What is Art For?



I don’t agree with the underlying assumption of Alain de Botton’s recent work that art’s value lies in what it is for, the purposes it serves. As an expression of human capacities, art is valuable in itself regardless of whether it can be used for some purpose.

But that doesn’t mean that art doesn’t sometimes serve a purpose. So I quite like this animated video by de Botton which lays out 5 purposes that art serves.


The first one is especially noteworthy because it is often ignored. Art encourages hope.

As Botton points out “it is an obvious but striking fact that the most popular works of art in the world show pretty things—happy people, flowers in spring, blue skies.”.He goes on to argue that without the “pretty things” depicted in art we are in danger of slipping into despair. Prettiness is an “emblem of hope” he asserts.

My fellow academics along with many people in the art world simply laugh at such sentiments. They would argue that prettiness has nothing to do with genuine art that must, if it is honest, represent all that is painful and troubling in human life as well and have meaning that runs deeper than its surface appearance. And of course much art is not pretty. But still Botton has a point that the art that the public seems to crave, that survives the centuries in the public imagination, is pretty. The popularity of impressionism is evidence for the thesis.

Thus, it would seem that for most people, who are not art experts, perhaps art is an emblem of hope.

This perspective is important in the question about whether food can be art. Food must be delicious in order to qualify, and I take it “delicious” is an analogue of “pretty”—its sensory surface is pleasurable.

Good food is also an “emblem of hope”.




Misunderstanding Comfort Food

macaroni and cheeseThis seems to be the week for misleading headlines. Here is a new study proclaiming “Comfort Food is a Myth”.

Mann and her colleagues describe four experiments, three of which were similarly structured. At an introductory session, participants were specifically asked “What foods would make you feel better if you were in a bad mood?”, as well as other foods they enjoy but do not place into that category.

Then, during two sessions scheduled at least one week apart, groups of students (100 in total) watched 18-minute videos composed of film clips found to elicit “feelings of anger, fear, anxiety, and/or sadness.” At one session, after filling out a questionnaire designed to determine their mood, they were given a generous portion of their self-described comfort food (chocolate being the most popular, followed by ice cream and cookies).

At the other, they were given either one of the non-comfort foods they enjoyed, such as almonds or cashews (Experiment 1); a granola bar, which served as a neutral food (Experiment 2); or nothing at all, meaning they simply sat in silence for three minutes (Experiment 3). Afterwards, all filled out the mood questionnaire for a second time.

“Participants’ moods improved over time,” the researchers report. However, they add, “this happened to the same extent regardless of which type of food they ate, or whether they at any food at all.”

Perhaps I’m mistaken in my assumptions, but I never thought the idea of “comfort food” was food that put you in a good mood. Whether one is in a good mood or not will obviously be affected by all kinds of factors that have nothing to do with the food you’re eating. Just as sad songs don’t make us feel sad, and happy songs by themselves don’t make us feel happy, I doubt that specific kinds of food can shift our mood from negative to positive more so than alternative victuals.

Rather, I think of comfort foods as having a particular kind of meaning for us—they evoke images of simple, filling, warming, home-cooked meals prepared by people who care for us. Comfort foods mean comfort; they represent comfort; they don’t necessarily cause it and certainly not by themselves. Moods are complex affective responses to our environment or our internal states. It is not surprising that food, regardless of how loved, would by itself fail to change that state.

But it doesn’t follow from the absence of causal effect that certain foods don’t have the meanings we ascribe to them. Macaroni and cheese is comfort food, not because it makes us feel better than non-comfort foods, but because it reminds us of psychological security.

Spy Valley Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough 2011


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spy valley“Beauty is for the artist something outside all orders of rank, because in beauty opposites are tamed; the highest sign of power, namely power over opposites; moreover, without tension: – that violence is no longer needed: that everything follows, obeys, so easily and so pleasantly – that is what delights the artist’s WILL TO POWER.”
― Friedrich Nietzsche, The Will to Power

Power over opposites delights fans of New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc as well. In the 1980’s, New Zealanders figured out how to get this grape to express  both the grassy, herbaceous quality of Loire Valley Sauvignon Blanc combined with California fruitiness—a true unity of opposites. Sauvignon Blanc is a grape too often ignored perhaps because American versions suffer from a kind of identity crisis. California versions can be all over the map, from full- bodied, oaked fume blanc to light, insipid one dimensional quaffers. But in New Zealand they know exactly what to aim for–pungent asparagus over grapefruit, and even the relatively inexpensive brands consistently hit the mark.

Citrus and fresh, raw asparagus set off by light floral notes give this Spy Valley a classic nose. The palate is grapefruit and lime wrapped in the vibrant acidity we expect from this grape. There is a faint hint of sweetness and none of the green, grassy flavors characteristic of styles that draw inspiration from the French—this strives for new world accessibility. Light on the palate, for those of us still baking in end-of-the-summer heat it is great refreshment.

Spy Valley lacks the powerful aromatics and the kinetic vigor of the best Kiwi Sauv blancs but at this price it satisfies.

Score: 87


Alc. 13.5

Budget Wine: Oxford Landing Estates Shiraz South Australia 2012


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oxford landingThe saga of Australian wine exports has yet to be definitively written. In the mid-2000’s Australian Shiraz was flying of the shelves in the U.S. and U.K and the word was that Australia would be the next powerhouse wine region.

And then sales collapsed.

Wine writers are still debating the cause of the collapse but there was probably several factors at work: too much focus on quantity over quality and thus a reputation for cheap, excessively sweet wines (aka Yellowtail); a formulaic approach to winemaking driven by a few large producers producing clean, but dull wines; and at the high end, excessive focus on overly-ripe, heavily-oaked fruit bombs of the sort given high scores by Robert Parker.  The debate is on-going.

It would seem, if this offering from Oxford Landing is representative, that the Aussies are performing an about-face.

This is not yellowtail.

Although some ripe plum notes are apparent, the nose is weirdly floral with generic wood notes, baking spices, and some pepper in the background. It is off-putting at first because one doesn’t expect a Shiraz to be quite this floral, but I grew accustomed to it.

The palate shows simple plum flavors on a medium-weight frame and it’s smoothly-textured in its initial phase, but medium plus acidity and robust tannins take over and make the finish a long but puckering affair. There is plenty of structure but it all turns sour and bitter so the finish is a bit of an ordeal. In any case, there is no overall impression of sweetness and certainly not fat and flabby. The mouthfeel would be quite nice if the flavors had more depth and persistence. It took me two days to warm-up to this wine but I found my enjoyment meter inching up it by the end of the bottle.

The grapes are harvested in Riverland, a very warm region. (Oxford Landing Estates is owned by Yalumba) This is a quite different expression of Australian Shiraz—I’m interested to see if it is a trend.

Score: 84

Price: $10

Alc: 13.5

More Men in the Kitchen?


men in kitchenToday’s culinarians are almost unanimous in promoting the ideal of home-cooked meals, made from scratch, using fresh ingredients, as a route to good health, sustainable food supplies, and a revitalized home-life—while condemning the processed foods foisted upon us by the food industry.

But there is a reason why fast food and convenience foods have become so prominent a part of the American culinary landscape. As women began to enter the workforce in the 20th Century, they had little time for the labor-intensive planning and preparation required to make meals from scratch. The convenience of packaged, prepared meals promoted by the food industry were a necessity, not a choice.

This article by sociologists Bowen, Elliot, and Brenton (H/t Elatia Harris) reminds us that the situation for most women has not changed  very much:

While Pollan and others wax nostalgic about a time when people grew their own food and sat around the dinner table eating it, they fail to see all of the invisible labor that goes into planning, making, and coordinating family meals. Cooking is at times joyful, but it is also filled with time pressures, tradeoffs designed to save money, and the burden of pleasing others.

The researchers interviewed 150 women from all socio/economic classes along with ethnographic studies of 12 poor and working-class families and they conclude that:

The emphasis on home cooking ignores the time pressures,financial constraints, and feeding challenges that shape the family meal. Yet this is the widely promoted standard to which all mothers are held. Our conversations with mothers of young children show us that this emerging standard is a tasty illusion, one that is moralistic, and rather elitist, instead of a realistic vision of cooking today. Intentionally or not, it places the burden of a healthy home-cooked meal on women.

This is an issue that does not receive enough attention among people promoting healthy, aesthetically-pleasing meals. Cooking is time-consuming, expensive when seeking out specialty ingredients, and may not be appreciated by the rest of the family who might prefer Cheetos and soda for dinner.

So what is the solution? The article proposes some innovative remedies:

How about a revival of monthly town suppers, or healthy food trucks? Or perhaps we should rethink how we do meals in schools and workplaces, making lunch an opportunity for savoring and sharing food. Could schools offer to-go meals that families could easily heat up on busy weeknights? Without creative solutions like these, suggesting that we return to the kitchen en masse will do little more than increase the burden so many women already bear.

These ideas are fine but there is a more obvious solution to the time constraints involved with cooking—get men to help out in the kitchen and become more invested in preparing healthy, tasty meals for the family.

This is not a new proposal. Feminists have been pointing out the burdens of the “second-shift” for decades. And fathers today are doing more housework than in the past. Fathers are doing 4.4 more hours of housework per week than they did in 1965 according to this research by the Council of Economic Advisors—that’s real progress. But that is starting from a very low base and is still not sufficient.

Come on men! Hone those knife skills and that shopping savvy and help out mom. There is no reason why the joys of cooking must be gendered.

The Ark of Taste—an interesting and necessary idea


noahThis is a fascinating project.

The Ark of Taste is an online catalogue of foods (including plants, animals, and processed foods) that have cultural significance but are in danger of disappearing. Anyone can nominate a food for inclusion and a committee assesses the nomination and decides if it meets the criteria or not. To be included the product must be of distinctive quality, linked to a specific area and its local traditions, be produced in limited quantities, and be in danger of extinction. Their FAQ has some details about how these judgments are made.

As the food supply becomes more and more globalized and as climate change promises to radically change the kinds of crops grown or plants and animals found in particular regions, this project looks to be crucial in preserving food heritage. Increasingly, this site should become a research tool for food historians and anthropologists.

It began as an Italian project in 1996 and has since grown to encompass the globe. It is sponsored by the the Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity, and many commissioners are also officials of the Slow Food Movement.

Aging Report: Acidity and “O” Seduction Napa 2005



o seductionAged wines, if they are of good quality, tend to soften and acquire the texture of velvet as the tannins polymerize and form longer chemical chains or bond with pigment and precipitate out of the wine. Acids (mostly tartaric acid) also crystallize and drop out over time, contributing to that softer texture. But I often find that some aged wines seem to gain perceived acidity; they seem tart or sour.

Such was the case with the 2005 Obrien Estates “O” Seduction I opened this weekend—a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc made in the easy-drinking, drink-now style of contemporary Napa Cabs. The visual appearance of the wine was remarkably limpid and bright, with no sign of age. The nose was for the most part what I would expect of a 9 yr. old Napa Cab—still concentrated black berry, chocolate, and freshly- turned earth with the smell of old books just beginning to emerge (which is a good reason to read old books and drink old wines).

But on the palate the bright berry flavors and hints of raisin and an initial medium-bodied velvet texture were quickly over-run by tart acidity. The wine was still enjoyable and the acidity did not harm the meal of grilled chicken that accompanied the wine but much of the enjoyment of aged wines comes from that languorous, slowly–evolving finesse on the finish which in this wine was abruptly cut short like a jack-hammer interrupting an afternoon nap.

So what is going on with this wine? Often aged wines that are past their prime have lost the fruit that balanced the acidity when young. But that is not the case here. There was no lack of fruit—it still had rich, evocative aromas and flavors on the palate but their enjoyment was short-lived due to excessive acidity.

I have two hypotheses. Although tasting notes upon release mentioned firm tannins, after 9 years the tannins were almost imperceptible. Perhaps the wine was a high-acid wine to begin with but in the young wine it was masked by exuberant tannins that had now fallen out too quickly. But the original wine was far from highly acidic—it’s PH of 3.5 is on the modestly low-acid side, typical of Napa Cabs, and it’s titratable acidity was .64 grams, perhaps a bit high for California reds by today’s standards but not excessively so.

My second hypothesis is volatile acidity. All wines contain some acid molecules that are unstable and that are caused by bacteria. This is the acid that eventually turns a wine to vinegar. Well made, properly stored wines, keep those bacteria to a minimum by making sure the wine is not exposed to too much oxygen, which the bacteria need in order to flourish. But as a wine ages in the bottle it picks up some oxygen through the cork. If there is volatile acidity it may increase due to the enhanced oxygen-rich environment.

Usually VA is apparent on the nose—it smells like nail polish remover. I didn’t pick up any of that aroma but perhaps the process had just begun and hadn’t yet modified the aromas. There was a tiny bit of seepage around the cork indicating the seal was not as tight as one would like. But again, the visual appearance did not indicate excessive oxygen which turns the wine first Garnet and then brown.

I think the best explanation is VA but I can’t be sure. At any rate, this bottle was at the end of its life.

Score: It is impossible to score a flawed wine

Price: $60 on release

Alc:  14.8

Budget Wine: Buscado Garnacha Spain 2013



Oh my. Caveat Emptor.

Previous vintages of this wine have received some glowing reviews, not the least from Wilfred Wong who gave the 2011 93 points, saying “This one is fully-loaded, the flamboyant ’11 Buscardo Garnacha explodes with raspberries and blueberries; saturated and balanced from start to finish.”  It is one of the stars of Bevmo’s 5-cent sale. So I grabbed a couple bottles of the latest vintage, though I was puzzled by the the shelf-talker that still includes Wong’s previous review.

It is not good. On the nose there is some cherry, strawberry jam, and herbs but twiggy, green notes predominate suggesting a lack of ripeness. In the mouth, sour cherry with an aggressive acid bite and excessive bitterness mar this wine. There is just not enough fruit to keep it in balance. If you have some of this already, it is not quite pour-down-the-drain bad. It’s adequate to wash down a pizza but it is really quite unpleasant as a sipping wine.

It is entirely illegitimate for Bevmo to use a review of a previous vintage to sell wine, especially when it bears no relation to the current vintage. Shame on them. Of course this is nothing new in the wine industry.

Score: 81

Price: $9.95

Alc: 14%

Crowdsourcing Recipes: Is it a New Paradigm?


crowdsourcingWhen we eat in a restaurant, we typically choose what we want to eat, but the design of the dish and ultimately how it tastes is up to the chef.

But a company called Dinner Lab thinks that is “idiotic” and is inventing a “new paradigm” for restaurant dining.

The company wants to bring the wisdom of crowds to fine dining, and it does so at about 1,500 events a year, in 20 cities. Soon it will try this approach in a more conventional setting: a brick-and-mortar restaurant. The company plans to open at least one, and perhaps as many as three, in locations and with menus determined by the input of thousands of diners….

When you attend a Dinner Lab event, you are given an index card and asked to rate each dish’s creativity and taste, as well as each drink pairing, on a scale of one to five. You also decide whether or not the course was “restaurant worthy.”…

The scores are fed into a computer, and each week the numbers are crunched and the results are relayed to chefs, along with suggestions gleaned from the comments space on the cards and from emails sent in by diners. Maybe some people thought the burnt pepper sambuca sausage with fresh mustard was a little dry. Perhaps the chilled avocado and yogurt soup lacked zing….

It is the job of Dinner Lab’s chefs to take this information and to learn from it, tinkering with and improving recipes.

As an event, this actually sounds like fun. Chefs cook in the middle of the room, discuss their concoctions with diners, diners are encouraged to think about what they are eating, and there is plenty of convivial interaction:

The meals are designed to maximize interaction. The process of scribbling scores inevitably leads to discussions. Long tables help, too, as do family-style courses.

But a new paradigm for restaurant dining? Why think the wisdom of crowds is better at designing recipes than creative chefs? The end result is what the “average” diner prefers. This may be a safe way of designing dishes that avoids culinary disasters since these will be eliminated through the crowd’s vote. But how many creative, unusual dishes will fall by the wayside as well. This cannot help but result in lowest-common-denominator cooking

It used to be “design by committee” was a pejorative because when committees design something the compromises necessary to get agreement lead to less than optimal results. But apparently today, if the committee is large enough, the results are unassailable.

The problem with this way of thinking is that when you aggregate many random opinions, you get an average opinion. But this is not wisdom; it’s just statistics—the law of large numbers—and has little to do with originality, creativity, or high quality.


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