Monday, March 31, 2014
What Is Good Taste?
by Dwight Furrow
I suspect most people would say "good taste" is an ability to discern what other people in your social group (or the social group you aspire to) find attractive. Since most people cannot say much about why they like something, it seems as though good taste is just the ability to identify a shared preference, nothing more.
But looked at from the perspective of artists, musicians, designers, architects, chefs and winemakers, etc. this answer is inadequate. It doesn't explain why creative people, even when they achieve some success, strive to do better. If people find pleasure in what you do and good taste is nothing more than an ability to identify what other people in your social group enjoy, then there is little point in artists trying to get better, since the idea of "better" doesn't refer to any standard aside from "what people like". So it seems like there must be more to good taste than that.
Furthermore, good taste cannot merely be a matter of having a sense of prevailing social conventions because artists and critics often produce unconventional judgments about what is good. Instead, having good taste involves knowing what is truly excellent or of genuine value, which may have little to do with social conventions.
But philosophers have struggled to say more about what good taste is. David Hume, the 18th Century British philosopher, argued that good taste involves "delicacy of sentiment" by which he meant the ability to detect what makes something pleasing or not. In his famous example of the two wine critics, one argued that a wine is good but for a taste of leather he detected; the other argued that the wine is good but for a slight taste of metal. Both were proven right when the container was emptied and a key with a leather thong attached was found at the bottom.
Thus, Hume seemed to think that good taste was roughly what excellent blind tasters have—the ability, acquired through practice and comparison, to taste subtle components of a wine that most non-experts would miss and pass summary judgment on them. The same could be said of the ability to detect subtle, good-making features of a painting or piece of music. The virtue of such analytic tasting of wines is that the detection of discreet components can at least in theory be verified by science and thus aspires to a degree of objectivity. Flavor notes such as "apricot" or "vanilla" are explained by detectable chemical compounds in the wine. The causal theory lends itself to this kind of test of acuity since causal properties can often be independently verified.
Hume's model of taste contains some insight. Someone practiced at discerning elements that ordinary perceivers would miss is an indicator that she has good taste. But I don't think this model is quite right.
Good taste involves evaluating quality, and the quality of a painting, piece of music, or wine is seldom a function of the components of the work taken individually. A wine taster can identify a whole bowl of various fruit aromas wafting from a wine, pronounce the acidity to be bracing and the tannins fine-grained but firm and still have said little about wine quality. Wine quality is a function of structure, balance, complexity, and intensity supplemented by even less concrete features such as deliciousness, power, elegance, gracefulness, or refreshment. None of these features can be detected by analytically breaking down a wine because they are inherently relational, just as describing a painted surface as garish or a piece of music as lyrical would involve relations. No single component can account for them; it is a matter of how the components are related. In wine, even a prominent feature like acidity is not merely a function of Ph; perceived acidity differs substantially from objective measures of acidity and is influenced by the prominence of other components such as sugar and tannin levels. None of these relational properties seem amenable to scientific analysis. I doubt that gas chromatography can identify elegance; a wine's balance cannot be appreciated by measuring PH and sugar levels.
Identifying these aesthetic features involves a holistic judgment, not an analytic one. The wine as a whole must be evaluated just as evaluating painting or music involves judgments about the work as a whole. But although these holistic features in a wine are a product of fruit, acidity, and tannic structure no list of wine components will add up to a wine being balanced, elegant or delicious. Another British philosopher, from the 20th Century, Frank Sibley, argued that this is a general feature of aesthetic judgments. There are no rules that get us from facts about the object, regardless of how subtle, to these holistic aesthetic judgments.
Hence, the problem of good taste. What do you discern when you identify elegance, grace, or deliciousness in a wine? It's not like picking out oak flavors. It's a judgment about how everything comes together—a set of relations that emerge from facts about the wine but are not identical to any particular collection of facts. If it is not an analytic ability, what sort of ability is it?
I think Kant, another 18th Century philosopher, gets us closer to an answer. When I judge something to be beautiful, I do so because I like it. But what about it do I like? For Kant, the pleasure I get from a genuinely beautiful object does not lie in the fact I find it agreeable or pretty. Rather, I enjoy how it makes me think. It stimulates contemplation of a particular kind. Kant called this the free play of understanding and imagination.
Interpreting Kant is a rather perilous journey but I think he has in mind something like this.
A beautiful object exhibits an order or unity that cannot be fully described. Neither words nor aesthetic principles are sufficient. There are no rules, he argues, that govern our use of the term "beauty" and, in any case, feelings of pleasure will be an unreliable guide to when we are in the presence of beauty. He apparently thinks that each object exhibits beauty in a different way so we can't simply point to a set of features that generally cause us to judge something beautiful. We can't understand a beautiful object like we understand tables or chairs that have determinate, repeatable properties. Yet, in great works of art there is something there that we want to learn more about, patterns that we want to learn to follow, a unity we must strive to grasp. A beautiful object can't mean anything we want it to mean. With beautiful objects we have to search for what they mean and that requires imagination. We have to imaginatively search for a principle that helps us to better understand the object, although we are doomed to fail because, given the indeterminacy of beauty, there is always more to be said. It is this searching activity that we find enjoyable—an intellectual fascination with trying discover all the dimensions that a work has to give. 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.
Of course, some objects won't repay that much attention. We explore them for awhile, get bored because we've come to identify and articulate everything important about them, and move on. But according to Kant, an object is genuinely beautiful if it sustains our interest in reflecting on it indefinitely because all attempts to fully understand it fail. The object has an order that constantly opens new ways of understanding it because no particular principle is ever adequate. Beautiful objects are intriguing, mysterious, not fully understood, yet at the same time balanced, harmonious, and well put together.
Thus, taste, on Kant's view must refer to our ability to determine whether an object is worth reflecting on, whether it will repay our attention and produce endless fascination. A person of good taste discovers new patterns to explore, finds unexpected avenues of meaning, and responds with feelings and insights that generate new ways of describing something.
Kant, of course, would never have assented to using his theory to understand the enjoyment of wine or food. "Mouth taste" he argued is a matter of immediately liking or not liking something and does not provoke contemplation as the appreciation of fine art does. But on this point, I think Kant was wrong.
For example, 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 Modernist cuisine (aka molecular gastronomy) aims for. The moments of uncertainty, surprise, and deconstructive gestures of their dishes 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.
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.
But what about wine? Wine too is mysterious and a provocation to further exploration, but it fascinates differently from the mysteries of Modernist cuisine. Its capacity for evolution in the bottle and in the glass and the volatile esters that leap from its surface mean that each bottle promises new and different perceptions, and each sip can reveal hidden layers of flavors and fleeting aromas. Great wines have the 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. These experiences are almost always the result of paradox—power combined with finesse, elegance with carnality, surface sheen and depth.
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 everyday. 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 as well—a moment of ecstasy.
It is not at all clear that Kant's free play of the understanding and imagination quite captures the sheer sensuality of these experiences, whether the object be wine, music, or a work of visual art. It is more like receptively opening up to sensation rather than an intellectual search for a principle. In the end, Kant's view seems too intellectual, too bound up with understanding to account for our fascination with the sensuous surface of things, the pure enjoyment of appearances.
So I fear we are not quite there in our pursuit of good taste.
Maybe if I open another bottle the answer will become clear.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine visit Edible Arts.
Monday, March 03, 2014
Must We Have Fascism With Our Petits Fours
by Dwight Furrow
A few weeks ago in the pages of 3 Quarks Daily we were treated to the proclamation of a new doctrine called "Anti-Gopnikism". The reference in the title is to Adam Gopnik, essayist for the New Yorker, who writes frequently in praise of French culture, especially French food. Philosopher Justin Smith, who is responsible for the proclamation of this doctrine, defines Gopnikism as follows:
The first rule of this genre is that one must assume at the outset that France --like America, in its own way-- is an absolutely exceptional place, with a timeless and unchanging and thoroughly authentic spirit. This authenticity is reflected par excellence in the French relation to food, which, as the subtitle of Adam Gopnik's now canonical book reminds us, stands synecdochically for family, and therefore implicitly also for nation.
Thus, Anti-Gopnikism, we are to infer, must consist of a denial that France is an exceptional place, or that it has a timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit, or that its relationship to its food is unique, or all of the above. We are not provided with any evidence to support any of these denials.
Whether American writers are correct to extoll the exceptional virtues of France depends on what you're looking for. The French are lousy at the Olympics but their wine is awesome. Their music can be simple ear-candy and overly romantic but then there is Boulez and Messiaen. Their language is lovely but peculiar; their conversation at times formal but extraordinarily civilized. Like any nation, they have virtues and vices. If you are interested in food and wine they are an essential nation, and have for centuries, defined what fine food is. To claim their relationship to food is not exceptional is to be blind to their extraordinary influence. Other cultures may lay claim to being more influential today but that does not erase the glorious history of French food. As to the timeless, unchanging, authentic spirit—well we are all part of history and no culture is timeless or unchanging. As far as I can tell, Gopnik doesn't claim or imply a timeless, unchanging essence. In fact, in his recent book The Table Comes First: France, Family, and the Meaning of Food, he claims French food has fundamentally changed in recent decades, is in crisis, and he upbraids them for narcissism and navel gazing.
So what is this diatribe against "Gopnikism" really about? It turns out Gopnikism is a lot more sinister than a French food fetish. Smith writes:
France, in other words, is a country that invites ignorant Americans, under cover of apolitical vacationing, of living 'the good life and of cultivating their faculty of taste, to unwittingly indulge their fantasies of blood-and-soil ideology. You'll say I'm exaggerating, but I mean exactly what I say. From M.F.K. Fisher's Francocentric judgment that jalapeños are for undisciplined peoples stuck in the childhood of humanity, to Gopnik's celebration of Gallic commensality as the tie that binds family and country, French soil has long been portrayed by Americans as uniquely suited for the production of people with the right kind of values. This is dangerous stuff.
Oh my! This is truly a puzzling argument. No doubt the French view their cuisine as an expression of their national character just as do the Italians, Japanese, or Chinese among others. Gopnik's claim is that the French have discovered, perhaps more so than other nations, that the pleasure of food brings intimations of the sacred into our lives. Independently of whether such a claim is true or not, what on earth does this have to do with Nazi "blood and soil" ideology. Something has gone deeply wrong here.
This argument relating French food to Nazism seems to go something like this: (1) French attitudes toward their cuisine are expressions of excessive nationalism, (2) German attitudes in the 1930's about the purity and superiority of their "racial stock" were expressions of excessive nationalism, (3) Therefore, writers (and tourists) who extoll the virtues of French cuisine are implicitly endorsing the attitudes of Nazis toward their alleged racial superiority. What exactly a love of Cassoulet has to do with burning people in ovens we are not told.
I suppose we get a clue from Smith's criticisms of the French treatment of their immigrant populations—especially Muslims.
I have witnessed incessant stop-and-frisk of young black men in the Gare du Nord; in contrast with New York, here in Paris this practice is scarcely debated. I've been told by a taxi driver as we passed through a black neighborhood: "I hope you got your shots. You don't need to go to Africa anymore to get a tropical disease." On numerous occasions, French strangers have offered up the observation to me, in reference to ethnic minorities going about their lives in the capital: "This is no longer France. France is over." There is a constant, droning presupposition in virtually all social interactions that a clear and meaningful division can be made between the real France and the impostors.
I don't live in France, but if the American media is to be believed, the French treatment of minority populations as well as rising xenophobia throughout Europe is deplorable, although it is not obvious it is uniquely so. Perhaps the French treatment of immigrant populations is an indication of a kind of insularity endemic to French culture which per hypothesis explains the decline in creativity in French cooking that some authors, including Gopnik, have noted. But smug complacency regarding one's cuisine is hardly the same thing as a regime of genocide or violent immigrant bashing.
Indigenous foods that express the terroir of local soils and the sensibility of a people are about the uniqueness and incomparability of a place. These, by definition, cannot be transplanted; they belong nowhere else but in that location among those people. Nazi "blood and soil" ideology was about universal hegemony. It was about the right to rule over and exterminate others. The conceptual chasm between French food fetishism and Nazi violence is enormous.
Even if we stick to food and ignore the silly notion that "food fights" are akin to real violence, the inference from love of one's culture to attempts at world domination makes no sense. You can praise the virtues of some constellation of flavors or a method of straining soups without thinking everyone must deploy those flavors or methods in their cuisine. Something might work wonderfully in the French style without being appropriate anywhere else, and nothing about the virtues of one locality's food precludes the appreciation of another. Even if the French think they have the world's best cuisine it doesn't follow that they think everyone must emulate or promote it.
Despite this utterly failed comparison, there is an interesting and important philosophical issue percolating behind the slippery logic of this argument. Can you love a place, a culture, a people and think of them as uniquely virtuous without excluding respect for others who are outside that culture? Can one enjoy the goods of being immersed in and loyal to one's own culture while acknowledging the good of other cultures? Is particularity compatible with universalism? The answer would seem to be, obviously, yes. The devil is of course in the details. Some conflicts between cultural belief systems cannot be mitigated let alone resolved. But there is no general or principled reason why love of one's nation or culture cannot be constrained by an acknowledgement of the rights of others. This is true even when the stakes are high. Many of these "food fights" as well as debates over immigration policies are motivated by fears of cultural annihilation. But the French, or anyone else, can pursue cultural survival without excessive force or attempts at world domination.
Arguably, if cultural survival is at stake and there is too much influence from the outside, one's identity or particularity is undermined. The French, of course, have always been deeply protective of their cultural and linguistic heritage, going so far as to have a ministry of the state responsible for the preservation of French identity. Perhaps this exaggerated "anxiety of influence" is the source of Smith's worry that French fascism is hiding under your croissant. But the rational response to such a threat is creative "border management" where new influences interact with entrenched traditions to create new formations that constitute cultural advance. Food traditions are in fact excellent examples of creative "border management". French cuisine would not have the depth it has without the Germanic-influenced dishes from Alsace, the Mediterranean and North African-influenced foods of Provence, the Spanish influence on Basque cooking, etc. The history of food shows that the "anxiety of influence" is overwrought and food writers such as Gopnik are adept at highlighting this history. Perhaps it is Smith's contention that the French are incapable of such border management. Well, but they obviously are so capable given the history of their food.
Partiality toward one's culture or nation can be benign or dangerous depending on whether it is supplemented by megalomania. Love of one's culture is not dangerous. It is the idea that one's culture is in fact a universal culture that threatens. The French are showing no signs of becoming a world hegemon and Gopnik's writing will hardly make it so.
I predict anti-Gopnikism will join phrenology and the four humors in the dustbin of history.
For more ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine, visit Edible Arts
Monday, February 24, 2014
Does Beer Cause Cancer?
by Carol A. Westbrook
I have been taken to task by several of my readers for promoting beer drinking. "How can you, a cancer doctor, advocate drinking beer, " I was asked, "when it is KNOWN to cause cancer?" I realized that it was time to set the facts straight. Is moderate beer drinking good for your health, as I have always maintained, or does it cause cancer?
Recently there has been some discussion in the popular press about studies showing a possible link between alcohol and cancer. As a matter of fact, reports linking foods to cancer causation (or prevention) are relatively common. I generally ignore these press releases because they generate a lot of hype but are usually based on single studies that, on follow-up, turn out to have flaws or cannot be confirmed; the negative follow-up study rarely receives any publicity. Moreover, there are often other studies published at other times showing completely contradictory results; for example, that red wine both prevents and causes cancer.
Furthermore, there is a great deal of self-righteousness about certain foods, and this attitude can cloud objectivity and lead to bias in interpreting the results; often these feelings have strong political implications as well. Some politically charged dietary issues include: vegetarianism; genetically modified crops; artificial sweeteners; sugared soft drinks. Alcohol fits right into this category--remember, we are the country that adopted prohibition for 13 years. There is no doubt the United States has significant public health issues related to alcohol use, including alcohol-related auto accidents, underage drinking, and alcoholism, and the consequent problems of unemployment, cirrhosis of the liver, brain and neurologic problems, and fetal alcohol syndrome. Wouldn't it be great if the government could mandate a label on every beer can stating, "consumption of alcohol can cause cancer and should be avoided"? Wouldn't that be a wonderful "I told you so!" for the alcohol nay-sayers?
Before going further, I will acknowledge that are alcohol-related cancers. As a specialist I am well aware that cancers of the head and neck area, the larynx (voice box) and the esophagus are frequently seen in heavy drinkers, almost always in association with cigarette smoking. Liver cancer is seen primarily in people with cirrhosis--also a result of heavy drinking. In both instances, the more alcohol that is consumed, the greater the risk of developing one of these cancers--and I have rarely seen these cancers in non-smokers or non-drinkers. But assuming that my readers are not alcoholics, the question that they are really asking is whether or not they are going to get cancer from low to moderate beer drinking.
So what, then, are the facts? Does beer cause cancer? This is a much more difficult question to answer than most people realize, and can easily be the subject of years of study for a PhD dissertation (and probably has been). Researchers will be quick to admit how difficult it is to do scientifically rigorous studies on the health effects of individual dietary components. You can't just take a group of thirty year-olds, split them into two groups, give beer to one group and make the other abstain, watch them for 20 years and see who gets more cancer. So we have to rely on population studies, estimating alcohol consumption based on purchasing statistics, self-reporting of drinking (which is often unreliable), surveys, and death certificates for cancer. Incidentally, beer is not considered separately from other alcoholic beverages in any of these studies.
For example, an interesting study by Holahan and colleagues, published in 2010 in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, followed 1,824 middle-aged men and women (ages 55–65) over 20 years and found that moderate drinkers lived longer than did both heavy drinkers and teetotalers. In particular, their data suggested that non-drinkers had a 50% higher death rate than moderate drinkers (1 - 2 drinks per day). Others have criticized this conclusion because the no-alcohol group included people who didn't drink because they were already at a higher risk of death for other reasons such as serious medical conditions, previous cancers, or they were former alcoholics on the wagon. The authors claimed that they controlled for these variables but that is almost impossible to do, and that is one of the reasons that it is difficult to get accurate data from this kind of study. So it may be hard to conclude that moderate drinking significantly increases your lifespan, but it certainly doesn't shorten it.
What about cancer? The publication that started the most recent hype about cancer and alcohol appeared in the April 2013 issue ofThe American Journal of Public Health, and was written by David Nelson MD, MPH and his colleagues. They combined information from others' publications with epidemiologic surveys to determine the number of cancer deaths attributable to alcohol, as well as the types of cancer that were associated. They found that about 3% of all cancer deaths in the US were related to alcohol consumption, with most of it seen in the head and neck, larynx and esophagus. There was still a slight increased risk at low alcohol use (greater than 0 but less than 1 1/2 drinks per day), which led them to conclude, "regular alcohol use at low consumption levels is also associated with increased cancer risk." I looked at their study, and couldn't argue with their conclusion, but I don't think the risk is significant enough to recommend becoming a teetotaler.
Neither does the US National Cancer Institute (NCI). Heavy drinking aside, the NCI does not recommend that people discontinue low or moderate drinking since it would have only a minimal impact on their chance of developing cancer. Some caution is indicated for specific cancers: There is a 1.5 times increased risk of breast cancer in women who drink more than 3 drinks per day compared to non-drinkers; similarly, the risk of colon cancer is 1.5 times increased in people who more than 3.5 drinks per day. Incidentally, 3.5 drinks per day is still well above the level that is considered "low to moderate" drinking, which is usually defined as no more than 1 drink per day for a woman, 2 per day for a man. That being said, lowering your alcohol consumption deserves some consideration if you are anxious to change your odds for these two specific cancers. Nonetheless, the risks from alcohol are still low when compared to the impact of other lifestyle factors. Addressing these factors will have a much greater impact than giving up that beer or wine with your dinner: don't smoke, lose weight if you are over; exercise; eat a high-fiber diet; increase your vegetable and fruit consumption, while limiting red meat; avoid processed food; follow-up on your doctor's cancer screening recommendations for colonoscopy, pap smears, mammography and prostate screening.
Do the positive effects of drinking beer outweigh the negative effects? Moderate alcohol consumption has been reported to lower the risks of heart disease, stroke, hypertension and Type 2 diabetes; for men, it may lower the risk of kidney stones and of prostate cancer; may improve bone health; may prevent brain function decline. Alcohol consumption actually lowers the risk of kidney cancer and of lymphoma. Overall, in most studies, the positive effect was very small, but the beneficial effects of beer are only in moderate drinking, not for those who drink to excess. And of course, there are social and psychological benefits to sharing a beer with friends.
So, is beer drinking good for you? Or bad? Are you healthier if you drink, say, a beer or two per day, or are you worse off? My conclusion as a medical specialist is: it depends. On average, for the general population, drinking a little alcohol is better than abstaining completely. But on an individual basis, it depends on your current health conditions and your risk factors. Are you more likely to die of heart disease or of colon cancer? And if you want to cut down your risk of either condition you must be sure to avoid cigarettes, keep your weight down, exercise, eat a high-fiber diet that is low in red meat and processed foods, and increase your fruit and vegetable intake. The impact of alcohol consumption is likely to be small compared to these lifestyle changes.
What does the Beer Doctor do? As a cancer specialist, my lifestyle includes all of the above recommendations on exercise, weight and diet. I continue to enjoy my beer, but I keep my consumption within the low to moderate range, that is on average about 0.5 to 1 per day, and not every day. For me, the health benefits of drinking beer outweigh the negatives. To your health!
© 2014, Carol Westbrook. This article is from my forthcoming book, To Your Health! The opinions expressed here are my own, and do not reflect those of my employer, Geisinger Health Systems.
Monday, February 03, 2014
Can Wine Be Sexy?
by Dwight Furrow
Valentine's Day is fast approaching; it's time to think about which wine will precisely calibrate the proper mood. But why wine? Why not a nice craft beer or a glass of orange juice? Why is wine the beverage that signals romance?
I would imagine wine and romance have been linked since our ancestors first discovered the benefits of moderate inebriation. The loss of inhibition and gain in confidence make wine a natural ally in games of seduction. But the relaxing of inhibitions is not the only benefit that wine confers on the amorous. Romance requires illusion. We fall in love with an idealized version of the beloved, believing he/she has all the virtues we admire and none of the negative traits we shun. Evolution has designed us to drop the skepticism when presented with the promise of procreation.
The Roman poet Ovid, in his 17 A.D. work "The Art of Love" says of wine that, "It warms the blood, adds luster to the eyes, and wine and love have ever been allies". Given the paltry proportion of "beautiful people" to ordinary shlubs, adding "luster to the eyes" may be the most significant contribution wine has made to human existence. But, in fact, scientists have demonstrated this effect with beer as well—it has come to be known as "beer goggles". Inebriation cannot explain the connection between wine and romance since any alcohol would suffice—yet, a can of "bud" just doesn't have the same meaning as a bottle of Dom Perignon. There must be something else about wine that connects it to romance.
Is there something inherently and uniquely amorous about fermented grape juice? In fact the history of wine as an aphrodisiac is as lengthy as that of food. It gets a less-than-enthusiastic mention in the Talmud and a much more enthusiastic discussion in the Roman historian Pliny's 1st Century Natural History, where he recommends wine be mixed with the muzzle and feet of a lizard or the right testicle of a donkey to cure a reluctant libido. Are you feeling the romance yet?
Various similar legends continued well into Enlightenment Europe. Mozart's Don Giovanni used a repast of "chocolate, coffee, wine and ham" to help the ladies acquire the proper attitude, and throughout history wine has been used as a gift to indicate romantic interest as well as being an integral part of the wedding ceremony.
Even today the notion of wine as love potion is rehearsed by scientists (or their publicists) looking for a catchy headline. According to Dr. Max Lake, author of the book Scents and Sensuality, the aromas of some wines resemble the scents of human pheromones. Allegedly, it is the earthy scents of some red wines such as leather and musk that resemble male pheromones. Female pheromones resemble the sweaty or yeasty aromas in some white and sparkling wines. However, despite the efforts of Dr. Lake, the science of human pheromones and sexual attraction is uncertain, which is a good thing since none of this talk of pheromones seems particularly romantic.
If wine is to be linked to romance, it will not be through a direct causal connection but instead through its symbolic or metaphorical significance. Why does the idea of wine symbolize romance? One reason might be that wine can be expensive and thus signifies wealth. Expensive things are often seen as romantic. True, an inexpensive can of Bud Light by candlelight just doesn't turn up the temperature. But, on the other hand, a 40 year bottle of Glenfiddich (Scotch), although it might set you back $2500, doesn't connote romance either. So it is not just the expense that matters.
Wine is also conducive to sharing. One bottle for two people is the perfect amount for an evening. By contrast, beer is sold in individual containers and typically not shared, and trying to share a whole bottle of Glenfiddich would hardly contribute to romance, unless passing out on the bathroom floor hugging the porcelain throne is your idea of romantic. But the wine bottle's perfect proportion is not substantial enough to establish a robust relationship between wine and romance; and in any case wine was associated with romance long before it was served in bottles.
I don't think it is the concept of wine that connotes romance so much as it is the sensuality of the experience of it. Romance, in its most concrete way of being, is not really about perpetuating the species, sharing a life, or assessing the value of something. Yes, love is about these things, but romance is more narrowly focused. It is about small things that activate the senses. It is initiated by a shy smile, an intriguing glance, the way someone moves across the room, the shapely outline of bodily form, or a well-placed murmur of approval insinuated into a conversation. It is sustained by the anticipation of things to come, the unfurling of mystery, an evolution without end that perpetually concentrates the future in a pregnant now. Romance is about sensuality.
It is one of the great gifts of life that consuming fermented grape juice can resemble the experience of romance. The curvaceous shape of the bottle, the pop of the cork, the deep ruby or pale gold color as it splashes into the glass signal the beginning of sensation. Aromas that remind us of voluptuous fruit burst from the glass to be replaced by earthy, musky fumes that connote carnal knowledge. As we sip, we hold the wine in our mouths to maximize the sensation of creamy viscosity or light, racy runnels of flavor. Each bottle of wine promises new and different perceptions and a new summit of sensation, and each sip, if the wine is of quality, can reveal something previously hidden. Wine's evolution in the bottle, in the barrel, and from vintage to vintage is its most mysterious, capricious aspect. One never knows what to expect and its improvement or degradation hangs in the balance.
It is therefore no accident that words such as sexy, seductive, supple, or luscious are used to describe wine. A bottle of wine can be an alluring and capricious mistress, boldly grabbing your attention with aromas and tastes that disappear, leaving you wondering exactly what you are tasting. Or a wine can be reticent at first, shyly revealing new layers of flavor with every pour.
Some people fall first for a voluptuous Merlot, then become intrigued by the power and structure of Cabernet Sauvignon, and finally settle on the beautiful but elusive Nebbiolo. But for me the temptress has always been Pinot Noir. Most great wines are flavor driven. They are attractive because they have deeply concentrated fruit flavors that explode in the glass and persist, commanding your attention through a long, luxurious finish. But Pinot Noir is all about texture. It is silky and supple in a range from gossamer to well-worn suede. It languidly sits on the tongue, charming, beckoning but demanding nothing and making no bold announcement. The good ones from Burgundy, upon further inspection, reveal earthy truffles and animal-like aromas that unveil their libidinal charge. These are fleshy and fecund. They manage to be elegant and carnal at the same time.
Wine can take on the meanings of romance, because the experience of it is the closest thing in life to those magic moments when love beckons through exquisite sensory awareness. So the next time your favorite wine critic describes a wine as sexy its not only her imagination that is running wild.
More ruminations on the Philosophy of Food and Wine can be found at Edible Arts.
Monday, January 06, 2014
Habits and Heresies: Authenticity, Food Rules, and the People Who Break Them
by Dwight Furrow
Dishes are a representation of the food tradition from which they emerge. But what counts as an authentic representation of a tradition and who decides?
All of us come to the table with a history of eating experiences that have left behind a sediment of preferences, a map of what goes with what, an impressionistic bible of what particular ingredients should taste like and how particular dishes satisfy. Food is the constant companion present when love emerges, deals are made, and sorrow weighs. Thus, food memories meld with emotional cues and are appended to the minor and major ceremonies that constitute the routines of life. Flavors acquire an emotional resonance and symbolic power that enables them to express the style of a culture and provide some of the prohibitions and taboos that signify social boundaries and status. There is a right and wrong way to eat and woe to those who get it wrong—you cannot be one of us.
Just as linguistic meaning is encoded in physical inscription (writing) and phonemes (speaking), food meanings are encoded in the flavors and textures with which people identify, a semi-consciously held template that says Italian, French, or low country. This template cannot be fully articulated in a set of rules; one knows the taste of home even if one can't say what home tastes like. Although the original association of flavors with identities is arbitrary, conventional, and driven by accidents of geography, once established they are no longer arbitrary but consciously perpetuated via resemblance. Cooks working within food traditions create dishes that replicate that template because their patron's map and bible generate those expectations.
Thus, the relationship between flavor and meaning is not merely an association but a synthesis. Moral taste and mouth taste become one.
When a server puts a plate of food in front of you, the dish confronts your map and bible. The dish may or may not represent your tradition, may or may not represent your map and bible, but it represents some tradition or other, and expresses someone's style, and thus poses a question about where and how it fits. The dish refers to other dishes as an imitation, interpretation, challenge, or affront. Is it an authentic extension of the tradition or a violation worthy of scorn?
What gives food traditions their staying power and capacity for repetition? Is it like a bad habit, something we've fallen into and repeat unthinkingly, or does it have some real authority? The fact that deviations from the norm are often met with derision, disgust, and hostility suggests that food traditions have genuine normative authority. They acquire such authority because they express one's cultural identity. Our self concept is in part derived from perceived membership in a culture—eating a particular style of food, as a matter of habit, for some people is a condition of membership and a badge of authenticity. But more importantly food traditions embody familiar flavors served in familiar ways, and familiarity has its own deeply felt emotional resonance especially when it involves taking something into our bodies. Food is a constant necessity and its procurement and consumption requires a robust social context, so it is deeply interwoven with our history and emotions, and is naturally associated with a sense of "at homeness", of location, and intimacy. Food rules have normative authority because their violation is an affront to our self-concept and threatens our implicit sense of security that we expect from food. If you're Italian, don't eat cheese with fish or have coffee during dinner. If you're French, never eat salad before the main dish. Pennsylvanians know you can't get a decent cheesesteak in any other state, transplanted New Yorkers will give up pizza rather than eat that stuff from Chicago, and to a Texan any other barbecue does not even count as meat. Woe to the transgressors who violate food rules.
Thus, culinary travelers ("foodies" in the vernacular) take authenticity, strict conformity to the map and bible, to be a central aesthetic consideration. Only when eating the "real thing" does one gain access to that realm of intimacy and location.
But as I noted on this blog last month, food fights raise a paradox. The prevalence and vehement enforcement of food rules suggests that any transgression is met with disapproval. But history tells a different story, of unstable identities and porous cultural boundaries rendering debates about authenticity interminable and pointless. It was not until the end of the 19th Century that olive oil became essential to the cooking of Southern France. Pizza and pasta were originally eaten only in Southern Italy. Tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes, all staples of European cooking, had their origins in the new world. If identities are based on food preferences, those identities are ceaselessly changing. The map and bible are so tattered they seem incapable of supporting the vitriol spilled in their name. Given their shabby condition, why do food fights arise? Why worry about authenticity at all?
Identities, whether based on food or some other characteristic, are unstable because they confront a variety of oppositions that have already mounted an invasion and taken hostages. An explicitly articulated, self-conscious identity is not something one needs unless that identity is under threat, when trespassers have already taken their liberties. When identity requires continual assertion because it is persistently being challenged then it must become consciously held and forcefully asserted. At that point, the concept of authenticity becomes decisive. One needs some way of separating what is really mine from the imposters who have crossed the border. Thus, food becomes a symbol of pride and contest. The British love of beef, in part, gets its authority from its ability to mark a difference from the French, who don't consider it essential. But this would not be necessary unless French cuisine had not already gained a foothold among the British. Italians differentiate themselves from and even look down on others because of their belief that no one eats as well as they do, but only because they had been fighting encroachments from the Mediterranean and northern Europe for centuries. Food fights presuppose a contest that makes the assertion of identity necessary, defining oneself via a contrast with what one is not, as different from the other. But the other is setting the agenda, forcing the issue. Flavors cross borders easily and the attractions of food-induced pleasure, even when foreign and unfamiliar, are hard to resist, authenticity notwithstanding. The battle is joined after the war is lost.
Traditions represent a common stock of knowledge and use rituals, symbols, and ceremonies to link people to a place, a common sense of the past and a sense of belonging. But at the same time, the idea of local culture is a relational concept and the act of drawing a boundary a relational act that depends on situating oneself within a network of other localities that already have exerted influence. Modern food identities, in fact, must reverberate in two directions. They must unify a country and give it prominence on the world stage while relentlessly focusing on the local. This is why pasta is such a powerful national symbol for the Italians. It is ubiquitous in every part of the country and usually made with the same ingredients. It has become the dominant symbol of Italian food. Yet the particular shape and texture of pasta is governed by an array of local norms that determine which shapes are to be used and with what condiment, thus providing a cultural boundary to identify outsiders.
In contemporary life, this assertion of identity has taken an interesting turn. The greatest threat to all food traditions is the increasing homogenization of food. Food cultures are becoming homogeneous as global food corporations expand across the globe. The ubiquitous hamburger, especially as interpreted by McDonald's and a plethora of other fast food chains, Coca-Cola and other soft drinks, snack foods, and processed foods made identically by global corporations are common in every industrialized nation on the globe. In chain restaurants, novelty and surprise are minimized. The decor and menus must be familiar, with only minor adjustments made to accommodate local tastes, and interactions with the consumer are scripted regardless of locale. Today in major cities across the globe virtually any food can be found anywhere with no connection to a particular location, often in combinations that juxtapose many cuisines on the same plate. Even haute cuisine is threatened by homogenization with pricey restaurants from New York, to London, to Tokyo serving very similar dishes to a business class seeking familiarity. The culinary traveler can remain at home and find most of what she can imagine.
Thus, today, the authority of tradition comes from its ability to assert distinctiveness in the face of this homogenization. Food identities root us in the local and particular as opposed to the global, homogenized, bureaucratic world, and authenticity is perceived as a cure for excessive homogenization. Modern food identities presuppose a discourse of taste that implies that "natural", rooted, artisanal products taste better than mass-produced ones. Furthermore, knowing the producer adds an imaginary value to the food which helps it to taste better. The fact that a particular person made it contributes to its quality.
But we return to the problem. What counts as genuinely authentic, embodying a real awareness of actual history and geography? Too often appeals to authenticity select only portions of the past to remember and what is remembered is highly idealized, as manufactured as the corporate food it seeks to displace. Unfortunately, any return to the past will be a narrative reinvention—an account of the past as it looks to us after the fact, satisfying a need for romance and imagination, but having little connection to "how it really was."
Before the emergence of mass transportation, food cultures had essential properties determined by the necessities of agriculture and geography. Today food cultures are more imaginary—ways of constructing opposition and projecting strength. So they must react and be negotiated. There is no pure past available for the taking—all memory is influenced by the living present. This means that traditions must change because they are continually confronted by new threats, encroachments, copiers, and pretenders, and so they must find new ways of asserting identity.
This is where the chef as artist comes into play performing the delicate balance between innovation and tradition. Restlessness toward the status quo is essential to being an artist. They may be inspired by the past but their aim is seldom simply to emulate it. Any work of art is an experiment that strives to reach beyond what has been done. However, the artist's audience will be the ultimate arbiter of success and the culinary artist is no exception. Chefs must negotiate their way through maps and bibles—the expectations of diners. In the edible arts, awareness of tradition is essential and must be preserved.
Innovative dishes thus pose a question—what is authentic? Are the violations of tradition that give a dish its originality and excitement indicative of the proper direction for that tradition? There is tension between chef and patron. The creative chef revels in the detour. Her customers want a straighter line, a place of respite, an end that is still recognizable according to her map and bible.
How do chefs and cooks work through this conflict? We need to question the very notion of authenticity that is presupposed by the conflict. Why should "authentic" mean that a dish is prepared exactly the way an insider from the past would have cooked it, especially when it is likely that insiders in the past did a lot of experimenting in responding to their local conditions. Every Italian grandmother will tell you she has a secret recipe for some staple dish which makes it utterly unique. But that conceit can possess a modicum of truth only if Italian grandmothers were experimenting, trying new approaches with the ingredients they had available. Who has the authentic recipe? There isn't one. There are as many authentic recipes as Italian grandmothers.
Furthermore, even if we could agree that a dish was prepared in an authentic manner using authentic ingredients, why think a diner has the ability to experience it as authentic? As noted, diners come to a dish with a history of experience that shapes their perception of it. People from outside a culture—or insiders who have had extensive experience as culinary travelers themselves—are unlikely to experience a dish in the same way as an indigenous, historical diner since they have vastly different experiences—a different map and bible. A work of cuisine is a different work for the cultural insider in contrast to the culinary traveler. Whatever authenticity means, it cannot mean a pure origin that can repeat itself over and over without variation.
So who gets to assert the authority of authenticity, insider or outsider, the indigenous cook or the diasporic cook? The diaspora represents a danger. It may be utterly cut off from the history and traditions of the homeland and thus inventions may lack any continuity with an original tradition. Transgression is easier in the diaspora, cut off from the experiences that gave rise to historical pressures to assert an identity. However, the diaspora can also represent multiple directions and modes of representation. Diasporic communities must try to make a difference within their cultures of residence often amidst a good deal of hostility. Thus, the diasporic cook is located between two histories and must invent a narrative in active relationship with the native culture. Furthermore, an historical reality wedded to a place of origin is not more "natural" or "authentic" than the experience of people who have been displaced and must create a plural identity. Reality from within traditional, indigenous cultures can be so differentiated that it is very much an invention. Diasporas are too real to be dismissed as aberrations—the connection between home and diaspora must be relational with neither having the authority to speak for the other.
None of this means that there are no criteria for authenticity. Instead of insisting that dishes be prepared the way they historically have been prepared in their native context, we should instead endorse cooks who recognize the limitations of their diners, cooking interactively by emphasizing unusual flavors in ways that show the connections between her cuisine and the map and bible of her diners.
Authenticity is thus a property not of the dish by itself but of the relation with a diner whose own map and bible is a given. Acknowledging this is not inauthentic but truthful. History shows that culinary insiders have no obligation to preserve their culture "as is" since no culture has ever been preserved in that way.
Authenticity is not about origins but about the commitments people make and what those commitments reveal about their sensibility. There is a reason why tomato sauces marry nicely with pasta and why a tomato served with olive oil and basil is heavenly. Tomatoes may not be originally Italian, but Italians have done wonderful things with tomatoes. They committed themselves to tomatoes, discovered how they resonate with their local ingredient, and now there is a certain way with tomatoes that is uniquely Italian.
So should we just throw out the food rules? I think not. Food rules must be respected because they set the table for innovation—they define the standards that innovation must meet. Food rules say: "If you want to violate this tradition it better be good." Without tradition, innovation is just novelty.
However, anyone who is just a slave to tradition and rigidly conforms without entertaining new ideas is threatening the conditions that enable the tradition to persist—its' ability to be affected. The ability to be affected is, after all, what sensibility is. Traditions become great because of their capacity to seamlessly absorb new influences. Tradition and authenticity are not opposed to innovation—they depend on it. No tradition can remain alive if it does not innovate by accepting and transforming influences from abroad.
And so the edible arts, perhaps more so than any other artistic genre, have the capacity to gather the tribes through anchoring identities. But these are identities that gain their power from the differences they assert and assimilate. Flavor maps and bibles don't contain canons or rules; they are fields of problems that come seeded with new and unforeseen directions awaiting an event of creativity to express their potential.
In this respect, they are like other maps and bibles though that is seldom acknowledged by the bible beaters.
A steady diet of ruminations on the philosophy of food and wine can be found at Edible Arts.
Monday, December 09, 2013
Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?
by Dwight Furrow
Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.
Conflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.
The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. "Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are," wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a "moral taste" as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This "moral taste" is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.
It is easy to see why food might serve as an anchor for moral identity. We take food into our bodies. It is the source of our energy, a persistent pursuit, the focal point of family life. It hits us where we live. To quote Brillat-Savarin again, "The pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest".
But how important is "mouth taste" to "moral taste". Do particular flavors matter in determining what we commit to and what we reject? After all, it is Italy the Italians love (or more precisely the region of Italy from which they hail). That the combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano happens to be indigenous to Genoa is just an accident of history. If those flavors did not exist, some other flavor profile would serve to anchor Genoan identity. Similarly, the moral commitment to vegetarianism is what matters to the vegetarian. The preference for the flavor of vegetables follows behind, a habit made necessary by that commitment, a dessert to the main moral meal. Ideology trumps flavor, morality trumps aesthetics, or so it would seem. That is the conventional wisdom at any rate.
Social science reinforces this conventional wisdom. Thanks to the influence of Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu, much of social science treats food preferences as markers of identity or signs of social status, a kind of fashion statement that signals to others our commitment to certain values. Eating is not just eating but a form of communication underwritten by the conviction that one's own way of eating is the right way. Haute cuisine is about class distinction, French cuisine about national distinction, food taboos, about contrasts with the Other. The stylish couple at the corner table prefer Grilled Texas Nilgai Antelope--with Caramelized Apricots, Apricot Agri-doux, Glazed Couscous, Ginger Infused Apricot Puree, Asparagus Tips and Red Wine Jus—to a bowl of chili, not because it tastes better, but because it signals their status or aspirations. Compared to "moral taste", "mouth taste" pales in significance, a source of mere subjective enjoyment with no larger meaning, an empty cipher in a game of divide and conquer—at least according to conventional wisdom.
But conventional wisdom, this emphasis on "moral taste" at the expense of "mouth taste," gets the relationship backwards. A significant explanatory hurdle confronts the claim that food preferences are about signaling rather than savoring. Tastes change—rapidly in the modern world. Whatever role "moral tastes" play, they don't supply "mouth tastes" with fixed meanings. It is not obvious how relatively stable moral identities explain rapidly changing, unstable flavor preferences.
For example, what precisely is a vegetarian? A vegetarian is a person who eats no meat. But vegetarianism is in fact more complicated. There are lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, or lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat no meat but will eat milk and/or eggs. Some vegetarians will eat fish or seafood but avoid all other meat, but many people are semi-vegetarians eating dairy products and eggs as well as some chicken and fish but no red meat. Dietary vegans do not eat animals or animal derivatives but may use animals in other commodities. But ethical vegans refuse to use any animal product including dairy products, eggs, honey, wool, leather, cosmetics and in some cases avoid medical procedures that involve animal testing. Is vegetarianism an expression of a coherent moral identity or a loose collection of preferences for certain flavors or textures?
Vegetarianism not only exhibits substantial variation, it is also unstable. According to widely reported research, up to 75% of Americans who try vegetarianism go back to eating meat, and there is some indication that many of them ate some meat even while nominally committed to vegetarianism. Whatever the term "vegetarian" means, it is not a fixed identity. Is morality or aesthetics driving these changes?
The "mouth tastes" that signal national and regional identities are similarly unstable. Today our global fusion cuisines change rapidly, but the culinary world has always been in flux. Corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, chocolate, vanilla and chile peppers were all unknown outside the Americas until the 16th Century. Once transportation technology was sufficient to encourage trading (and plunder), these foods were rapidly incorporated into some traditional European and Asian cuisines. Potatoes are now a central ingredient in Indian cooking, and eggplants and chiles help define Thai and Indian cuisine. Tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are important to all European cuisines, as is rice which was imported by the Moorish Arabs when they inhabited Southern Spain. It is hard to imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but they did not appear in Neapolitan cookbooks until 1692.
We often think of French cuisine as a kind of cooking that powerfully reflects regional and local identities, and indeed French provincial cooking does. But the most influential French cooking, the dishes that have become well-known throughout the world, are for the most part the creations of professional chefs looking for new flavors and textures; they are not sources of regional identities. Béchamel sauce, created by Louis de Béchamel (1635-1688), was a mainstay of 19th and 20th Century fine cuisine, although today it is a routine ingredient in comfort food and family dishes, seldom any longer appearing in the recipes of trendsetting chefs. Similarly, sauce béarnaise, crêpes Suzettes, salmon with sorrel sauce, tropical fruit sorbets, flourless chocolate cakes, etc. are all the concoctions of top chefs, as were the creations of Nouvelle Cuisine that dominated French cooking for 30 years until recently. There are some exceptions. Cassoulet, bouillabaisse, foie gras, boeuf bourguignon, and perhaps magret de canard (duck steaks) were traditional, regional dishes that achieved international acclaim. But more often than not, change and innovation comes about because chefs are experimenting with new flavors and methods that may not be closely tied to regional traditions.
Where does this pressure for change come from? Why did Italians embrace the tomato in the 16th century, Americans the taco in the 20th. Why did France abandon their heavy spices in the 18th century and their heavy cream sauces in the 21st century in favor of lighter, fresher fare? What encouraged Americans to look to France for culinary inspiration in the 1960's when Julia Child made food TV a habit? Why did virtually the entire globe lose its preference for sweet wine in the mid-20th century and begin to embrace the dry styles that now dominate the industry (at least until the current fascination with Moscato)? Why do vegetarians vacillate so much in their sincere commitment?
It is hard to argue that a coherent value system or the signaling of a stable moral identity is at work in generating these shifts. Creating taboos, marking national identities, enforcing class distinctions, and standing on moral principle are all activities devoted to creating boundaries, not crossing them, drawing distinctions rather than erasing them. Food, by contrast, does a lot of crossing and erasing. Mouth taste is so fluid it seems to float free of moral taste, confounding rather than signaling, disrupting identities rather than reinforcing them.
There are many explanations for why tastes change. Health considerations, immigration, and socio-economic factors drive some change—historical change is seldom guided by a single factor. But sometimes change is simply driven by mouth taste. We find new tastes fascinating and want to experience them, and those that are genuinely appealing stick with us until we incorporate them into whatever symbolic identity we happen to be promoting at the time.
Of course, then we have to tell some story about why the change is deeply meaningful, not just a matter of taste. Moral inflation is after all the coin of the realm with an emotional payoff more robust than anything mere "mouth taste" can provide. But this crossing of boundaries is incompatible with the judgment that one's own way is the right way. If it were the "right way", why would we be so open to change? Our willingness to abandon foodways makes it hard to take seriously the food flags that people righteously wave. If a moral eater is signaling who she is, this identity persists only until a pungent, new flavor piques her palate. We may get an emotional charge from flag waving and food fighting but the object of discord has the persistence of a pop-up restaurant.
In the end, we probably can't escape the symbolic dimension of food because symbols are important and food is so readily available to be exploited by our need for meaning and self-expression. To keep a lid on our passion, it is useful to keep in mind that the power of any particular symbol will persist only until our taste buds object. And then we will have to find a new symbol and manufacture a new passion.
Thus, lying at the bottom of this symbolic dimension of food is the power of particular tastes and their ability to shape our moral ideals. If you want people to change their values, change their tastes. Show people that organic broccoli tastes better, and we are on our way to securing their commitment to sustainability.
Well, we can hope can't we?
Monday, September 30, 2013
Food and Power: An Interview with Rachel Laudan
All photos courtesy of Rachel Laudan
Rachel Laudan is the prize-winning author of The Food of Paradise: Exploring Hawaii’s Culinary Heritage, and a co-editor of the Oxford Companion to the History of Modern Science. In this interview, Rachel and I talk about her new book, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History, and her transition from historian and philosopher of science to historian of food.
Rachel Laudan: I can remember when there was no such discipline as history of science! In fact, moving to history of food was a breeze. After all, the making of food from plant and animal raw materials is one of our oldest technologies, quite likely the oldest, and it continues to be one of the most important. The astonishing transformations that occur when, for example, a grain becomes bread or beer, or (later) perishable sugar cane juice becomes seemingly-eternal sugar have always intrigued thinkers from the earliest philosophers to the alchemists to modern chemists. And the making of cuisines is shaped by philosophical ideas about the state, about virtue, and about growth, life, and death.
A lot of food writing is about how we feel about food, particularly about the good feelings that food induces. I'm more interested in how we think about food. In fact, I put culinary philosophy at the center of my book. Our culinary philosophy is the bridge between food and culture, between what we eat and how we relate to the natural world, including our bodies, to the social world, and to the gods, or to morality.EH: Your earlier book, The Food of Paradise, necessarily dealt with food politics and food history. So many cultures were blended into local food in Hawaii. I treasure that book -- almost a miniature of what you’re doing in Cuisine and Empire.
RL: Well, thank you. It came as a surprise to me that I had a subject for a book-length treatment of something to do with food or cooking -- as interested in the subject as I certainly was. The only genre I knew was the cookbook, and I am not cut out to write recipes.The book was prompted by a move to teach at the University of Hawaii in the mid 1980s. I went reluctantly, convinced by the tourist propaganda that the resources of the islands consisted of little more than sandy beaches and grass-skirted dancers doing the hula.
I couldn't have been more wrong. These tiny islands, the most remote inhabited land on earth, have extraordinarily various peoples and environments. They were an extraordinary laboratory for observing the encounter of three radically different cuisines inspired by totally different culinary philosophies.
EH: It wasn’t all that long ago -- going on 18 years -- but you were a pioneer in the approach you took. It was history, not a compendium of anecdotes. And it was a treatment of culinary philosophies. Was there anything to tell you it would be so well received?
RL: Not at all. Mainland publishers were interested only in a book with exotic tropical recipes. I wanted to use the recipes as illustrations of how three cuisines were merged into a fusion cuisine called Local Food. Readers were welcome to cook from them, but that wasn’t their point.The University of Hawaii Press, after some anguishing about whether a mainlander could write a book about the politically touchy subject of foods in Hawaii, took the manuscript. So I was bowled over when it won the Jane Grigson/Julia Child prize of the International Association of Culinary Professionals.
EH: Any publisher might have had more confidence, originally, in your cultural sensitivity, if they’d seen how many cultures you had by then participated in. And the list has grown. You’ve really gotten around.
RL: I have had the luck to have been successively immersed in four distinct cultures: those of England, the United States mainland, Hawaii, and Mexico. Growing up in Britain, I ate the way that many foodies today dream about: local food, entirely home cooked, raw milk from the dairy, home preserved produce from the vegetable garden. I never saw the inside of a restaurant until my teens. When I was 18, before I went to college, I spent a year teaching in one of the first girls' high schools in Nigeria, something that I later realized taught me a lot about the food of that part of the world. In addition, I have lived, shopped and cooked for periods of months in France, Germany, Spain, Australia, and Argentina.
EH: Were you always teaching?
RL: Not always. My husband Larry Laudan and I left academia of our own free will when we were in our 50s, thinking it would be exciting to try something different. We thought lots of others would do the same, but no. It turns out that is unusual.
EH: Unusual, I’ll say! How did you make the shift not only to a new field, but to a more independent life as a scholar and writer?
RL: At the time, I decided to put in cold calls to people I thought were doing interesting work: Joyce Toomre; Barbara Wheaton; Barbara Haber who were working on Russian, French, and American food history in Cambridge, Mass.; Alan Davidson, founder of the Oxford Symposium of Food and Cookery in England; Gene Anderson, the anthropologist and historian of Chinese cuisine; and the food writer Betty Fussell and the nutritionist Marion Nestle in New York. They could not have been more encouraging, inviting me to speak, join their groups, calling from England, and introducing me to others, including Elizabeth Andoh, expert on Japanese cuisine, and Ray Sokolov, then working for the Wall Street Journal, who had just published Why We Eat What We Eat, that examined long-distance exchanges of food. I was buoyed by this sense of community as I jumped fields and left academia.
EH: You weren’t even thinking whether the history of food was a serious area of study, were you?
RL: Not at all. I’ve always believed that if you can show people you are on to an important problem and have things to say about it, they will listen. Soon after I began working on food I spent a year as a research fellow at the now-defunct Dibner Institute for the History of Science and Technology at MIT. There, to the horror of many, I proposed a seminar on the European culinary revolution of the mid- seventeenth century when main dishes flavored with spices and sugar and the acid, often bread or nut-thickened sauces of the Middle Ages were abandoned. They were replaced by a rigid separation of salt and sweet courses and sauces based on fats, as well as by airy drinks and desserts. This was the beginning of high French cuisine.
I argued that this was due to the replacement of Galenic humoral theory by a new theory of physiology and nutrition deriving from the work of Paracelsus and accepted by the physicians in the courts of Europe. Once it became clear that my theory could account very precisely for the change in cuisine, they were all ears. A scholarly version won the Sophie Coe Prize of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery and was published in the pioneering food history journal, Petits Propos Culinaires. And a popular version was later published by Scientific American.
EH: I am moved and impressed that you left academe with a plan. Many people would have just waited by the phone rather than build a new network. Yet your central concerns, as an independent scholar, remained the same as when you were teaching, and have come to full fruition in Cuisine and Empire. Food and technology require to be considered together, do they not?
RL: Indeed they do. Food, after all, is something we make. Plants and animals are simply the raw materials. We don't eat them until we have transformed them into something we regard as edible. Even raw foodists chop, grind, mix, and allow some heating. So I could bring to food history, the hard won conclusions of historians of technology.
EH: What are historians of technology mainly concerned with?
RL: Well, historians of technology are not primarily concerned with inventions. The infamous light bulb was useful only as part of a whole electrical system. Similarly soy sauce, say, or cake, have to be understood as part of whole culinary systems or cuisines. When these are transferred, disseminated, copied, they change the world.
And, perhaps most important, new ideas or prompt changes in technology. They cause cooks, for example, to come up with or adopt new techniques. As the shift to French high cuisine shows, if people change their minds about what healthy food is, they will change their cuisine. When they adopt new religious beliefs, Buddhism or Christianity, say, they abandon meat cooked in the sacrificial fire for enlightenment-enhancing foods such as sugar and rice in the case of Buddhism, or for periods of fasting in the case of Christianity. When they reject monarchy as a political system, as happened in republican Rome, the early Dutch republic, and in the early United States, they reject the extravagant dining associated with reinforcing kingly or imperial power.
So a large part of the book is dedicated to laying out the culinary philosophy underlying each of the world's great cuisines. When that culinary philosophy is transformed, so is the cuisine.
EH: Ah! Just one reason I am so excited about Cuisine and Empire is that I cannot think of anyone else who could take all this on, even if they thought to.
RL: My background in history of science and technology was a big help. It had become clear that this was not simply one damn experiment and discovery after another but shaped by great traditions of scientific inquiry shaped by atomism or Newtonianism or uniformitarianism, to turn to my specialty, geology. And I had explored the parallels between science and technology as cognitive systems, arguing that technology too was not just one invention after another but shaped by traditions of knowledge that, for example, specified materials, techniques, and ways of handling them in say, the evolution of gearing, or interchangeable parts, or jet engines.
My experience in Hawaii had already suggested that there were far reaching traditions in food too. So I asked “If even the history of the foods of Hawaii has to be told in terms of the cross-oceanic, cross-continent expansion of a few great culinary traditions, might not that also be true of world food history?"
Cuisine and Empire answers that with a resounding yes. It's possible to capture most of food history in the last 20,000 years by talking about the expansion of about a dozen different cuisines.
EH: I will be thinking about this book for years and years. I’m already starting to wonder what broad cultural assumptions, that I’ve never thought to identify, much less question, I must bring with me when I cook... These are assumptions about science and technology, too, because science exists within culture. Despite how well prepared -- I want to say uniquely prepared -- you were for writing Cuisine and Empire, it was a tremendously ambitious project, was it not?
RL: It was ridiculously ambitious.
EH: Now, this is a question everyone who writes will understand. Did it ever seem so huge and unwieldy you wanted to chuck it?
RL: More times than I care to admit. What was I writing about? Farming? Cooking? Dining? What were the big turning points? And what about all the regions such as Central Europe and Southeast Asia that got short shrift? On the other hand I had the wonderful gift of time to take on a big project and I didn’t want to fritter it away. So I gritted my teeth, kept re-working my organization, telling myself I was as well prepared as anyone.
EH: How so?
RL: On the practical side, I had grown up on a working farm. And I learned early on that cooking was just as important as farming. One of my earliest memories was the day my father decided he would make bread with the wheat he had grown. At the time, there was no internet to look up how this might be done. He put it in a pestle and pounded it. Nothing but flattened grains, even though many of the archaeologists in our part of the world assumed without experimenting that that was how it was done. He screwed the meat mincer on to the side of the large kitchen table and put the grains through that. Nothing but little lumps. Finally, he put a handful of grains on the flagstone floor and attacked them with a hammer. Fragments scattered all over the kitchen, but still no flour. With barns full of wheat, we could have starved because we did not know how to turn wheat into flour to make bread.
Later I had the chance to shop and cook in Europe, Australia, the USA and Mexico so I had a pretty good grip on a variety of cuisines. In Nigeria and Hawaii, I had experienced cuisines based on roots, not grains. At the University of Hawaii, I taught a wildly popular hands on world history of food, learning a huge amount from my students, almost all of them of Asian ancestry. And in Mexico, women taught me what my father couldn’t, namely how to grind grains into flour.
On the intellectual side, in the course of my academic life I’d also taught social history, an eye-opener about what life, including diet, was like for ordinary people until very recently. And at the University of Hawaii, with its polyglot population, I’d had a chance to talk with many of the pioneers of world history.EH: Unlike when you were writing The Food of Paradise, was there also a wave to catch? In the form of other like minded scholars and writers at work?
RL: A wave? If there was, it was more in world history than in food history, which in spite of the efforts of some fine scholars, did not really become mainstream until a few years ago. World historians such as William McNeill, Philip Curtin, Alfred Crosby and Jerry Bentley -- the latter my colleague at Hawaii -- were drawing on decades of detailed historical scholarship to see if they could trace big patterns of disease, warfare, enslavement, ecological change, and religious conversion.
Why shouldn't I jump into the fray and see if there were big patterns to be traced in food? Surely it was just as important in human history as their topics. I'd always loved making sense of masses of complicated data. Now here was a real challenge.
EH: Rachel, I expect lots of readers for your book. Which other books do you think it will be on the night table with? I’m thinking particularly of Michael Pollan and Bee Wilson -- is there a cogent comparison? I note Paul Freedman blurbed your book, by the way -- along with Naomi Duguid, Anne Willan, and Dan Headrick. Gee, good company!
RL: Well, if mine ends up on the night table with these books, I will be tickled pink. And I think it complements them nicely. Michael Pollan's recent book, wonderfully written as always, is a long meditation on contemporary cooking. I differ from him in not drawing a sharp distinction between cooking and processing. Processing (pre and post industrial) and cooking are on a continuum of stages in food preparation. Bee Wilson's delightful book is also about cooking and full of wonderful historical insights as befits a historian. But whereas she treats themes such as knife, fire, and measure, I organize by the origin, spread, and transformation of cuisines. In my wildest dreams, I would like to think of this as the historical counterpart to Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking.
EH: Readers will be intrigued by your historical treatment of “processing.” It’s become a bad word –- code for turning food into non-food. I regularly read your blog, so I know you mean it a certain way that looks at the very big picture, including labor economics. But the food you personally like is emphatically not processed…
RL: Not if you limit “processed” to what many call junk food. I’ve never acquired a taste for fast-food hamburgers or soft drinks, have never eaten Wonder Bread or its siblings, and cook at home six nights out of seven. Picky is what I am. At the same time though, I think that we hinder our understanding of food if we don’t understand that all our food, with the exception of a few fruits, has been transformed, that is, processed, before we eat it. The foods that humans eat are one of their greatest creations, one of their greatest arts in that dual sense of technique and aesthetics, and we should celebrate that they are artifacts, not bemoan it. Like all human creations, some foods are better than others, and should be judged as such, but they are all creations.
EH: So there! How do cuisines speak to you personally -- as someone who loves food and cooking? If a cuisine does reveal a culture, then would tasting and analyzing it be as telling as listening to a poem or seeing a drama?
RL: Absolutely. Every time you go into the kitchen, you take your culture with you. As you plan a meal for guests, say, you bring to it assumptions about how to mesh their preferences with yours, about how much it is appropriate to spend on the meal, about how to accommodate their religious or ethical food rules, and about what they believe to be healthy and delicious.
I like to play a little game with myself when I go to a different country or meet someone from a different background. Knowing the history of that place or the heritage of that person, can I guess what the cuisine will be like? Or conversely, if presented with a meal, can I read it, dissecting, say, the noodles, the condiments, and the meat to tell a story about how it evolved over the centuries? And the answer is almost always yes.
EH: What holds a cuisine together?
RL: Again it was Hawaii that gave me the clue. It was not the local plants and animals because Hawaii had almost nothing edible before humans arrived. It was systems of belief or ideas or culture. The Pacific Islanders all valued taro, which had a place in their traditional religion, they all had a variant of the same herbal medicine. The Asians (apart from the Filipinos) had all been touched by Buddhism with its veneration of rice, and all subscribed to some form of humoral theory. And the Anglos came from a Christian tradition that placed high importance on raised bread and they followed modern nutritional theory.
EH: You have empires in the title, but you haven’t mentioned them yet. Where do they fit in?
RL: Empires have been the most widely spread form of political organization and as such the major theater in which cuisines have been created and disseminated. It's not a case of one empire, one cuisine, though. Because aspiring leaders always copy and adapt the customs of what they see as successful rivals, cuisines were copied and adapted from one empire to another. In the ancient world, for example, Persian cuisine was copied and adapted by the Indians and the Greeks, and then the Romans copied and adapted Greek cuisine.
EH: So cuisines spread from empire to empire. Is it a coherent story all around the world?
RL: Amazingly, yes. Beginning with the first states, interlinked barley-wheat cuisines underpin all the early empires. Then in the next phase, Buddhism transforms cuisines of eastern Asia, followed by the Islamic transformation of cuisines from Southeast Asia in the east to parts of Africa and Spain in the west (and the shaping of the Catholic cuisines of medieval Europe), and Catholic cuisines transform the cuisines of most of the Americas in the sixteenth century. Protestant critiques open the way to modern cuisines in Europe, with the rest of the world quick to make similar changes. Protestant-inspired high French cuisine becomes world high cuisine, Anglo cuisines create a middle way between high and humble cuisines, a middle way that is copied from Japan to Latin America in late nineteenth century. Although there are countless wrinkles, exceptions, and idiosyncrasies, at the core is a simple, coherent story of a few big families of cuisine and three major stages.
EH: If empires spread cuisines, does the reverse apply? Does food affect the success of empires, or smaller states? I have read in Jared Diamond about food affecting the success or failure of a whole society – the Norse colony in Greenland, whose people starved rather than ate fish for instance. What about embracing a culturally new food for political reasons?
RL: Certainly most people in the past believed that food could affect the success or failure of a whole society. At the end of the nineteenth century, for example, leaders around the world looked at what seemed to be the unstoppable expansion of the Anglo world, that is, the British Empire and the United States of America.
One explanation was that Anglo strength derived from a cuisine based on white wheaten bread and beef served at family meals. Unlike alternative explanations such as the special characteristics of Anglos or their upbringing in bracing climates, this offered a strategy for countering this expansion. If you could persuade your subjects or citizens to abandon corn or rice or cassava, and shift to bread or pasta, if you could persuade them to eat more meat, if you could persuade them to eat as families, then they might become stronger.
EH: Well, I’m naïve, then. “Eating as a family” is not a given across cultures? Please tell me more.
RL: The importance of the family meal as the foundation of society and the state is so deeply ingrained in the American tradition that it’s hard to appreciate just how American it is, perhaps inherited from Dutch settlers. Of course many meals were prepared in the home throughout history, though institutional food was more important than we realize. Just think of the courts, the military, the religious orders, as well as prisons, boarding schools, poor houses, and so on. Just think of the pictures of dining in the past and how rarely it is a family that is depicted. Who you ate with reflected rank rather than family ties.
But even when prepared in the home, the meal was often very different from that depicted in Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom from Want.” The children might eat in the nursery, as in nineteenth-century middle class England. Or the father might eat in a different place and at a different time from the wife, as in Japan. Or the father might eat food prepared by different wives on different days, as in Nigeria. Or the meal might include unrelated apprentices and farmhands. So to many societies, the idea of the communal family meal as offering both physical and moral/social nourishment was a novelty.
EH: And the shift to bread, pasta, and meat?
RL: Even in the United States, there were concerted efforts to persuade southerners, particularly in the Appalachians, to abandon corn bread for biscuits of wheat flour. And Brazilians, Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians, Indians, and Chinese debated, and often put in place policies to bring about this change. The most successful efforts were in Japan where the diets of the military and of people living in cities were changed to add more meat, more fat, more wheat, and to introduce family meals.
EH: Ah! Taking on the strength of the aggressor, or of the dominant culture! I wonder who’s doing that right now, and with regard to whose food… I’m fascinated with the cover of Cuisine and Empire. I know it’s a Japanese print. I wanted it to be the Jesuits, but that’s centuries off the mark.
RL: It’s a print in the Library of Congress collection by the Japanese artist, Yoshikazu Utagawa, made in 1861 just a few years after the forcible opening of Japan to the West. It shows two Americans, great big fellows, one of them baking bread in a beehive oven and the other preparing a dish over a bench top stove. I chose it because it so nicely illustrates the themes of the book. It puts the kitchen at the center. And it shows the keen interest that societies took in observing, and often copying, the cuisines of rivals.
EH: The kitchen at the center of history -- a beautiful phrase. The book launches very soon.
RL: I believe the official launch date is in November. Copies, though, will be available this week.
EH: Well, mine will arrive today or tomorrow. Thank you so much for this fascinating preview and discussion. I’m already thinking how to incorporate 20,000 years of causality into the book party menu.
A different version of this interview, emphasizing gastronomy in history, is available at The Rambling Epicure.
Read Rachel’s article for SaudiAramco World on the Islamic influence on Mexican Cuisine
Read Rachel’s personal blog, “A Historian’s Take on Food and Food Politics” at http://www.rachellaudan.com/Live in or around Boston? Come with me to a talk by Rachel Laudan the evening of October 28 at BU!
Monday, July 15, 2013
On Being A Beer Snob
by Carol A Westbrook
The late Kingsley Amis, a noted authority on drink and a beer-lover himself, acknowledged that "the best wine is much better than the best beer," but also pointed out that "wine is a lot of trouble, requiring energy and forethought." He might be pleased today to find that beer, which requires a lot less trouble, has finally come into its own.
Not long ago, beer was considered to be an uninspired, bitter-tasting beverage that was drunk in large amounts by fraternity boys or construction workers. Wine was preferred among intellectuals, the educated, and the true gourmet. We struggled to learn enough about wine so as not to embarrass ourselves when presented with a wine list. And any self-made wine expert--a wine snob--was held in high regard. But the increasing popularity of craft beer means it is now appearing on the menus of even the most discerning restaurants, because it is a delightfully tasty, complex beverage that pairs well with food. So now, in addition to being able to navigate a wine list, we must learn to read a beer list as well.
Fortunately, it's easy to master craft beer--in part because there are only a limited number of beer styles and breweries for you to remember. Furthermore, even the most posh menu will feature only a short selection of beers, and most are inexpensive, in contrast to dozens of expensive wines. If you follow a few simple rules you can quickly reach point where you can hold your own with a beer list--or at least bluff your way through it. With a little effort you can become recognized by your friends as one who knows craft beer, can select the best brands, and can wax elequent about breweries and beer trivia. Yes, you can become a beer snob.
First, let us define craft beer. According to the Brewer's Association, the definition of an American craft brewery is one that is "small, independent and traditional." "Small" means an annual production of 6 million barrels of beer or less, (compare to Anheuser-Busch, which sells well over 150 million barrels per year). "Independent" means that the brewery is at least 75% owned or controlled by a brewer, and "traditional" means that at least 50% of the beer it makes is all malt beer. (Note that many mass-market beers use up to one-third rice or corn in place of the more expensive barley malt ingredients.) . With a craft beer you can be assured of quality ingredients mixed by a knowledgeable brewmaster whose is motivated by taste, not only profit.
Brewery size is important. Small breweries don't have the production capacity to be distributed nationally. This is why many of them are regional--the craft beer available to me in Northeast Pennsylvania is different from that in Chicago, for example. A microbrewery--one that produces no more than 15,000 barrels per year-- operates on an even small scale, often by a couple of guys working out of their garage! Micros usually don't bottle, but distribute their beer in kegs, or serve it at their own brewpub. With limited resources for marketing and distribution, they rely heavily on word of mouth, customer loyalty and reputation. You may have to seek out these beers, and that where the beer snob comes in. A beer expert knows what to drink, where it came from, and how good it tastes.
Here are ten rules for the beer snob.
1. Drink only craft beer.
By avoiding mass-produced, big-label beer, you will be drinking the best-tasting beer, and will also be supporting your regional small breweries. Be wary of "phony" craft beers, made by the large brewers to look and taste like craft beers. Some of these non-craft beers include: Blue Moon (MillerCoors), Shock Top (Anheuser-Busch), Leinenkugel (SABMiller), Goose Island (Anheuser-Busch). If the beer list at your meal does not include craft beer, don't be afraid to look down your nose and tell the waiter, "Forget it, I'll just have water."
2. Learn the basic beer styles
To understand a beer list you must learn to differentiate among beer styles. Here are the eight styles you should know: 1) Lager (includes Pilsner); 2) Pale Ale (American and English); 3) Amber (or Red or Brown) Ale; 4) IPA (India Pale Ale); 5) Porter or Stout; 6) Belgian Ale; 7) Wheat Beer; 8) Saison. The easiest way to learn them is to try them. Take a trip to a bottle store and buy a representative sample of each, spend 15 minutes looking up each of them on Wikipedia, then taste and compare. Voila! Instant expert!
3. Know the main beer ingredients
There are only three: malted barley, hops and yeast. Malted (sprouted) barley is sweet, and full of fermentable sugar. The yeast converts this sugar into alcohol and carbonation. The residual malt flavor in beer is distinctively mild and bread-like. Hops are bitter, pungent herbs that are added for flavoring, and are used with a heavy hand in ales, especially in IPAs. Hops are an acquired taste, which you really must acquire if you want to be a beer snob. There are many varieties of hops, but don't expect to be able to taste the differences as a novice. You can bluff you way through this by looking up the beer's web site, where you may find the IBU level (International Bittering Unit, a measure of the degree of hoppiness) and the hop variety, so you can at least say something knowledgeable about the taste.
4. Always chose draft over bottled beer
Draft beer is fresh from the brewery at the peak of flavor, whereas cans and bottles may deteriorate with time (remember to check the date stamp). And there is a good chance the draft list will contain a selection or two from your local microbrewery, giving you the opportunity to show off your beer expertise (see rule 6, below).
5. Drink beer only from a glass
If your beer selection is in a bottle, then insist on a glass. You would never drink wine from the bottle, why beer? You probably won't be so fortunate as to have your beer served to you in a Spiegelau Beer Classic (see picture), a glass specifically designed to showcase hoppy American IPAs (and the latest fad among beer snobs). At the very least, expect a standard pint glass for all beers, except for Belgian ales and high alcohol beers, which should be served in a tulip-shaped glass. Drinking beer from a glass allows you to enjoy the color and clarity, to observe and then taste the frothy head, and finally to savor the aroma before taking a sip -- while pointing out these attributes to your admiring friends.
6. Get to know your local craft breweries.
There are probably only a handful of micros and a dozen or so larger craft breweries in your area--so few that you can get to know them all! Visit a few tasting rooms and try the latest offerings. There is a good chance you will meet an owner/brewmaster, learn his philosophy, and find out what's brewing. The true beer snob is always welcomed at his local brewery.
7. Taste as many beers as you can, and remember the ones you like.
The only way to know beer is to drink it. Ask the bartender for a few tastes, purchase a sampler, or go to the local brewery tasting room. You can take notes, but it's easy to remember beer names, which are much more distinctive than wine names. For example, Flying Dog's "Underdog," Victory's "Hop Devil," North Coast's "Brother Thelonius." But be careful to taste and not drink as many beers as you can. Because of their high malt content, many craft beers are high in alcohol. For example, two 7% ABV beers in standard 16-oz draft mugs are equivalent to four 12 oz. bottles of Budweiser (4.5% ABV). Ouch!
8. Do your homework
An investment of 10 minutes online before you go out will make it easy to keep one step ahead of your friends, and even your bartender. Check what's on draft at your local beer bar and read the descriptions (Style? Hops? Aroma? Finish?). Besides the brewery web site, there are internet sources which provide descriptions and objective reviews; Beer Advocate is one of the oldest and most comprehensive. You can get a beer app for your smartphone so you will never be caught unawares. I'm currently using "Beer Citizen." Read the reviews so you can compare them to your own notes and avoid the real stinkers. Although carefully crafted with quality ingredients, not every craft beer is delicious.
9. Pick out a few "go to" beers
When you are confronted with a taproom of unfamiliar beers, are facing a draft list full of mass-market lagers, or it's pumpkin ale season (ugh), then stick to the old standards in bottles. Regional breweries have flagship beers that are consistently produced and readily-available; find a few that you like. My go-to beers are IPAs: Dogfish Head 60 minute IPA, Harpoon IPA, and Bell's Two-Hearted Ale.
10. For extra credit, become a home brewer
The best way to gain respect for your beer skills is to admit that you are a homebrewer. If you brew, you have the chance to taste and appreciate the different malts, you will learn to tell the different hop varieties apart, and you can speak knowledgably to a brewmaster. Alternatively, find a friend who homebrews and is willing to step you through the process, let you try the ingredients and the final product. If all else fails and you are still motivated to taste the ingredients, you can order small amounts of hops and malted barley for just a few dollars from an online homebrewer supply store.
If you follow these easy rules you will soon become an expert on craft beer. You may also find that you have become a true beer aficionado, seeking out unique beers, brewing your own, or even writing for a beer blog, as I do (I write The Beer Clinic, for YourBeerNetwork). Remember that the purpose of becoming a beer snob is to help you find and enjoy good beer. As Hunter S Thompson wrote, "good people drink good beer."
Carol A Westbrook, MD, PhD, is a medical oncologist at the Henry Cancer Center in Wilkes-Barre, PA. She is a former cancer scientist, and author of the book, "Ask An Ocologist: Honest Answers to Your Cancer Questions."
Monday, June 27, 2011
the pao of love (part one)
by Vivek Menezes
But he’s still elbow-deep in his work, dusted from brow to toes in wheat flour, and moving with the distinctive balletic grace that master craftsmen acquire after decades of practice.
A seemingly unending series of trays are lined up next to his hip, become filled at full speed with little nubs of steadily ‘proving’ dough (each snipped off by feel alone, yet almost exactly identical to the next), then set aside to await a pre-dawn turn in the massive, ancient oven which dominates the largest room in this old house in Panjim, the pocket-sized capital city of India’s smallest state.
Frias began his evening’s labours as always, preparing thousands of ‘unde’ for baking. These palm-sized, egg-shaped loaves of crusty bread are the addictive favourite of Ponnjekars, the residents of this pleasant riverside city, where ‘pao bhaji’ has to be accompanied by an ‘undo’ or it is not considered the genuine article, and most dailyroutines begin with the ritual purchase of the morning’s supply from a deliveryman who brings the bread right to the front door of every household in the city (the evening’s supply comes separately, in another round of deliveries).
The clock keeps ticking, and I find myself mesmerized by Frias’s swift, efficient movements, the dough rolled out in table-top sized slabs, then kneaded into cables and ropes and knots, then back again across the counter.
By now, he had moved on the ‘katre’, the squarish, flat loaves that give shape to the sandwiches in innumerable tiffins across the city and state, with little toasted corners that small children love to chew on. These are a refined taste in Frias’s neighborhood, so he will lay out less than half the loaves-to-be than he did with the ‘unde’. In full flow, it takes no more than 25 minutes, the baker’s hands ablur in the shadows cast by the tube light on the wall behind him.
And now Frias acknowledges my presence again for the first time since he started work hours ago, He nods towards the dough at his fingertips – it’s finally time to lay out the iconic ‘poee’, the pita-like, whole-wheat bread that’s laced with fresh palm toddy.
Generations of locals have grown up on robust, toothsome ‘poee’ but the demand for its old-fashioned charms is dwindling. Frias now makes just a few dozen every day for his older clients, who count on his bakery’s ‘poee’ just as their parents and grandparents did in previous decades. The clientele is now insignificant, but Frias keeps producing ‘poee’ because it’s a way of life, just like every other aspect of his laborious existence, nothing much changed from generations of baking Friases past, stretching all the way back to the first decades after the establishment of the Estado da India in 1510.
The Portuguese had food on their mind from the moment that they arrived in India – after all it was the scent of spices that lured them across the oceans in the first place.
From Roman times and even before, exotic aromatics from the East were prized across Europe for their ability to transform bland staples into desirable delicacies.But these cameat an extraordinarily heavy price, comparable to gold. A chain of traders was required to shift the precious goods via Malaya and China to the ports of India, and then the Arabs took over, moving them by ship to Africa, whence they came overland to the Meditteranean to be collected by Venetian and Genoan traders who kept a near-monopoly going for centuries.
So when Columbus sailed off in 1492, the main reason was to try and break this centuries-old monopoly, to access the fabled spice markets of the Indies without having to go through middlemen. Thus began the so-called Age of Discovery, which remade the world, with Columbus crossing the Atlantic to the New World, and Vasco da Gama finally making the crucial breakthrough to sail right around Africa and the Cape of Good Hope to wind up in the sheltered bay of Calicut in May, 1498.
It was not a very grand arrival, contrary to European expectations. They were immediately greeted in their own languages, which confounded them. And then the Zamorin and his court were comrehensively unimpressed by the gifts that were presented to them: a dozen coats, six hats, a bale of sugar and four barrels of butter and honey. But da Gama had brought coin along as well, and the multinational traders of Calicut accepted it with alacrity.
The Iberian managed to fill his ship with tens of thousands of kilos of black pepper, bought for 3 ducats the hundredweight. Back in Lisbon, he found the price holding steady at 22 ducats – da Gama and his crew became rich overnight, and the royalcourt immediately began to pay close attention.
Less than three years later, Lopo Soares was back in Calicut with 9 ships in his flotilla. This time, the Portuguese shipped back more than a million kilos of pepper, and thousands of kilos each of ginger, cinnamon and cardamom. The captain and his entire crew became fabulously wealthy, and now there was no stopping the interest of the members of the court, and the sovereign himself.
In 1510, Alfonso da Albquerque moved stealthily up the western coastline of India towards Goa, alerted to the possibility of an easy takeover by local Saraswat Hindu chieftains who were tiring of the Adil Shah’s onerous tax regime. He finally took Goa after a brief, bloody battle.
Just 20 years later, the entire trading routes across the Arabian Sea were controlled by the Portuguese, who had already arrayed a string of 50 forts to control their monopoly, with further military outposts in Bengal and the Coromandel coast, and 100 fast ships devoted to cutting off and killing any competition that might arise.
By the dawn of the 17th century, the Cidade de Goa, the sprawling port city on the Mandovi River whose ruins are now known as ‘Old Goa’, had grown far larger than London or Paris in the same era, and become one of the most important marketplaces in the history of globalization.
It is here that Asia and Europe met, traded, and mingled on a large and sustained scale for the first time, with profound results that have changed the world since then. Goa became the locus of intense cultural exchange and technology transfer: the home of the first printing press in Asia, the first modern lighthouse, the first public library, the first universal civil code, ad infinitum.
Right alongside, the diet of the subcontinent changed permanently: potatoes were introduced (India is now the world’s largest producer); chilies came in for the first time. Corn, cashews, guavas, pineapples, custard-apples, papayas, all came into the Indian diet via the Estado da India.
But it was bread that came in for special emphasis by colonial authorities, who found no substitute in India’s panoply of unleavened chapattis and rotis, thin dosas and appams, soft breads made from ground rice and lentils.
Wheat bread did not merely signify subsistence to the Europeans, it was required for the celebration of Mass. The early Portuguese presence in India was missionary-heavy, and they made bakeries and baking into a priority. It was missionaries who trained a large number of converts from the ‘Chardo’ caste (of Kshatriyas), from South Goa in the arduous art of baking bread in wood-fired clay ovens, and found an alternative to yeast in fresh coconut toddy. In time, the ‘Poders’ of Goa became ubiquitous, and constituted a powerful caste-based union that played an outsized role in state politics right into the 20th century.
The last Poees are ready for the oven, and Frias indicates that he will be ready to talk after he cleans up a bit. I retreat to the tiny balcony overlooking the front yard, and watch the rain crash down in sheets on this small cluster of traditional houses, tucked invisibly into a clump of trees at the base of the Altinho hill that dominates the centre of Panjim.
The Frias bakery is named after the nearby spring that gives it its name (Boca da Vaca = Mouth of the Cow). The modern flat that I live in with my family is just a kilometer south down the riverfront, but the scene I am looking out on feels part of a village world far different from what an Indian state capital is supposed to look like in 2011.
In fact, the Padaria Boca da Vaca came as a revelation to me when I found it a couple of years ago, having never stumbled across it while criss-crossing the city on foot since childhood, despite the fact that Panjim is by far the smallest state capital in the subcontinent (and not even close to the largest city in Goa, either).
The main commercial drag of the city – 18th June Road – is probably less than 150 metres away from the Frias establishment, but a universe apart nonetheless. Each step away from blocks of unremarkable apartment buildings, and up a tiny by-lane lined with bougainvillea, takes you further towards a small stand of soaring, old coconut trees, until you’re completely out of sight of the city, and the countryside atmosphere pervades,
But long before I visited Padaria Boca da Vaca, I had surely eaten its bread. Like every other traditional bakery in Goa, its bicycle salesmen fan out across the neighborhood and beyond, honking insistently on bulb horns that set Goan households salivating at first earshot. ‘Phonk phonk, phonk’ and you know bread is on its way in a fabulously democratic exercise where every home in the state – mansion, hovel, in-between – is served by the network, and everyone buys the same article for the same price: the government-mandated Rs. 2.50 per undo, katre or poee. It’s beyond a daily staple, and more like a basic human right: if every Goan doesn’t get his fresh daily pao, every politician knows that the government will fall immediately.
Similar thoughts turn out to occupy the mind of Sebastiao Frias, when he finally settles down in the comfortable gloom of his balcao a little past two in the morning, with moonlight breaking though the rain clouds overhead.
“I think you are probably educated,” he says, peering at me rather doubtfully, “so I don’t have to tell you what bread is, what it means to the people.” Now his eyes start to shine with excitement, “bread is not just food to me, bread is not just money to me, bread is life, man.” The baker sits back with a sigh, “Poder means respectable, honest, trustworthy. We always deliver, we are known for nevercheating. This is what my family tradition means to me - we have been bakers for more than 300 years!”
The broad-shouldered poder gestured his world to me with his hands – the small hotel he owned in Majorda, the bank account that had grown enough to give him enough interest to live on without having to bother with the odd-hours and endless physical labour of the bakery profession. But, “I was born in this,” he says, with a shrug of acceptance and finality, “and there is no doubt that I feel a big gap in my life when I am way from the bakery, and the smell of my pao.”
‘Te poder gele and te unde gele’ is a pointed Konkani aphorism. “That bread is gone, and the bakers who made it too.’ But while decolonization meant the departure of the Europeans, our cultural landscape has been irrevocably altered.
Can we imagine Andhra food without chilis, or a Bengali culinary landscape without sandesh and rosogollas made from chhana (the cottage cheese preparation introduced by the Portuguese to Bengal)?
Bread is right at the forefront of this cultural exchange – in fact, the original Portuguese word ‘pao’ itself is a amazing cross-over phenomenon, incredibly widespread, and used in every Asian language from Japanese to Marathi.
Without much exaggeration, you could actually read much of modern human history in the spread of these little loaves.
To begin with, they’re made from wheat flour, one of the original grain-bearing grasses that were first cultivated on a large scale in Mesopotamia, and made human civilization possible in the first place. Wheat soon catapulted ahead of the other ancient grains, because it was discovered to have a secret ingredient – gluten.
Though this complex of proteins can be found in oats, barley and rye (and some others), it is found in the highest concentrations in wheat. It is gluten that combines with water to make dough made from wheat flour malleable, and it is precisely this stretchable consistency that is critical to the way that gases are trapped when they’re released by the active yeast in the dough. The result is something like the perfect food: nutritious, easily digestible, highly durable, portable and versatile, bread in all its forms.
But there is a twist, too. You have to take a great deal of trouble and time, and require considerable expertise to bake bread consistently and efficiently. So in every single bread-eating culture, professional bakers emerged quite early, and served the development of this new culinary habit.
Voila, Frenchmen frequent boulangeries to buy their daily baguettes, and Egyptians all troop to get their daily pitas from government-run bakeries, and that is what leads us straight back to Goa’s proliferation of traditional bakeries, and the burgeoning ranks of expert bakers who fanned out across the British and Portuguese colonial possessions all through the 19th century, right up to 1947.
(PART II to follow sometime soon!)
Monday, April 25, 2011
by Jenny White
Gus Rancatori is a Renaissance man who owns an ice cream parlor. Cambridge-based Toscanini’s is a hangout where you’re as likely to run into a Nobel Laureate in chemistry and a molecular foodie as a furniture maker or novelist. One day I met a dapper man with gray hair who had been a physicist at MIT and gave it all up to start a business making high-end marshmallows. Tosci’s staff is memorably pierced and talented. One of the managers, Adam Tessier, is a published poet and essayist who last year filmed a customer a day reading a Shakespeare sonnet. Some scoopers are music majors, hard-core rockers who play for bands with names like Toxic Narcotic. You might receive your khulfee cone from the hands of the next big pop star. Gus Rancatori circulates through the wood-paneled room beneath displays of art, the host at a rotating feast of words, ideas and, above all, ice cream. Gus is discreet, but has some favorite customer stories.
A very famous MIT type used to attempt to pay with his own hand-drawn funny money and then he would launch into a lecture about the symbolic value of money, which I tried to squelch by claiming to remember that class from Freshman Economics. If you asked to help him, he would say, "I'm beyond help." When another MIT student found out that I didn't have a computer he offered to give me one, so strong were his evangelic instincts and also, like many of the customers, he was exceptionally generous.
With one hand Gus makes what The New York Times has called "the best ice cream in the world”; the other takes the cultural pulse of the city.He has published a mini-memoir, Ice Cream Man, and writes a column for The Atlantic -- close observations on what we can know about society through ice cream.
Customers! They're so nice. They're so weird. Some of them are so naked. We get a big cross section. We're near MIT but we're also in Central Square near a housing project. We get people who don't speak English because they're incredibly smart and have come to MIT and we get people who don't speak English because they just snuck into this country. We get people from nominally Spanish-speaking countries who don't speak Spanish. I like to hire people who can speak other languages. It can help in the store.
We often discuss the customers after a long night and I think most of us would agree that some of the most difficult customers are suburbanites who come into town on weekends or during the summer and are a little lost. Maybe I'm seeing anxious tourist behavior, but it often seems that adults from the suburbs like to play a little stupid when they're out of their element, "Look at this, honey, they have Saffron ice cream!" Any customer is capable of asking a question that is not really what they want to ask. "What's in the Goat Cheese Brownie?" really means, "Can I taste the Goat Cheese Brownie?" A customer once pointed at the chocolate ice cream and asked if it was vanilla. My playful brother, Joe, said, "Yes. It is." The customer thought for a minute and said, "I thought vanilla was white." My brother feigned surprise and slapped his forehead, "My God. You're right. That is chocolate." When customers arrive while we're mopping the floor and all the chairs atop tables, they ask "Are you closed?" Obviously we're closed, but they want to ask, "Can we still get something?" and if it is at all possible we try to serve them something, but something to go, so we can finish cleaning and go home ourselves.
Time takes on a cultural dimension in the shop, as people develop a circadian rhythm in which the cosmos aligns with their stomach: I can do this important thing here and only here, now and only now, and I need French Toast to do it.
Some customers are like Japanese trains. Every morning at 8:45 AM they get a double espresso or every night they come to study and begin with a White Peony tea. One customer only drank nocciola frappes and when he died suddenly his friends at MIT all came to the store after a memorial service and drank nocciola frappes. An accountant often arrives just before we stop serving weekend brunch and is upset when we are out of breakfast items. "This is very important to my week. Why do you always run out of French Toast?" Another was indignant when we asked people to leave after our 11 PM closing. We need to get home, catch a bus or subway, or simply lock the doors to keep any night goblins outside. Many people do not like our policy prohibiting the use of computers for a few hours every week. People think we are intentionally serving unusual flavors they like when they're not in the store; we make Cocoa Rum Chip every other week, but they only come occasionally. We try to set aside special flavors for special people, but customers also have "commitment issues" about ice cream flavors.
For the IgNobel Awards, an internationally broadcast spoof of the Nobel Prizes held at Harvard University, Gus developed a new ice cream flavor as homage to the discovery by 2007 IgNobel Chemistry Prize winner, Mayu Yamamoto, that you can extract vanillin from cow dung. (Gus admitted that his recipe for Yum-a-Moto Vanilla Twist did not include poop.) When I pointed out to Gus that he treats ice cream the way a novelist regards a blank page, he responded,
The idea of ice cream as a blank page might be very appropriate. I think about many things but it is easy for any idea to slip across the surface of my mind and end up as an ice cream flavor. Flavors come about from mistakes and misunderstandings. Ginger Snap Molasses was the result of wordplay. Steve's Ice Cream made Ginger Molasses and I wanted to get the cookie, the word "snap" and the idea of that snap into the flavor or at least flavor name. Black Bottom Pie came about while reading a cookbook one morning when I should have been getting to work. Jeremiah Tower, the first chef at Chez Panisse, described a favorite dessert from Alabama and I realized I had all the ingredients but should probably invert everything. So instead of making a chocolate rum pie with a ginger snap crust, I made a Chocolate Rum ice cream containing pieces of ginger snap cookies. I have a lot of curiosity and even a food as simple as ice cream can provide a large playing field.
Running rough-and-tumble on the playing field of food, fun, and social analysis, Gus, together with the anthropologist Merry “Corky” White, puts on a semi-underground annual food film festival that in its execution itself becomes a piece of performance art. Graduate students from Harvard and MIT volunteer their technical and lugging skills. The festival uses scavenged equipment and university rooms opportunistically acquired for that evening’s showing. Sometimes the films are shown in a room repurposed from a small swimming pool, chairs set inside the tiled chin-height walls. While watching the movie, you imagine Harvard men in knee-length bathing suits taking bracing morning constitutionals.
The films are usually accompanied by a speaker reflecting its theme, and Corky, an accomplished cook, makes film-appropriate food. After “Ratatouille”, the animated movie about a rat assisting a young Parisian from beneath his chef’s hat, the food critic Corby Kummer regaled the audience with stories from the field, but what the audience saw was the snooty food critic in the film, to whom Kummer bore a remarkable resemblance. Then Corky served up samples of ratatouille. When Gus and Corky realized the series was attracting a covey of attendees who skipped the movie and came just for the food, the series went even further underground in a game of cat and mouse (or rat) with the film grazers.
Food and drama embrace on screen and off. “The Kings of Pastry” is a documentary that follows three pastry chefs in the grueling competition for France’s most prestigious pastry title. Some of the men broke down under the pressure, their enormous sugar confections toppled, lifelong dreams ground to sugar dust. The audience in the borrowed Harvard room was tense; in the film, the judges were about to announce the winners. Just then there was a commotion at the door; members of the student shooting club claimed to have booked the room and demanded that we surrender it immediately. But we all remained in our seats, eyes glued to the drama on the screen, our noses twitching at the platter of Corky's cream puffs waiting on the table.
What is the secret of this enthusiasm for food -- not just for nurturance, but as a philosophical platform and for “deep play”?
The mysteries of ice cream? Moving past the maternal link I think the fundamental appeal of ice cream is juvenile. It is a food you get to play with and is actually improved by that combined stirring-melting spoon business. As you soften the ice cream it warms. Cold numbs taste buds so warming up the ice cream actually does make it taste better. It is the little boy's equivalent of letting wine breathe.
Playing with your food can be hedonistic and it can be dramatic, fusing our passions in one grand gesture of denial. You cannot have my Dulche de Leche. You may not pass. One customer was mugged when he refused to surrender a pint of ice cream to teenage thieves. And on another occasion the police caught a fleeing thief after first bringing him to heel with a well-aimed Toscanini frappe.
(Photo credit: Merry White)
Monday, March 28, 2011
Read the Label Before You Buy
by Wayne Ferrier
I was driving home from the gym and stopped at the convenience store to grab a power drink, a crunchy snack, and dinner for the cat. I'm being hypothetical here, I don't really work out at the gym, and I rarely buy snacks at the convenience store, but for the sake of this story indulge me please. I looked around at the myriad of choices, not feeling compelled to comparison shop—it's a convenience store remember—so I grabbed what seemed the most appealing and headed to the cash register. What I had chosen was a bottle of POWERADE, COMBOS and a can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté for the cat. Cats are so suave aren’t they? We eat COMBOS and they have pâté. I had skipped dinner so I would have time to go to the gym. I want to be healthy you know.
Back in the car I tore open the bag and downed a fistful of COMBOS and had a swig of POWERADE. Having gotten my initial fix, I took a moment to glance at the nutritional information that is on the food label. The first ingredients listed on food labels are the primary ingredients in that product. The first two or three are the ones you want to look at closely. Ingredients at the bottom of the list may be in smaller amounts than the first ingredients that are listed.
By now most consumers should be aware of what to look for and what to look out for. Experts have been telling us for years to eat whole grains. But my bag of COMBOS listed Wheat Flour as the first ingredient. That's not whole grain. Well that's to be expected. Maybe this snack food wasn't the best choice to get my daily fiber. So what was the second ingredient? It said Palm Kernel, Palm Oil and/or Hydrogenated Palm Oil.
Hmm, it may or may not have Trans Fat, yet this is the second ingredient. Isn't Hydrogenated Oil supposed to be really bad for you? Doesn’t it supposedly contribute to coronary heart disease and other health problems? And why won't they just tell me if it's in there or not? The third and fourth ingredients are Maltodextrin, and Food Starch-Modified. I don’t know what Food Starch-Modified is but Maltodextrin is supposedly a natural product. It is believed to be more easily metabolized than other kinds of carbohydrates, making it popular with athletes and bodybuilders who want quick energy. It is used as a filler and thickening agent making it a popular ingredient for dieters, because it makes you feel full and therefore you don't eat so much. It also may be good for diabetics who may benefit from Maltodextrin being processed easily by the body, assisting in the regulation of metabolic functions. But that's where the positive info ends and the warning is that in small amounts Maltodextrin is perhaps harmless, maybe even healthy. Long term consumption of Maltodextrin, however, we just don't know for sure. This is not too bad information. I was feeling better.
Moving down the list I saw a host of food dyes including Yellow 5 Lake, Yellow 6 Lake, Red 40 Lake, and Blue 1 Lake. To me consuming food dyes is like playing Russian roulette, the consensus is that we think some may be benign, others we think might be carcinogenic, and many we just don't know very much at all what they might do. I drove home. Curious now, I booted my computer, and logged onto the COMBOS website. This is when I really got concerned, perhaps even a little frightened. Upon entering the site I was greeted with this message:
Find your inner self. Hint: It’s not at the dinner table. Congratulations on your first step towards the Combivore lifestyle, where hearty snacks are always the right choice. Remember being a Combivore isn’t about trendy eating or fad foods, it’s a way of life.
I’m not sure what that means. The way it comes across to me is the company who makes COMBOS knows my inner self, and it ought not to be eating healthy, well balanced meals with my family at the dinner table. My inner self is a brute, a creature whose main diet isn't meat, nor fruits and vegetables. I'm a Combivore, to whom snacks are all that matters. I'm not to pay attention to the latest fads; health fads? Okay, I will admit to you that what was left in the COMBOS bag went straight into the garbage. But what about the POWERADE, that has to be healthy right, with all those electrolytes and all? So here we go. The first ingredient is water. I guess that makes sense. Here’s what was next: High Fructose Corn Syrup, citric acid, and salt. Further down the list are food dyes, namely Blue 1, which is really an intense blue, not like those pale looking colors you see in GATORADE.
I did a quick search on High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS) and found that the American Medical Association (AMA) insists that it is no better and no worse than any other commonly used sweeteners. Again I was feeling better. Then I went and checked what Andrew Weil says because I respect his opinion and he is definitely against it. I also checked out Dr. Oz to see what he had to say and he agrees with Weil. The low down is that HFCS is a relatively recent invention and consumption of HFCS in the United States has increased by more than 1,000 percent between 1970 and 1990. HCFS may promote weight gain because it behaves in the body closer to fat than to glucose. According to Weil, there is some evidence to suggest that fructose might disturb the normal function of the liver, and unlike glucose, doesn't seem to trigger the process where our bodies tell us that we are full. Oz further clarifies this by saying that High Fructose Corn Syrup is not recognized by our brains as real food, so we never feel satiated and we keep eating more and more. The result is our blood sugar level keeps rising, and abnormal amounts of insulin are needed to metabolize it, and then we crash and are hungry again. Not recognized by our brains as food!
Oh great! I just ate half a bag of COMBOS with Maltodextrin which gave me the feeling of being full. Then I drank POWERADE, which leaves me feeling perpetually hungry? But what really worries me are those insidious food dyes. They don't draw much attention. I'm no expert, but they really concern me. We really don't know what they are or what they are doing for us or to us. Natural and artificial flavors, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Blue 1, etc. I just don't like the sound of them.
Here's a bit of evolutionary rumination. We evolved to prefer certain nutrients in certain forms. Young primates normally avoid bitter tasting food because many toxic plants contain alkaloids which have a bitter flavor, while sweetness in natural foods is usually an indication of ripe, health-giving fruits and vegetables. Over time adult primates, through trial and error, become savvy consumers knowing which bitter plants are good to eat and which are not. Primitive peoples are often just as discerning about what are good or useful alkaloids from those which are bad and dangerous. Even in modern society drinking coffee, tea, beer, and eating spicy foods and bland vegetables are acquired tastes.
But many food manufactures, it seems, are colluding to keep us perpetually naive, bombarding us with mega amounts of sweeteners and easily digestible carbohydrates. Why sit at the dinner table eating healthy food, which takes time to digest, when you can get what you want quick and cheap at the convenience store? Unfortunately these perpetually available sweets and carbs are also loaded with other man-made substances, which we know very little about.
Rats cannot vomit. That’s a weird fact but true. When a rat eats something it has to digest it, it cannot throw it up. A rat encountering an unfamiliar flavor the first time will nibble then walk away. After a number of hours if it doesn’t get sick, the rat might return and finish its meal. The rat does this to see if what it is eating is poisonous. Manufacturers of rat poison have to make their products appealing to rats yet not be so toxic so that the rat comes back for seconds or so toxic it gets them on the first nibble.
In humans smell and taste might have evolved to give us the ability to identify good food from poison. If it is acidic the food might be spoiled, if it is bitter it could be potentially toxic. Carbohydrates and other simple sugars provide quick energy for primates on the go. Associating sweetness with energy may be behind our present addiction to processed food. Food that was once hard to find is now overly abundant and the rule of nature is that too much of a good thing can be harmful, even dangerous. The very definition of pollution is too high of a concentration of anything. Our supermarkets are cesspools of too much of what we crave. Abundant sources of easily digestible carbs are difficult to find in nature, salt is equally scarce. Food manufacturers have caught on to this and create processed food with the right combination of the goods we want: salt, sugar, fat, etc. The food doesn’t even have to taste good; if the right combination is there people will buy it and consume it.
And that can of FRISKIES? Just for the shock value I would love to tell you that it beats human food hands down but I can't. The ingredients in that can of FRISKIES Classic Pâté are Meat By-Products, artificial and natural flavors, and the omnipresent food dyes are there too. Nobody really knows what Meat By-Products are except the manufacturer. To conjure up images of what Meat-By Products are exactly sounds too much like a horror flick to me, so I'll leave it at that.
We are a society that is caught in the middle of a battle between exploitative marketing and a raging health-kick movement. I am constantly being reminded of the dangers of cancer, cardiovascular disease, stroke, and diabetes. I see the word “cancer” mentioned dozens of times per day on television, in newspapers, magazines, on the Internet—every form of media. Even my Facebook friends are constantly posting warnings and reminders of these maladies and asking me to post them too. Eventually one of these killers is going to get me, but preferably later than sooner. The fear and threat of cancer, heart attack, stroke, and diabetes is fed to me so many times a week I just can't get them out of my head. I really think we need a break from it as it seems that's all we think about these days! We've really become quite a paranoid culture.
Yet a quick trip to the supermarket reveals that there are still a lot of companies out there that have resisted changing the quality of the ingredients in their products. Other companies are bent on fooling us, making us think that their products are healthier when they are really not. Read the labels please, and then don't worry so much about the dangers. I already know the dangers. If a company is making crap why don't we just stop buying it? And if we're not sure what an ingredient is then let us take a lesson from the rats. Wait until the verdict is in, scientific investigations conclusive, and meanwhile choose something else on the way to the cash register.
Monday, February 28, 2011
The don of Pérignon
A year ago (February 2010) I met, in Lagos, Nigeria, Pascal Pecriaux, “Ambassador” for French champagne brand Moët & Chandon. The profile below provides insight into Pecriaux’s life – in and out of wine-tasting – and the Nigerian obsession with champagne. Nigeria ‘discovered’ champagne in commercial quantities (by importation, of course) following the oil boom of the 1970s (starting in 1973/74 and lasting much of the decade). The love affair has continued to this day. Time Magazine reports that the coup-plotters who murdered Nigerian Head of State, Murtala Mohammed, on February 13, 1976, "apparently made their move after an all-night champagne party."
I wrote this piece not long after meeting Pecriaux:
By Tolu Ogunlesi
On a Friday afternoon at the Lagos Sheraton, a group of people are gathered in one of the banquet rooms. Most are Sheraton staff – waiters and waitresses. There are also a few journalists, like me. We are all waiting for Pascal Pecriaux.
Pecriaux is a “Wine Ambassador” who has flown all the way from the village of Champagne in France, to spread the gospel of Moët to a Nigerian audience. By the time he steps into the room, two hours behind schedule, we are not the only ones waiting for him. Rows of empty champagne flutes line the tables in front of us, and half a dozen or so bottles peek from ice-boxes at the far end of the room.
Moët is one of the most easily recognizable badges of honour flaunted by Nigeria’s elite, especially its young upwardly mobile class. If the frequency of its appearance in the lyrics of Nigerian hiphop songs and in music videos is anything to go by, Marc Wozniak, Deputy General Manager of the Lagos Sheraton, is absolutely right when he says that Moët is “the most common and most well-known champagne in Nigeria.” David Hourdry, Moët Hennessy’s Market Manager for Western Africa says that “Nigeria is today the biggest market for Moët & Chandon in all Africa.”
In his heavily accented English Pecriaux encourages us to ask questions. “I really can be boring,” he quips. But his job, which he describes as travelling around the world “to taste our champagne and to talk”, is certainly not boring. In the last decade he has visited 60 countries.
Pecriaux has worked with Moët & Chandon since 1978, when, over a one-month period, he “changed everything” – moved homes, got married and changed jobs (his old job was as an internal auditor at Unilever). Around that time he even started to grow a moustache as well (his wife took ill, and he settled on the idea of a moustache to amuse her). “But at the time the moustache was brown. Now it is white,” he quickly reminds me. Unlike the moustache, however, I doubt that the bald patch atop his head is a personal choice.
Travelling the world tasting and talking champagne has given him tremendous insight into patterns of human behaviour across the world. He is dismayed by consumers who, because of inexperience, “consider champagne [merely] as a drink of pleasure and of celebration, and [thus] pay less attention to the complexity of the wine and the fact that it is wine.” Such consumers, he says, are only interested in consuming champagne because it is “something fashionable and expensive, which can be replaced by any other fashionable thing.”
The Russians were like that at first, he says. On his first trip to that country (which, before his first trip there, hadn’t hosted a “champagne training” since the Russian revolution in 1917), he observed that “[they] were not really interested in quality, they were interested in brands, in spending as much money as possible on what they consumed.”
But things soon changed, the inexperience increasingly giving way to a sophisticated appreciation. On a return visit, two years later, “people were really asking questions… very precise and sometimes tricky questions.” He likens the Nigerian market to the Russian one, and foresees a similar transformation happening here. “I think that affluent Nigerians who enjoy Moët are also people who travel abroad, who meet foreigners, so are exposed to other experiences. Naturally they become more demanding and they try to understand the pleasure they have.”
If he hadn’t become a Moët Ambassador, what else would he have been? “[A] hermit,” he says, straight-faced. “The pleasure which I have with [Moët] probably cannot be replaced with something else.” Possibly not even his love for hot-air ballooning.
Pecriaux takes literature as seriously as his wines. “Mainly French classical literature,” he explains. “My best friend is a writer of the French renaissance of the 16th century, Michael du Montaigne, he wrote one big book which I’ve read maybe four times or five times.” His post-retirement reading list is intimidating: Balzac, Stendhal and Proust. “I made the choice a long time ago, with a few exceptions, to read dead authors, because then there’s a natural selection… [the] selection is made by time. If after two centuries a writer is still printed, he’s still talked about; maybe this means he’s worth reading.”
This trip is his first to Lagos, and he’s loved every bit of it. He says it reminds him of his year-long stay in Ivory Coast in the early 1970s, on French military service. “It was my first experience of another culture; I’m still marked by it. I still feel it, it was a great experience. It’s the Africa I love, and I found elements of it [in Lagos].”
When he retires, in a few months, it’ll be to “take care of my cellar, drink my wines instead of drinking my employer’s wines, read my books, take care of my garden, settle down and travel for my own pleasure.”
Moët is manufactured from three different varieties of grapes: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. “What really matters is the raw material,” says Pecriaux. He explains that the wine-making process can only “maintain / magnify” the innate qualities of the grapes.
The grapes must possess “very specific characteristics”, conferred by the weather – which varies from year to year. One important quality the grapes must possess to make the final cut is that they must be “just ripe”. Coming a close second to the quality and character of the grapes is the wine-making process (“Méthode Champenoise”).
At harvest, the grapes are picked by a band of 3,000 “pickers” employed by Moët & Chandon. Picking is done only by hand. The grapes are then taken in small baskets to processing centers (the company currently has six of those). Everything possible is done to avoid damage to the grapes. At the processing centers the grapes are crushed gently, so gently that only 2,500 litres of wine is taken from 4,000 kg of fruit; and each batch of wine is transferred into a giant stainless steel vat. (The company has 700 of those vats).
The choice of stainless steel is to help minimize the risk of oxidation of the wine. With the juice sitting in the vats, waiting patiently to be turned into wine, Moët’s secret practices are ready to commence. The wine house has its own secret strains of yeast (“yeast that respects the aromas coming from the grapes”) to facilitate the fermentation process.
Following this is the blending process, where batches (from different vats, and even different years) are combined by a team of 11 “winemakers”. The blending is done in a giant vat (6,000 hectolitre capacity). When full the vat will contain hundreds of thousands of bubbles.
The wine is then transferred into bottles. Special strains of yeast, as well as rock sugar, are added to the bottles, which are sealed with crown-corks. A second round of fermentation, which may last weeks, takes place in the bottles. The wine-making process is deemed completed only at the discretion of the “Master Blender”.
After the secondary fermentation, impurities are expelled from the bottles by a special freezing technique, sugar is added, and the bottles are corked, and labelled. The world’s leading champagne, and one of its finest luxury brands, is born.
'Pop Something' (below), by Nigerian dentist-turned-hiphop-musician, Dr. Sid, is one of the country's best known Champagne-Anthems. Yahoozee, another of those anthems, proclaims a manifesto of "Champagne Hennessy Moët for everybody." The Moët brand is a too-conspicuous feature in the song's video. Yahoozee, a shameless celebration of the art - and rewards - of email scamming, and the cash-suffused lives of its youthful practitioners, is the song which famously got former US Secretary of State, Colin Powell dancing, at the ThisDay Music and Fashion Festival in London in 2008. (None of the blame should go to Mr. Powell though; he could not have been expected to understand the lyrics, which are a mixture of Yoruba, pidgin English and urban Nigerian slang.)
Monday, April 13, 2009
New York, at the moment
Last Sunday, April 4, Spring came to New York City. Sixty-two degrees it was, and calm in the bright sun of a cloudless sky. The city had been waiting.
The winter seemed unusually brutal and long. As late as March we got mugged by the winds Chicago-style – sucker-punched from the northeast, a roundhouse kick to the southwest quadrant, then a blow to the kidneys and thrown into traffic. The winter was long. But the city was waiting.
Rites were given: the cruellest month, 1968. No, the City said, the greatest respect that can now be paid is called celebration, and forward. Miniskirts and boots, scarves sun-yellow and lollypop red, out the door on the long stroll and the City was again a New Thing.
In the East Village, across 3rd Avenue from the regal brown bulk of the Cooper Union on Astor Place (where Lincoln and Rushdie have spoken) a new extension of Arts and Sciences is rising: titanium cladding on the north, glass-frame on the south, and a delicious titanium wave cascading down four storeys: its form says, We'll surf this. It adds a dangerous excitement to the new skyline of the Bowery, where a white sail of a condo rises. Behind it, the textured white boxes of the New Museum totter like blocks stacked by Modernism's gargantuan infant.
At Lincoln Center, the new Alice Tully Hall is a clean, white, graceful dagger of 21st-century elegance, angling its excellence to a fine point: the classical performing arts yet have a home in this new era; "In this silicon world, art remains organic," the Alice Tully Hall says with its soaring wood interiors. Is it unfortunate, or symbolically meaningful, that its broad, 30-foot-tall windows look out upon, and reflect, ugly '70s tower blocks and bland '80s condos? What does it say about this Temple of the Performing Arts erected on a razed block of Puerto-Rican tenements where West Side Story was sourced?
Yes, the East Village as you've known it is almost all gone: Kim's Video AboveGround on St. Mark's – where it moved after being rent-wrested from its subterranean West Village haunt – is boarded up. The greatest pillar of eccentric, curatorially-defined, independent video/music emporia is no more. The Holiday Cocktail Lounge, one of New York's classic dive bars, is on its last legs, with owner Stefan Lutak in his 90s and suffering from health problems. I don't know how much longer I'll be able to nurse a beer in a darkened corner booth, on cushions held together with duct tape, while reading Walter Benjamin to the purple light of neon beer ads, overhearing a punk-rock guitarist debate politics with an art-history professor.
Love Saves the Day, on 2nd Avenue, known as the place where Madonna goes to trade in her jacket in "Desperately Seeking Susan," closed in January. It fills me with heartbreak. It was a happy bedlam of kitsch, pop culture, antique clothes and old Playboy magazines – a retail archive of American popular culture, and a total playground for anyone who was a kid between 1950 and 1995. Star Wars figurines and The Simpsons family, Barbies primping astride a herd of My Little Ponies and a starting-line of Matchbox and HotWheels cars – fake poop, Mexican finger traps, crenoline ballgowns from the '50s, leather jackets from the '70s, jester hats, fedoras, Garbage Pail Kids, and vintage copies of Penthouse all razzed each other from parts of the shambly scrum.
Even when the New York City winters were a-bleedin' me, I knew what to do: head down 2nd Avenue, overcoat collar turned up against the snow, and look ahead: right there, in Day-Glo '60s bubble-letters, was the sign beaming out in the dun sky, the sign you need to read, comforting you that yes, Love Saves the Day.
Hey, New York: fill 'er up, please, and check under the hood. While you're at it, can you you make sure the headlights are aimed properly? We need both high- and low-beams if we're going to drive this dark twisty wood of middle-life; the potholes are hell. I know that we're all lined up in the Self-Service lane, but buddy– can you spare a technician or two?
Prophets may be scrawling underground, but the visionaries are scattered from the lowest tunnels to the highest billboards. POST NO BILLS? What are we, Communists? Savvy New Yorkers know the City is a Language – its accents, dialects and mannerisms voiced not just from a billionaire Bloomberg and a bodega cashier but by the names of the stores and the advertisements everywhere. The ancients had tea leaves; we have construction sites, plywood walls and restaurant façades to tell our futures. But you have to know where to look.
In October and November, 2008, Microsoft bought up the entirety of the Grand Central subway corridor leading to the Times Square Shuttle, and plastered its walls and columns with Windows logos and a green gallery of unsung heroes all creating a chorus of "I'm a PC!" in a weird fanfare for the common man, voiced in the weary shuffles and trudges of the office-bound. But then you'd step in the Times Square Shuttle: and you were transported – back to a grand 1950's office lobby with marble floors, wood accents, and Modernist chandeliers with brass sconces – in an omnidirectional promotion for HBO's "Mad Men" that encompassed the complete interior of each subway car.
You could read something in that.
In deepest, darkest January, I shlepped that path again. This time – BAM! A sunburst of yellow, a tunnel of smiling light, advertising (of all things) Western Union. They'd called up the 411: gone was their legendary "crisis" advertising. Instead they concentrated on your sense of empowerment and relief when you got the money you wired for. Two-dozen sun-yellow poster-ads, half of them scoped from your right eye, half from your left, exclaiming YES! YES! YES! all the way to the train. Molly Bloom couldn't have thunk it better.
Inside the Shuttle car, Pepsi had taken over. That leaked (and faked?) PDF for Pepsi's redesigned logo, in its orgy of metaphysical and quantum-mechanical hokum, seemed designed to throw the wool-eyes over a simple headsmack fact: its circle was merely a funked-up volley off Obama's campaign logo, turning that frown upside down.
"Optimism," the candy-colored strips of blue, yellow, red, and orange sang out above your transiting head, "Yes you can!" "Together," "One for all," "Let's refresh America."
Now you and I, as savvy mental travelers in New York's neurons, will not get off at Times Square, where the great Maw of America threatens to devour us in a sea of Red Lobsters, a zone of ESPNs, an industrial farm of old McDonald's, an angry hive of Applebee's and an epileptic blizzard of LEDs. Sure, you may think you can read the news here, but the Zipper will leave you huddling naked with fear, only to be unctuously bling'd by big boxes that put you in small ones.
No, let's go to Union Square, where some smart slender boxes are going up on the western face. Here's where we fear, with Circuit City gone and the Virgin Megastore bailing in June, that all will head south if Wal-Mart's Great Eye is focused upon that block, as we suspect. But we're okay for the moment – cutting through the park I spy Mr. Wendel, grizzled and toothless, who's puttin' on the Ritz with a silver top-hat, mirror-shades, a yellow-and-gold sequined dress, and a black tuxedo vest with beer-tab brocade.
"I want money for that," he growls as I snap his photo.
"Well, I can give you fame," I say.
"To hell with fame," he says, "I want some money."
He's surprised I recognize his name. I tell him I'm three feet high and rising, too.
"Ev'rybody asks me why I dress like this," he says. "People got no sense of fashion any more. Th'girls're practically naked."
I tell him I'm all right with that.
"Trees are getting their clothes on," he says, looking up to the budding branches. I smile.
Down in the Union Square plaza, on the north end, a European-style café will soon occupy the arch where amblers rested and skateboards skipped. I suppose that isn't too bad, with the weekend green market creating a nice fluidity of purpose. On the southern end, the artists, man, they're getting down to some serious work. A year ago, nothing but commercial tat and tourist trophies. Now look.
There's even a guy making three-string guitars out of lacquered and polished cigarette boxes.
On the way across the street, we catch the conversation between two men in khakis and striped button-downs. "Yeah, he was saying that only poor people use debit cards." There it goes again: the black dog panting, the cymbal crash, the culture clash, the ripping threads.
"Oh Oracles of Madison Avenue," we genuflect northward, "Suns of the south have given us heatstroke. Bring us a breeze, o thou cool heads of Mad Men." We wander through the East Village. To
Oh yeah. We're grooving on the Matrix, jockeying that code. Yeah, we're thirsty for it. So we head down to the Lower East Side, and Clinton Street. First colonized by WD-50, that pod of molecular gastronomy, Clinton Street is now after a fashion. A lot of them, in fact. Japanese threads are lining the way, with Madame Killer, a terrific shop of Japanglish get-ups and deck-outs. In another, more upscale boutique, the managers apparently realized that their wares were so choice, their ambience so exquisite, that poorer-than-thine-pricetag sorts would want to embrace their brand too. So I bought this book at the counter.
That's an independently published book of poetry and collage (I note influences of Eliot, Ferlinghetti and e.e. cummings in the verse). Here are two important things that bring us passion right now: text || image; renewed language || mashed-up culture. It's a rare find, a limited edition, and all of $12. Less than half the cost of a glossy next-new-thing at Borders, and better, too, because it hasn't been hounded to death by editors and marketers. I'm broke, but there are some things you just can't resist.
On the corner of Clinton and Stanton, I was sad to note the departure of the scruffy coffee/bar Lotus, with its bookshelves and cheap Pabst. In its place, though, stands Donnybrook, a smart-looking pub that represents the new, modern Dublin: crisp slabs of marble for the bar top, lime-green leather accents upholstered with brass, rough-hewn wood tables – the ideal fusion of contemporary and traditional, without resorting to the clichés of the Irish Pub Company that have been boring our urban centers for 18 years now.
It's empty this afternoon, with a guy in the corner tapping on a laptop; on the t.v., Abruzzo quietly misses a goal. "We need a hangover cure," I say to the barmaid, "and not a Bloody Mary: something clear and light."
"I've got just the thing for you," she says with a brogue.
"What's in it?" I ask.
"Trade secret. All I can say is that it has bitters and soda."
It's fizzy and coral-colored, it's lightly sweet and slightly floral, like Spring. The hangover's gone in five sips. So we opt for some greater complexity at Schiller's Liquor Bar. This mural's across the street:
Yes, New York is of the moment. No, Pollyanna ain't my wife; I'm broke, folks, circling the drain. Shuysters, hucksters, flakes and fiends are curdling in the alleys. At a recent Midtown wedding, I learned that the bride had just been laid off. Back in my South Bronx 'hood, we pass by two Hispanic guys in their forties outside a bodega. One's saying to the other, "Seventeen theaters just closed. There's nothing out there, man, nothing." But then we walk down Alexander Avenue, where a few antique stores hold on by their fingernails. We stop at one, shyly named The Antique, and stare with amazement.
In the window, there's an antique map representing the very first days of New Amsterdam colony on Mannahatta. At that moment, the shutters roll up and a door is opened. Inside, it's like the Library of Alexandria's been rebuilt in a studio apartment. All the archaic centuries, from every corner of the globe, are represented. Infinite riches in a little room? Hey Dr. Faustus, try this on for size. The owner can't be stopped – he's purling out his entire catalogue in a fluid, rolling baritone. There's a vast, 18th-century lithograph imagining the Temple of Solomon, a Life of Wellington published in 1814, a coffee-table book on the Medicis the size of a coffee table, a Victorian compendium of Byron, African histories, a 1769 edition of Plutarch's Lives, a Life magazine with the March on Selma. "I've got a stall outside Columbia every Tuesday and Thursday," he says.
"You know," I remark, "I've walked down this street a dozen times. I never knew there was a bookstore here; 'The Antique' makes me think this is just furniture and bric-a-brac."
He says, "You're right. We're going to get someone in here to change the sign next week."
That was Sunday. On Monday, the weather turned round: gusty Novemberish, rainy, and a baROOM of thunder.
The thunder said: your sun day was my gift to you, o Visionaries. It is a vision of a future that does not yet exist. It is but to whet your appetite. Build it, and it will come. Give, sympathize, control.
This wasn't just another manic Monday. Yes, some lingered, grutching the theft of their robins. But for the rest, it was as if the entire city raised its voice, and in a hundred-fifty languages gave a rousing toast: "To work!" The spirit of the City is back, its relentless competitive drive aroused to experimentation, quality, distinctiveness. Get the customer, keep the customer. Even the sandwich-makers are making tastier sandwiches. Calls for marketers and writers streamed over CraigsList – the competition's Hobbesian brutal, no doubt, as veteran journalists outnumber each ad 10-to-1, but as the papers fold, businesses insist, "We need Information! Analysis! Someone please tell us what's going on!" Marvin Gaye can only ask the question, and the grapevine's fermenting piss and vinegar.
Doctored a press release. Jammed out for data entry and strategy session with a filmmaker. Stopped into a lush lounge called Simone for a white russian to calm my nerves. Overheard a PR girl talking manically to a filmmaking guy about collaborations. 6 Train home with the rustlings of the Doom Times, drop into the bodega looking beat, there's an immense thug with a full-on Mr. T mohawk, bling scarved around his linebacker neck, black Enyce jacket thrown over a chest as wide as a Mack Truck grille.
"Man, it's rough out there," I say, grabbing a Campbell's Chunky for dinner.
"What's your game?" the thug asks.
"I'm a writer," I say.
"Man, we gotta talk. I rap, I act, I'm a comedian. Here's my card." Long Run Entertainment, it reads. Stay Fresh Productions. Caviar Dreams, CEO.
Oh yeah, man.
"Damn, I like this place," Caviar says to the Iranian behind the counter, "You got a good shop here. Lots of good people in here."
I return home, to a postcard on my wall.
This is a sampler box of my Information. This is my gift to you, Gotham. But as Derrida wrote in Given Time: Counterfeit Money, the gift "is an impossibility" – any day now, the moral obligation or monetary bill will come due. O city city, unreal city, don't default on the credit I've given you. There's one Chairman of the Board who knew what he was talking about. He said, start spreading the news. And then he said,
It's up to you,
Monday, September 12, 2005
Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Cambridge (or Notes on Deconstructing Chicken)
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
After sojourning in Tuscany and Karachi for the summer, we have returned to the East Coast, to Cambridge, for the fall. Upon arrival, we spent the afternoon under the pigeon infested trees outside Au Bon Pain, leafing through the Boston Phoenix and the Weekly Dig. We overheard a woman in a white summer hat remark, “If the weather were always like this, Boston would the most popular city in the world.” Although her premise is tenuous, on days like these, there’s a sense of occasion here, an almost pagan celebration of nature. Lucid, incandescent skies had brought the denizens of Cambridge out in their Sunday best. We observed pale, lanky limbed academics in revealing skirts; teenage punks in torn leather and grimy boots; and fresh-of-the-boat families sporting tight pants and fanny packs, gawking at the spectacle: old men playing chess for money, bold panhandlers soliciting funds, the jazz band strumming “Take Five” in the Pit.
Although we participated in the festivity, come evening our vigor waned and we felt hungry. We realized, however, that our options were limited: Harvard Square may be a melting pot but it offers lackluster ethnic dining, whether Chinese, Indonesian, Italian, Indian or Arab. (To be fair, there are two exceptions: Smile Café’s chicken larb is excellent and the menu of the Tibetan place in Central Square features this delicious minced meat and turnip dish.) And suddenly, we felt pangs of nostalgia – nostalgia for nihari, for Karachi.
In Ha Jin’s next novel, the protagonist is a poet, a Chinese immigrant to America. In one of his poems, he writes about the handful of the dirt from his backyard that he carries around with him in his portmanteau. In a way, the poem and sentiment is a response to Cavafy’s “The City”:
You said: “I’ll go to another country, go to another shore;
Find another city better than this one.
Whatever I try to do is fated to turn out wrong
And my heart lies buried like something dead.
How long can I let my mind moulder in this place?
Wherever I turn, wherever I look, I see the black ruins of my life, here,
Where I’ve spent so many years, wasted them, destroyed them totally.”
You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore.
The city will always pursue you.
You’ll walk the same streets, grow old In the same neighborhoods, turn gray in these same houses.
You’ll end up in the city.
Don’t hope for things elsewhere:
There’s no ship for you, there’s no road.
Now that you’ve wasted your life here, in this small corner,
You’ve destroyed it everywhere in the world.
Home might mean a few hundred circumscribed square yards to many; dirt. It might mean a bed to others - a threadbare chair, a red wheelbarrow; it might have to do with family and nation and tradition, with shared history, collective memory; it might be an idea; or it just might be a filet. Indeed, there is substance to the adage, “You are what you eat.” We may not carry dirt around but when traveling from Pakistan, we do carry carefully wrapped cellophane packets of various powdered spices in our suitcase. Wherever we are in the world, then, we can feed and nourish our self; wherever we are in the world, we can feel at home.
In It Must be Something I Ate, Vogue’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten maintains that “In all of Nature’s Kingdom, only mammals, female mammals, nourish their young by giving up part of their bodies. For us, food is not just dinner. Our attitude toward food mirrors our feelings about mothers and nurturing, about giving and sharing, about tradition and community…” We agree. Being Pakistani, we associate savian with Eid, korma with weddings, mangoes with summer. Furthermore, those who fancy themselves cosmopolitan, boulvadiers, men of the world, associate dining with culture, even civilization. They have sushi at Nobu, truffles at Da Silvano, lamb chops at the Grammercy Tavern.
Simply put, food defines us as we define food. The Guardian’s Lisa Hamilton avers, “Frankly, I’ve never had good sex with a vegetarian. I like men who eat properly, who like their steak bloody, their eggs Benedict runny. Fastidiousness is as unappealing in the kitchen as it is in the bedroom; there’s something emasculated about a man who let’s himself be faced down by escargot. Logically, someone as obsessed b the food/sex correlation as I am would select lovers accordingly; but as with crème brulee, I never quite had the discipline to resist what I knew would turn out badly (hence the vegetarian. He had little round glasses and did yoga. Really.) However, experience did prove that whether or not a man knows his artichoke from his elbow, when it comes to cooking, if not to sex, the clichés of national stereotypes hold true.” We’re not sure if Ms. Hamilton ever got it on with a Pakistani. Rest assured, we are carnivores. We make meat.
The following is a proprietary recipe for a dish we call (and have presently coined) Killer Karahi Masala:
Ingredients (and other materials)
1 chicken (or a packet of drumsticks and filets)
2 large onions, chopped
1/3 cup of vegetable oil
10 dried red chili peppers
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of red chili powder
1 teaspoon of garam masala (available at any Pakistani grocery store)
1 teaspoon of coriander powder
2 large tomatoes, diced
1/2 teaspoons of garlic paste
1/2 teaspoons of ginger paste
1 clove of garlic, chopped
1 thing of ginger, chopped
One of those plastic lemon things with lemon juice inside it
“Carlito’s Way” Soundtrack (not the original score)
Close your eyes. Summon primal hunger. (You cook better when hungry.) Play first track on CD, Rozalla’s “I Love Music.” Pour oil into a casserole with diced onions and dried red chili peppers and turn up the heat. Strip and wash chicken. When onions become translucent, add chicken. (Wash your hands.) This should be around the time of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “That’s the Way I like It.” Add salt, red chili powder, coriander powder, garam masala, garlic and ginger paste. Throw in a diced tomato. Stir together and cook for half an hour on medium heat. Keep stirring. Then add chopped garlic and ginger. Have Dunhill, drink Corona; celebrate, you’re almost done. Fifteen minutes later, add the second diced tomato and squeeze the lemon thing over the dish as a sort of garnish. Serve hot (with tortillas as chapati proxies). “You Are So Beautiful” should be winding down in the background.
In our depleted state, however, we couldn’t venture to Broadway Market for groceries. We didn’t have it in us to make Killer Karahi Masala, or even a runny eggs Benedict. We somnambulated to Pinocchio’s for a steak-and-cheese and then, in this small corner, slept, full but incomplete.
Other Critical Digressions:
Gangbanging and Notions of the Self
The Media Generation and Nazia Hassan
The Naipaulian Imperative and the Phenomenon of the Post-National
Dispatch from Karachi
Live 8 at Sandspit
Chianti and History
Tuesday, July 05, 2005
The raw-food diet
From The Independent:
There was a time when only hippies and health fanatics would consider living on raw food. No more. A raw-food revolution is under way - and celebs are leading the way. Uma Thurman, Natalie Portman and Alicia Silverstone have all been eating uncooked food in the name of optimum health. Woody Harrelson went so far as to publish a 400-page tome on Living Cuisine. But then, the beautiful people, I suspect, were beautiful and shiny haired before they gave up ovens. What could raw foods do for me? I decided to give my oven a rest for a week, to see if I can catch any symptoms of glamour and gorgeousness.
One week later...
My blood pressure is up to 110/70 but this is probably just because I have been rushing around in the heat. But I have lost weight. Two kilos, which is five pounds, which is almost half a stone. In just one week. No sign of celebrity gorgeousness yet, but maybe that will come. Perhaps raw is the way forward.
Sunday, June 19, 2005
Critical Digressions: Dispatch from Karachi
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
We have touched down in Karachi and are reacquainting ourselves with the city through rituals that we religiously repeat every six months: in the afternoon, we get into our ‘97 Corolla, turn up the AC, turn on FM 89 (that plays Duran Duran's "Wild Boys" and "Taste of Summer" back to back with Nazia Hassan and our new generations of rockers, Noori, EP and Jal), pick up a copy of the Friday Times from our man at PIDC (who asks us how we've been and inquires about the political climate in the US), drop our dry-cleaning at the Pearl, get a shave and olive oil massage at Clippers (where we are informed of the reflexology treatment that they have recently introduced), get a beer for the road at the Korean restaurant (which nestles between our legs), and then by the evening, meander through Saddar, passed paan-wallahs, underwear-wallahs, open-air gyms, tea houses, Empress Market, the Karachi Goan Association building, to get a shirt altered, buy some DVDs (Carlito’s Way, Aurat Raj and Disco Dancer), and have fresh falsa juice as the sun warms our back and the sea breeze wafts through the city, portending the monsoon. On Thursday nights we will attend qawwalis at moonlit tombs of saints, on Friday nights we will attend the rollicking Fez disco at the Sind Club, on Saturdays, head to Burns Road for a plate of killer nihari (a hot, soupy dish prepared with calves' calves), and on Sunday, chat with old friends over Famous Grouse and Dunhills about the way things are and will be. Here, we are ourselves and we are alive.
William Dalrymple, however, an insightful commentator on India, writes, "Karachi is the saddest of cities...a South Asian Beirut." The analogy, of course, is incorrect. Looking at a map of Karachi he writes, "The pink zone in the east is dominated by the Karachi drug mafia; the red zone to the west indicates the area noted for the sophistication of its kidnapping and extortion rackets; the green zone to the south is the preserve of those specializing in sectarian violence." Ladies and gentlemen, we have lived in Karachi and can tell you with great certainty that this take on Karachi is facile. It is as if we were passing through New York in the early '90s and were to comment: New York is today’s Sodom. Down Atlantic Avenue, across Brooklyn, in areas such as Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville, gang warfare and the crack epidemic have transformed traditionally middle-class cantons into a no-man’s land. Bullet holes and crushed needles mark and mar desolate facades and streets. But urban decay is not simply a peripheral phenomenon. In Manhattan, whether north or south, Harlem and Manhattan Alley or Hell’s Kitchen and the Bowery, ethnic warfare plays out on the streets: Blacks, Hispanics, Irishmen, Italians, Chinese pitted against each other, daggers drawn.
Dalrymple has written a number of brilliant books on India (and lives there) but neither his view on Karachi nor ours of New York is complete and consequently, is inaccurate. There is more to New York than bullets and needles. But Karachi gets short shrift: outside observers are able to reduce Karachi to a few facts and artifacts. Since we don’t control our own discourse, others are able define, in fact, redefine the city, see what they want to see. Take Tim McGirk’s ludicrous article in Time in which he perceived Karachi through the eyes of a “hit-man.” That’s like perceiving Los Angeles through the eyes of a 7th Street Crip! This variety of analysis is not only poor but wrong. Karachi’s murder rate, in fact, is at par with Delhi’s (and DC's). And in Bombay, mobsters not only run the movie industry but become politicians and politicians stir murder and champion rape! Of course, Bombay is not merely the sum of squalid facts. Neither are other megacities like Sao Paulo, Mexico City, Lagos and Jakarta (even Lahore), although they share many similar problems.
The problem with reportage is not simply one of dominant discourse but of the news infrastructure in this part of the world. Unlike other cities, Karachi (and indeed all of Pakistan), is typically covered from another country: the South Asian bureaus of major newspapers are based in Delhi. Naturally, then, the worldview of reporters like Barry Bearak, Celia Dugger, David Rhode and Amy Waldman (all of whom, incidentally, can't hold a candle to the knoweldgeable Dalrymple) are colored by local prejudice. On the other hand, former US Consul General John Bauman, an insider – somebody who has lived in Karachi for many years, not just passing through on a ten day junket – says “there are so many good things being done in this city. The city is a lot more complex than the single image people get in the United States.”
Take our word for it: Karachi is wonderfully vibrant. There are dimensions of Karachi not often appreciated by outside observers (foreign reporters and disgruntled expatriates alike): Karachi's vibrant cultural life comprises open-air pop concerts, classical dance shows, art exhibits, independent film festivals and coffee houses; there is great dining, street-side or indoors, and a throbbing nightlife. Karachi is very similar to New York; the same frenetic rhythms beat under our feet.
Friday, June 10, 2005
Cheap Chow Now!
Robert Sietsema writes in The Village Voice:
You've probably never heard of most of these places, sprinkled throughout the five boroughs and Jersey, and distributed among three dozen different cuisines. That's because they haven't hired publicists—those seminal restaurant world figures who make sure that 1 percent of the restaurants receive 99 percent of the coverage. And, by the way: They'd love to see you spend $50 every night for dinner.
For our fifth annual 100 Best, we return to the format of the very first year: absurdly cheap eateries where you can down a humongous meal, often for $5 or less. Think of this as restaurant affirmative action. Ethnicities that have been redlined by other publications are here included and afforded their proper respect. You'll find Haitian restaurants and African spots, Fujianese steam table joints and Egyptian hookah parlors, halal places and kosher dives, ancient coffee shops that still concoct stunning egg creams, and self-effacing specializers in dumplings and bureks and hand-forged noodles, made fresh daily. There are fusty old nuggets like Flushing's Everbest [#45], and shiny new places like Bay Ridge's Damascus Gate [#21]. Some I've mentioned before; many are appearing for the first time, the result of three solid months of bushwhacking the boroughs, sometimes inspecting a dozen places in a wild ride of an afternoon, steering with one hand while fumbling like Harry Potter in my book of clues with the other. Thank you, tipsters, bloggers, and bulletin boardists! And bless you, obscure publications picked up in ethnic groceries!
Tuesday, June 07, 2005
Chianti & History
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,
Come summer, we escape Cambridge for points East and despite our poverty, find ourselves in Italy. Here, we do as the Romans do: during the day, we sprawl at piazzas in the shadows of mighty edifices, and at night, prowl the streets, like the progeny of the wolf-suckled. And soon, we will meander through the undulating gold and olive hued Tuscan countryside, drunk on fresh warm Chianti from roadside enotecas, and on the periphery of Montepulciano, will find our kinsman's villa where we will drink more, eat more and revel for a fortnight. Then we will head further east on a cheap ticket that includes a long layover in Amman, before arriving at our final destination, Karachi.
Sipping wine in the shadow of the edifice of history, we have mused that the next leg of the journey, from Italy to Jordan, recalls another made a millennium ago by the Franks of Italy who swept south circa 1097. Let by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless, David Koresh-like figures, the First Crusade began with an attack on the Jewish communities across the Italian coast and ended at the gates of Nicaea where they were wiped out by the young Turkoman leader Arslan. Subsequently, one Bohemond of southern Italy, along with a French contingent comprising Raymond St. Gilles and the Brothers Bouillon, led another effort that succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Carnage followed the fall of the city: Muslims, Jews and Christians alike were slaughtered. Soon, a tenuous Frankish empire comprising the principalities if Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli was established, one that relied on the Genoa and Venice for naval support.
The attack stirred a period of introspection amongst the disparate Muslim nations of the region: the Fatamids of Egypt, the Seljuk Abbasids in Baghdad and the Turkomans of "Rum." Ultimately, because of the attacks, the Muslims were able to summon a coherent response: Salahuddin. Salahuddin expelled the Crusaders circa 1290. There were other Crusades, the most unfortunate being what has come to be known as the Children's Crusade (when bands of children were sold into prostitution before they left the continent.)
Although we don't like reading too much into history, today, when the horrid specter of jihad looms, the Crusades seem strangely relevant. Moreover, the quest for Jerusalem seems to be a powerful historical dynamic. Of course, the Crusades summon different memories for different peoples. Here in Italy, the Crusaders are lionized while in the Middle East they are remembered as the defeated. Of course, history like literature, is simply an exercise in perspective.
Ridley Scott's perspective on the Crusades makes for a mildly interesting spectacle (although Orland Bloom is an unfortunate casting decision). Amin Malouf's the Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a novel variety of historiography. P.M. Holt's unembellished version appeals to our sensibilities. It is, of course, the ascendant civilization that canonizes collective memory and defines discourse.
We remember things differently and different times (and like to think of different things altogether) but then we've had too much to drink. And we believe, "It's not where you're from/ It's where you're at."
Sunday, March 13, 2005
The power of broccoli
Reported in Health News:
A University of Illinois researcher is learning about the anti-cancer power of one of the most famous vegetables: University of Illinois researcher Elizabeth Jeffery has learned how to maximize the cancer-fighting power of broccoli. It involves heating broccoli just enough to eliminate a sulfur-grabbing protein, but not enough to stop the plant from releasing an important cancer-fighting compound called sulforaphane.
The discovery of this sulfur-grabbing protein in the Jeffery lab makes it possible to maximize the amount of the anticarcinogen sulforaphane in broccoli.
"As scientists, we learned that sulforaphane is maximized when broccoli has been heated 10 minutes at 140 degrees Fahrenheit," said Jeffery. "For the consumer, who cannot readily hold the temperature as low as 140 degrees, that means the best way to prepare broccoli is to steam it lightly about 3 or 4 minutes--until the broccoli is tough-tender."
Read more here.
Friday, September 17, 2004
The restricted diet for pregnant women
A pregnant Sara Dickerman wonders about why she can't eat what she isn't allowed to eat.
I'm in my eighth month of pregnancy, and so far I have sheepishly eaten several slivers of air-dried Serrano ham, a few crumbles of blue cheese, and one shimmering piece of yellowtail nigiri. Then, there's the red wine. It started with furtive thimblefuls (just to taste a new wine at the restaurant where I work!) but has spiraled out of control into a biweekly half-glass. All of these items are on the do-not-consume list for pregnant women, but no one seems to be able to tell me how much of a risk occasional lapses like mine pose to my baby.
Tuesday, August 17, 2004
Julia Child, 1912-2004
Continuing with obituaries, here's one death that's had extensive news coverage: Julia Child's. But having been a fan for so long, I thought that I'd add my voice to the choir, or to the auidience pointing to the choir, by linking to the New York Times' extensive coverage of Julia Child. My fondness for Child comes from something best expressed by Sara Dickerman in Slate.
"In many ways, Julia's greatest contribution to cooking was not bringing French food to America. . .but in freeing Americans from the necessity of cooking for a purpose other than pleasure."
Food became more thoughtful, in the sense that that adjective can apply to the senses, with Julia Child.
And while it's old news, the blog of the Julie/Julia project, in which Julie Powell . . . well in her own word:
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking. First edition, 1961. Louisette Berthole. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child. The book that launched a thousand celebrity chefs. Julia Child taught America to cook, and to eat. It’s forty years later. Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, 90 if she's a day, and no one can touch her.
The Contender [Julie Powell]:
Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.
365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen."
Friday, August 06, 2004
New York Gastronomically
My own New York imaginary contains a signification portion given over to eating. A good Marxist, I generally work towards eliminating the middle class of restaurants from my itinerary, preferring the low and the high. Examples: once a week I visit Zaragoza Grocery, a Mexican deli, really, where a rotating selection of tacos prepared by the proprietor's wife puts all four hundred other East Village taco spots to shame. Shame! All of Zaragoza's tacos are exellent, but if they have the tongue, the goat, or the lamb, thank the lord. As with much that is sublime, there are few components: just a braised meat, some onion, cilantro, salsa and a lime wedge on two tortillas. The service evinces a strong desire to see you enjoy your eating. That infectious stance, combined with stupendous food, is all I want from a place. On the higher side, I nominate the "Cuban" sandwich at Schiller's Liquor Bar, which is quite inauthentic but still fantastic, containing local cheese, ham, and Gus's pickles, and served with french fries that prove Keith's effortless superiority in the competition between the brothers McNally. The careful thought and algorithmic craft put into making sure a kitchen unfailingly delivers perfectly peanut-oil fried, sea-salt seasoned frites demonstrates that you're in a place where someone cares, cares to realize a place that ranks the importance of profit motives beneath (albeit slightly) the love of a world of good things to eat.