On Tasting the New

novel foodThere is a strain of thought in the wine and food world that assumes the object of our affection, a remarkable dish or great bottle of wine, is best understood as a representation of the culture in which it is embedded rather than a composition with intrinsic, aesthetic value.  On this view, our attitudes and judgments are nothing but the sum total of critic’s scores, magazine puff pieces, Facebook likes, Yelp reviews, wine education seminars–the whole deluge of information and misinformation that hurtles toward us every day, not to mention our own personal histories and educations that form our taste preferences.

The poor object, the dish or wine cuvee, is just a cipher, a placeholder, for socially-formed, aesthetic values determined by the cultural framework in which we live.

There is much to be said in favor of this point of view. No doubt our preferences are deeply influenced by culture and history. But it has a serious flaw. If wine or food quality is nothing but the outcome of agreements formed around contemporary tasting practices and popular conventions, we can’t explain how the new arises and captures the attention of people on the cutting edge of change. If great wines and cuisine are nothing but the product of dominant cultural discourses, we have no vocabulary to explain what goes on when those cultural practices are rejected and new taste preferences catch on, and we therefore miss the potential of dishes or cuvees that are off the beaten path. A set of assumptions that cannot explain change is surely deficient.

The alternative to this assumption that cultural practices and discourse determine taste preferences is to view new works in the wine and food world as having some degree of autonomy from their history of production and reception. They have qualities that appeal to us on their own terms, not just as an expression of culture.

I’m not suggesting that some works have universal appeal or express essences that are outside the influence of time and culture. Instead, I’m suggesting that some artifacts have qualities that cannot be assimilated to existing cultural paradigms. Because the “new’ matters to us, we should intentionally seek to foster sensitivity toward new directions, always on the look out for new experiences. Although wine and food are cultural practices deeply penetrated by the hierarchies of everyday life filtered through the framework of media and its ability to manipulate, works nevertheless must be viewed as having their own trajectories and potentials to be able to mount criticisms and challenges to prevailing preferences and experiences.

When natural wine became the rage among New York somms or molecular gastronomy sent chefs back to their chemistry texts it wasn’t because such moves were endorsed by prevailing cultural norms. They weren’t trendy when they first emerged. It was because someone said “ to hell with cultural norms, let’s do it differently” and set about creating works that made no sense.

New works that have some novel dimension create room for new experiences by transgressing habitual distinctions and routine behaviors. They do so because there is something about them that resists assimilation to the prevailing cultural framework. Of course, sometimes nonsense is just nonsense. There is no guarantee that what is novel will have value. But we will never discover if it’s valuable or not unless we nurture its resistance, grant it autonomy and see if it takes flight. That requires some cultural appreciation for novelty. But it also requires objects that are genuinely novel.



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