretense or artifice--"from itself, thus it does" according to one translation, "what is spontaneously or naturally so". Kenko, the 14th Century Buddhist monk often cited for his authoritative commentary on aesthetics writes:
A house, though it may not be in the current fashion or elaborately decorated, will appeal to us by its unassuming beauty -- a grove of trees with an indefinably ancient look; a garden where plants, growing of their own accord, have a special charm; a verandah and an open-work wooden fence of interesting construction; and a few personal effects left lying about, giving the place an air of having been lived in. A house which multitudes of workmen have polished with every care, where strange and rare Chinese and Japanese furnishings are displayed, and even the bushes and trees of the garden have been trained unnaturally, is ugly to look at and most depressing. How could anyone live for long in such a place? (From Kenko, Essays in Idleness: he Tsurezuregusa of Kenko, trans. Donald Keene)
Ornamentation and decoration are avoided because the intent is to make the object look as if it arose naturally even when it is obviously an artifact.
In the case of Shizen, is simplicity a tool to achieve naturalness or is it an inherent component of naturalness? Of course a work can be simple and artificial; simplicity does not logically entail naturalness. Perhaps we should understand simplicity in Japanese aesthetics as a symbolic device to signal naturalness in much the way simplicity in Quaker aesthetics symbolizes devotion to God. This would be to view simplicity as having merely instrumental value, a tool to signal an ideology, but I think that would be a misunderstanding. Simplicity does not merely indicate naturalness, it exemplifies it, shows what it is saying, or at least it can in the hands of someone with talent.
To make sense of this in the context of Western aesthetics it is helpful to invoke a concept that seems to have slipped from view in modern aesthetics although it was central in the Renaissance—the concept of sprezzatura. The 16th Century Italian diplomat and author Baldassare Castiglione first used this term in The Book of the Courtier. He defines it as "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it". The courtier, Castiglione argued, has the ability to display "an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them".
What Castiglione is pointing to here is the aesthetic pleasure we get from ease, when effects flow naturally from a source without apparent force or manipulation, a display of what something is without addition. This is likely the source of the aesthetic pleasure mathematicians and scientists report when they witness an elegant proof or theory. It is why we are thrilled by vocalists who hit the high notes without straining or athletes who seem to glide when they run. These examples are of course kinds of human actions but I think aesthetic objects can display ease and naturalness as well displaying their essential character without adornment or obvious effort on the part of the artist who puts it on display.
In these cases, simplicity is not an instrument to achieve ease; simplicity constitutes ease by displaying it. It seems forced to understand the aesthetic aim in these cases as something other than simplicity such as unity or balance. Ease itself is aesthetically satisfying.
As you might have guessed if you have read my other writings, I'm nattering on about this because it has something to do with wine and food.
Simple wines and foods are good because they often have lots of flavor. But they also have appeal because there is an unaffectedness to them. Simple chopped tomatoes macerated in lemon juice and olive oil served over pasta; roast chicken with some aromatics in the cavity and basted with olive oil or butter; a fresh rosé from Provence or Lambrusca from Emilia Romagna—these can be aesthetically pleasing not only as a contrast with excessive complexity or as a means of generating intensity but because there is a naturalness to them, a display of what something is that settles effortlessly into the flow of life around it.
Isn't that why a simple, well sung folk or blues song can be beautiful? Such phenomena may lack the thrill we get from structure and organization finding unity in complexity. The unity is there but it doesn't arise from an active pulling together of diverse elements. The unity exists without addition or amendments and that naturalness is part of the appeal.
Thus it seems simplicity can sometimes have independent aesthetic value. Some simple things are just boring. And sometimes as noted above simplicity is an instrument to achieve intensity. But ease and lack of affectation does seem to be something we enjoy even when we grant the aesthetic value of complexity.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.
Monday, May 23, 2016
Wine Quality: Distinguishing the Fine from the Ordinary
by Dwight Furrow
We who are absorbed in the philosophy of wine are usually preoccupied by questions about objectivity, meaning, the nature of taste, aesthetic properties, and other exotica that surround this mysterious beverage. But wine considered as an aesthetic object can never be wholly severed from the commercial aspects of wine, and no philosophy of wine is complete without taking into account the influence of commercial categories.
If you stand perplexed before the thousands of choices available on the wine aisles of your supermarket, or if it all tastes like fermented grape juice to you, here is a primer on distinguishing the good stuff from the ordinary.
Any discussion of wine quality must begin with a distinction between commodity wines and premium or fine wines. Commodity wines usually sell for under $15, although the “commercial premium” sector is growing rapidly and pricier wines will increasingly fall into this category. A quality commodity wine is reliable and familiar, with no obvious flaws, easy to drink and designed for immediate consumption. It will spring no surprises that would offend the casual drinker. Unlike the situation 20 years ago, when $10 might have bought you an attractively packaged bottle of battery acid, there are few bad wines on the market today. The technology of mass wine production has made extraordinary advances. Wine connoisseurs will think these wines uninteresting, but they may be full of flavor, food-friendly, and satisfying to drink.
Fine wines of quality sell for considerably more than $15, although you can sometimes find bargains. (There are many wines that fall in between the categories of commodity and premium, and price is no guarantee of quality.) Fine wines of quality will not necessary have smooth textures or familiar flavors. Their virtues may be hard to discern if you don’t know what to look for. Regular consumers of fine wines tend to be fascinated by the diversity of wine styles and the more discriminating are looking for a sense of place where the wine reflects the geographic features of the land on which the grapes are grown. Surprise is a good thing for these connoisseurs, and unusual wines with unconventional flavors may be welcomed. Some of these wines may actually be challenging to drink because they reflect the idiosyncratic vision of the winemaker or come from regions in which the flavor profile changes significantly from year to year because of weather variations. It takes experience and education to appreciate them. Such wines may be interesting even though they don’t hit your pleasure “sweet spot.” They are to be judged according to criteria that emerge from the aesthetic culture that surrounds them. To recognize quality, you have to be acquainted with that wine culture. This is why, in taste tests, untrained subjects will often fail to pick out the more expensive wines.
That said, there are some general criteria that all these various wine cultures look to as benchmarks and can be applied to quality commodity wines (up to a point) as well as fine wines.
Characteristics of a Quality Wine
Dense Texture or Mouthfeel
Most commodity wines will have lots of fruit up front and will taste full in the mouth because they are made with ripe fruit or have residual sugar, both of which create the impression of fullness. But as the tasting experience proceeds, many commodity wines turn watery, sour, or are simply soft and smooth, lacking presence or a firm finish. Quality wines by contrast have a density to them at the midpalate (midway through the taste experience) and some astringency (dryness) on the finish. Even lighter-bodied quality wines have some viscosity and will feel like silk or velvet, coating the mouth rather than simply feeling soft. A quality wine should have a pronounced and pleasing texture regardless of its weight. Harsh, aggressive, or rough wines are of low quality unless they are designed for long aging, in which case they should not be opened when young.
Not all quality wines are bold. Some can be slender and delicate. But quality wines that are delicate must have finesse. Their flavors and textures have intricacy and detail which are not delivered all at once but emerge as the tasting experience proceeds. Even bold, powerful wines can have finesse. In fact, this is the sign of greatness in a wine—power plus finesse.
Strong, Persistent Finish
The finish is the impression a wine leaves in the back of your mouth after you have swallowed it. Commodity wines tend to have a short finish with a pronounced drop-off in flavor, because casual consumers are put off by wines that are drying or have a strong aftertaste. By contrast, most connoisseurs of fine wines prefer a long finish with some astringency that comes from tannins in red wine or acidity in whites. Furthermore, in a quality wine, flavors persist all the way through the finish. Some wines may leave a burning sensation in the mouth because of high alcohol or have a bitter finish. These are flaws if they are excessive.
Commodity wines are simple with a few generic fruit and spice notes. Quality fine wines will have layers of fruit, spice, herbs, earth, and (in red wine) wood notes that give off different aromas each time you sniff. Which aroma and flavor notes a wine has doesn’t matter in judging quality, as long as there are no off-flavors. What matters are how many aroma notes there are, and how they work together to produce an integrated whole. One important element of complexity is evolution on the palate—a quality wine will show different aspects through the beginning, middle, and end of the tasting experience. By contrast, commodity wines tend to be linear without much development.
Balance refers to the relationship between sweetness, acidity, tannin, and alcohol. A wine is balanced when none of these components sticks out as being too much. Most commodity wines are balanced for the average consumer because these components are relatively easy to adjust in the winemaking process, and many large wineries do extensive market research to find popular flavor profiles. But more sophisticated wine lovers will find commodity wines too sweet and lacking tannin or acidity. Balance in fine wine has more to do with whether all the components are working together to produce a wine that is perceived as having good structure. The acidity should enhance the fruit, making it seem fresh; the fruit should enhance the tannins softening them so they don’t grip; the fruit should mute the sourness of the acidity. Balance in quality wines is a matter of the components working together, not simply staying out of the way.
Commodity wines often have murky flavors that don’t stand out. A quality fine wine will seem to leap out of glass and have clearly delineated flavors that are immediately apparent. However, keep in mind that some quality wines need decanting before they will show the full range of their flavor, and even the best wines can go through a “dumb” stage, where their flavors are muted.
Time in the Bottle
Because commodity wines are designed for immediate consumption, few of them will improve with age. Most quality fine wines in recent years have also been designed to drink when young. Nevertheless, they will have many strong components that must come together before they will show well, and will benefit with some time in the bottle. There is no rule for how much time they need, but for most wines, three years past their vintage date will give the wine time to settle down and become integrated. However, some quality white varietals such as most Sauvignon Blanc should be consumed when young since freshness of fruit is what they offer.
For more on the aesthetics of taste visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution.
Monday, April 25, 2016
Art and Artification: The Case of Gastronomy
by Dwight Furrow
In grasping the role of art in contemporary life, one noteworthy theme is the process of artification. “Artification” occurs when something not traditionally regarded as art is transformed into art or at least something art-like. As far as I know, the term was first used in a Finnish publication by Levanto, Naukkarinen, and Vihma in 2005 but has found its way into the wider discussion of aesthetics. It is a useful concept for addressing the boundaries between art and non-art that are constantly being negotiated and renegotiated in contemporary society.
The general issue I want to address is whether artification is a confused and superficial misappropriation of art, a kind of "making pretty" of ordinary objects which we normally associate with kitsch. Or should we welcome artification as an enhancement of both art and life?
Since at least the 18th Century we have had a fine arts tradition that included painting, sculpture, literature, poetry, classical music, and the performing arts of dance and theatre. But over the last century cultural phenomena from architecture, film, jazz, rock music, and hip-hop to graffiti, video games, and even some natural objects have aspired to, and to some degree succeeded in, being included in the extension of the concept of art. The world in which "art" refers to a specific kind of object is long past
Furthermore, many cultural practices including advertising, science, and education are being mixed with art in order to introduce creativity, imagination, and emotional engagement. Among this group of artified objects and practices, many people would include gastronomy, which I want to use in this essay to test assumptions about art and artification. What does this process of artification mean in the context of gastronomy?
In their sociological survey of the social processes of artification, Shapiro and Heinich include gastronomy in the category of practices that are artified but have not become full blown arts. To the contrary, I think today some food preparations are candidates for genuine works of art. This is especially true of the fantastic concoctions of molecular gastronomy (aka modernist cuisine) but I think not exclusively so, as more traditional ways of cooking can sometimes deliver the cognitive and emotional impact typical of art. I've argued elsewhere that food can have the depth of meaning and emotional resonance we associate with art, and thus there are no conceptual difficulties in viewing some food preparations as works of art. But part of the question has to do, not with conceptual matters, but with the social practices of food production and consumption and how they are related to art history and the role of art in society. Whether we view gastronomy as an emerging new art form or as a kitschy appropriation of art-like features tacked on to something ordinary depends, in part, on how we tell the story of art history.
It has become canonical to explain that, in the transition from modernism to postmodernism, art collapses into ordinary life. On this view, the modern period of art (roughly the 18th through mid-20th centuries) involved the progressive separation of art from life with the fine arts being valued in themselves, not because they performed a function, instructed the audience or served some larger social purpose. In the process, art gradually discards the techniques of representation toward increasing abstraction. "Art for art's sake" was the slogan invented to describe the autonomous status of art as it shed its connection to representation, distanced itself from the rest of culture, and became concerned solely with the logic of its own development. The result is the high modernism of abstract painting, Schoenberg's 12-tone row, and novels that dispense with most elements of narrative structure.
However, this approach to art runs aground in the mid-20th Century. With modernist art having devolved into an arid, academic exercise and its pretensions to progress unmasked, in the contemporary, postmodern world this separation of art from life has collapsed. Art has been fully absorbed into the world of commodity production and entertainment. There is no longer a distinction between high culture and pop culture. Kitsch and camp are artistic styles to be thrown into the pluralist mix with other styles from art history, and postmodern artists use collage and fragmentation to disrupt genres and display attitudes of irony and parody toward anything that takes a stand. Art lacks deep meaning, all value commitments are unstable and insincere, and the artist as genius gives way to art as a democratized mash-up of superficial images and sounds.
According to this story of emerging postmodernism, food is just the latest in a series of profane objects to be gussied up and presented as art in order to serve the commercial market. For unreconstructed modernists, this constitutes the further degradation of art but, in any case, there is nothing profound going on in mixing food and art. For under postmodern conditions, art is just entertainment like anything else. To artify is simply to mix features of art production or consumption with some other sphere in order to enhance market value, food being the latest candidate.
But certain features of the food revolution belie this analysis.
Of course we eat to satisfy hunger and gain nutrition. However, food no longer serves a purely utilitarian function as it did throughout much of our history. As the food revolution in the U.S. blossoms, "foodies" eat for pure enjoyment and to experience a variety of meanings that food has as a symbol of home, cultural traditions, and moral identities. Furthermore, as our lives are increasingly dominated by the values of the workplace—competition, speed-up, disruption, the pursuit of profit and efficiency—the culture of the table is that place in our lives where an alternative way of life can take root if only in our imaginations. The culture of the table values slow, patient savoring, authenticity, personal creativity and a sense of community in contrast to the corporate world that respects none of these. In short, food has acquired intrinsic (i.e. non-instrumental) value. It is the dimension of life in which we put care before commerce and pleasure before production.
Obviously there are aspects of the food revolution that depend on media saturation, celebrity, and consumerism. The culture of the table is hardly autonomous from the rest of culture. Yet, its commitment to an alternative value system is real and explains the emergence of food as a modern art form.
But this commitment to an alternative system of values suggests that the modernism/postmodernism frame cannot explain this cultural shift, since our preoccupation with food does not appear to be fully absorbed into commodity production and superficial entertainment. Instead, the artification of food offers a profound shift in fundamental meanings, a shift that is best explained not by the modernism/postmodernism story but by the alternative narrative offered by French philosopher Jacques Rancière.
According to Rancière, much art throughout history followed a structured system of norms specifying what could be the proper subject of art, the techniques that allowed for its skillful production, and how these art objects were to be appreciated. However, in the 19th Century traditional art is largely, although not completely, replaced by what he calls the "aesthetic regime of art". The "aesthetic regime" is a set of beliefs about the nature of art, what it can do and how it is related to society, the "conditions that make it possible for words, shapes, movements and rhythms to be felt and thought as art." (From Rancière, Aisthesis: Themes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art) In other words, art was about a kind of experience, not a kind of object.
As a result, inexorably throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the norms governing the nature of art and its proper subject matter are swept away, the boundaries between genres are increasingly fragile, and aesthetics as a distinct kind of experience and subject matter is born. Modernism far from being the advent of the autonomy of art is rather a kind of sensibility, a way of looking at everyday objects as art-like. Ordinary objects acquired depth of meaning through their artistic presentation but at the same time these presentations raised questions about how art is related to or different from life, in the absence of rules for distinguishing in advance the objects of art from the products of everyday life. That difference now has to be negotiated rather than taken for granted. The aesthetic regime enables us to see art and life as continually overlapping, while remaining distinctly different. Art is not autonomous from everyday life as the modernist would have it. Neither is it fully absorbed into culture as the postmodernists would argue. Art's autonomy and heteronomy are inextricably linked and in constant tension.
Thus the chaos of the contemporary art world, where anything can be a potential art object, is not an exhausted reaction to the overweening radical pretensions and abstractions of modernism but is an extension of a change in sensibility that occurred long ago in the emergence of aesthetic experience. Art hasn't lost its autonomy from culture as the modernism/postmodernism story would have it but continues the process of continually renegotiating this territory by recasting the stage on which things appear.
This ability to reorder our patterns of sensory experience gives art political potential. For Rancière, aesthetic art induces political change, not because it takes politics as its theme but because it alters what can be seen, heard or said—it redistributes voices, practices, and objects by revising the meaning of what appears to our senses. And this ability to assign multiple meanings to objects is a result of the ambiguous, complex relationship between art and life. Art is dependent on everyday objects and practices, and nevertheless distinct from the everyday, placing the objects on a pedestal and highlighting features that in everyday experience we pass over.
In Rancière's telling, the key conceptual innovation that makes possible the aesthetic regime is Schiller's interpretation of Kant in Schiller's Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Mankind. Kant argued that aesthetic judgments do not conform to the categories that made the understanding of ordinary objects possible. Aesthetic judgment involves the "free play" of the imagination and understanding—art forces us to imaginatively restructure objects without recourse to rules. Schiller, following up on Kant's appeal to imaginative play, thought of aesthetics as a "heterogeneous" sensibility that unravels the hierarchies and divisions of reason, including the structures of society that regulate relations between the ruler and the ruled. Schiller argues that aesthetics carries "the promise of equality, the promise of a new way of sharing the common world".
The concept of "play" is central because, through play, the beautiful and life are linked. Schiller writes:"Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man, and he is only wholly Man when he is playing." And thus, Rancière defines play as "any activity that has no end other than itself, that does not intend to gain any effective power over things or persons."(from Aesthetics and its Discontents) Play re-distributes the sensible and makes possible new forms of sensory experience that transform the background assumptions through which we judge what can be seen and heard but has no purpose other than enjoyment.
Which brings us back to food as a form of contemporary art form. Food is something we require everyday and its production and consumption play a central role in providing structure to everyday life. Yet in contemporary society it occupies that borderland between art and the everyday which, in Rancière's view, it is the role of the aesthetic regime of art to negotiate. As noted above, the culture of the table introduces an alternative set of values in contrast to those that are dominant in our lives today. Through limiting its instrumental value and acquiring intrinsic value our relationship with food fits the Schiller/ Rancière conception of play. And as we develop aesthetic forms of cooking and eating our conception of time is reordered. Whereas time compression and speed-up order our lives to conform to the demands of more production, the imperative to slow down and taste the tomatoes is a key feature of the food revolution. As I argue more thoroughly in American Foodie, the culture of the table is about the recovery of contemplation and stillness that enable us to bring new sensory experiences to consciousness. This reordering of the sensible is precisely the function of art as Rancière understands it.
Thus the example of gastronomy shows that artification need not be a superficial importation of features of art to everyday life that devalues art. If artification provides a richer more contemplative approach to food, and makes us more attentive to the deeper meanings that food has, then artification enhances both art and life, and makes food a candidate for a genuine art.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution
Monday, February 29, 2016
Eating: The Not So Simple Pleasure
by Dwight Furrow
Plunging into a bowl of chili differs from a dog's dinner only by degrees. Slobbering, slurping, and gnashing, the dense but yielding meat mingles with the earthiness of dried peppers. The gathering heat pleads to be chased with a swallow of cold, bitter beer that cuts the tension with a flood of endorphin-induced satisfaction.
Well, it's not all that special—just a bowl of chili. But the simple act of consumption is undeniably rewarding. Food and drink provide us with an immediate hedonic reaction—no thinking, no analysis, no bothersome complexity. Our own likes and dislikes rule without judgment. You either like it or you don't and no one can tell you you're wrong (if you put away the calorie counter).
Such unreflective feasting is not exactly information-rich, but it is not utterly blind either. Dominant flavors and textures are familiar and thus instantly recognizable. But each forkful is more or less like the other and any evolution on the palate is buried by the next rapidly following mouthful. The satisfactions of this sort of eating can be had while thinking about more important matters like world peace or getting your nails done.
We all eat like this sometimes. Our nature dictates it. Evolution designed us, under conditions of scarcity, to crave such brute pleasure as a hedge against tomorrow when food might be unavailable. Life would be diminished if we could not enjoy this kind of eating.
But another kind of eating is possible and ultimately more important. With some focused attention, even a simple bowl of chili has interesting imensions: a slight smokiness from the bacon and charred chunks of beef, an unexpected fruity note from an abundance of aji panca chiles, and multiple savory layers from hours of slow cooking that we can appreciate only by attending to the shifting balance of flavors as they evolve on the palate. In a bowl of chili, there is food for thought as well as for consumption.
In fact, there is more complexity than can be grasped in one sitting. Thoughtful eating requires sustained cognitive attention over many meals if one aspires to understand the subtle significance of the variety of pepper or cut of meat used. Chili is one of those dishes about which families feud and geographical regions remonstrate, and the search for just the right secret ingredient to distinguish one's recipe can become a life-long quest. We engage all of our mental faculties when we notice how flavors interact, attend to the chef's expression of particular aspects of the ingredients, and imagine the cultural heritage behind what we are eating when we recall the regional origins displayed in the dish.
This interplay of understanding, memory, and imagination is inherently pleasurable. But this pleasure results from contemplation, concentration, training, and the satisfactions of discovery. It is work. Intellectual labor.
Is it worth it?
The virtue of a thoughtful approach to pleasure is that it multiplies pleasure-and in the realm of pleasure more is usually better. We too often think of pleasure as a mere sensation that passively afflicts us and then disappears once the source of the pleasure has been consumed. But this limited understanding leaves too much pleasure on the table. In fact, pleasure invites thought. Pleasure intensifies perception, makes it stand out from the course of day-to-day experience. It thus intensifies our interest in the source of pleasure, and the whys and wherefores that make the pleasure intelligible. Pleasure, having become a mystery, is no less pleasurable and when the mystery is solved the pleasure of discovery is a bonus that ramifies into the future. Subsequent experiences of that pleasure thus become more meaningful and more rewarding because we notice things we could not have discerned before. The discovery that aji panca chiles have a fruity flavor encourages us to focus on those fruity notes in the chili that we might pass over if we lacked that expectation, which enables us to draw precise contrasts with recipes using different combinations of chiles. Furthermore knowing that aji panca chiles originate in Peru reminds us of the migration patterns of populations, the inherent instability of cultural boundaries, or the effects of climate on ingredients.
There is a lot to think about in that bowl.
Reflective eating wrests differences from homogeneity and relationships from isolated instances. It identifies the source of an ingredient, the variety of its uses, and the way different people perceive it. It traces the way dishes, ingredients, and their cultures provoke our imagination, enable us to speculate, hypothesize, plan, or dream. All of these benefits are generated from what at first seems a simple hedonic response.
Thoughtful eating can change the self as well. When pleasure becomes thought, we manage, at least to some degree, to overcome the limitations of personal preference. We come to see the dimensions and value of something even if at first we don't like it. It has meaning beyond personal interest or a simple yea or nay. But more importantly, when pleasure becomes thought, it also becomes discourse. We mistakenly think of pleasure as something purely subjective and private-of course we experience pleasure with our own mind and senses. But pleasure is heightened when we are able to share it, and the more we can think and talk about pleasure, the more sharable it becomes.
Ultimately, this question about the value of thoughtful eating is a question about what kind of life to lead. That is too big a topic for this humble blog post. But surely a life devoted to squeezing every ounce of value from each experience is intrinsically valuable and a worthy candidate for a good life. This cannot be accomplished without thought. The problem with simple (unreflective) pleasures is that they leave too much value on the table, too much beauty not experienced, too much potential unfulfilled.
As Mark Twain wrote "Intellectual 'work' is misnamed; it is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward." (From A Connecticut Yankee...)
But all this thinking makes me hungry. A bowl of chili and a beer sounds just right.
For more on thoughtful eating see American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution or visit Mindful Eating 2, an Edible Arts blog.
Monday, February 01, 2016
Why Americans are Fascinated by Food
by Dwight Furrow
For much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.
How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.
Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called "gig" economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of "contacts" where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our "brand"—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.
Food comes to the rescue. It is no accident that the food revolution is informed by the Slow Food movement, the celebration of local tastes and local ingredients, and an anti-corporate undercurrent that resists this colonization of private life by the values of the workplace. Through the exploration of taste, people seek to preserve areas in life where creative playfulness and a sense of community take center stage. For a variety of reasons, food is the logical choice for this rebirth of private creativity. We seek to recapture a sense of agency though preoccupation with our own sense of taste. The food revolution is fundamentally an aesthetic revolution driven by a felt need to stop the further encroachment of workplace demands on our private lives.
What is it about food that makes it the appropriate vehicle for this resistance?
The activities of producing and consuming food pervade all aspects of life. They shape family life, influence all variety of social relationships, explain the texture of community life, and help shape our personal identities as well. But more importantly, the pleasures of food have a kind of intrinsic value that, when taken seriously, provide a rewarding, edifying outlook on life that puts pleasure before production, geniality before greed, and care before commerce. The pleasures of food, because they are ubiquitous, are ideally situated to restore our sense that there are features of everyday life that should not be sacrificed on the altar of efficiency. The genuine appreciation of food requires that we slow down, experience the present in all its richness, and tap into our creative potential as we attend to the needs of others, a form of resistance to a sped-up work life that all of us can exercise.
Thus, food has taken on a variety of meanings it never had in the past—it is a modern art form concerned with the expression of heritage, personal creativity, individual autonomy and the sanctification of everyday life.
Food is indeed "the New Rock", a pleasurable medium though which we can begin to conceptualize a form of life that resists the encroachment of workplace values and imagine a more civilized existence. Whether it can succeed or not will depend on whether the slow rhythms, love of place and community, and commitment to quality over quantity can resonate throughout other areas of life while withstanding the predations of corporate plutocracy.
For more on the philosophy of food consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution or visit Edible Arts.
Monday, January 04, 2016
Wine, Love and Spirituality
by Dwight Furrow
This is what it is to go aright, or to be led by another into the mystery of Love: one goes always upwards for the sake of this Beauty starting out from beautiful things and using them like rising stairs…. (211 c-d, Plato's Symposium)
We throw the word "love" around without really meaning it. We "love" ice cream, sunsets, or the latest soon-to-be-forgotten pop song. But such "love" requires no commitment and hardly seems worthy of being in the same category as the love of one's child or spouse. Yet, some objects or activities are worthy objects of love because they solicit our sustained attention and care—a great work of art, a career, baseball, a religion. For some people wine seems to fall into this latter category of worthy objects of love. Many people abandon lucrative, stable careers for the uncertainties and struggles of winemaking; others spend a lifetime of hard intellectual labor to understand its intricacies; still others circle the globe seeking to sample rare and unusual bottles. Wine seems to have an attraction that goes beyond mere "liking"—a spiritual dimension that requires explanation.
The spiritual dimension of wine has a long history. Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, was said to inhabit the soul with the power of ecstasy—the Ancient Greek word ekstasis meant standing outside the self via madness or artistic expression, and wine was thought to encourage that transformation . The Romans called the same God Bacchus with similar associations. The Judeo/Christian world tames the ecstasy yet still acknowledges the virtues of wine. Judaism has long included wine in its rituals for which it incorporates a specific blessing, and of course, for Christians, wine represents the blood of Christ and gets a number of mentions in the Bible. Other alcoholic beverages have existed for as long or longer than wine, but none have its spiritual connotations.
Today, wine is just one among many alcoholic beverages consumed in great quantities. Yet it sustains its sacramental role—as status symbol, fashion statement, a sign of class, refinement, or sophistication, a source of intellectual delight, the object of a quest for a peak experience, or the focal point of social life—all contemporary renditions of "spiritual" some more debased than others.
What makes wine an appropriate object of love? Why does wine have this spiritual dimension? It isn't only because of the alcohol. Cheap whiskey doesn't have it. It is not because it tastes good. Lots of beverages or foods taste good, but they lack wine's power to move us.
Spirituality is about inward transformation. Dionysus was a gender-bending, shape-shifting God who entered the soul and transformed the identity of the one afflicted. Go with Dionysus and achieve ecstasy by escaping the confines of one's identity; resist and be torn apart by conflicting passions, according to the myth. Wine too is about transformation–the grapes in the vineyard, the wine in the barrel and bottle, the drink in the glass as its volatile chemicals release an aromatic kaleidoscope of fleeting, irresolute incense. Wine changes profoundly over time. In turn, the drinker is transformed by the wine. But not merely by the alcoholic loosening of inhibitions or the ersatz identity appropriated through wine's symbolic association with status. Instead, the wine lover, at least on rare occasion, is transformed by the openness to experience she undergoes when gripped by sensations whose very beauty compels her full attention. For unlike any other drink, wine has that ability to arrest our habitual heedlessness and distracted preoccupation and rivet our attention on something awe-inspiring yet utterly inconsequential, without aim or purpose, lacking in survival value, monetary reward, or salutary advance in our assets.
In a recent essay on this site, I argued that being gripped by a sensation of genuine quality, not merely having a sensation but being moved by it, is a pre-condition of love. By "genuine quality" I mean the properties of something or someone that promise more than superficial engagement because they exhibit great variety or complexity, intensity, and provide a deep contrast with static, familiar, ordinary things. Complexity, intensity, and stark singularity have this power to move us because they indicate that the object and our relationship to it have great developmental potential. They extend the promise that further involvement will take us on a journey where new paths are forged and new connections made. There is mystery about the object and how it unfolds over time that sparks the imagination. This felt potential for further engagement is a natural lure that makes something "loveable", that demands we care about it.
The people we fall in love with have this mystery engendered by complexity, intensity, and stark contrast with the ordinary. The wines we fall in love with have it as well. It is the essence of the "aha" moment that most wine lovers experience and strive to rediscover. It is not merely sensory quality that matters but the potential for further engagement signaled by the sensory quality that matters, a promise of things to come that sparks the imagination. Ice cream, sunsets, and mere acquaintances don't provide that spark. Of course whether we fall in love or not depends on how that engagement proceeds, but the initial impetus toward love is aesthetic and seems akin to a sculptor seeing potential in a block of stone. Love begins as a promise of adventure dragging us toward an indeterminate end.
When we are so transfixed by the sensory surface of the world, we stand outside that nexus of practical concerns and settling of accounts that makes up the self. Shorn of that identity we drink in the flavors seduced by the thought that there is goodness in the world—whole, unadulterated, without measure. This is part of the attraction of great art and music—a moment of ecstasy. So it is with wine. No other beverage has the depth, complexity, and textural refinement to create that momentary mutation of the self.
But what is it about wine that can deliver on this sense of mystery and adventure? Is wine just a pretty face promising something that in the end remains superficial, incapable of sustaining mystery? Sensuality is only the beginning of love; a beloved must reward sustained attention, it must really have the depth of meaning the sensory surface promises, otherwise we lose interest. And, indeed, attraction to wine does not remain purely sensual. Most people who get in to it do more than drink it. They want to learn about it or produce it or seek it out embarking on a path of discovery. All wine lovers are moved by a sense of discovery.
Beyond the sensory features, the key feature of wine that makes it an object of love is that it reflects its origins. Wine when properly made exhibits the features of the vineyard and climate in which the grapes are grown, the decisions of the winemaker when contemplating her approach to a vintage, the craft and skill of the crew that makes the wine, and the taste of the community that has nurtured a style of winemaking for decades if not centuries. It is that fascination with origins that sustains the pursuit. But why should this evocation of origins be so important?
Psychologist Paul Bloom has been arguing that fascination with origins is baked into human experience.
…we respond to what we believe are objects' deeper properties, including their histories. Sensory properties are relevant and so is signaling, but the pleasure we get from the right sort of history explains much of the lure of luxury items—and of more mundane consumer items as well…. We are not empiricists, obsessed with appearance. Rather, the surfaces of things are significant largely because they reflect an object's deeper nature.
According to Bloom a genuine Armani suit or Rolex watch is worth more than an identical knock-off because we care about their origins. We value objects more if we own them, chose them or had to work hard to get them. We value objects that have been touched by celebrities or if they have some special story behind them, including of course objects that have something to do with our own past. What all these examples have in common is an evocative history.
In his book How Pleasure Works, Bloom assembles compelling empirical evidence that this focus on history is universal and emerges early in childhood.
Bloom's analysis seems especially appropriate for wine because the wine world has traditionally been organized to reflect the importance of history and place of origin. Connoisseurs spend thousands for a bottle of Lafite-Rothschild, a storied chateau in Bordeaux, the most famous wine region in the word, even though there are wines equally compelling at a fraction of the cost. Classic wine regions have for centuries marketed wines based on location rather than varietal because consumers value this connection to place. Wine lovers fall head over heels for wines from obscure regions or that are distinctive because they reflect the unique characteristics of a vineyard even though perfectly acceptable industrial wines are available at the supermarket. Wine tourists are willing to spend $40 for a bottle at the winery that might be worth $10 on the supermarket shelf, especially if they meet the winemaker and tour the facility where the wine is made and thus are able to connect the wine to its origin. Wine is a beverage uniquely able to reflect its origins via flavors, aromas, and textures, and classic wine regions have spent centuries cultivating those characteristics that make them distinctive. Newer wine regions are hard at work trying to discover what sets them apart because having a compelling story about origins will connect them to wine lovers.
Bloom is wrong to discount the importance of sensory properties. After all, if a wine lacks distinctive sensory properties we won't care about its origins and will quickly lose interest. Love begins with sensation but the beloved must promise more—in the case of wine it is the allure of location and the human qualities that feed its production that engender love because these have the depth to carry us on a journey of discovery and connection.
This is why artisanal winemaking methods and an ideology that resists industrial winemaking methods that cover up or distort the influence of the vineyard are so important in preserving wine's status as an object of love. Without that connection to place and history, wine risks becoming just another commodity, pleasant and enjoyable to be sure, but without the depth of meaning that wine lovers crave and thus incapable of fulfilling (with apologies to Plato) the Dionysian promise to climb love's ladder.
For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art and Cultural Revolution.
Monday, December 07, 2015
by Dwight Furrow
Throughout most of human history human beings were utterly dependent on nature and everything about human life was determined by it. Adapt or die was the imperative that governed all life and so nature seemed infinite and without measure, a fact recognized by 18th century theories of the sublime. Yet, throughout most of that history, we refused to acknowledge this dependence striving to see ourselves as ultimately separate from nature. The separation of mind and body, of earth and heaven, the opposition of nature and culture, were taken to be simply obvious.
But today we have reversed that equation. Inexorably, we have learned to control nature through technologies which have reached such a critical mass that nature has been reduced to a mere instrument to be carved up and used as we see fit—a "standing reserve" as Heidegger called it. Even our biological make up will soon be subject to fundamental manipulation as gene editing comes online. The result is that nature now seems finite and fragile, disappearing under the deluge of techno-science and mass industrialization.
Paradoxically, as we gain more control over nature we have begun to acknowledge our dependence on it, as the Paris climate talks get underway amidst a deepening sense of crisis. The consequences of ignoring our dependence on nature are all too evident. For us today nature is both an instrument to be used up and a center of independent power, a Janus-faced phenomenon, on the one hand limited and circumscribed by human activity but on the other hand generating effluvia that create a devilishly devious constraint on human activity. The resistance of nature yields to our technology in countless ways but leaves behind a residue of pollution and devastation that threatens to undermine that hard won human control.
Human history increasingly looks like a struggle between two forces: a closed off nature that we must simply react to, an obdurate matter that never fully reveals itself to us, versus a dream of absolute dominion. This dream of dominion dispenses with the idea of nature altogether once we have grasped enough of nature's inner workings to make all fundamental elements analyzable into parts and capable of recombination. Neither combatant in this struggle seems particularly conducive to human existence at least as we know it.
There is however a third option. There is perhaps no longer any reason to think of nature and culture as separate phenomena with fundamentally different characteristics. The more we learn about culture the more it seems penetrated by nature, by our biological inheritance and physical makeup; the more we learn about nature the more it seems penetrated by culture as we gain facility at manipulating the physical world at a fundamental level. Culture is simply one way of organizing nature, different quantities or intensities of the same stuff that differs only in being maximally or minimally resistant to human activity.
French philosopher Michel Serres argues that we should understand "nature" and "culture" not as separate ontological categories but in terms of the metaphors of "the hard" and "the soft."* As we sever the hard bonds that tie us to nature, the bonds of necessity that technology has disrupted, we come to recognize the importance of the soft bonds that lie at the foundation of meaning. If I understand him correctly, by "hard" Serres means matter that is maximally resistant to human action. By "soft" he means matter (broadly construed) that is yielding and malleable such as language and information. The effect of seeing nature and culture as part of a continuum is to make more important the cultural bonds that tie us to nature. We now view nature only through the lens of culture. Here is Serres on these soft bonds:
Flying high enough to see her [the earth] whole, we find ourselves tethered to her by the totality of our knowledge, the sum of our technologies, the collection of our communications; by torrents of signals, by the complete set of imaginable umbilical cords, living and artificial, visible and invisible, concrete or purely formal. By casting off from her from so far, we pull on these cords to the point that we comprehend them all. (Serres, The Natural Contract, 106)
There is no longer an outside to culture and no longer a pure essence of nature resistant to culture. It is only through knowledge, culture and communication that we sustain bonds to what we used to call nature.
All of this provides background for attempts to understand our current fascination with everything that reminds us of the "natural"—natural foods, natural wine, farm-to-table-respect-the-ingredients cooking, and opposition to industrial foods, to name just a few. Taste and the ordinary (i.e. non-industrial) practices of preparing ingredients for consumption are one way we take the hard surfaces of nature and make them accessible, softening their edges while never fully canceling their resistance.
Although long ignored as a subject of serious intellectual concern, matters of taste have come to occupy the center of culture and they sample deeply from this cauldron of interest in everything "natural". It is in the arena of food and beverage where the transformation of the meaning of "natural" is most pronounced. Industrial food is the most salient example of how nature as standing reserve penetrates everyday life. There, nature is broken into its chemical elements and recombined according to whatever recipe of efficiency will earn a profit, only to reappear as poor health and poor taste—and so foodies and wine geeks resist this reduction demanding freshness, organic, "real food", with minimal manipulation or additives.
Understood as an attempt to return to a pure state of unadulterated wildness, these appeals to nature are at best nostalgic and at worst a simple lie. What we call "natural" is no less marked by human culture than jeans or symphonies. But interest in "the natural" is not best understood as an attempt to return to a pristine state before the fall. The health and environmental reasons for this "natural" approach to food are obvious but there are symbolic purposes being served as well, symbolic purposes that are easily exploited by the marketing arm of our technocracy overlords. As nature disappears under the onslaught of techno-science it becomes visible again only via cultural practices that symbolize brute physicality—"the hard" to use Serres' terminology, something that offers resistance to human intervention without being outside its orbit. The word "natural", when not co-opted by advertising, symbolizes our recognition that resistance to human intention is sometimes a virtue; some things are "hard" and should not be simply used up.
This negotiation between "hard" and "soft" is not restricted to taste. As Serres points out, sensation in general is the primary locus of the transformation of the hard to the soft, a matter of filtering the hard surfaces of nature making them accessible to human experience.
Sensation, never pure, filters energies, protects itself and us from an excess of it, encodes and passes on information: it transforms hard into soft' (Serres, The Five Senses: A Philosophy of Mangled Bodies, 115).
With nature no longer an impenetrable force, history then becomes a spectacle of human vs. human, the resistance of the world now just another cultural artifact occupying the hard side of the continuum subject to being softened by human practices. Perhaps we can understand our contemporary fascination with sports, guns, violence, and mayhem, mediated though they are by technology, as a paean to the lost world of the brutely physical, the "hard" that resists assimilation to the information machine but paradoxically becomes just another howl at the moon.
*For a reasonably accessible introduction to Serres' thought see this paper by Steven Connor.
For more rumination on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts, or consult my forthcoming book American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution
Monday, November 09, 2015
Wine Tasting and Objectivity
by Dwight Furrow
The vexed question of wine tasting and objectivity popped up last week on the Internet when wine writer Jamie Goode interviewed philosopher Barry Smith on the topic. Smith, co-director of CenSes – Center for the Study of the Senses at University of London's Institute of Philosophy, works on flavor and taste perception and is a wine lover as well. He is a prominent defender of the view that at least some aesthetic judgments about wine can aspire to a kind of objectivity. His arguments are worth considering since, I think, only something like Smith's view can make sense of our wine tasting practices.
The question is whether flavors are "in the wine" or "in the mind". On the one hand, there are objectively measurable chemical compounds in wine that reliably affect our taste and olfactory mechanisms—pyrazines cause bell pepper aromas in Cabernet Sauvignon, malic acid explains apple aromas in Chardonnay, tannins cause a puckering response, etc. But we know that human beings differ quite substantially in how they perceive wine flavors. Even trained and experienced wine critics disagree about what they are tasting and how to evaluate wine. This disagreement among experts leads many to claim that wine tasting is therefore purely subjective, just a matter of individual opinion. According to subjectivism, each person's response is utterly unique and there is no reason to think that when I taste something, someone else ought to taste the same thing. Statements about wine flavor are statements about one's subjective states, not about the wine. Thus, there are no standards for evaluating wine quality.
The problem with the subjectivist's view is that no one connected to wine really believes it. Everyone from consumers to wine shop owners, to wine critics, to winemakers are in the business of distinguishing good wine from bad wine and communicating those distinctions to others. If wine quality were purely subjective there would be no reason to listen to anyone about wine quality--wine education would be an oxymoron. In fact our lives are full of discourse about aesthetic opinion. The ubiquity of reviews, guides, and like buttons on social media presupposes that judgments concerning aesthetic value are meaningful and have authority even if enjoyment and appreciation are subjective. In such cases we are not just submitting to authority but we view others as a source of evidence about where aesthetic value is to be found. Wine tasting is no different despite attempts by the media to discredit wine expertise. So how do we accommodate the obvious points that there are differences in wine quality, as well as objective features of wines that can be measured, with the vast disagreements we find even among experts?
The first important distinction to make is between perception and preferences. As Smith points out:
I think when critics say it is all subjective they are saying your preferences are subjective. But there must be a difference between preferences and perception. For example, I don't see why critics couldn't be very good at saying this is a very fine example of a Gruner Veltliner, or this is one of the best examples of a medium dry Riesling, but it is not for me. Why can't they distinguish judgments of quality from judgments of individual liking? It seems to me you could. You know what this is expected of this wine and what it is trying to do: is it achieving it? Yes, but it's not to your taste.
This is important but all too often goes unremarked. Wine experts disagree in their verdicts about a wine and in the scores they assign. But if you read their tasting notes closely you will often find they agree substantially about the features of the wine while disagreeing about whether they like them or not.
For example, consider these two tasting notes regarding the 1990 Chateau Margaux from two top wine critics:
JAMES LAUBE: "A tight, hard-edged and unyielding young wine. Some cedar and currant flavors attempt a coup on the finish, but they're tightly wrapped in tannin. 86 points."
JAMES SUCKLING: "Slightly dumb now. Ripe, almost raisiny aromas and flavors that develop a minty, menthol accent. Full-bodied and rich with loads of tannins. Needs time. Better after 2005. 90 points." [Thanks to Bob Henry in a comment thread for these notes.]
If you look at their scores and their overall verdict it would seem they disagree substantially. But in fact they largely agree about the features of the wine and differ only in their preferences."Tight" and "dumb" mean essentially the same thing–-the wine is not very expressive. "Tightly wrapped in tannins" and "loads of tannin" again have similar meanings. Suckling mentions over-ripe qualities which appear early in the taste experience; Laube focuses on the finish. They are clearly focusing on different aspects of the wine. But the essential descriptions "closed" and "excessively tannic" are shared by both critics. Both agree that the wine needs more time, Laube calling it "young" and Suckling saying "needs time". What they differ about is how much to discount the scores given these factors. Suckling is more forgiving than Laube. The disagreement is over a preference for wines that are ready to drink vs. wines that need age.
No doubt preferences are subjective; but it doesn't follow that perceptions are. Of course, critics sometimes disagree about what they perceive as well, but those disagreements are less extreme than some of the commentary would have you believe.
There is an important philosophical question here: Can you separate how something tastes from whether you like it? It seems that we can. As Smith points out, if we could not separate them we could never acquire new preferences. If you hated broccoli as a child but like it as an adult you must have been able to separate taste from liking at some point. That is a persuasive argument although it could be argued that there was just something about broccoli you didn't notice as a kid that has now come into focus. Did broccoli as a child taste the same as broccoli as an adult, the difference being you now like what you hated in your youth? Or does the broccoli taste differently as an adult? The question is not settled but is important to answer. If we can separate what we taste from whether we like it, then we can view wine criticism as involving two aspects-- description which legitimately aspires to something more or less objective, and a verdict which will rely much more on personal taste. A good critic then should be able to keep the two tasks distinct and communicate that distinction to readers.
In the second part of his interview Smith briefly lays out a model for how to think about objectivity in wine tasting. But first some background to set up the problem he's trying to solve. Smith doesn't define what he means by "objectivity" but I suspect he has in mind something like this: An objective judgment is a judgment that accurately tracks features of the external world. Thus, an objective judgment satisfies conditions of correctness, where evidence points to reality to help explain how things appear to us.
The question is whether our judgments about wine quality are at least sometimes objective in that sense.
On the one hand, flavor depends on molecules, and taste would seem to be a matter of our sensory mechanisms accurately tracking these compounds in a wine. To the extent a wine taster is accurately tracking chemical constituents of the wine she is tasting objectively. But those who think wine is subjective seem to think our sensory mechanisms aren't reliably connected to objects in the world. How things seem to us individually is just how things are. There is no right answer to what a wine tastes like and no standards for judging wine quality according to subjectivists.
It would seem that in order to answer this question about objectivity we need a scientific inquiry that would connect the molecules in wine to the subjective impressions of tasters. But given what we know about the mechanisms of taste, this is a hopeless task. Taste is not a direct perception of a compound but involves very complex mental processes that link several perceptual modalities into a unified impression of flavor. Taste, smell, and tactile impressions combine with visual and auditory stimuli as well as input from emotions, beliefs, and mood to give us an impression of what something tastes like. It thus seems like flavor is formed in the mind and is subject to a variety of influences unique to each individual. Moreover, the subjective impressions reported by tasters are all over the map and produce contradictory results not only between individuals but for individual persons from one time to the next. There is room for individual variation because people have different thresholds for detecting molecules and well as different histories, associations, and environments that influence what they taste.
The idea that there could be laws that connect molecules in wine to these unstable individual experiences seems implausible. Yet, in the absence of these laws, it would seem there is nothing else for wine tasting to be about except how individuals form their own subjective flavor perceptions. Individual sensory perceptions seem so unstable and widely variable that it looks like the subjectivists have won this debate.
But not so fast.
Smith argues that we should think of flavors as intermediaries between compounds in the wine and our individual reactions to them.
"What I say is, you need an intermediate level. We need a level in between the chemistry and the variable perceptions, and this is flavour. Flavours are emergent properties: they depend on but are not reducible to the chemistry. Then these flavours are things which our varying and variable perceptions try to latch onto. Each flavour perception is a snapshot of that flavour. We don't even want to think of it as static: we want to think of a flavour profile: something which itself evolves and changes over time. As a professional taster you are taking snapshots in each of your tastings and trying to figure out what the flavour properties of that wine are that will continue to endure and alter as the wine ages. How would it taste if it was a degree or two colder or warmer? You make predictions and then you can go back and sample it later and say, I was right: I figured that it needed another hour in the glass and needed to be one degree warmer and it would change like this. The thing about which you are making the predictions is flavour. This is what depends on but is not reducible to chemistry. Now you have two tough jobs instead of one, with this intermediate level. One task is to say, what is the relationship between the chemistry and the flavours that emerge. The second task is what is the relationship between individual flavour perceptions and flavours? These two jobs need to be done independently, but they have to reach the same terminus. Having this intermediate level gives you the job of saying how does my individual experience as a taster lock on to flavour, and how does the chemistry give rise to flavour. Don't try going from the chemistry to perception, you need that middle level."
Smith is claiming that in addition to the objectively-observable, chemical constituents of the wine and the private, individual taste experiences of tasters, there is a third, intermediate object that is just as real as the chemical properties of the wine. This intermediate object is a dynamic flavor profile that each taster is trying to identify, yet is independent of our individual psychological experiences. These intermediaries are caused by the chemical compounds in the wine but there is no purely chemical description of them since they are emergent properties that depend on human perception. They are the intersection of chemical properties and human perceptions but not reducible to either. Thus, our individual perceptions are tracking something—this intermediary object called flavor that is relatively stable and not dependent on individual perceptions.
Smith seems to have in mind something like this. When the chemical properties of wine interact with human perceptual mechanisms flavor emerges. That flavor is not dependent on my perceptions or your perceptions. If you or I were to cease existing, the flavor of a wine would still exist as long as human beings can taste wine. In that respect flavor is like a dollar bill. A dollar bill is real, as real as a tree or rock. But its value as a medium of exchange depends on human practices. If human beings didn't exist it would just be a piece of paper. Yet its value is not reducible to the chemical constituents of the paper nor is it reducible to your individual willingness or my individual willingness to accept it as payment. It is what John Searle calls a social fact which is as objective as any other fact.
The upshot is that individual variations in taste experiences, whether between individuals or between taste experiences by the same person, are different ways of perceiving the same thing. Each taste experience is a snapshot of a larger whole that is the wine's flavor. No one ever experiences the wine as a whole; it's never present all at once but transcends each individual taste experience. When I taste apricot or perceive balance, I'm sensing a larger whole that is given to me via those impressions.
Wines contain many different flavors and tasters may differ as to which flavors are prominent. I might think a Cabernet smells of smoke; you might say it smells of vanilla. We may both be right in that the wine has the power to cause impressions of smoke in me and impressions of vanilla in you given our individual differences. Different descriptions are not necessarily incompatible descriptions; there is no reason why a wine could not smell of both smoke and vanilla. Even more complex properties such as balance or finesse can admit of variation. There are several ways in which a wine might be in balance or exhibit finesse or depth, some more accessible to individual tasters than others.
Of course, the question that still lurks is whether someone can be wrong about what they perceive. If there are multiple ways of perceiving a wine's flavor in what sense can someone be accused of making a mistake? The fact that there are multiple ways of perceiving a wine does not entail that anything goes and that all judgments are correct. How then do we decide which critic to listen to or which judgment to follow? How do we know whether our individual perceptions are tracking this intermediate object?
These are complex questions. What we need in order to answer them is a conception of what counts as appropriate evidence for an aesthetic judgment that can be confirmed through experience and that can help correct us if we've made a mistake.
Smith's suggestion is that we can make predictions about the wine and how it might be perceived under a variety of circumstances. If those predictions are confirmed that is an indicator that we are tracking the wine's flavor. I think this is in the right direction although I worry that predicting how wines will change is subject to too many unforeseeable variables to be reliable. However, there is more to be said about the proper approach to any aesthetic object that Smith's account helps us to understand. It will not be via laws, principles, or rules that we can confirm judgments but through proper critical practice.
In providing judgments that we expect others to accept and endorse, we are only bluffing if we are not part of a publically accessible dialogue with a background of shared normative assumptions giving our claims relevance and persuasive force. This means critics must have a commitment to allowing the wine (or the painting, or piece of music) itself to pull us out of our limited, subjective points of view and strive to occupy a shared aesthetic universe if only for a moment. In other words, critics in striving for objectivity must listen to each other and strive to understand alien points of view. Only such a practice will tell us if our views are too parochial, if there is some dimension of flavor (in Smith's sense) that we are missing. Our ability to occupy multiple points of view reinforces our pursuit of objectivity.
If our palates (or aesthetic sensibilities) are as sensitive as we claim, this exploration of flavor will yield new insights. Beyond mere enjoyment critics should be seeking a greater capacity to appreciate beauty and aesthetic value in all its forms. Although there are some biological limitations and historical constraints on what each individual can taste, these limitations and constraints are not immutable or immune to education. Of course, in the end our judgments may not converge with those of other critics. There may be some flavor profiles I can't grasp, certain aesthetic sensibilities that are inaccessible to me. In the end there are judgments that will fall well outside any attempt to achieve critical consensus because, from first-hand experience, most critics cannot make sense of them. But to make these critical judgments we do not need to suppose there is only one way to experience something nor must we assume that all judgments are equally valid. Both of these assumptions are toxic to a vibrant critical culture.
However, what we must assume is that our critical judgments are reaching for something out there, that there is value yet to be discovered of which our subjective preferences have not yet taken measure. This is what Smith's model accomplishes. It provides grounds for rejecting subjectivism about wine tasting by clarifying what wine tasting is about. Wine flavor is not something that happens only within each individual taster. It is an objective feature of a world in which human perceptual mechanisms function in a particular way. When those perceptual mechanisms are functioning properly and sources of bias are reduced that interfere with their functioning, there is no reason to think human beings are incapable of accurately recognizing wine flavor despite substantial individual variation. It is difficult to do so and we make many mistakes. All individual judgments are defeasible and judgments about personal preference have no claim on objectivity (which includes wine scores). But it leaves much we can say about which flavors are present, whether a wine is in balance, has complexity, a long finish, finesse, is tannic or soft, etc. Thus, the disagreements among critics to the extent they are not about mere preferences are not evidence that wine tasting is nonsense but evidence that all dimensions of a very complex and subtle object are being explored. Such disagreements are what we should expect if indeed wine is the complex, multidimensional object worthy of the devotion it inspires.
For more ruminations on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, September 14, 2015
Wine and the Metaphysics of Time
by Dwight Furrow
Wine is useless. It bakes no bread, does no work, and solves no problem. The alcohol loosens tongues and serves as social lubricant, but wine is an inefficient delivery system for alcohol—there are faster, cheaper ways of getting drunk. No one needs wine. Wine does nothing but give pleasure.
Love of wine is thus a useless passion, an arena of pure play, but therein lies its peculiar power. It joins the realm of those objects that express rather than perform--objects like old musical instruments, ancient manuscripts, childhood toys, or Grandma's jewelry. Useless but precious because of the experiences they enable.
When we are consumed by a useless passion, we become more attuned to the allusive meanings and hidden dimensions of the object of love. The object acquires an aura of mystery when unmoored from practical function and can serve as a universal talisman to which all sorts of meanings can be attached. Those moments in which we experience a useless passion and grasp the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of things are not only moments of pleasure but moments in which we glimpse a world of the imagination yet one in which matter resists conceptualization, the hard surfaces of reality resist manipulation because they have their own capacities and developmental direction, and meaning expands beyond what can be calculated or measured.
Among objects of love, wine has its own peculiar attractions. Wine, when considered aesthetically, brings traces of the sacred to our lives that are otherwise thoroughly enmeshed in practical tasks. The demand to slow down and savor opens a time and space in which we can be receptive to multiple ways of understanding the interplay between nature and culture because wine partakes of both.
The patient savoring of wine demands that we acknowledge and live within the constraints of the constant and insurmountable rhythm of the seasons, the vagaries of climate and weather, and other threats that make farming hazardous and uncertain. The resistance of the world is inscribed in the flavors that reflect the unique qualities of geographical locations (terroir), the impact of weather on ripeness, and influence of climate and soil on the savory kaleidoscope of flavors, all factors over which we had very limited control until the advent of modern technology. Yet because of human technology and skill, wine can also be so refined that nature is but a trace succumbing to the vision of the winemaker and thoroughly mediated by culture. Wine sits on the border of nature and culture and can be taken in either direction.
However for me it is the aging process of wine that is most intriguing. Of course aged wines are gorgeous when properly cared for. Wines that contain lots of flavor precursors, and the tannin and acidity to protect that flavor from oxidation, undergo chemical processes that produce a stunning array of entrancing perfume; and as the tannins soften and bond with other components, the texture becomes velvety soft with all components perfectly integrated. The result is always interesting and often transcendently exquisite—paradise in a glass.
Only a few wines will improve with age. Premium California Cabernet, Bordeaux Blends, Italian Borolo, Spanish Rioja, and Syrah from the Northern Rhone are among the wines that will age well. Some white wines—Chenin Blanc, well-made Chardonnay and Riesling—will also improve in the bottle. But it takes time, 5-30 years, for wines to reach maturity and knowing when a bottle is at its peak is an utter crapshoot. Storage conditions must be perfect or you risk opening an expensive bottle of vinegar; and bottles of wine develop as individuals with substantial bottle variation even when the wine is from the same producer and vintage. In other words, you never know what you will get when the cork is pulled. The greatest virtue of a wine lover is patience; the second is the ability to suffer disappointment with grace. The sage who said hedonists lack virtue was not a wine lover.
But beyond flavor, the temporality of old wines is even more intriguing. All wine as it begins to age in the bottle loses some of its original flavor components. It will never taste young and fresh again and as the years go by, its original flavor becomes more distant, never to be tasted again as each bottle takes on its own character and develops in unpredictable ways.
It is common practice among wine lovers to purchase a wine showing the vintage of a child's birth year—a commemoration of a singular event. Indeed, an aged wine does reveal something about the year the grapes were grown—weather conditions and winemaking style contribute to the flavor of the final product. But 10, 20 or 30 years later when a wine is opened, what is alluded to is really a process of development and decay. It is time passing that is revealed, not a singular moment in the past. Drinking aged wines is not about nostalgia for a past moment but an appreciation of lost time, a celebration of decline, for what is revealed is the result of oxygen, the polymerization of anthocyanins, aroma esters collapsing and reforming, color molecules becoming sediment, the cumulative result of these changes becoming an individual no longer firmly linked to its origins.
However, we experience none of that. A bottle from a past vintage alludes to the utter recalcitrance of the past, its never-to-be-retrieved. It is a metaphor for what philosopher Emmanual Levinas calls the immemorial, not just what is forgotten, but what has never been remembered, time irretrievably lost and available only as a sensation of flavor and texture. For we have no idea what happened in that bottle over the intervening years. It sat mutely in the cellar for decades never revealing its narrative, locked away in glass, giving away almost nothing to our awareness. Only when it is opened does it reveal itself as flavor and texture, but never as memory.
Thus wine is different from other treasured objects that we keep around us that serve as memory enhancers. Most treasured objects mark episodes and become part of one's narrative. When I pick up an old book I recall when it was purchased. The marks on the cover remind me of the backpack it resided in during a trek across country. The margins contain scribble notes that recall patterns of thought, provoke rueful memories of bad reasoning, the dog eared pages marking the end of a day, the random scraps of paper found between the pages, the shopping lists, receipts, etc. all elements of a story that can be retold. The ideas contained therein recall moments in my intellectual history and allow a revisiting of ideas long forgotten. They are all elements in a narrative that can be woven with a received history and become again part of memory. Old wine can never be so assimilated to memory. Opening a bottle is always a confrontation with the unknowable.
Furthermore, unlike family heirlooms and other treasured objects that we can pass down through generations, all wine is destined to be utterly and completely lost. Once the bottles are consumed or stored so long they turn to vinegar, nothing remains of that unique and singular work. On Saturday, January 24, 2015 at approximately 6:00 P.M. the very last bottle of a fine Eyrie Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley was poured. I claim to know this because the winery asserts it was their last bottle. Perhaps in some dusty cellar there rests another copy but that would be mere speculation. We must face facts, something remarkable had left the world at that moment. It is not often one attends the death of a wine, especially such a glorious finale. When poets write of a "good death" they surely had this in mind. Leafy at first, with mushroom essence, gradually like a trickling tide, leather and meat emerge woven with hints of brown sugar, only to give way to lovely floral notes as it sits in the glass. Graceful yet almost weightless on the palate, dried fruits wrapped in still vibrant acidity usher in a generous mineral-inflected finish that provokes and then fades like a memory. There is so much quiet energy restrained yet riveting, it went gentle into that good night but with all its integrity on full display.
Perhaps I cannot write a proper eulogy of this wine: I was not present at its birth, never witnessed the awkward stage before finding its voice; I missed the full flowering of youthful energy and the gathering of patinated wisdom. As noted, it is immemorial time that is celebrated when we open a bottle. But perhaps that doesn't matter. I strongly suspect this wine's best moments were its last. Aristotle thought that one could only assess the goodness of a life when it nears its end—only then is the fullness of its goal revealed, the end point at which all things aim. Surely this moment was the telos of Pinot Noir. For all things that aspire to firmness of character to its last moments, this wine was an inspiration. The song has ended; only a dim memory of flavor lives on.
We will give Lord Byron the last word:
Oh snatch'd away in beauty's bloom!
On thee shall press no ponderous tomb;
But on thy turf shall roses rear
Their leaves the earliest of the year
And the wild cypress wave in tender gloom.
It is these glimpses of the sacred in the everyday, a tissue of little things that really make life meaningful. By transforming the commonplace, a pile of grapes, into vinous art we reinforce the sacred in the profane and suffuse life with an aura of mystery visible only when the useless becomes bewitching.
Sadly, this most pleasurable aspect of wine is unknown to most consumers. 95% of all wine purchased in the U.S. is consumed within one week after purchase. Contemporary consumers lack the patience, fortitude, or storage space to squirrel away expensive bottles for many years with an uncertain outcome, and thus they miss much of what wine has to offer. As a result, contemporary winemakers, taking their cue from the market, increasingly make wine designed to be consumed soon after bottling. It used to be that wines made for aging were tough and awkward when young. But thanks to vast improvements in the technology of winemaking, most wines today are enjoyable with just a little bottle age. As a consequence, a great debate has begun among wine experts about whether wines made today will age as well as the stalwarts from the past. Time will tell.
Monday, August 17, 2015
In Defense of Eating Meat
by Dwight Furrow
There are many sound arguments for drastically cutting back on our consumption of meat—excessive meat consumption wastes resources, contributes to climate change, and has negative consequences for health. But there is no sound argument based on the rights of animals for avoiding meat entirely.
Last month, Grist's food writer Nathanael Johnson published an article in which he claims philosophers have failed to even take up, let alone defeat, the influential arguments against eating meat in Peter Singer's 1975 book, Animal Liberation.
My enquiries didn't turn up any sophisticated defense of meat. Certainly there are a few people here and there making arguments around the edges, but nothing that looked to me like a serious challenge to Singer.
I continue to be unimpressed with journalists' ability to do basic research. Even a simple Google search would turn up several arguments against Singer's view, including the well-known argument for speciesism by Carl Cohen. (No, a Google search isn't research but it's a good place to begin) Furthermore, Singer's arguments are based on utilitarian premises which have been subject to a host of substantive objections raised in the philosophical literature. I don't have current figures at hand but I doubt that even a majority of moral philosophers today are utilitarian. Thus, most moral philosophers would reject the foundations of Singer's argument; and indeed his argument is profoundly mistaken.
I don't want to get too deep in the philosophical weeds here, but essentially Singer argues that any being that suffers has full moral status. Since non-human animals suffer, their interest in not suffering should receive equal consideration to the interests of humans. To fail to give animals equal consideration is to be guilty of speciesism, which according to Singer is as indefensible as racism or sexism. There are many refinements that can be made to this argument but that is the basic idea.
There are all sorts of problems with this argument even if we were to accept the basic utilitarian idea that only overall consequences matter in assessing the moral quality of an action. Why is the capacity to suffer pain the only moral relevant capacity and the reduction of pain the only proper goal? Why isn't the production of good consequences (understood as pleasure or well-being) an equally important aim? But if our actions are to aim at maximizing good consequences we run into the following so-called "repugnant conclusion". Imagine a world in which only 10 cows exist and they live insanely happy lives. (I'm not sure what that would mean but it surely involves as little pain as possible). But we can easily imagine a better world—one in which 10,000 cows exist but their lives are barely worth living. The second 10,000-cow world is better from a utilitarian standpoint because it contains more good than the 10-cow world. The general point here is that any loss in the quality of lives in a population can be compensated for by gains in the quantity of a population.
How does this apply to the debate about eating meat? If we did not eat beef, we would have no reason to continue to raise the millions of cattle that are slaughtered for food every year. Cattle would have no function except for display in zoos, and they would not be adept at survival in the wild. Thus, in the future, few cattle would exist. That is similar to our 10-cow world, and from the utilitarian view, not as good as the world of industrial-raised cattle we have today. If you find that conclusion repugnant, you're in good company—the same argument applied to human beings would entail the appalling conclusion that a large population of slaves is to be preferred to a small population of contented people—but it is the logical result of utilitarian reasoning. Singer's argument depends on treating only suffering as morally relevant, but there are no compelling utilitarian reasons for treating the minimization of suffering to be more important than the production of good. This is hardly a sufficient defense of eating meat but it shows the case against eating meat is built on shaky foundations.
Furthermore, if suffering is bad then according to utilitarianism it does not matter whether the suffering is caused by disease, accidents, predators, or overcrowding in stockyards. Why then is human-caused suffering worse than the suffering animals endure in the wild? And why is suffering caused by eating meat worse than that the unintended suffering caused by any form of human development that destroys natural habitat. Most utilitarian views focus on realizing the best state of affairs independently of how that state of affairs is brought about. Yet, many utilitarians including Singer seem indifferent to the suffering of wild animals, focusing only on suffering caused by raising animals for food. Granted, when animals are killed for food they are killed intentionally. Animals killed by predators, disease, or the building of human settlements are not killed intentionally. But intentions are not supposed to matter for utilitarians; only states of affairs matter. The logical result of utilitarianism is that all civilization may be unwarranted if the cost to animal suffering is sufficiently great—a repugnant conclusion indeed.
All of which raises doubts about the most important empirical assumption in the argument against eating meat—it is assumed that growing non-meat foods causes no pain or suffering. But of course that is not true. The planting and harvesting of crops destroys massive numbers of sentient creatures and their habitats. How much destruction and how this compares to the destruction and suffering of animals raised for meat is a matter of some controversy but there is some evidence that the carnage from factory plant-farming is enormous. Of course, these are the unintended consequences of actions that seem benign, but remember, according to utilitarianism, intentions don't matter, only outcomes. If all suffering is equal then the suffering of wild animals as the result of human practices matters as well. When it comes to securing our food supply there are no clean hands and no painless policies.
However, all of this is foreplay, circling without getting to the heart of the real issue. That issue is the moral equivalence Singer assumes between human and non-human animal suffering. Because non-human animals experience pain, they have interests that should receive equal consideration with that of humans, according to Singer. To deny this is ‘speciesist', with obvious comparisons to racism and sexism. These comparisons are absurd and offensive, a bit of rhetoric intended to persuade the unwitting. There are no morally relevant distinctions between races or genders that would justify unequal treatment. There are morally relevant distinctions between non-human animals and humans.
It is not at all clear how to evaluate the badness of animal suffering. Obviously animals don't like pain and try to avoid death. But pain suffered without the explicit memory of it or reflective doubts about its meaning seems less "painful" than human pain which has these psychological aspects. Of course all of this is more or less speculation. We don't know enough about animal psychology to make firm generalizations about the meaning of their experience. But this applies to the utilitarian as well. From the fact that animals experience pain, Singer infers they have interests. But until we have a clearer understanding of animal psychology it isn't obvious what kind of interests animals have aside from a desire to survive. Yet, it is the fate of all animals to die; how much weight to assign the costs of early death for a cow depends on what it is like to be a cow—and we really don't know much about that. If animals have interests independently of their awareness of those interests, then we would be forced to admit that plants have interests as well. Should we refrain from eating plants? Clearly we are in the realm of the absurd.
Given the unknowns in all this talk of animal well-being it is probably best not to rest an argument on them. Happily an argument for the permissibility of eating meat can avoid these worries about the nature of non-human animal experience because there are other clear differences between humans and non-human animals that rule out Singer's claims about equal consideration.
Singer's argument is based on the idea that animals have moral status because they suffer. As a utilitarian he may not be comfortable using "rights" talk but it surely fits here. He thinks animals have a right to equal consideration. But animals cannot have moral rights, simply because the treatment of animals falls outside the scope of our core understanding of morality. Morality is not a set of principles written in the stars. Morality arises, because as human beings, we need to cooperate with each other in order to thrive, and such cooperation requires trust. The institution of morality is a set of considerations that helps to secure the requisite level of trust to enable that cooperation. That is why morality is a stable evolutionary development. It enhances the kind of flourishing characteristic of human beings. Rights, then, are entitlements that determine what a right-holder may demand of others that we decide to honor in order to maintain the requisite level of social trust.
We are not similarly dependent on the trustworthiness of animals. (Pets are a special case which is why we don't eat them). Our flourishing does not depend on getting cows, tigers, or shrimp to trust us or we them, and thus we have no reciprocal moral relations with them. From the standpoint of human flourishing there simply is no reason to confer moral rights on animals. Of course, over the last several decades we have discovered that human flourishing depends on taking care of our environment. It might behoove us to confer some moral status on ecological systems. Perhaps it is not too much of a conceptual stretch to argue we should cultivate relationships of trust (or at least non-exploitation) with the environments in which we live. But that does not entail refraining from killing individual animals. There may be environmental reasons to refrain from eating meat but no moral reasons based on the interests of animals. Note that this is not a speciesist argument. If somehow we became dependent on relations of trust with say dolphins, then dolphins would have moral status. It is not being human that matters, but rather being the sort of organism with certain specific needs and capabilities that requires we live with them in a moral community.
This is not to say we should be cruel to animals, lack empathy for them, or ignore their welfare. The reason is not that they have rights. Rather it is because cruelty is a character flaw that we should strive to overcome. But our moral energy is not infinite. The humane treatment of animals is one among many moral projects we should undertake, but it has no special priority over the many more pressing human needs that cry out for our attention.
It is often assumed that vegetarians have the moral high-ground. Indeed, individuals whose empathy for animals leads them to refrain from eating them are admirable because they practice what they preach and their actions reveal a praise-worthy sensitivity toward animal welfare. But there is no moral obligation to refrain from eating meat and thus no moral high ground to occupy.
For more on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts
Monday, July 20, 2015
Wine and the Comforts of Home
by Dwight Furrow
According to some theories of art, for something to be a work of art it must have meaning. It must be about something and represent what it is about. Last month, on this blog, I argued that some culinary preparations are works of art when they perform this representational function, much to the consternation of some of my Facebook friends who are convinced that something as humble as food should never be associated with the pretensions of the art world. Yet, it is the very humbleness of food that, in part, qualifies it as art. Food can be about many things, but one thing it surely is about is the home. Some foods provoke our memories and imaginations as a representation of domestic life. We call such food "comfort food" because its filling, uncomplicated features haunt our consciousness with thoughts of security, calm, nourishment, and being cared for, especially when triggered by memories of the flavors of home. Exemplifications of the taste of home are only one way in which food serves this representational function but are nevertheless central to its significance.
What about wine? Can wine have meaning just as a work of art has meaning? Specifically, does wine evoke feelings of "homeyness"--security, nourishment and being cared for? For most Americans, probably not. Few Americans grow up with wine as a crucial component of their meals. But cultural norms are quite different in, for instance, France, where traditionally wine is served with most meals and children are occasionally encouraged to have a taste. However, most children (thankfully) do not really acquire a taste for it until later in life, so I doubt that it quite has the resonance that familiar foods have. Nevertheless, if we think of "home" more broadly, not as a domicile, but as the bit of geography that constitutes the center of one's world, where one's roots are planted and physical and psychological sustenance is gathered, wine can evoke "homeyness" at least in those parts of the world where generations have struggled to squeeze magic from grapes and where the notion of "terroir" is taken very seriously--France, Italy, and Germany, among many others. The U.S. is a relative newcomer to the vinous arts but even here many wine communities are beginning to develop self-conscious traditions based on the features of their soil and climate and their influence on flavor, the understanding of which is handed down through generations.
The much debated word "terroir" refers to everything that contributes to the distinctiveness of a vineyard. The climate, soil composition, aspect to the sun, local yeasts and other organisms, and elevation influence the flavor characteristics of the grapes. If the winemaker is concerned to preserve those distinctive characteristics, the flavor, aroma, and texture of the wine will reflect what wine writer Matt Kramer calls "somewhereness", the fact that it is a product of a particular vineyard site.
Thus, for locations where the wine culture is preoccupied with preserving terroir, such as in the Burgundy region of France, many wines will exhibit the distinctive characteristics of the vineyards in which they were grown. They exhibit the taste of home for people who live there. It might be a matter of their flavor profile or texture. It is not necessarily related to quality. Even relatively simple wines can reflect terroir, assuming they were not over-cropped or manipulated in the winery.
Along with the influence of microclimate and soil composition, the taste of wine is also the product of a community's history and customs. Terroir can be discovered and preserved only if the community sustains the practices and the values that give terroir meaning. Wine is a natural product that must be cared for in a very focused and precise way in order to properly express the properties of terroir. It requires time, effort, love, and commitment. Thus, such wines express the values, attitudes and moral ideals of the people who make it. If we have sufficient background knowledge to understand these relationships, the taste of wine tells us something about the world of the people who grow the grapes, make the wine, and support their industry. These are not just associations in which the qualities of the wine are contingently juxtaposed with qualities of the life of that micro-region. The life surrounding the vineyard helps to explain the taste of the wine and, therefore, the wine expresses and symbolizes that life.
The philosophical problem is to explain how the taste of the wine represents the home in a way that lines up with how artworks represent their subjects. True, the taste of the wine is a product of the soil, climate, and social norms of a particular region. But if wine is an art, the aesthetic properties of the work must be about something. In what sense is the flavor of the wine about the region or a representation of the region? How do the flavors and textures mean "homeyness"? The mere fact that the climate, soil, and characteristics of the people cause the flavor to exist is not sufficient. A light switch causes a light to glow, but the glowing light is not a representation of the switch.
One possible answer would be that the flavors in the wine are an imitation of some aspect of the soil--we can literally taste the soil in the wine. Some people claim this about particular wines, but it is unlikely to be true. The science doesn't support the view that flavors of the soil are directly transferred to the wine, and this idea has been largely debunked in recent years. But, in any case, imitation was never an adequate answer to how pictures represent their subjects either.
Part of the answer to this question about the nature of representation is that the people who work a particular vineyard and make the wine have chosen to interpret particular flavors as representing their home. They have decided that their lives are profoundly structured around these flavors and that the flavors mean something to them. Symbols in other contexts are similarly a product of collective decision, i.e. convention. For instance, Americans decided that the American flag represents their country and there is a history and a set of institutions to support that decision. But the flag also highlights certain features of American history--the stars represent the number of states in the union, the stripes the original thirteen colonies--which gives plausibility to the decision. Similarly, Edvard Munch and his critics decided that, in his famous painting "The Scream", lurid, irregular bands of orange, yellow, and blue stand for emotional turmoil. But the decision was not arbitrary. The vividness, sharply-etched contrasts, and irregular bands highlight the vividness and wild fluctuations of emotional turmoil--which gives plausibility to the decision.
The decisions by Burgundians to treat the flavors of their wines as symbols of home are similarly based on good reasons. The flavors of aesthetically successful Burgundian wines exhibit fineness of conception and precision of execution which in turn highlight the care, attention, and moral ideals that make those flavors possible. Fineness of conception and precision of execution are properties of the wine. They can be tasted or smelled. Furthermore, the flavors and textures represent a shared sensibility, not only referring to that sensibility but exemplifying it, just as the aesthetic properties of paintings exemplify what they represent. The flavors and textures of the wines exemplify what they mean. They show what they are saying just as the colors, lines, and textures of paintings show what they say.
But there is further dimension of this approach to winemaking that reinforces these references to home. These wines express difference. As wine writer Matt Kramer notes:
"The greatness of French wines in general-and Burgundy in particular-can be traced to the fact that the French do not ask of one site that it replicate the qualities of another site. They prize distinction." (This is true of French philosophy as well as French wine I might add.)
That expression of difference is in part why wine expresses "homeyness". The home too is a place that puts a premium on difference. The home is not just a place that feels familiar, comfortable, or nurturing. Lots of places might exhibit these characteristics. But they are not "home" because they don't feel uniquely mine. They don't reflect the distinctive personality and character of an individual or group. Home is the one place that is not like anywhere else. That same kind of distinction is the aim of a winemaker concerned with preserving terroir. It is this character of distinctiveness related to place that is fundamental to the meaning that (at least some) wine has. It is a search for distinctiveness. I doubt that there is another agricultural product that is capable of expressing such distinctiveness. For some of the wine producers in Burgundy, the distinctiveness of their wine just is the distinctiveness of home. Thus, it cannot be argued that wine tells us nothing about ourselves or the world. For people engaged in a particular kind of winemaking, wine is an expression of their form of life, with some of the same connotations of home that we attribute to comfort food.
It is perhaps unfortunate that most wine production does not have this close tie to the home. To the extent wine is viewed as a commodity, these connections to the home are severed. But we can be thankful for the Burgundians and the other wine producers scattered throughout the world who hold tightly to the idea that wine is comfort food.
For more ruminations of the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, June 22, 2015
Food as Art: Representation and Meaning
by Dwight Furrow
One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:
But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.
This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)
Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.
The skeptics do not deny the symbolic significance of food but will distinguish two kinds of symbols, only one of which is characteristic of fine art. When food has meaning, they claim, the context in which food is produced and consumed supplies the meaning, not the features of the food itself. There is a narrative that makes Eve's apple a symbol of the fall of humanity. Without the Biblical story, the apple is just a piece of fruit. There is a habit of association and a story about Thanksgiving Day that makes turkey a symbol of gratitude. Without the narrative and the habit of association, the turkey is just a cooked bird. There is nothing about turkeys, themselves, that demand interpretation unless there is a surrounding narrative to make the demand. The intrinsic aesthetic properties of a dish or meal—their flavor and texture—cannot supply meaning on their own[i] without substantial cultural, family, or personal context to lend significance.
The Scream is a symbol of alienation because of the aesthetic properties of the painting. The skull-like shape of the head, feature-less face that focuses attention on the mouth, and the position of the body in relation to the other people on the bridge indicate alienation; and the swirling, lurid colors express intense negative emotion. These meanings are in the painting; not in an external narrative or context. Granted, even for a painting such as The Scream, context is important for a comprehensive interpretation. It helps to know that Munch intended that the painting express alienation and that he was painting at a time when modern humanity was confronting an industrial age that ripped people from their traditional moorings. But, nevertheless, much of the meaning of the painting is carried by features of the painting itself, not the surrounding narrative.
The internal features of a dish do not represent in this way, according to critics of food as art. Those flavors and textures are not about anything unless we supply some story that makes them be about something. But then the task of generating meaning is not performed by the work (the dish or meal) but by the cultural narratives that surround it. Works of fine art seem to be less dependent on ceremony, ritual, and personal memory than the symbols that attach to food. Furthermore, food doesn't seem to be the source of new insight in the way works of art can be. Certain foods may remind us of home or reinforce one's cultural identity, but the flavors themselves don't provide us with new discoveries or even tell us much about ourselves or our world. Flavors are not about anything; they just give us pleasure. The intellectual content of food and wine seems thin compared to painting, literature or even music.
Put aside the fact that this argument exaggerates the intellectual content of non-representational painting and music. The critics are nevertheless right to point out the limits of flavor, by itself, as a representation of moral identity, romance, or the comforts of home. But that is because we don't quite have the subject matter of food and wine fully in focus.
So what do food and wine represent when functioning as a work of art? Certainly not the mysterious smile of a model sitting for a portrait, which is the subject matter of the Mona Lisa, or the horrors of war as with Picasso's Guernica, or the obsession of vengeance as in the novel Moby Dick. The flavors and textures of food and wine lack spatial organization and thus cannot depict, via resemblance, the scenes we associate with objects or human action. And our conventions of assigning symbolic meaning to flavors and textures are not complex enough to form representations analogous to the linguistic representations of psychological states or states of affairs we find in literature. Food and wine do not depict or describe. Their representational capacities are of a different sort.
A dish is quite straightforwardly a representation of the food tradition from which it emerges and bears the marks of that tradition in its flavors and textures. A preparation of linguine and pesto is a representation of a kind of cooking and eating characteristic of the food traditions of Genoa, Italy. Fried chicken is a representation of certain food traditions from the American south. Burgundian pinot noir is a representation of the winemaking traditions of Bourgogne, France. Food and wine cannot effectively represent human action in general. But they do effectively represent a particular domain of human action--a history of food production, eating, and cooking, a domain that painting or music would struggle to represent. Furthermore, food preparations can generate new insights into food traditions; we discover new realms of taste and flavor, new things for a tradition to be, when foods are prepared as an interpretation of a food tradition.
This is the domain of meaning characteristic of the edible arts. Particular culinary masterpieces are representations of food traditions and culinary artists, through the flavors and textures they create, highlight, interpret, and comment on features of a food tradition. It is this "aboutness" relationship and the meanings it generates that qualify food and wine as an art form. *
This focus on tradition might sound a bit conservative. Why would a repetition of the past count as art? Don't we expect art to be innovative? Although a dish is a representation of the tradition from which it emerges, the mere repetition of tradition is not sufficient to create edible art. The everyday task of putting food on the table may be embedded in a food tradition. But each dish is not a work of fine art—far from it. In fact most of us have no intention to create works of art in the kitchen. Feeding a family is not, typically, artistic activity. However, when the aim of cooking is to illuminate, call attention to, interpret, critique, or exemplify, via its aesthetic properties, some dimension of a food tradition, we are then in the realm of art. Successful works will magnify, glamorize, or ennoble those aesthetic properties thus calling attention to their meaning as an intervention within that tradition. Creative chefs do not slavishly follow tradition; the sincerest form of taking something seriously is to reinterpret, transform or overcome it. A chef who challenges tradition must be deeply immersed in it.
It is important to note that food traditions encompass more than just the cooking practices and flavor sensibilities of a people. All of the dimensions of meaning associated with food—cooking practices, flavor principles, home, romance, family, and cultural/moral identity—refer to a set of relationships with people, places, things, and institutions that form a culture with a history that traces our participation in it. To the extent cultural traditions are related to food and wine, food and wine make reference to them and thus are part of the world of meaning opened up by the culinary arts.
In fact, of all the activities we pursue, food may be the one that best illuminates the various aspects of our cultural traditions. For food speaks to the way we produce our material existence, and form relationships in the production and consumption of that material existence. But more importantly, food exemplifies a sensibility, a way of perceiving the material surfaces of reality that marks each culture as distinctive and in part explains our attachment to that culture. I suppose those who doubt the artistic credentials of food and wine might try to argue that representations of food and wine traditions are trivial when compared to the areas of life represented by painting or music. But such an argument would appear unmotivated and absurd on its face. The way we relate to the material surfaces of reality is central to human well-being, hardly a trivial matter
Thus, just as the Mona Lisa is about a particular model (probably Lisa Gherardini, the wife of a wealthy Florentine merchant, Franceso del Giocondo), an enigmatic smile, and a sense of mystery encouraged by the ethereal ambiance of the painting, food and wine are about food traditions and the social traditions that encompass them. Particular dishes provide an interpretation of a food tradition and their flavors and textures give us insight into that tradition and its sensibility, fissures, debates, and limitations, all of which supply a depth of intellectual content that rivals the other fine arts.
*The theory of art I rely on here is roughly that of Nelson Goodman in The Languages of Art, who treats exemplification as a fundamental feature of artistic symbols.
For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Recognition: Build a reputation
Chris Woolston in Nature:
Less than a decade after receiving her undergraduate degree in biology, Holly Bik has transformed herself. When she started her PhD, she was as an aspiring marine biologist with a deep interest in nematode worms. Today, she is a highly regarded interdisciplinary computational and evolutionary biologist who travels the world to give talks on topics that range from use of social media to what she dubs 'ecophylometamicrobiomics' — the identification of eukaryotic microbes in the environment through sequencing. Now at the University of Birmingham, UK, she has led the development of the data-visualization platform Phinch and is actively involved in three working groups tackling issues as diverse as the evolution of indoor microbial communities and the biodiversity of the deep sea.
It is all a big leap from worms. How did she become such a sought-after figure in the science community? The key to property is said to be location, location, location; in science, it's all about reputation, reputation, reputation. “I'm trying to cultivate a reputation as an interdisciplinary researcher,” says Bik. “Marine biology, computer programming, genomics — I want people to think of me as a potential collaborator.” If science were truly a double-blind enterprise, generic researchers X, Y and Z would compete for citations, grants, invited talks and promotions solely on the basis of their accomplishments and aptitude. In the real world, scientists have names, and those names come with baggage, both positive and negative. In an increasingly competitive scientific environment, a reputation may matter more than ever, says Philip Bourne, associate director for data science at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland. “The degree of separation between any two scientists is relatively small,” Bourne says. “If you're colossally brilliant, you can be a jerk and still have a good reputation. But if you're a mere mortal, the way you treat science and the people around you will come back on you.”
Monday, April 27, 2015
How to Read a Wine
by Dwight Furrow
It's not like "reading tea leaves". Fermented grape juice will not foretell the future. But wine does tell a story if you speak its language. Now, I'm not getting all mystical here by attributing linguistic ability to fermented grape juice. The story a wine tells is quite concrete and palpable like mud on the boots and mildew on leaves. The flavors and textures of wine are not merely sensations but qualities that say something about the land on which grapes are grown, the people who made the wine, the world they live in, and the person who is drinking it. Discovering these details gives a wine resonance and meaning that cannot be gained by mere consumption.
A wine has flavor because it is made from a specific grape, from a specific piece of land, and by a winemaker who intended the wine to taste as it does. The winemaking process and decision to plant those particular grapes is a centuries-long process of adapting grapes to climate, soil, and taste preferences. Thus, when you taste a wine you taste the residue of geography and culture. Taste opens up a world with a rich assortment of connections just like any good book.
Of course, anything we consume has a history and a process that produced it. And with sufficient knowledge of how it was produced, we might identify features of that process by attending to its flavor. But wine is unique because when you pay attention and understand why winemakers make the wine they do, the wine says something about them, their family, what they like to drink, and their motivations for making wine. A can of Coke tells you little of importance about the people who make it or the place it comes from. It can be made anywhere by anyone if the price is right. Not so with non-industrial wines. They are inherently artisanal products, and inherently a product of place, and they tell a very human story. Wine is one of the few products where geography, human culture, and aesthetics meet with such intensity, variability, and beauty. It is thus full of meaning waiting to be interpreted.
This relationship between worker and work is possible only when the scale is sufficiently small to enable a hands-on approach to winemaking. Of course, there are industrially-produced wines made through a process that severs any connection to origins, created as survey-driven product to satisfy consumers who want a pleasant buzz to share with friends. There is nothing wrong with that, and some of those wines are quite good. But they make unsatisfactory reading—they do not represent a human world.
So connections and relationships make wine meaningful. It begins with the flavor which is related to the land and weather, and to the winemaker who must have a relationship with the vineyard and/or vineyard manager. Most artisanal wines are family affairs and many of these relationships in Europe go back centuries. Families and vineyards are connected to the culture of the region and the sensibility of a people around which the norms of winemaking develop. Some wines are not just part of a culture; they are so deeply entwined that the culture is wholly absorbed by the wine trade. The villages of the Cote d'Or in Bourgogne, France are like that. During a visit to the village of Beaune I asked our guide if anyone worked in the city of Dijon, only about 15 miles away. She thought the question was absurd. "Everyone here works in wine" was her response. And it has been that way for centuries.
Ultimately, these connections lead back to you and me and our sense of what is important and beautiful. When a wine is made by people who find winemaking intensely meaningful, and they want to share that meaning, it becomes evident in the glass if you know what to look for. We begin to read a wine when we attend to how these elements are tied together by the flavor and texture of wine. The fascinating thing about wine is its variability. The very same grape can be fruity in one place and earthy in another, and variations in fruit notes or earth tones arise even from neighboring plots of land. The kind of contrasting and comparing that naturally arises from appreciation of this variation is the first step when learning to read.
Reading a wine also means attending to how well these connections between people and their land function. In the well-established wine regions of the world, winemakers are relying on centuries of trial and error in knowing which grapes grow best on their land. When a wine is rich in complex yet specific flavors that are in perfect harmony, with fruit and acid in balance—and it exhibits a consistent flavor profile from year to year, despite fluctuations in weather—the grapes are flourishing, an indication that they are in their rightful place. The culture has adapted to the grape, and the grape adapted to the culture, and the winemaker knows precisely how to find that sweet spot year after year. The flavors tell the story.
Of course, just as when reading a book, imagination is involved when reading a wine. Is there a causal connection between the pretty rolling hills in Piemonte, Italy and floral notes of a Barbaresco; the hard, lean, leather of Tempranillo when planted on the dusty plains of Ribero del Duero, Spain; the hardscrabble hills of the Douro River in Portugal and the acidity and tannins of the hardy, persistently sturdy Touriga Nacional? Probably not, but wine makes you think of such things. And, like a character in a story, wines can be charming, majestic, suave, roguish, silly, and ostentatious. Wine is expressive enough to conjure such thoughts. You don't have to assume a mystical explanation—just enjoy the metaphors, all part of reading the wine.
Not every wine can be read. Some wines are mute lacking any connection to the land or cultural traditions. They give sensual pleasure without the intellectual part. But if that is all we drink we miss the originality, uniqueness, and singularity lurking in the glass. Industrial production methods are designed to produce one thing—profit. To make a profit they must produce something else—standardization. It is not hard to see that if everything we appreciate is a product of standardization, regardless of how appealing, there are whole dimensions of life we are missing. Seeking out the idiosyncratic and exceptional is inherently worthwhile. That means seeking wines that are not mere commodities but are unique because of where they come from, whether that is a place on the map or the mind of an innovative winemaker.
This doesn't mean a wine must be complicated or expensive to be worth drinking. Meaningful wines are not always the "best" wines or the wines with the most flavor intensity. Rustic wines can exhibit a sense of place; simple wines can have subtle charms if we are attentive enough to discern them. What matters is a winemaking tradition in which winemakers strive to capture the unique taste of their location.
So how do you read a wine? Well. You need lots of knowledge about soil, climate, and winemaking practices. That is a lot of information but it isn't particularly difficult to acquire—it takes attention, time, and patience. And you need to pay close attention to what you are drinking, be open to nuance and new experience. Most importantly, reading a wine requires a commitment to the idea that there is more to life than the consumption of standardized, formulaic "product" and that meaning intensifies as it approaches the rare and original.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, March 02, 2015
Palettes, Palates, and Authenticity: The Winemaker's Art
by Dwight Furrow
In many traditional wine regions of the world wine, like food, has been a marker of identity. Wine, when properly made, expresses the character of the soil and climate in which grapes are grown, and the sensibilities of the people who make and consume it. Thus, it is a form of cultural expression that sets one culture or region off from another, drawing a contrast with the rest of the world and inducing a sense of local uniqueness and particularity. As a bulwark against the homogenization of wine produced by global corporations for a world market, the authenticity of a wine's expression thus becomes one criterion by which wine quality is assessed. Wine that does not taste of its origins is branded inauthentic.
But just as creative chefs are confronted with the problem of being innovative while maintaining links to traditions, winemakers are faced with a similar dilemma. Wine lovers are nothing if not diviners of secrets. We strain to find the hidden layer of spice that emerges only after an hour of decanting, alertly attend to the ephemeral floral notes from esters so volatile that a few seconds exposure to air whisks them away forever, and obsess over the hint of tobacco that begins to develop only after 10 years in the cellar. If a wine is to qualify as a work of art, it must repay such devoted attention, revealing new dimensions with repeated tastings, especially as it develops with age. It should be an expression of the vision of the winemaker or the terroir of the region in which the grapes were grown, and like great art, a great wine should be a bit of an enigma, yielding pleasure and understanding while leaving the impression that there is something more here to be grasped. But most importantly, a vinous work of art must be unique. Just as Van Gogh's rendering of Arles is great because no predecessor had been able to capture with paint what Van Gogh saw in an ordinary Cyprus tree, a work of vinous art will uncover new dimensions in flavor. But that seems to contradict the demand that wine reflect the traditional flavor profile characteristic of the region from which it comes. How does a winemaker achieve originality while remaining wedded to tradition?
Genuine originality is rare in wine and contributes to artistic merit only if the allure is the product of the winemaker's imagination. If the exquisite secrets lurking in the glass are just the fortuitous meeting of great grapes, sound winemaking practices, and proper aging, with no vision or artistic intention, then the winemaker is an artisan not an artist. Don't get me wrong. There is nothing wrong with artisanal products and craftwork. There are countless well-crafted wines in all price ranges that are pleasing to drink and will grace any dinner table. But most of them taste more or less alike once you account for varietal, region, and price. They are, like the painting in your doctor's office, pleasing but not very significant because you've experienced elsewhere. Genuine art, by contrast, is not about fine construction only; it is about imagination.
So how much control over the aesthetic features of wine do winemakers have? Are all those flavor notes the outcome of a process that begins with inspiration and imagination?
With modern technology winemakers can have extensive control over the final product, intervening and making adjustments in virtually every step of the process. From fermentation tanks that precisely control temperature, to hundreds of yeast types each with their own flavor profile, to microoxygenation and reverse osmosis that shape tannins and regulate alcohol and flavor concentration, very little is left to chance in the modern winery. The technology and science of modern winemaking is like a painter's palette enabling the wine maker to "color in" whatever flavor profile reflects the winemaker's vision. However, it is this tendency of winemakers to insert their vision that moves many wine lovers to heap abuse on the notion of wine as art. Matt Kramer, in the October 2008 issue of the Wine Spectator, worries about loss of a sense of place (aka terroir) when winemakers use technological innovations as if they were an artist's color palette.
"Why does this distinction matter? Because abstract though it is, if winemakers and, yes, wine lovers, see wine as art, then the essential connection between what a grape expresses from its site and what we expect is severed. If a winemaker is an "artist," then he or she, by artistic right, can and should modify the result to suit a personal vision separate from a "mere" expression of place."
Kramer is right to worry about excessively "innovative" winemaking that severs wine from its connection to place, especially in parts of the world that have highly developed wine traditions. Novelty for its own sake. Originality without substance. Neither makes good wine nor good art. Wines that express their origins in soil and climate are treasures and their authenticity is sometimes a sign of originality since terroirs often have unique characteristics. But is commitment to preserving a sense of place in the glass incompatible with innovation?
Many winemakers seem to agree with Kramer that winemaking is all about the grapes and where they are grown. James Halliday and Hugh Johnson in The Art and Science of Wine quote Australian Winemaker Brian Croser:
"I have a minimalist approach. It relies on an innate faith in the choice of an area, in the choice of a variety and in the choice of a management technique in the vineyard to get the maximum expression of quality. That faith then carries through to the processing of the grapes. From my viewpoint, if you put all the ingredients, all the building blocks, in place, the resultant wine will share the quality parameters that all good wines of the world share. The personalities will be different, but they will share the fundamentals of quality, which are vitality, strength and intensity of flavor, length of flavor, subtlety and reproducible uniqueness."
According to Croser, the job of the winemaker is custodial--to preserve what nature has wrought in the grapes. In a well-managed vineyard, when varietal, soil, and climate are properly matched, and the weather fortuitous, all the winemaker must do is avoid winery-induced faults and judiciously employ standard winemaking practices. The winemaker's imagination or vision would seem to play little if any role.
But I think this custodial model does not quite capture the whole truth about the role of the winemaker. For if the custodial model were the right account, various wines from well-managed vineyards, and from the same varietal, vintage, and terroir, would produce wines with very similar personalities. But they don't. For example, the approximately 80 wines that are made from grapes grown in Burgundy's 115 acre Clos de Vougeot vineyard are quite variable in style. Although the parcels in Clos de Vougeot are notoriously heterogeneous--the top, mid-section, and bottom of the slope have significantly different soil types and minor differences in microclimate--wines made entirely from grapes of similar quality sourced from the top of the slope nevertheless have quite different personalities. It is not obvious that vineyard management techniques or variations in the age of the vines can explain these differences. Do the dozen or so different producers who source from the nearby Echezeaux Grand Crus vineyards make identical wines? Not at all.
But more importantly, even if the custodial model explained winemaking practice in places where preserving the connection between wine and place is essential, we have no reason to deny that winemakers can sometimes be artists. Kramer in the aforementioned article writes:
"So why isn't fine wine "art"? The answer is surprisingly simple. Art is creation; wine is amplification. The big difference between an artist and a winemaker is that an artist starts with a blank sheet while a winemaker works with the exact opposite. A grape arrives at the winery with all the parts included, a piñata stuffed with goodies, just waiting to be cracked open. Is there a craft to doing that? You bet there is. But where an artist conceives of something out of the proverbial thin air, no winemaker anywhere in the world can do any such thing."
With all due respect to Mr. Kramer, who is a fine wine writer, artists do not start with a blank slate or conjure their creations out of "thin air". To the extent they intend to represent an object, artists are constrained, not only by the nature of the object being painted, but by their training and the conventions of painting that exist in their cultural milieu, and by the limitations of the materials they have to work with. If we were to anachronistically sit the great painters of sunsets--Turner, Monet, Van Gogh, and Church--in front of the same sunset and threaten them with death if they don't paint what the sunset really looks like, they would paint radically different versions of the sunset. Painters committed to realism nevertheless differ in how they perceive what is real. Style matters in painting; it matters in winemaking as well.
The constraints that grapes impose on winemakers do not disqualify them from being artists. All artists start out with constraints and their art, their style, is a matter of imaginatively engaging with those constraints. The fact that a winemaker seeks to preserve a sense of place in the flavor profile of a wine doesn't disqualify her product from being art any more than David Hockney's attempt to revive and reinterpret realism disqualified him. Of course, winemakers have an interest in preserving the character of their wine from vintage to vintage--it is a brand that their fans depend on. But that character will show differently in every vintage, and how it shows depends not only on weather but on the decisions winemakers make, decisions that can involve imagination.
How does imagination get into the picture? The most important tool in a winemaker's arsenal is neither a technique nor a machine--it is her palate. And palates differ, inevitably and inexorably. Most winemakers taste obsessively throughout each stage of the winemaking process, looking, not only for faults, but for whether the wine will exhibit the character and personality sought in the finished product. But that vision of what the finished product should be is, in part, an imaginative construct deeply informed by the idiosyncrasies of her tasting history and biology as well as her understanding of how the distinctive characteristics of here own vineyards appear in the glass. In other words, it is impossible to separate "terroir in the glass" from the singularity of the winemaker's palate.
On the one hand, terroir is soil and climate and their influence on grapes. But there is no science of terroir. In the end its meaning is wholly a matter of what we taste in the glass, and no two winemakers will taste or imagine its expression in quite the same way. When the winemaker becomes aware of that singularity of expression she becomes an artist at least by intent. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
"All nature faithfully"--But by what feint
Can Nature be subdued to art's constraint?
Her smallest fragment is still infinite!
And so he paints but what he likes in it.
What does he like? He likes what he can paint!" (from The Gay Science)
Winemakers like what they can taste. Modern technology gives them more tools to make what they like, but it is that singular combination of taste and imagination that drives decisions in the winery, at least when originality is the aim. Thus, there is a general flavor profile that wines made from grapes sourced from Echezeaux Grand Crus vineyards typically have, but there is no single way to express that flavor profile any more than there is one way to express a personality through a portrait.
In commenting on his portrait of the writer Gertrude Stein, Picasso famously said, "Everybody says that she does not look like it but that does not make any difference, she will". Stein wrote later, "I was and still am satisfied with my portrait, for me it is I, and it is the only reproduction of me which is always I, for me." Picasso found a new way to express the essence of Gertrude Stein and eventually others including Stein came to see it as a superior likeness.
Similarly, creative winemakers find new ways of expressing terroir through the originality of their palate and their skill at implementing that vision. Thus, even on the custodial model a winemaker can contribute originality and uniqueness to the finished product, and if they succeed, they deserve the honorific of "artist". The custodial model simply asserts that the winemaker must not destroy the influence of terroir. But different winemakers will have different views about how best to show that influence and the most imaginative will create genuinely original expressions.
Wines that are the product of the winemaker's imagination are not necessarily inauthentic. Authenticity and adherence to tradition is not a matter of repeating styles from the past. It is a matter of the winemaker's commitment to expressing terroir and tradition in an original way, in a way that makes flavor references to the past while creating the wines of the future.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts
Monday, February 02, 2015
Food and Romance: The Tissue of Little Things
The connection between food and romance has become a cliché, especially around Valentine's Day when even the most desultory couple manages to build a castle with a box of chocolate. But the connection is in fact more profound than a once-a-year phantasm. In fact the connection is deeply rooted in history and seems virtually universal.
Perhaps the most vivid demonstration of a direct link between food and romantic emotion is Laura Esquivel's novel (and subsequent film), Like Water for Chocolate. In this magical realist tale of a turn-of-the-20th-century Mexican family, Tita, the youngest daughter, communicates her emotions to her family through the food she makes for them. As she prepares the food, passion, longing, anger or frustration are transmitted via the food to the people who eat the dish, who then experience similar emotions. When Tita falls in love with Pedro, the Quail in Rose Petal Sauce she serves at a family celebration induces lustful feelings in her sister Gertrudis, who abruptly leaves the ranch while making love to a soldier on the back of a horse. When Tita's older sister, Rosaura, marries Pedro instead, Tita sorrowfully prepares a wedding cake, which throws her guests into paroxysms of longing and melancholy before they become violently ill.
Of course, this novel is pure fantasy, but the idea that food directly stirs our emotions has a long history. The Ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans all entertained folk wisdom that various foods could induce sexual arousal, and the medical science and philosophy of the day was used to support such beliefs. We get the word "aphrodisiac" from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of romantic love. According to the myth, Aphrodite was born from the sea and came to shore on a scallop shell accompanied by Eros, thus giving birth to the idea that shellfish can arouse sexual desire in lovers. Aphrodite also thought sparrows were particularly lustful and thus Europeans for many centuries considered sparrows to be aphrodisiacs—demonstrating that it doesn't take much to persuade people when the promise of sex is involved.
Oysters were a necessary part of any respectable Roman orgy, a practice perhaps influenced by the Roman physician Galen who prescribed oysters to remedy a declining sexual appetite. Galen believed that any warm, moist food would be stimulating—as long as it produced flatulence. Galen's grasp of the idea of romance must surely be questioned, but his view was widely held until the 18th century. Foods such as asparagus, mustard, anise, and peas were considered aphrodisiacs for centuries because of Galen's influence. Even a thinker as staid and sober as St. Thomas Aquinas insisted that meat and wine would stimulate the libido. And the concept of an aphrodisiac was not limited to Western culture. Bird's nest soup, sea cucumbers, and a variety of herbs and spices such as ginger, cloves, and ginseng have been commonly believed to be aphrodisiacs for centuries in various Asian cultures.
Of course there is little scientific evidence of a causal effect between food and sexual arousal. Contemporary science shows that, at best, chocolate contains chemicals that can elevate mood, although a recent study has shown that a 130 lb. person would have to consume 25 lbs. of chocolate to have a significant effect. Chile peppers quicken the pulse and induce sweating, but that is hardly equivalent to romance. Here is a summary of what scientists know.
Since there is little evidence of a causal connection between food and romance, stories such as Like water for Chocolate are best viewed as pointing to the power of food as a symbol or metaphor for romance. However, if food is to be a metaphor for romance, there must be sufficient similarities between them to make the connection stick. In what ways are food and romance similar? They both serve functions deeply rooted in our biological needs. Human beings need food to continue living and sex to perpetuate the species and both are required to satisfy bodily urges. It is therefore, not surprising that throughout history people have used food to symbolize romance in ceremonies such as the marriage feast.
The concept of a marriage feast is ubiquitous, seemingly present in every region of the world throughout history. Generations of anthropologists have been fascinated by the marriage rituals of Papua New Guinea, in which the families of the bride and groom stage an elaborate eight-step process of exchanging food gift which must be completed before the wedding can take place. Mesopotamian stone tablets from 4000 years ago tell us that a wedding was concluded by anointing the head of a bride with oil and organizing a banquet in her honor. The symbolic reference of food and procreation was well established in Ancient Rome, where cake was thrown at the bride because the Romans believed that its' main ingredients, wheat and barley, were symbols of fertility. The American custom of throwing rice at newlyweds has the same origin. In parts of rural China, newlyweds find their matrimonial bed strewn with candied lotus seeds because the lotus is a prolific seed producer, and when cooked with lentils they symbolize the traditional hope that the newlyweds will be blessed with many children. Food as a symbol of romance travels well, tapping into an association that is virtually universal. It is easy to see why so many disparate peoples have made this connection. Romance signals fertility, among many other meanings, and our ability to procreate depends on the fertility of the plants and animals that we eat. Food is the product of the generative capacities of plants and animals and is thus a natural symbol of the generative capacities of human beings. The connotations of fertility can be easily transferred from one semantic domain to the other.
These associations between food and fertility depend on the functions of each. But what about the intrinsic properties of food flavors and textures and the pleasure they produce? Are there similarities between the pleasures associated with food and the pleasures associated with romance that reinforce the idea that food is a symbol of romance? Our language suggests so. Most of the words we use to describe our positive reactions to food-delicious, mouthwatering, scrumptious, savory, sweet, luscious, delectable, appetizing, etc.—are used to metaphorically describe a romantic partner. In both food and sex, pleasure is derived from tactile sensations. Chilies light up the senses (if they don't burn too much). The appeal of chocolate is largely tactile, gaining its sensuous edge from its mouth caressing viscosity, which enables it to also symbolize luxury, decadence, and indulgence, all of which have connections with romance. (The preparation of food is highly tactile as well, although pounding, cutting, kneading and tearing are hopefully not associated with romance.) The flavors of some foods produce meanings that are sometimes associated with romance. Vanilla is soothing and comforting. Peppermint has an uplifting effect which may have to do as much with mouthfeel as it does with flavor. Sugar and sweet substances, throughout much of human history, have represented the good life, the rich life, or the full life. Romance is a central part of lives so described. Soup picks up another dimension of romance. It connotes feelings of belonging, well-being and warmth, and is a means of self-fortification and restoration as well, benefits that soup shares with romance, albeit of a substantially different order of magnitude. Perhaps more importantly, the idea of hunger applies to both food and romance. Both "hungers" are among the most powerful and fundamental expressions of human need, and it is with this shared meaning that food maintains its most poignant reference to the domain of erotic .
The relationship of alcohol to romance is perhaps even more direct. Alcohol causes exhilaration, relaxation, and is often used to enhance mood, thus symbolizing the allure and charm of romance. But it also signals (because it directly causes) physical and emotional release, and thus parallels the dimensions of romance that involve "falling", "letting go", or "giving in".
But the relationship between the pleasures of food and the pleasures of romance go beyond mere resemblance. Food exemplifies or highlights romantic sensuality in much the same way music, of the right sort, exemplifies it. The trajectory of romance—the anticipation, heightened arousal, and gratification—is often captured by the way music flows, mimicking the movement of the various emotions that grace a romantic evening. Approached with the proper attention, food can exhibit a similar structure captured well by food writer Jennifer Ianollo's evocative prose:
"To elevate eating to a form of art is to turn all of existence into a radiant canvas, where all that is wonderful in nature can be embraced in one sitting, as our eyes and nose take in the first hints of the pleasures to come. Our salivary glands respond, eager to take the first bite. As the texture of that bite coats our palate, we are engulfed with fragrance and hints of sweet or savory, then the full rhapsody of flavor and its after taste." (From "Food and Sensuality: A Perfect Pairing" in Allhof and Monroe, Food and Philosophy)
Although contemporary references to "foodgasms" may be a bit of hyperbole, feelings of being enveloped in a moment of pure beauty are characteristic of food, as well as romance and music.
But to experience the most profound form of enjoyment that both food and romance have to offer, we have to look beyond the more superficial kinds of sensual gratifications to which I have been alluding thus far. Romance connects us to something larger than oneself—a relationship that becomes more than the sum of the individuals that make it up, the beginnings of a community, a way of seeing the world through someone else's eyes. It is an activity in which one must give as well as take and thus involves self-knowledge, knowledge of the beloved—thought. Part of the enjoyment of romance is an intellectual apprehension.
Rousseau wrote that "taste is knowing the tissue of little things that make up the agreeableness of life." (Emile, Book III) The ability of food to exemplify romance is based on the fact that both food and romance involve sharing the "tissue of little things", the everyday moments of satisfaction, that are the real substance of a life. Of all of our personal belongings, it is food we most readily share with others. That sharing involves an investment of time and energy, and the full enjoyment of both romantic relationships and food requires sustained commitment. The desire to nourish and satisfy others is at the center of both romance and food preparation. Both express care. Thus, both food and romance share a telos—an end—that enables one to stand for the other.
Science may not know the connection between food and romance but who needs science on Valentine's Day when we have such powerful symbols to nourish us.
Monday, January 05, 2015
When Is a Meal Like a Van Gogh? When the Chef is Telling Secrets
by Dwight Furrow
In the humdrum course of daily life, we tend to ignore most of the objects we encounter. We focus only on what will break down or threaten us if we aren’t paying attention and neglect anything that is in its proper place benignly performing its function. Such inattention is a shame but inevitable. We wouldn't survive for long if we maintained a child's fascina tion with what can be taken for granted.
One of the functions of art is to resist that inattention and sustain, if only at very special moments, a fragile fascination with the commonplace. The history of art is full of examples of works that illuminate the ordinary: The Rembrandt portrait that reveals a little-known character of its subject; or beams of light from an undisclosed source in a Caravaggio that reveals God's presence in an everyday scene. But it is especially true of modern art. The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years—the commonplace is extraordinary.
Van Gogh was especially gifted at wresting revelation from the commonplace. In explaining why he left Paris for Arles in Provence, Van Gogh wrote that he wanted to "paint the South" to help others "see" it. Convinced that previous painters had failed in this task, he painted roughly 328 canvases of the area in a little over two years, a body of work which included 14 canvases of trees in bloom in the fields near Arles, a number of paintings of the Alpilles hills just outside of town, and 12 paintings of wheat fields visible from his window in the asylum, to which he consigned himself after cutting off his ear.
Trees in bloom, distant hills, wheat fields? These are commonplace objects we might superficially admire while on a leisurely walk, but they typically escape our focused attention. Yet, Van Gogh was convinced there is something to see in these objects, which our ordinary modes of perception cannot easily discern and which require an artist of his stature to make visible. (I hope cutting off one's ear is not a requirement for such an ability to see.)
What does Van Gogh see in the fields and hills near Arles that others miss?
Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel elaborates:
Van Gogh's brush turns crops, trees, land and sky into a field of loops, zigzags, and curlicues as if paint were an inexorable flood marking each crevice of reality with its rivulets and eddies. While most artists who had painted Provence succumbed to its bucolic loveliness, which lends itself to moods of quiescence and serenity, Van Gogh sees a seething, transformational vitality everywhere which is captured by the swirling brush strokes and sharply contrasting color schemes.
We know that nature is like that; even the most peaceful scene is fraught with feverish, organic energy below the surface. But to capture the motion of stillness peculiar to Arles, Van Gogh could not be a naïve realist. He could not pointlessly paint what the casual observer would see--no one would be interested in that. He must peer into depths and get the viewer to follow him there. All artists are tellers of secrets, an idea first elaborated by Plato who thought the best art should lead us to directly apprehend a reality behind the appearances of everyday life. But to let us in on the secret the artist must exaggerate, diminish, and deform--a fact that Plato was unable to countenance. All painting is, in a sense, caricature because each artist must decide which of the infinite details of nature to bring to the surface or push into the background while remaining true to the subject matter. Artists interpret what they see and hear, and thus bring new meaning to it. But that interpretation is, by its very nature, the product of artistic decision, not a mere imitation of the given. A craftsperson provides us with an expertly rendered imitation of a scene with proper color, perspective, and line. By contrast, artists uncover secrets visible only with the guidance of inspiration.
How do the edible arts fit this picture of the artist as teller of secrets? Just as Van Gogh revealed the secrets of the landscape near Arles, culinary artists reveal hidden dimensions of ingredients and dishes, dimensions that previous cooks overlooked that create a new way for that dish or ingredient to be. The idea is not merely to create a fantastic concoction or to add a new flavor note to a dish. It is to capture the essence of something that has hitherto gone unnoticed and to impress upon the diner that there is something here to be explored and understood. Unlike craftwork, works of art reveal some new treasure that solicits our attention and demands the kind of studied focus we give to the visual arts or music. A chef who has mastered the craft of cooking will prepare food that squeezes every bit of flavor from her ingredients. By contrast, the chef who is an artist will challenge a diner and provoke an arresting, illuminating taste revelation.
The best examples of such culinary works of art are dishes by chefs who make use of fundamental molecular transformation—such as Exploding Ravioli by Grant Achatz or Ferran Adria’s Smoke Foam. But one needn’t have mastered the process of spherification or own a centrifuge to create works of culinary art. This dish, a relatively simple stew of cauliflower, citrus, and ginger by Chef Gray Kunz qualifies as well because it re-contextualizes a humble vegetable and transforms our understanding of what it should taste like.
Works of culinary art, it should go without saying, must be pleasurable as well as revelatory. Pleasure is the seducer that makes knowing the secret worth our efforts. But the chef's intense focus on giving pleasure is not peculiar to the edible arts. A musical work or painting that is flat and inexpressive will fail as art as surely as a watery, under-seasoned bisque. We would not be discussing Van Gogh today were it not for his voluptuous brush work and color palette.
Of course, thinking of a chef as your guide to the mysterious might be disconcerting. Unlike paintings, we take food into our bodies and reflexively recoil from eating something puzzling or strange. Chefs are peculiarly intimate guides to whom we entrust our physical health and financial comfort--a disappointing painting in a gallery or museum is more easily ignored than a bad meal in a restaurant, especially at the prices charged by our temples of gastronomy. Thus, although innovation and pleasure are essential, a chef’s search for new sensations takes place against a background of familiarity anchored in food traditions, which are shaped by the culinary artist to reveal new dimensions, but cannot stray too far from diner’s expectations.
Does this rootedness in tradition make cooking too conservative and hidebound to qualify as art, which in our world is expected to break new ground? No. Finding these hidden dimensions in something familiar and ordinary is the essence of creativity in the arts. A secret once revealed is like a stray note in a jazz solo that sends it spinning in unpredictable directions. Creative cooking may be rooted in food traditions but these are vital, living traditions large enough to accommodate hellbent chefs stoking their fumes of fancy in search of culinary ecstasy. Mark Twain wrote that "if to be interesting is to be uncommonplace, it is becoming a question, with me, if there are any commonplace people." The culinary artist thinks this might be more appropriately applied to her ingredients.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.
Monday, December 08, 2014
Why Kant Was Wrong about Food
by Dwight Furrow
Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.
Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to break up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.
What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.
Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.
So what does the contemplation of painting or music supply that cannot be accomplished by savoring food? According to Kant, such genuine aesthetic contemplation results in (1) disinterested satisfaction, and (2) must involve the “free play” of the imagination and the understanding.
What is “disinterested satisfaction”? Like the pleasure we get from “mouth taste”, disinterested satisfaction also refers to a feeling of pleasure or displeasure upon which we base a judgment. But, according to Kant, genuine aesthetic pleasure is not based on any interest we have in the object—the object’s usefulness, ability to serve our needs, or prospects for earning a profit are not part of the experience. Instead, we revel in the pure appearance of the object because we have no interest in what it can do for us. In other words, in genuine aesthetic experience the feeling of pleasure and the judgment of beauty do not rest on a desire. Thus, the experience does not depend on a private condition or idiosyncratic preference, according to Kant.
Once we are free of the distracting influence of desire, we can contemplate the way the object causes the free play of the imagination and understanding which gives rise to a disinterested form of pleasure or satisfaction. Food by contrast, is appreciated because it relieves hunger or entertains guests. Its appreciation is inherently bound up with a practical purpose and is thus not disinterested.
This also means that art and music, unlike food, engage our critical faculties. Because our judgments about art are disinterested, and because we all share the faculties of the imagination and understanding, we are, therefore, justified in expecting others to find the object pleasing as well. We think that others should agree with our subjective judgments, although we may realize that such agreement is unlikely. Thus, our judgments regarding the beauty of art or music, because they do not rest on desires that are thoroughly private and peculiar to an individual, are capable of being communicated to others, although Kant insists there is no rule or way of proving via argument that the object is beautiful.
Since is it not our desires speaking through our genuine aesthetic judgments but rather our shared cognitive faculties, aesthetic judgments aspire to be universal. The problem for mouth taste is that it is inherently linked to desire and personal preference, and is thus never disinterested, unlike the satisfaction we get from music or painting. Judgments about art are subject to criticism because they aspire to be universal whereas judgments about food are not. If a person fails to like chocolate, they cannot be criticized for that failure; by contrast if they fail to like Rembrandt’s paintings they can be criticized for lack of aesthetic sensitivity.
So what is wrong with this picture? Many critics have pointed to difficulties in understanding how taking pleasure in the way an object engages one’s imagination could be disinterested. If something causes pleasure don’t I have an interest in experiencing it again? Why doesn’t taking pleasure in the beautiful produce desire?
But there is a deeper problem that I think is fatal to Kant’s view.
The most plausible contemporary account of desire is provided by Timothy Schroeder who develops a view of desire and pleasure that incorporates what contemporary neuroscience has to say on the subject. In the course of analyzing the nature of desire he defines pleasure as follows: “To be pleased is (at least) to represent a net increase in desire satisfaction relative to expectation.” (See Three Faces of Desire, Chap. 3). For my purposes, his key claim is that the pleasure centers of the brain are tied to our motivational states—i.e. desires. In other words, there is no such thing as a pleasure that is not dependent on a desire. Pleasure just is a representation of a change in desire satisfaction. Thus, according the best evidence we have, there is no such thing as a disinterested pleasure. Kantian aesthetics rests on a fiction.
If there is no distinction between pleasures based on desires and pleasures not based on desires then at least part of the basis for Kant’s distinction between pleasures we get from food and wine vs. pleasures we receive from intellectual contemplation evaporates.
Of course, it may be the case that the second dimension of Kant’s theory—contemplation based on the “free play of understanding and imagination” might give us some reason to maintain Kant’s view of the inferiority of mouth taste as an object of genuine aesthetic appreciation. But what is this “play of understanding and imagination” and does that apply to food and wine?
According to Kant, through experience the mind naturally builds up a collection of schemata—templates for various kinds of objects—that help us recognize a dog as a dog or a table as a table. When we encounter an object, it is the imagination that selects and structures sensory data so that it matches these templates according to what is the best fit. New experiences of dogs and tables can thus be easily assimilated to our conceptual scheme.
But we are not born with all the templates we need for understanding reality—we have to create new ones when new objects are encountered. So the imagination also has the ability to sort through sensory experience and invent new templates. When doing so, the imagination cannot simply apply the old templates since they don’t fit the new experience very well. But it can still make use of them if they are sufficiently close to the new experience. This is what Kant means by the “free play” of the imagination and understanding. The imagination is searching for a concept to fit the new experience but to find a match it has to shape the sensory data to fit existing concepts as best it can, while also shaping existing concepts so they match the new sensory data. In this exercise of the imagination, we may succeed or fail. There may not be a concept or schema adequate to the new experience. It may elude our understanding if the object is sufficiently alien to our conceptual framework
This free play of the imagination and understanding is implicated in our aesthetic judgments, according to Kant. In a genuine aesthetic judgment, rather than a mere sensuously enjoyable experience like basking in the sun or sipping wine, the imagination experiments with possible ways of restructuring the object. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable, especially when that restructuring makes sense to us, when the understanding and the imagination harmonize despite the fact that the imagination is not being thoroughly directed by the fixed templates that normally govern our concepts. We see that the work has an order and unity to it without clearly deciding on a single judgment of what it is or what it does. There is no concept adequate to the experience, but that indeterminacy is itself pleasurable. This is when we judge an object beautiful. It is intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.
Thus, an aesthetic judgment is not based on the object, as much as it is based on our reaction to our reflection on the object.
I doubt that this account of aesthetic pleasure accounts for all genuine aesthetic judgments—it seems too remote from the sensuous experiences we typically associate with the appreciation of art and especially music. But it captures perhaps some of our aesthetic judgments. The question is whether the appreciation of food and wine ever takes this form.
And I think it clearly does. This kind of indeterminate play between our concept of what something is and an intriguing, sensual experience that we cannot quite place in any traditional category is precisely what molecular gastronomy aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes aim to provoke the kind of intellectual playfulness that Kant thought was the essence of aesthetic experience. When the flavors are genuinely delicious and we experience the harmony and unity of the flavor profile along with the intellectual pleasures of searching for indeterminate meaning, a judgment that the object is beautiful seems appropriate.
Caviar made from sodium alginate and calcium, burning sherbets, spaghetti made from vegetables produce precisely this kind of response. They challenge the intellect and force our imagination to restructure our conceptual framework just as Kant suggested. But even more traditional cooking if it is sufficiently creative and innovative can produce this experience of indeterminate searching for understanding that is nevertheless enjoyable. And wine tasting produces similar experiences. As the very literate wine importer Terry Theise writes:
I can scarcely recall a great wine that didn’t in some sense amaze me, that didn’t make my palate feel as if it were whipsawed between things that hardly ever travel together. My shorthand term for that experience is paradox; again, this component is in the hands of the angels and doesn’t appear susceptible to human contrivance, but when it is found it conveys a lovely sense of wonder: How can these things coexist in a single wine? And not only coexist, but spur each other on; power with grace, depth with brilliance. . . . (Theise, Reading Between the Wines, 34)
That is a lovely description of the play of understanding and imagination. Thus, Kant was right to point to this kind of experience as genuinely aesthetic but wrong in his judgment that food could not be the object of such an experience.
One wonders what the old professor, who never ventured more than 10 miles from his home in Königsberg, had on his plate for dinner.
For more ruminations on the Philosophy of Food and Wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, December 01, 2014
Do I Look Fat in These Genes?
by Carol A. Westbrook
Are you pleasantly plump? Rubinesque? Chubby? Weight-challenged? Or, to state it bluntly, just plain fat? Have you spent a lifetime being nagged to stop eating, start exercising and lose some weight? Have you been accused of lack of willpower, laziness, watching too much TV, overeating and compulsive behavior? If you are among the 55% of Americans who are overweight, take heart. You now have an excuse: blame it on your genes.
It seems obvious that obesity runs in families; fat people have fat children, who produce fat grandchildren. Scientific studies as early as the 1980's suggested that there was more to it than merely being overfed by fat, over-eating parents; the work suggested that fat families may be that way because they have genes in common. Dr. Albert J Stunkard, a pioneering researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who died this year, did much of this early work. Stunkard showed that the weight of adopted children was closer to that of their biologic parents than of their adoptive parents. Another of his studies investigated twins, and found that identical twins--those that had the same genes--had very similar levels of obesity, whereas the similarity between non-identical twins was no greater than that between their non-twin siblings. It was pretty clear to scientists by this time that there was likely to be one or more genes that determined your level of obesity.
In spite of the compelling evidence, it has been difficult to identify the actual genes that cause us to be overweight. This is due partly to the fact that lifestyle and environment are such strong influences on our weight that they can obscure the genetic effects, making it difficult to dissociate genetic from environmental effects. But the main reason it has been difficult to find the fat gene is because there is probably not just one gene for obesity, as is the case for other diseases such as ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). There seem to be many forms of obesity, determined by an as yet unknown number of genes, so finding an individual gene is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
Earlier this year, a group of researchers succeeded in identifying one of these genes by focusing on a single form of obesity and studying only a small number of families. Their studies, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, reported a gene mutation which was shared by all of the obese members of the families. The mutated gene, DYRK1B, seems to be involved in initiating the growth of fat cells, and in moderating the effects of insulin. The people in these families who carried the gene mutation all had abdominal obesity beginning in childhood, severe hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and high blood triglyceride levels. They had a type of obesity known as "metabolic syndrome."
Metabolic syndrome is recognized by doctors as a combination of symptoms, including large waist size, high triglycerides (lipids), low LDL "good" cholesterol, high blood pressure, and high blood sugar. In order to meet the diagnosis of metabolic syndrome, you need to have any 3 of these 5 criteria. A person who has metabolic syndrome is five times as likely to develop diabetes, and twice as likely to develop heart disease, as someone who doesn't have it.
Metabolic syndrome is not a rare condition; in fact, it has been estimated that as many as 47 million Americans have it, though usually not as severely as the one carried by the families in the study, above. Many more Americans may actually carry a mutation in the DYRK1B gene, or in a related gene, but have not developed the symptoms... yet.
What is perplexing is why obesity continues to be on the increase in the US, despite the fact that our genetics couldn't have changed that much over the last decade or two. Clearly there is more to being fat than carrying a fat gene. As we are all aware, you have to eat to become overweight. The fault is not in our stars, it is in our diets. And our diets have changed quite a bit over the last few decades.
What's wrong with our diets? That, of course, is one of the most important health questions of today. Our diets have changed a lot over the last few decades, starting with the movement in the mid 1970's to cut down the fat that we eat, mistakenly thinking that fat was the cause of high cholesterol and lipid problems. This led to the widespread substitution of calories from fat with calories from carbohydrates, particularly high fructose corn syrup and related additives. Nowhere have the substitutions been more dramatic than in fast foods and prepared foods. A high carbohydrate diet is a disaster for someone who is at risk of metabolic syndrome; it is the quickest way to get fat.
As the number of fat people increases, we are starting to see increases in diabetes, hypertension, and knee replacements. Obesity is linked to 1 in 5 deaths in our country. Finding more of the genes that cause people to be overweight will help to identify those at risk, so they can take steps to prevent it. And better yet, these gene mutations may provide targets for the creation of drugs to reverse the condition. The pharmaceutical industry is very interested in finding these genes: imagine if you could produce a pill that 50% of the entire population would have to take every day, for the rest of their lives, to prevent them from being fat!
Sadly, we do not have this pill to reverse metabolic syndrome, at least not at the present time. So, like many other diseases that are sensitive to the foods we eat -- hypertension, diabetes, gluten-sensitivity, and so on--the answer is still in controlling the diet.
But take heart. Now you can relax, forget the accusations and stop
blaming yourself. Enjoy those Christmas cookies and holiday treats today. Your diet starts on January 1.
Monday, November 10, 2014
The Community of Lush: Wine, Alcohol, and the Social Bond
by Dwight Furrow
Food begins as a necessity and we tame it so it becomes a civilized want that can be appreciated for its aesthetic qualities. But wine is a different matter. Wine is not a necessity. Many people neither drink wine nor any sort of alcohol, and for most people who do indulge, it doesn't play the organizing role in life that food does. (Unless of course you write about wine) Yet, the relationship between wine and sociality seems obvious. People get drunk or at least tipsy from drinking alcohol, which loosens tongues, sheds inhibitions, and functions as a social lubricant. Although much day-to-day wine writing seldom acknowledges this, some of the more thoughtful discussions of wine take the relation between drunkenness and sociality as a brutal truth: As Adam Gopnik writes:
"Remarkably, nowhere in wine writing, including Parker's, would a Martian learn that the first reason people drink wine is to get drunk. To read wine writing, one would think that wine is simply another luxury food....Wine is what gives us a reason to let alcohol make us happy without one. It's the ritual context that civilizes the simple need." (From Gopnik, The Table Comes First)
Since we do not need wine for nutritional purposes, the "need" Gopnik references is the need for a substance to smooth the rough edges of socializing. However, alcohol in general and wine in particular are among many substances that accomplish this. Rituals surrounding tea for instance play this role in many societies. Thus, it isn't obvious why alcohol must play this role. Furthermore, even if alcohol is "necessary" to grease the social wheels, there are many more efficient, less expensive ways of getting drunk than drinking wine. Thus, we must ask how plausible Gopnik's thesis is. Is getting drunk the main reason we drink wine? Does that explain why wine in particular would be associated with sociality?
In fact when we look at how wine is consumed, inebriation plays only a secondary, supportive role in explaining its connection to our social lives.
A great deal of wine is consumed at wine tastings including wine festivals, visits to wineries, or events at wine bars, restaurants, art galleries, private parties, etc. In all of these contexts, the rituals of wine tasting cast participants as tasters rather than mere drinkers by following norms that draw a sharp contrast to other forms of public drinking. Ordinary public drinking imposes few restrictions on how much alcohol one drinks, the techniques one uses for drinking or the kind of talk engaged in while drinking. At wine tastings, however, all of these factors are highly regulated. Wines are carefully listed with the qualities of each wine described in some detail. Pouring procedures include giving each participant a very small quantity in a particular order that facilitates comparisons, and participants are expected to swirl the wine in the glass to release aroma notes, sip and savor the wine, and in general approach it thoughtfully so one becomes acutely aware of the object--the wine and its aesthetic properties. The taster is then expected to express an evaluative judgment of the qualities of the wine, discuss it among companions and with the pourer, and ask the pourer questions about the wine and its production. The pourer is expected to possess knowledge of the production process and the people behind the scenes as well as to be able to provide her own more sophisticated analysis of the sensory properties of the wine to help guide the taster through the experience.
In these contexts, it is seldom appropriate to ask for more wine. The amount is carefully regulated to give each person just enough to gain an impression of the wine. And at a festival, it is wholly inappropriate to gulp and dash to the next wine as if the point was to consume as much as possible.
Thus, the wine is framed more like an art object than an alcoholic beverage and tasters are treated as art patrons. By introducing the wine, the server heightens its artistic potential by helping the taster make sense of what are often fleeting, ephemeral aesthetic sensations, providing them with taste vocabularies to help them understand the experience. Furthermore, it is typical of these events that presenters tell stories about the background of the wine producer, and if the winemaker is present details of the process are related in a way that reveals the human context behind the wine. Wine education is a central part of the event.
Thus, it would seem that inebriation is not really the goal here. The set-up in fact seems designed to limit consumption and direct attention to aesthetics.
I suppose one could still insist, as Gopnik does, that this is all a big ruse. An elaborate form of self-deception designed to provide wine drinkers with socially acceptable reasons to get drunk. But in fact drunkenness at these events is not the norm and so much of the ritual involves behavior incompatible with excessive alcohol consumption, that Gopnik's conclusion seems less than plausible. Perhaps the idea is that by getting people to focus on taste, drinking is regulated sufficiently that social relations are enhanced. Thus, tasting plays an instrumental role in managing behavior. It is a way of civilizing drunkenness so genuine human communication can take place. But that would not explain why tasters seem to be engaged in the task of tasting for its own sake-genuinely focused on the wine, with socializing playing a subsidiary role.
So I think there is something else going on. My hypothesis would be this: As a result of the norms and rituals of wine tasting the private taste experience is brought into a public space in a way analogous to art criticism where everyone present can participate in creating widely shared sensations and judgments. There is indeed a community being formed at such events around the idea of a shared sensibility that is worthy of celebration and articulation. The intentional focus on articulating personal, privately-held sensations becomes the mechanism through which we create social bonds around the aesthetic properties of the wine. And the social bond then feeds back on individuals and becomes the mechanism through which people make sense of their own experience. By discussing their sensations, tasters express their own aesthetic sensibilities and attitudes while learning to make sense of the wine presented for tasting. Thus, the participants create as well as consume aesthetic meaning. Wine tasting is "creative culture-making"-a peculiar, contemporary form of culture that is temporary, easy to enter and exit, set off from other cultures, and based on nothing but the creative product itself.
Just as a picture frame allows aesthetic enjoyment of paintings to take place by enclosing the act of viewing, the rituals of wine tasting enclose our taste sensations, walling off the experience from the rest of life so it becomes an autonomous, aesthetic experience. The sensations themselves are held in common in this temporary, autonomous community and these sensations are the glue that hold it together.
All of this, of course, is a kind of performance, rituals enacted that fit participants into various roles. But it is not merely a habitual acting out of high culture. It is not merely a form of conspicuous consumption that signals high status. Of course, people have a variety of motives for participating. The argument isn't that no one is getting drunk or engaged in conspicuous consumption. But the aim of the event is neither.
Is the alcohol then just an irrelevant byproduct? No. Not at all. The smells, flavors, and tactile sensations of (good) wine are arresting in the sense that they capture and hold your attention, fill the mouth, nose and throat with rousing, exhilarating, constantly shifting sensations that provoke the imagination. The mild intoxication of moderate alcohol consumption amplifies these sensations making them even more vibrant and captivating. Furthermore, wine tasting is an imaginative activity that is inherently social-the conversation around wine enhances the tasting experience. Thus, the mild buzz induced by the modest amounts of alcohol helps that conversation flow with sociability, humor, and grace. The effects of alcohol are an enhancement, not the goal of the activity. They help enable the sense of community formed around the lush, aesthetic sensations of wine.
But those aesthetic sensations--of harmony, sensuality, complexity, finesse, and the patterns of smells and textures--stand on their own and need no further aim. Beauty is it own reward and doesn't need an excuse.
For more rumination on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts
Monday, October 13, 2014
Why Civilization Rests on that Roast
by Dwight Furrow
Food is part of nearly every aspect of social life. Both our biological families and the families we choose coalesce around food. We converse with friends over coffee, tea, a snack or a glass of wine. Going to lunch or dinner with friends is the dominant mode of socializing in modern life. For many families much of their communication takes place around the kitchen table. We share our tables with friends and family at celebrations where food takes on the ritual meanings of shared values or shared history. Even at funerals, at least at the wake, food is often served.
The other sense modalities do not lend themselves so easily to social life. We seldom think of visual experiences as paradigmatic ways of spending time with others. Viewing a sunset or a work of art in solitude can be wonderful, the solitude enhancing the experience. With modern technology we listen to music through ear buds designed to lock out the rest of the world. Although listening to music is sometimes a social occasion, only rarely is sociality essential to the experience. Touch is a shared social experience only in the most intimate of relationships. Taste, by contrast, is the sense modality that, as a matter of practice, is intimately tied to social life. Although we can and do eat alone, we only rarely contrive to do so, and few would consider it an enhancement.
The reason for this intimate connection between food and socializing is not hard to discern. Given the time involved in, and the necessity of, gathering, preparing and consuming food, no other activity plays such a prominent role in giving form to daily life. We divide up the day according to when and how we eat. Thus, only the most solitary lives avoid implicating others in food-related activity. But more importantly, when we eat and drink, time slows, the rhythms of the workday must decelerate, making it an ideal time for socializing. (Europeans, historically, have understood this well. Many Americans seem to resent the loss of those precious moments of "productivity").
Food and wine are so intimately entwined with sociality that they are more than an instrument through which we pursue social relations—they have come to symbolize social relations. It is hard to think about the act of eating without visualizing a table with others present, especially if eating includes certain foods such as roasts, casseroles, and pies that are designed to feed multitudes.
This social dimension of food is the focus of most food writing both academic and popular. Sociologists and anthropologists often view culture through the lens of food production and consumption. In much academic research, food preferences are markers of identity defining us as American, Mexican, or Indian. They are signs of social status indicating our level of income, social connections, or cultural importance compared to others with less refined tastes. Food is a fashion statement that sends a message about how hip or traditional we are. It is a signal that one is committed to certain values such as health or environmentalism, a form of seduction, a public ritual, or vehicle for religious or ceremonial meanings. Thus, according to this research, when we eat, we are not merely enjoying the taste of food, but doing something else that has more significance than mere enjoyment. Food is a symbol system through which social and political meanings are communicated and relationships are enacted.
In popular genres of food writing, the social dimension of food takes precedence as well. Although the characteristics of food hook the reader, where and with whom one is eating and what they say or do become the focus. Often the people who produce the food and their trials and joys take center stage, the pitfalls and challenges of finding and preparing food providing narrative thrust to a story that reveals a form of life. More often than not, popular food writing slides into travel writing giving the reader a way to imagine the intrigue or romance of distant destinations. Thus, food is employed as a kind of stage setting for the unfolding of a human drama. It becomes a metaphor for ruminations about desire, adventure, memory, or romance. While M.F.K Fisher, Jeremy Steinman, or Ruth Reichl excel at describing how food tastes, they are really writing about the social context in which food is produced and consumed.
All of this suggests that the flavor of food is not essential to its social dimension. Although our social gatherings coalesce around food, the meaning of these gatherings does not seem to depend on flavor, at least on the surface. We can enjoy the company of others regardless of how the food tastes. Flavor assists with the narrow purpose of filling the belly, and once that is accomplished it provides the backdrop for whatever social dynamics characterize the gathering and these can be understood independently of the flavor of the food on offer, which produces merely a personal, private, subjective reaction. The ceremonies and rituals around food, the social events that supply food with its meaning, do not depend on the quality of sensations provided by the food and to focus excessively on flavor is to miss the larger significance of these social relations. How many Thanksgiving dinners have featured dry, flavorless turkey, stuffing out of a box and cranberry sauce from a can? Yet the gathering can nevertheless be a success; or so it would seem
But I doubt that this is true. I think flavor plays a more crucial role in social relations than food writing would suggest. Food writers, both academic and popular, focus on stories which are driven by the dynamics of the people involved. Flavor need not be the focus of the narrative but instead it functions at a more fundamental level as a precondition for the narrative—flavor hides in plain site as something we assume without needing to mention it. Yet, without flavor the stories about food could not be told.
Whenever food is provided to anyone, two attitudes are necessary—trust on the part of the recipient of the food and generosity on the part of the provider. (Generosity is less a factor in commercial transactions, a point I discuss below.) Trust is required because we take food into our bodies. We cannot hold food at a distance as we might view visual objects from afar. Thus, our health and welfare depends on taking food only from reliable sources worthy of trust. Generosity is required because acquiring and preparing food involves substantial time, energy, attention, and money. Thus, anyone who provides food to others in a non-commercial context must be willing to give without expectation of getting something in return. The cook or host, although often providing food for herself as well as others, is providing beyond what she needs—she gives more than she gets. The relationship between guest and host is not symmetrical, except at pot luck dinners.
Thus, generosity and trust are core elements of hospitality when providing food and drink to people who are not regular members of our household. The reason why food and drink are intimately bound up with sociality is because sociality requires hospitality. Hospitality may be the most fundamental meaning that food has because every act of social eating takes place only against a background of hospitality—of generosity and trust. Stories about food, therefore, have a subtext of hospitality. It is seldom the focus of the story because it is presupposed unless the norms of hospitality are disrupted.
What does hospitality have to do with flavor? Everything!
Hospitality is not limited to food and drink. The good host is responsible for someone else's well-being in general, providing shelter if necessary, cheering up someone who is down in the dumps or providing diversion to someone who is bored. But this requirement that the guest's well being must be served means that flavor is essential. Hospitality cannot be achieved unless the guest is happy and that means that whatever is served must be enjoyable—it must please the guest. Providing food that someone doesn't like or being indifferent to their tastes is a failure of hospitality.
This, I think, is fairly obvious. But less obvious, though equally important, is the requirement that the food be enjoyable to the host as well! If we do not enjoy our own food then giving it to someone else has little significance because we are not invested in it. The kind of giving involved in hospitality is not like giving spare change to a homeless person or donating money to support a cause. In the context of hospitality, food and drink is not given to confer a benefit on someone. If in lieu of refreshment you wrote your guest a check she would rightfully be insulted, regardless of the benefit the money might confer. Hospitality is a giving of oneself, not only one's time, labor, or money but one's passion, intensity, and sensibility. Hospitality is a genuine welcoming in which one's uniquely essential being is shared. The host gives something of herself, her own sustenance out of genuine concern for her guests.
It is interesting that in restaurants, where the motive may not be generosity but profit, the trappings and rituals of hospitality must still be preserved if the experience is to be satisfying. This includes friendly greetings, a helpful wait staff and a responsive kitchen. (Today, it might mean a perky waitperson pretending to be your best friend ever). In the very best restaurants that survive over the long run, their management maintains more than the trappings of generosity but have a genuine concern that their guests enjoy their food because their own passion and sensibility are invested in it.
Genuine hospitality cannot exist without enjoyment--mutual pleasure is its essence, not a mere by-product.
However, the role of pleasure in anchoring the meaning of food has an even larger significance. It was recognized long ago by the French essayist and gourmand Brillat-Savarin that our food practices are attempts to tame unruly desires and that civilization depends on our success at this endeavor. Adam Gopnik, in The Table Comes First, summarized Brillat-Savarin's writing as follows:
"For Brillat-Savarin, gastronomy is the great adventure of desire. Its subject is simple: the table is the place where a need becomes a want. Something we have to do—eat—becomes something we care to do becomes something we try to do with grace. Eating together is a civilizing act. We take urges, and tame them into tastes."
The possibility of civilization depends on our ability to take our very powerful desires and submit them to a discipline that encourages socially acceptable patterns of expression. We don't eat like pigs at a trough because the resulting conflict and turmoil regarding something as essential as eating would threaten the foundations of society.
Of course one could argue that it is not a concern with taste that tames desires but the enforcement of manners and social sanctions for violating them that does the work. We learn to share, listen, take turns, and argue without offending at the table where parents can punish violations of social norms. But sanctions and moral disapproval only go so far. The best way to control a desire is by another desire and the desire to savor food in a secure environment with little conflict is a strong one. Once the rituals of the table are in place, diners are then free to consider the aesthetic dimension of food, which then feeds back on those rituals reinforcing the fact that dining has become a fundamentally aesthetic experience. Part of the reason we don't nab food off someone else's plate or grovel face down in the soup bowl is because that is not conducive to enjoying the finer aspects of what one is eating.
Furthermore, good food is something that can be enjoyed across racial, political, and class lines. It can be appreciated despite other differences we may have and thus contributes to social peace. The enjoyment of food requires we direct some attention inward, that we pay attention to our internal psychological states while maintaining contact with others. Conflict and tension interferes with that inward-turning attention. Taste is thus one among several civilizing strategies that make a human life possible and for that strategy to be successful, flavor must matter. Gourmandism is not just fussbudgetry but an activity that strives for a certain kind of control over desires that exemplifies a modest yet very real commitment to civilization.
Thus, flavor does play a central role in the meanings that food has, although it operates below the surface anchoring common expectations that are noteworthy only in the breach. Food cannot play the functional role it plays in our lives unless the norms of hospitality and civilization are upheld, and flavor is crucial to both.
There is therefore a good reason why taste is the sensory modality that is most closely associated with social value. It is essential to the hospitality that makes most social relations possible. Today food has become a kind of medicine, a source of adventure, and on Cable TV a popular spectator sport. But these activities seem only remotely connected to its fundamental meaning as the pleasurable medium through which civilization is enacted.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts.
Monday, September 15, 2014
Is Wine Tasting Nonsense?
by Dwight Furrow
Wine tasting has become one of the favorite playthings of the media with articles appearing periodically detailing a new study that allegedly shows wine tasters to be incompetent charlatans, arrogantly foisting their fantasies on an unsuspecting public. But these articles seldom reflect critically on their conclusions or address the question of what genuine expertise in wine tasting looks like. In fact, articles in this genre routinely misinterpret the results of these studies and seem more interested in reinforcing (partly undeserved) stereotypes of snobbish sommeliers.
The study that seems to get the most attention is from 2001. Frédéric Brochet asked 54 wine experts to assess two glasses of wine, one red, the other white. But in fact the two wines were identical white wines, the "red" wine having been dyed with food coloring. All the experts used descriptors typical of red wines and failed to notice the wine was in fact white. But this study does not show that wine tasters are incompetent. The study relied only on smell, not taste which would more readily yield clues to the wine's nature. More importantly, wine tasters are taught to use visual clues when trying to identify a wine using the deductive method. Given that the wine appeared red, trained wine tasters would have logically ruled out white descriptors. The study proves nothing about the expertise of wine tasters; only a lack of expertise in designing the study.
In a follow-up study, Brochet served wine experts two bottles, one with the label of a Grand Cru, the other labeled as an ordinary table wine. The wine in both bottles was identical and ordinary. The expensive wine was highly praised; the less expensive one roundly criticized. The conclusion this article attempts to draw is that all wine tastes the same and there is no distinction between cheap and expensive wine. But there is an alternative hypothesis that is much more plausible. We aren't told who these experts were, but the results are not surprising. There is ample scientific evidence that judgments about wine, including those of experts, are influenced by reputation, price, and expectations. That is why wine tasters often taste blind so their judgments are not distorted by these factors. All this study shows is that our judgments are influenced by background beliefs—this is not news and the tendency of wine tasters to be influenced by price and reputation has been incorporated into wine tasting practice for decades.
Other studies cast doubt on the rewards given to wines at festivals and county fairs where wine experts must assign numerical ratings to dozens of wines tasted blind in a single day. In one series of experiments, judges are, unbeknownst to them, given the same wine at different times throughout the day; the results show that the judges are wildly inconsistent in their evaluation. These wine competitions are problematic to begin with because palate fatigue sets in rather quickly. These competitions are opportunities for wineries to get publicity and marketing materials. Few wine experts take them seriously as attempts to objectively determine wine quality. But setting that worry aside, again the results are not surprising. Context is everything. What you taste will be influenced by the other wines being tasted at the same time. The assignment of numerical scores suggests a cardinal ranking but wine tasting in flights is inevitably comparative. The same wine will taste differently when tasted against different competitors. This is not because of a lack of expertise; it's just a fact about how taste works. If you want objective results, then wine tasters must rest and recalibrate their palate to avoid results skewed by context. The most that can be drawn from these studies is that reasonably objective sensory evaluation requires carefully controlled conditions—David Hume discovered that in 1757.
But this article from the Guardian last summer entitled "Wine Tasting is Junk Science" gets the prize for irrelevant headline of the year. I don't know anyone who thinks wine tasting is a science or that even expert wine tasters can achieve the level of accuracy required for scientific testing. Sharp disagreements among wine experts about the qualities and virtues of a particular wine are common. One critic thinks a wine is flabby and disjoint; the other thinks it is superb, and there is no way to settle the dispute. The fact that wine experts are inconsistent in their evaluations is no surprise to anyone who pursues wine tasting seriously. Certainly every expert I know admits the difficulties of wine tasting and readily grants that we often get it wrong. The comparison with science is a flopping red herring. The real question is whether the persistence of such disagreement among experts should undermine confidence in their expertise, which in any case would not be the expertise of a scientist.
One thing we know is that some of what we experience in a wine is a response to objective properties of the wine. We taste apple in wine because of the presence of malic acid (among other compounds); vanilla because of the presence of ethyl vanillate, etc. The perceived weight on the palate is a function of extract, residual sugar and/ or alcohol. When we taste we can succeed or fail to discern those objective properties because the signal they send is faint and easily masked. Novice wine tasters have trouble discerning flavor components in wine just as you might fail to taste the hint of rosemary in a sauce until someone points it out to you. But the relationship between perceived flavors and chemical compounds in the wine is well-established by science.
However, there is significant biological variation in human populations regarding the threshold for detecting compounds in wine. Some people will be more sensitive to certain compounds than others, and it is not yet clear to what degree these thresholds can be shaped by training. But variations exist in all our sensory mechanisms, color-blindness being the most obvious. There is no reason to think taste thresholds do not stabilize around a norm that allows most of our sensory judgments to be inter-subjectively valid despite variation on the margins. Thus, the existence of biological differences in taste mechanisms by themselves do not show that wine expertise is nonsense, anymore than the existence of colorblindness calls into question our ability to accurately refer to colors.
It is of course true that ordinary wine drinkers (as well as experts in some contexts) can be misled and seem to taste something that isn't there. This is common when tasting in a group where comments by others may influence someone to misidentify the features of a wine. Furthermore, as noted, we can be influenced by price, reputation, expectations, personal relationships, and emotional commitments in ways that mislead us. But this is not evidence that wine tasting is nonsense—in fact quite the opposite. If there is such a thing as real expertise in identifying the properties of a wine, then it must be possible to get it wrong. If tastes, in general, were entirely subjective there would be no right answer to the question of whether, for instance, chocolate ice cream tastes of chocolate. No one really thinks that. The fact that expert wine tasters get it wrong so often is evidence that wine tasting is harder than identifying the presence of chocolate in ice cream—not that it is utterly capricious. So tastes are not so entirely subjective that our experiences of them have no relationship to an object.
But the question is whether experts are capable of limiting the influence of those factors that bias their judgments. And the answer is yes, at least up to a point. This is the purpose of blind tasting. Although blind tasting has many drawbacks, it does serve to insulate the taster from knowledge of the producer and price (single-blind tasting) and from the region and varietal (double-blind tasting). Furthermore, tasters can strive to eliminate environmental factors that have been shown to influence judgments about wine such as conversations, the style of music being played, and changes in the weather, etc. These are all factors that wine tasters can control by adjusting the environment in which they taste. Wine tasters, if they are to maintain credibility, must taste under the appropriate conditions. But that is no different from any other normative judgment we make. Our ability to make ethical judgments, for instance, is similarly influenced by environmental factors. We know (or should know) better than to make ethical judgments when we are excessively angry, fearful, under the influence of powerful desires, etc. Yet, it does not follow from the fact that ethical judgments can be influenced by irrelevant factors that all ethical judgments are subjective.
Nevertheless, each of us has a unique tasting history and a set of expectations based on that history from which there is no escape. This accounts, more than anything else, for disagreements among experts. We can't step outside our past and taste something without that past influencing us. So the taste of wine (or anything else) is partly dependent on objective features of the world and partly dependent on how our view of those features has been shaped by past experience. The crucial question then is how much of a distorting lens is that past experience. Does it lead us to lose touch with the world or not? This is where systematic learning, the constant calibration of one's taste to well-established standards, and a disciplined focus on getting things right comes into play. Experience sharpens our ability to perceive by improving our ability to isolate and identify those weak signals that less experienced tasters miss. Furthermore, prejudices can be overcome and influences can be prevented from distorting our perceptions if we become aware of them and have the will to limit their influence. The more knowledge you have about wine regions, vinification processes, etc. the more you can use that knowledge to shape your tasting experience to conform to objective properties of the wine. The fact that some people after years of study are able to pass the very rigorous "Masters of Wine" program (there are currently only 312 worldwide) is evidence that tasting expertise is real—they are not consulting oracles or hallucinating their answers.
So wine tasting expertise is neither arbitrary nor useless. It is a matter of having the experience and reflective awareness to reduce the role of factors that might distort our impression of a wine. Expertise can't eliminate all subjectivity but it can reduce some personal biases such that with extensive background knowledge they give the taster a clearer impression of the wine than they would have without the expertise.
What is puzzling about this whole debate about the objectivity of wine critics, however, is why people want objective descriptions of wine. We don't expect scientific objectivity from art critics, literary critics, or film reviewers. The disagreements among experts in these fields are as deep as the disagreements about wine. There is no reason to think a film critic would have the same judgment about a film if viewed in a different context, in comparison with a different set of films, or after conversing about the film with other experts. Our judgments are fluid and they should be if we are to make sense of our experience. When listening to music aren't we differently affected by a song depending upon whether we are at home, in a bar, going to the beach, listening with friends or alone? Why would wine be different? The judgment of any critic is simply a snapshot at a particular time and place of an object whose meaning can vary with context. Wine criticism cannot escape this limitation.
I suspect what we are witnessing with all this skepticism about wine tasting is the corrosive influence of the point system in evaluating wine. It is a handy device for consumers but it leaves the impression that wine evaluation is subject to mathematical precision. But nothing could be further from the truth. A wine that receives 95 points is judged on a particular day in a particular context. There is no reason to think a critic (or a different critic) would assign exactly the same score in a different context, in comparison with a different flight of wines, under different social and environmental conditions.
What we want from critics whether of music, art, or wine is a judgment made in light of their vast experience that can show us something about the object that we might have missed without their commentary. That can be accomplished independently of whether the critic is perfectly consistent or objective. We want the critic to have a certain kind of bias, born of her unique experience, because it is that bias that enables her to taste, see, or hear what she does.
This question of what we want from a wine critic inevitably implicates the issue of tasting notes, which have become controversial among wine writers recently. The most common complaints are that lists of flavor notes are uninformative, excessively obscure, or over-the-top, floridly-written balderdash. There is indeed an inherent problem with wine tasting notes. Wine, like music, is hard to describe. The language we have developed for talking about emotions, dangerous animals, or quantum fields doesn't lend itself to sensory descriptions, especially those of taste and smell. And the ability to discern flavors is not the same as the ability to name them or describe them. Yet wine reviews must inform both sophisticated and unsophisticated palates, while being short and to the point. Moreover, professional wine critics must pump out reviews like bottles of Barefoot since they often taste dozens of wines per day, and their publications must provide comprehensive coverage of the best wines among the thousands produced each year. Thus, wine tasting notes are a genre of writing caught between the need to give consumers advice and the desire to give the beauty of wine its due.
Most of the complaints about tasting notes are directed at the endless lists of fruits that critics sense in a wine. Granted, they can be quite tedious if they are too obscure but they can serve a purpose. One thing a good tasting note must do is locate a wine within the framework of various wine styles or wine regions. Basic fruit descriptors help with that. A Pinot Noir tasting of black cherry is in a different style than one tasting of strawberry; if spice is dominant that indicates something else about style. But identifying the style is not sufficient for a good tasting note. The writer must say something about what makes the wine distinctive (if it is distinctive). For this purpose, I agree, going on about more fruits, separated by commas, without explaining how those flavors contribute to a distinctive flavor profile is useless and excessive, especially if the flavor descriptors are so obscure no one has a clue what they mean. What precisely is lemon-balm, how is it distinct from lemon verbena, and how do they both differ from, well, lemon?
Fruit descriptors aside, tasting notes are designed to serve a variety of purposes. If the purpose is to sell wine or to give consumers efficient, handy advice about what to buy, then short descriptions of style along with a score are adequate. This is the kind of note to expect from Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, and the Wine Advocate.
But if a note is designed to capture the poetry of wine, to articulate something that can't easily be put into words (or numbers) in order to enable the reader to more fully engage with the wine—that is, if you take wine criticism to be an endeavor akin to music or art criticism—then short notes and numerical scores will not suffice. This is where most tasting notes fail. They focus too much on analytical description but ignore the way wine plays on the imagination. Wines have personality and character, they evoke memories and emotion, are redolent of place and culture. More importantly, wines are intriguing, mysterious, and often seem beyond our comprehension and powers of description. People who love wine love it for these reasons; not for the presence of apricot or blueberry. But to recognize these features you have to drink imaginatively, and to capture it in a tasting note you have to write imaginatively.
An analogy with music might clarify what I mean. Consider the symphonic sketches entitled La Mer (The Sea) by Debussy. Without the title we might think this work consists of some lovely sounds and sound structures with no inherent meaning. But the title helps us assign meaning to it—the swelling and swaying musical passages suggest the movement of waves, the glittering splashes of tone colors represent the play of light on the sea's surface, the unexpected shifts of direction call to mind the stormy unpredictability of oceanic forces, etc.
Musical passages are not at all like oceans but we can nevertheless use our imaginations to assign such oceanic meanings to the sounds. Furthermore, if we ignore these meanings and attend to only the scales, modes, timbres, and rhythms at work in the music—in other words if we were to listen only analytically—we would miss a crucial element of what the music has to offer.
The sensory characteristics of wine can provide us with similar imaginative experiences if we are receptive to them, and the presence of alcohol as a stimulant to the imagination helps the process along. Philosopher John Dilworth has called such an approach to tasting "imaginative improvisatory theatre" and compares it to the kind of improvisations jazz musicians undertake in deviating from a standard score. You can find any number of examples of tasting notes that take this approach at Edible Arts. (For instance here and here.)
Throughout its history, wine has been metaphorically described by using words drawn from the semantic domains of personality and character traits, body types, clothing, the development of organisms, architecture, etc. Wines can be bold, muscular, silky, sturdy, exuberant, senile, or brooding. Imaginative tasting is simply an extension of this traditional practice of metaphorical description. The sounds and timbres of music bear no greater similarity to the sea than the flavors and textures of wine to a personality or the structure of a building. If such metaphorical extensions are permitted in music appreciation and criticism, why not in wine?
In fact, this richness of imaginative meaning makes wine a distinctive kind of sensory experience. Although coffee, chocolate and beer aficionados have taken to describing their experiences using flavor descriptors after the fashion of wine tasting notes, these consumables lack wine's capacity for imaginative, metaphorical projection. The sensory properties of individual wines enable our enjoyment of them; but it is the imaginative experience that grips the taster and provokes an emotional response. Of course, some wines lack the complexity and expressiveness to launch imaginative improvisations. They are dull and vacant, perhaps with plenty of flavor but no soul.
Will descriptions of these imaginative experiences be subjective? Well of course. But so are the images of the sea evoked by La Mer. When I imagine the sea as a response to the Debussy's music, it is my own experience that gives rise to the images, but there is enough inter-subjective agreement regarding sea experiences to make descriptions of them accessible to others. The experience of wine is no different; individual differences but with a common core that makes communication about them meaningful.
What does matter for tasting notes is that the "imaginative improvisation" is rooted in the sensory qualities of the wine, because it is these qualities that are accessible to others. Private, idiosyncratic imaginings with no foundation in publicly available properties of the wine have no place in a tasting note, however interesting they might be to the taster.
Thus, wine tasting is not nonsense but is continuous with other forms of criticism that enjoy cultural acceptance. Yet many people seem to be psychologically invested in the "wine tasting is bunk" meme which seems to have more lives than an unforgiven sin. It conforms to the anti-elitist posture that many people find so attractive, and of course the press will always jump at a chance to confirm people's prejudices—nothing is more effective at attracting eyeballs.
So the next time you see one of these articles—and you will see them—ask yourself how much expertise this writer has. Perhaps the writer is among the taste-impaired. You wouldn't ask her to fix your car would you?
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, August 18, 2014
Do Androids Dream of Electric Tomatoes? Food and Nostalgia
by Dwight Furrow
The world of food and wine thrives on a heavy dose of nostalgia. Culinarians ("foodies'" in the vernacular) chase down heritage tomatoes, ferment their own vinegar, and learn to butcher hogs in the name of "how things used to be" before the industrial food business created TV dinners and Twinkies. As we scour the Internet for authentic recipes, we imagine simpler times of family farms supporting family feasts consisting of real food, prepared in homey, immaculate kitchens with fruit pies on the windowsill, and the kids shelling beans at the table. Similarly, the wine industry continues to thrive on the romantic myth of the noble winemaker diligently tilling a small vineyard year after year to hand-produce glorious wines that taste of the local soil and climate.
Of course, in reality the winemaking of days past was not so romantic. Bad weather would have ruined some vintages and difficulties in controlling fermentation temperatures and unsanitary conditions in the winery rendered many wines barely drinkable. As to the way we ate in the not-to-distant past, for most people, food was scarce, expensive, of poor quality and often unsafe. Kitchens, if they existed, were poorly equipped and their operation depended on difficult, relentless work by women. Only the wealthy could eat in the manner approaching the quality of contemporary nostalgic yearnings, but that quality usually depended on the work of underpaid kitchen staff after slavery was abolished.
Nostalgia is a form of selective memory, history without the bad parts, enabling us to enjoy the past without guilt.
Does this dependency on myth render our contemporary fascination with the foods of the past a kind of kitsch—a sentimental, clichéd, easily marketed longing that offers "emotional gratification without intellectual effort" in Walter Benjamin's formulation, an aesthetic and moral failure? Worse, is this longing for the past a conservative resistance to the modern world. The word "nostalgia" has Greek roots—from nostos and algia meaning "longing to return home". Are contemporary culinarians and wine enthusiasts longing for a return to the "good" old days?
Longing for the past is the flipside of our obsession with progress. We live in a hyper-connected world of instant communication, but we most often communicate with people with whom we share few memories, where living together is more or less a recent accident of time and place. We are fascinated with novelty, expecting our browsers to feed us new stimulation every 30 seconds, but the new can become old in a matter of minutes, sucked into the dark matter of history by a new Twitter controversy. In this context, nostalgia arises naturally as an antidote to disconnection and discontinuity, a longing for a less fragmented world where we have more in common with others.
In fact, both our fascination with novelty and our fascination with the past are of recent vintage and deeply entwined. People thoroughly rooted in traditional ways of life would have no need for or access to nostalgia. Whatever losses they would mourn would not be for a different time but for losses suffered within their own time, the only time they know. The idea of tradition is itself a modern invention made possible by our anthropological prowess at unearthing the past, which is now accessible only as institutionalized heritage preserved in museums and monuments. The more distant we are from our past, the more obsessed with tradition we become. Nostalgia then is an attempt to patch up the irreversibility of time—to reconstruct a past which is irretrievably gone except as monument and memorial. Of course, this refusal to surrender to the irreversibility of time is itself a modernist impulse.
Thus progress and nostalgia are not antipodes. They need each other. Nostalgia is possible only when progress advances, and progress inevitably creates a heartfelt need for a reconstructed past.
For those uncomfortable with this status quo two competing visions of a future are salient. For some, the modern world is in a state of arrested disenchantment. Our pursuit of reason and science has succeeded in evacuating intrinsic meaning from the world. The world is a system of causal forces with no aim or purpose; meaning is something we must invent. But the form of reason available to us to assist in this project of inventing meaning reduces everything and everyone to an instrument, a consumable product, a system in which anything of value can be replaced by something else in the name of efficiency or profit, leaving individuals at the mercy of social forces out of their control. The solution is a more complete rationality—one informed by a stronger sense of the common good and human solidarity, a rationally defined utopia that has always been the aim of Enlightenment. That human beings seem incapable of such Enlightenment is a secret passing no one's lips.
To others the modern disenchanted world is a fabricated world of superficial eye (and ear) candy designed to activate our unconscious sympathies enough to loosen our wallets but doing nothing for our sense of alienation and disconnection. The solution, they argue, is more organic communities rooted in authentic traditions with stable personal relations based on shared values that allow us to wallow in the warmth and comfort of particularistic allegiances.
In this contrast between a more complete science and an organic community, it is not too hard to see the stylings of modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) and the locavore/slow food movement as particularly salient examples.
In the recent past these two impulses of modernity could be kept separate through the distinction between high and low culture. The fine arts were cosmopolitan and autonomous mimicking the social role of science in breaking up antiquated traditions and promoting human progress. The folk arts and craftwork, including cooking, were rooted in nostalgia for particularistic communities. With this distinction intact, it was easy to dismiss nostalgia as mere kitsch—easily accessible and comforting but not serious. It was to be hoped that through greater integration of society, as we gradually lose our connection to particularistic traditions, the universal, cosmopolitan impulse would win.
But today, although The Enlightenment project of educating the public via the fine arts still lives in our public rhetoric and on PBS, it looks like a lost cause as symphony orchestras and art programs fall by the wayside. This high culture, in any case, never succeeded in achieving universal appeal with only a small portion of the educated public attracted to it. The trend in the arts throughout the 20th Century was to break down this distinction between high and low culture by elevating the lowbrow with movements such as Dada and the ready-mades in the visual arts and rock and jazz in music. But as an agent of change, this too largely fails; the institutions of society have done a good job of commodifying these opposition movements, thus assimilating them to the dead utilitarian world they sought to escape.
Meanwhile, attempts to re-imagine authentic particularistic traditions seem dangerous. Nostalgia, by necessity, is the work of imagination, since the real, authentic past is irretrievable. The danger of nostalgia is that it tends to confuse the actual home and the imaginary one. In extreme cases it can create a phantom homeland, for the sake of which one is ready to die or kill. Nostalgia that escapes the realm of imagination can breed monsters.
Of course, the need to invent a past can be an attempt to create feelings of solidarity within a disadvantaged group as they strive for recognition, an understandable and sometimes effective strategy. It can also be placed in the service of powerful elites in society by insulating them from outside influence and making the current power structure seem natural in light of "history". In either case the aforementioned monsters are lurking.
So we have two antagonistic, co-dependent visions neither of which is viable. The vision of a perfected future is as implausible as the vision of a perfect past, two false gods at work—Nietzsche was just kidding about Twilight of the Idols.
The trick is to get off this dialectic altogether which is easier said than done. Yet, there is a distinction between trying to return to the past in order to rebuild it vs. the appropriation of the past as a kind of aesthetic celebration in looking towards the future. After all, it is reasonable when we are heading in the wrong direction to go back to where the mistake was made and clear new pathways. In the end, those seeking a perfected rational society may have no choice but to look to the past for inspiration. In light of the goal of perfection, the present will always seem a failure and thus the future must appear uncertain. Only the past has the stability and certainty to inspire such an ideal. Perhaps modernists do dream of electric heirloom tomatoes.
Rather than a return to the past, the contemporary fascination with food traditions is a reinterpretation and recontextualization of the past with an eye toward a better tasting future, much as the rock traditions of the 60's reinterpreted the old blues traditions to invent a new form of music. The aim is to imagine an aesthetic ideal that was lost when the food industry conquered all.
The threat to meaning doesn't come from a scientific world view or the lack of a homeland. It comes from the degradation of ordinary life to which a misguided science or loss of a homeland can contribute. We should view the current food revolution—both the concoctions of modernist cuisine and the nostalgia of the heritage/slow food movement—as attempts to re-enchant ordinary life, to make the humble act of preparing food an extraordinary event.
Such nostalgia is no longer kitsch but an imaginative attempt to discover a genuine experience, which is what art is supposed to be.
The fact we seek such an experience with a tomato perhaps shows how far we've fallen.