In an article entitled “How Millennials killed Mayonnaise, boomer Sandy Hingston wonders why, at her summertime family gatherings, few eat her formerly prized, mayo-slathered macaroni salad, Waldorf salad, or deviled eggs. In the face of generational change she notices what no longer appears on the condiment table:
I racked my brain for the source of this generational disconnect. And then, one holiday weekend, while surveying the condiments set out at a family burger bash, I found it. On offer were four different kinds of mustard, three ketchups (one made from, I kid you not, bananas), seven sorts of salsa, kimchi, wasabi, relishes of every ilk and hue …
What was missing, though, was the common foundation of all Mom’s picnic foods: mayonnaise. While I wasn’t watching, mayo’s day had come and gone. It’s too basic for contemporary tastes — pale and insipid and not nearly exotic enough for our era of globalization. Good ol’ mayo has become the Taylor Swift of condiments.
Well, I’m far from being a millennial but this comparison to Taylor Swift is unfair to Swift. Millennials may not have much income these days but they nevertheless have good taste.
Hingston can’t quite figure out why mayonnaise is no longer popular arguing that “mayonnaise isn’t bland; it’s artfully blended. It’s an evocation of the homogeneity of that old, dead American dream.”
That’s faint praise. After considering several implausible explanations for mayo’s demise, she settles on identity politics:
The only reason for this raging mayophobia is a generation’s gut-level renouncement of the Greatest Generation’s condiment of choice.
Ah no. The reason for the demise of mayonnaise is that it masks the flavor of anything you put it on, an effect made much worse when mayonnaise fans insist on shoveling gobs of it on even the most delicate of flavors. I had a fresh seafood sandwich the other day that could have been beef or liver, or beef liver for that matter, it had so much mayonnaise on it.
And as Hingston points out this was its purpose:
One of the reasons for mayonnaise’s early popularity, according to public health historian David Merritt Johns, was that it served to disguise flaws in the ingredients it coated — potatoes past their due date, flabby cabbage, tuna that was less than pristine. Young people like my daughter somehow seem to have extrapolated this masking function from condiment to culture; for them, mayo quite literally whitewashed America’s immigrants into eating dull food.
Yes they did and if mayo fans are now paying for it, well it’s a well-deserved comeuppance. They don’t call it the food revolution for nothin’.
After our brief flirtation with Florence, our tour headed south toward the Chianti Classico region of Gaiole with the first stop at Badia a Coltibuono (Abbey of the Good Harvest), an historic and highly regarded Chianti producer. This winery’s history reaches back to the 11th Century when Vallombrosan Monks founded the abbey and began planting vineyards. Records indicate they planted Sangiovese grapes and were among the first to plant olive trees in the region.
Fun fact: The monks drank about 4 liters of wine per person per day because their water was contaminated.
Over many centuries, the monks developed a flourishing wine business until 1810 when they were forced out by Napoleon and the winery put up for sale. In 1846, Coltibuono was bought by Guido Giuntini, a Florentine banker and great grandfather of Piero Stucchi-Prinetti, the present owner, whose children now run the winery. They own 64 hectares of organic vineyards with properties that include a bed and breakfast and restaurant, producing about 400,000 bottles per year.
The facility we toured is now used only for storage and hospitality–highlights include gorgeous gardens, a 16th Century cistern used to collect rain water, still in use today, several very old frescoes (that were covered with plaster to protect them from Napoleon’s depredations),
and some of the funkiest storage cellars you will ever see. The inches-thick black stuff on the walls and ceiling of their barrel room is mold that has been forming for centuries. Winery personnel claim the mold is essential for the aging process. It helps maintain the humidity in cellars without having to use expensive humidifiers, thus preventing excess evaporation which would increase alcohol levels and reduce volume.
Badia a Coltibuomo is a traditional Chianti producer using 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo, Ciliegiolo, and Colorino in their basic Classico wine, which is aged in large botti that hold 3000 bottles, and are as much as 50 yrs. old.
The wines stood up well to their reputation. Even the entry level Chianti Classico 2015 had some complexity showing earth, a bit of tarragon and savory balsamic notes. The Riserva level 2013, which spent 2 years in oak and 2 years in the bottle, with grapes harvested from 45-50 year old vines, had a beautiful earthy/ floral nose and impressive structure, round and full with a long finish. The 2009 Riserva was even more impressive, very elegant yet still firm in structure, developing aromas of wet leaves, tobacco, coffee and dark chocolate. For a traditional flavor profile I highly recommend these wines which are affordable and available in the U.S.
After departing Badia a Coltibuono we headed into the hills for lunch at Ristorante Le Contrade. This restaurant is in the middle-of-nowhere with sweeping views of the countryside. The lunch was this inventive trio of hot and trio of cold dishes—the star of the show was the “cappuccino” of frothy parmesan cheese topped with truffle, with runner up the boned quail stuffed with foie gras and lentils.
After lunch we headed to the southernmost part of Chianti Classico in the Castelnuovo Berardenga zone where Tolaini Winery is located. This is a much more modern approach to winemaking. After leaving his native Tuscany in 1956 to make enough money to start a winery, Pier Luigi Tolaini founded one of the largest trucking companies in North America. After 40 years in the transportation business he returned to pursue his true passion of making great wine. With his mechanical background, Pier created a state-of-the-art gravity-flow production system with unique, two chamber fermentation tanks and his own custom tractors that fit between the rows of their tightly spaced vines. The theory behind his viticulture is that hi-density planting, 7000-11000 plants per acre, will force the plants to compete driving the rootstocks deeper into soil seeking water and minerals. That high density planting makes this specialized tractor necessary in order to do the vineyard work.
His unique stainless steel tanks include a top fermenter that allows juice to drain into the tank below. The must is then pulled out of the top tank and pressed again. They also use a state-of-the-art optical sorter for their berry selection.
Just as their winemaking is innovative so is their wine line up. Their Al Passo is 80% Sangiovese and 15% Merlot, and although by current law they could sell it as Chianti, it’s sold as IGT Toscano to avoid Chianti’s somewhat tarnished reputation. And indeed this wine shows more plum and meat than standard Chianti. Their homage to Chianti Classico is in their Vigna Montebello Sette which bears the relatively new Gran Selezione designation. This is 100% Sangiovese aged for 30 months in large foudre casks. It’s rich, with dark fruit and earth, quite rustic with grippy tannins. It’s age worthy but needs time; it is sold in the U.S. for just over $30.
Picconero is their Bordeaux-style offering. A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and produced only in the best vintages, it’s muscular and spicy with dark cherry, chocolate and a seam of minerality, a very successful rendition of Bordeaux in Italy. With 16 months in 100% new French oak, it sells for over $100 in the U.S. Finally, we tasted their Valdisanti, a Cabernet Sauvignon dominated blend with 20% Sangiovese and a bit of Cabernet Franc. The Cab influence is quite evident with cassis, sweet oak, and a very nice savory, herbal dimension. This spent 16 months in French barrique, 70% new, including 6 months on the lees. It’s a good bargain for around $30.
These wines get good scores from the Wine Spectator and other critics and are clearly designed for the international market.
So we had an interesting juxtaposition of old school and new school Chianti. Which was my favorite? These are all quality wines but the Badia a Coltibuono Riserva is the one that sticks in my mind. It’s distinctly Chianti Classico but offering much more than your garden variety bottom-shelf Chianti at under $30.
Next stop, the village of Montepulciano.
This tour was planned and executed by Chris Gluck, owner of The Wine Vault and Bistro in San Diego.
Most cuisines can be identified by the characteristic flavors they use to enhance their dishes: Chili peppers, tomato, and lime in Mexico; soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger root in China; tomato, garlic, and olive oil in Southern Italy, etc. As Elizabeth and Paul Rozin point out in their well-known essay ”Culinary Themes and Variations”, (reprinted here) these flavor principles persist through the history of a culture and, in fact, are more persistent than the staples employed in a cuisine, which undergo more change. And people will overcome considerable obstacles to make sure they have access to these flavors. (Think of the resources Europe devoted to the spice trade in the age of exploration.)
Apparently, flavor principles are really important to human beings.
Why are they so important? Why do human beings spice their food? Animals don’t, and the practice doesn’t seem to serve a nutritional function. The Rozins argue that, nevertheless, there must be an adaptationist story to tell. Their hypothesis is that flavor principles provide a kind of identification system for safe food. As omnivores, we have a natural interest in eating a wide variety of foods and we get bored when variety is unavailable. Yet, we live in a world with lots of toxic substances and have a justified fear of eating anything unfamiliar. Thus, we need an efficient way of identifying foods that are safe to eat. That is the role of flavor principles. They mark food with a distinctive and familiar flavor as safe to eat. And whether new foods can be accepted or not depends on whether they are prepared with that familiar flavor principle.
Furthermore, by introducing rich and subtle variations of these flavors and modifying their combination, we overcome the boredom of eating the same thing all the time. Hence the attention paid in Mexican cuisine to the subtle differences in varieties of chili peppers or in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine to varieties of curry.
This explanation strikes me as wildly implausible. If people are familiar with a food why would they question its safety if it is not spiced. And if they are unfamiliar with a food, why does adding a flavor principle overcome their fear. Surely the spices are not making their food safe. The use of flavor principles to mark food as safe just seems irrational. Furthermore, as the Rozins point out but don’t explain in this essay, some cultures, specifically the Northern tier countries such as Germany, England, and Scandinavia don’t employ flavor principles. Their traditional foods are largely unspiced. Yet there is no evidence they are especially fearful of their food.
There is a much simpler explanation for why we flavor foods—it tastes good. The aesthetics of everyday life are important because the small things we do to make ordinary life enjoyable and interesting—spicing food, decorating homes, celebrating holidays, etc.—make life worth living. In the absence of adornment and decoration, life would be drudgery much of the time. Small things like adding flavor to food thus become enormously important for beings capable of doubting life’s meaning. (There is another adaptive explanation at work. We are hardwired to seek pleasure in our food persistently throughout the day since that encourages us to take in the calories we need to survive.)
What about the northern tier countries that lack flavor principles? Do they not care about everyday aesthetics? The simple explanation is that most spices were historically unavailable to them—they do not readily grow in cold climates. Thus, northern cultures focused their aesthetics, not on flavor principles, but on the various textures and ways of presenting animal fats. The Germans especially are adept at conspiring to get as many types of animal fats on the plate as possible.
What I find interesting about the Rozins’ explanation is that they seem to ignore the obvious explanation—that the persistence of pleasure is fundamental to everyday life.
Might there be some residual Calvinism loose among food anthropologists?
I guess the reasons are sort of obvious but isn’t it odd how food writers feel the need to exaggerate? Laura Miller really nails the phenomenon:
“Fried-Chicken Cutlets Can Solve Life’s Problems” and “This Instant Pot Thai Chicken Will Rock Your World,” I’ve been assured. Why is so much online food writing couched in ludicrous hyperbole? …
Above all, online food writers proclaim themselves obsessed. Among the things they’ve confessed to being obsessed with over the past couple of weeks: a one-skillet chickpea dish, a brand of salad scissors, and a serrated paring knife.
Of course, it’s all about trying to get attention in a world of too much information. “Tasty chicken” or “reliable soup” just isn’t clickbait.
No doubt, the democratization of information channels is also having its effect:
Never before have so many non-writers crashed the public conversation, then struggled to articulate exactly what they want to say, falling back again and again on overblown intensifiers like “amazing” and “incredible. Furthermore, behind all this gushing is almost certainly a corporate imperative to make dowdy-seeming recipe sites more appealing to people in their 20s, who are all presumed to communicate in this way.
Truth be told, unless you’re René Redzepi most recipes will be ordinary. As Miller points out, that’s the point of day-to-day cooking. Most food is made extraordinary by the occasion or the company.
The same exaggerated description marks the “superfoods” we’re all supposed to eat to add years to one’s life. Take a little-known type of produce from a little-known culture, throw it in the juicer and you’ve got a magic elixir.
But having complained about hyperbolic recipe descriptions, let me take the other side of the argument.
Maybe the hyperbole just comes with the territory. Most home cooks who go to the trouble of creating recipes and writing them up are in the business of making the ordinary extraordinary. Isn’t that what all focused, creative home cooking is about? We’re not just trying to put something filling and nutritious on the table. We want to produce sparks of pleasure, transform the routine into a singular experience, regardless of how short-lived. The more life is filled with those singular experiences the better life is.
Perhaps the hyperbole is a bit of honesty, a bit of inflated language for an inflated moment, unnecessary to be sure, but no less real.
I’m not from Texas so I have no stake in this fight. But the recent article in Eater about bragging rights over the most important cuisine in Texas demonstrates how deeply silly food politics can be but also how it reflects deep seated cultural conflict. The story as told by Meghan McCarron is a meandering tale with a moral that is hard to discern. But it seems to go roughly like this. For many years chili was the state dish:
The official version of chili con carne can only be made by people from Texas. It’s literally the law: In 1977, the 65th Texas Legislature enshrined the stew of beef and chile peppers as the official state dish, but also an official version of the dish, declaring that “the only real ‘bowl of red’ is that prepared by Texans.
That’s the silly part. What is it about chili that someone from Minnesota just can’t grasp? But at any rate, chili was originally popularized by the chili queens of San Antonio—Tejanas or Mexican women who sold chili on the street to hungry working people. They are unmentioned in the state resolution.
But today there are powerful movements afoot to make smoked brisket the state dish pushing chili off the foodie radar and off menus as well. This seems to be true. I recently spent three weeks in Texas and had to search for a restaurant serving chili. It’s hard to find a neighborhood without a barbecue joint on every corner.
Why the move to elevate brisket? Despite the rootedness of barbecue in black culture, the brisket craze is the purview of white men. Racial and gender politics are at the heart of involved. Chili was made by women and moreover is part of the Tex-Mex cuisine that is also being marginalized despite the fact that it’s a cuisine that most Texans eat every day. McCarron argues that it’s really Tex-Mex cooking that is the heart of Texas foodways. Yet the old family restaurants are closing or struggling to make ends meet and no one is entering the market to pick up the pieces.
If Tex-Mex really is the comfort food that Texans adore, why are restaurants struggling? The answer is buried toward the end of the article but, plausibly, she argues it’s because people have the expectation that Tex-Mex food should be cheap. As labor, materials, land and building costs rise it’s impossible to take Tex-Mex cooking to the next level. Barbecue joints by contrast can get $20 a lb. for their meat.
She also insists that Tex-Mex has gotten a bad rap as being inauthentic.This is a pet peeve of mine. Tex-Mex, like Sonoran cuisine in Arizona or Cal-Mex in Southern California, is border food. The people who eat it have adopted their food habits to fit what’s available in their location on the border. They are real people with genuine food traditions of their own; it’s as authentic as any other cuisine.
That said there is no question that Tex-Mex needs an infusion of innovation. McCarron waxes poetic about “sizzling fajitas, cheese enchiladas, frozen margaritas, queso, breakfast tacos, Frito pie, barbacoa, puffy tacos”. OK. I love a good guisada as much as the next person. But there is an awful lot of been there, done that at Tex-Mex restaurants. How many plastic-cheese-drenched combination plates covered with iceberg lettuce and pallid, pithy tomatoes does one life need?
She’s apparently enthused about corporate cooptation:
While family-run Tex-Mex restaurants might vanish, the key delights and innovations of Tex-Mex are in no danger of disappearance: Fajitas are in every Applebee’s; queso is on the menu at every Chipotle (for now); chili and nachos grace every tailgate; and margaritas end the workweek across America. Tex-Mex is infinite and eternal.
This is part of the problem. The fact it has been colonized as the corporate version of Mexican food only reinforces the idea that Tex-Mex is cheap and enjoyed only by people who don’t like food. Mamas don’t let your babies grow up to be corporate drones.
What Tex-Mex suffers incessantly, in media, in casual conversation, in its relentless commodification to enrich corporations while family-run restaurants struggle to stay afloat, is a lack of love. Or, to get confrontational, a patronizing disrespect. It is stereotyped as cheap without even the backhanded compliment of fetishized authenticity.
If you want love you need some love handles. McCarron’s solution is probably the only viable one:
Though if the next dish to sweep across America might be brisket tacos, within Texas the larger trend is, as Dallas-based writer and editor José R. Ralat says, Tex-Mex becoming more Mexican. Newer arrivals have always influenced the cuisine, but Ralat sees that cycle accelerating as cooks and chefs cross back and forth across the border more often — as do ingredients.
New people with new ideas. That’s the solution to most problems. And getting the taco officially recognized as a state treasure would help. But her final paragraph doesn’t hold out much hope:
A state legislature dominated by a Republican party at war with itself, fixated on barring trans people from using public bathrooms and cracking down on cities seeking to protect immigrants, is not likely to enshrine the taco as the state’s official food. But doing so would both capture the 21st century zeitgest of the state, and fulfill one of Texas’s most cherished obsessions: pissing off California.
I’m Californian—we don’t get pissed about such things. It must be a Texas thing.
Food and wine have not been taken seriously as forms of art throughout history in part because of the belief that vision and hearing are the only senses that lend themselves to the intellectual explorations we associate with art. This ideology, called the “sense hierarchy”, and masterfully traced by Carolyn Korsmeyer in Making Sense of Taste, treats taste and smell as thoroughly functional sources of brute pleasure, too primitive and instinctual to be worthy of genuine aesthetic discrimination.
This ideology is ancient. 2500 years ago, Plato argued that vision and sound give us information about the world that engages the intellect, while tastes and smells only encourage the appetite which he likened to a ravenous beast that overcomes our rational faculties. (I suppose Plato can be forgiven for not knowing about the porn industry or trivial pop melodies that suck you in each time you hear them.)
…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.
One wonders what was in Plato’s kitchen that threatened to sap his self-control. But Plato’s assertion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how appetite works. Appetite has its own internal control mechanisms.
This point was brought home to me as I read Jay Rayner’s book The Man Who Ate the World. Rayner, a British food critic, often on the judges’ panel for Top Chef, set out on a worldwide quest to discover the perfect meal. With perfection being an impossible standard, his quest involves more disappointments than successes. But the penultimate failures could be attributed to the fact that his ambling about the world was avoiding the one place where such perfection is alleged to be routine—Paris, where he endeavors to eat 7 meals in 7 days at the finest restaurants.
The regrets begin on Day Two, and by Day Six:
Oh, god, I don’t know. Another Parisian three-star. Doormen in peaked caps.Claw-foot chairs. Side tables for the ladies to put their handbags on. The food was standard three-star stuff: langoustines on sticks wrapped in sea-water foam, beetroot meringues, yeast ice cream decorated with silver leaf. You know the score by now.
Rayner’s weary lamentation shows that appetite is not quite a ravenous, insatiable beast. It’s not that the food wasn’t good. Most of it met his expectations. But the adage “too much of a good thing” applies even to the finest cuisine. In the absence of compulsive disorders, pleasures aim at their own extinction. (There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Organisms that are never satisfied will ignore everything else to their obvious detriment)
Many philosophers have noticed this tendency of pleasures to be satiated but argue that the desire for pleasure always returns in a never ending cycle of debilitating craving. But, again, Rayner’s experience shows that this is not necessarily the case.
But the wonderful thing about perfection is that it is, of course,unobtainable. That didn’t stop me searching for it. That hasn’t stopped me wondering about it. All I need is the appetite. There is only one problem. I’m no longer sure I have one.
Having experienced the best cuisine in the world, the post-quest prospect of the many failed meals that await the restaurant critic no longer appeals to him. Once one develops aesthetic standards and acquires an ability to discriminate, fewer pleasures seem attractive. Critical awareness enhances self-control. The motivation to seek pleasure can be tamed by the very intellect that Plato thought would be overwhelmed.
There is no reason to think there is something peculiarly “brute” or instinctual about taste—it can be refined and disciplined just like any other sensation.
From the Archives
In wine and food pairing, a lot of attention is given to flavor matching. We seek wines that match the flavor profile of the dish. Earthy wines go with earthy foods, herbaceous wines with a salad, wines with a briny flavor note go with seafood, etc. While this relationship is important to create that magical synergy that the best pairings have I think it’s a mistake to begin with this relationship. It’s seldom the case that your choice of wine will have a negative influence on your food. But it’s rather common for food to ruin the flavor of wine. And its taste, not flavor, that is the culprit in pairing disasters. In other words, the most important thing to know is how the presence of the 5 basic tastes in your dish will impact the wine.
Here are the basic relationships to know:
1. The most important factor to assess is how sweet your dish is. Sweet food will make your wine taste thin and sour. Serve a sweet sauce with a $150 Barolo and you might as well pour the wine down the drain. The wine must be sweeter than your food.
2. Foods with high acid (sour or tart foods) will make the wine taste sweeter and softer. Try tasting a bit of lemon with a wine to observe this effect. The sourness in the food seems to mask the sourness in the wine.
3. Salt also makes wine tastes softer and brings out fruit notes. Is there anything better than potato chips with sparkling wine?
4. Bitter foods will boost the bitterness and astringency of a wine, especially red wines with lots of tannins. Try walnuts with a young, tannic wine to observe this. Bitter foods are better served with white wines that lack tannins.
5. Umami can be tricky. Umami will boost every flavor. That can be good or bad. Umami can boost bitterness and acidity throwing the wine out of balance. It can make oaked wines taste too oaky. But umami also boosts umami. Foods full of umami can make an aged wine taste wonderful because aged wines have lots of umami.
Of course the amount and intensity of a taste and how dominant it is will be crucial information to think about.
This is obviously not all there is to wine pairing. Matching the weight of food and wine is important as well. But if you keep in mind these basic relationships you can avoid most pairing disasters.
Texas is best known for smoked brisket. Unlike Kansas City-style brisket, Texans don’t drench it in sauce. In fact, at Kreuz Market in Lockhart, perhaps the best-known barbecue joint in the country, they only started offering sauce two years ago. This place is about as old-school as you can get. The meat is served on butcher block paper and with a knife. The forks are plastic, for eating their German potato salad.
Where’s the best barbecue in Texas? Kreuz Market has the history, having been in business since 1900, but I found their brisket too dry, even with the sauce. Franklin in Austin has the current big reputation but they had a fire and were closed when we visited. My favorite was Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Q in Llano. Just the right ratio of crispy crust on the outside and tender melting beef on the inside and with an outstanding pepper based sauce to rival the best in Kansas City. When you arrive you line up at the pit and pick the piece of meat you want.
Texas Chili is another beef obsession. Texans insist that beans in chili are an abomination. And you know what? They’re right. Beans are a distraction when you’re looking for pure beefy essence. Tolbert’s in Grapevine, north of Dallas, has a good Texas chili.
For pure Texas excess, its hard to beat John Tresor’s monster 240-day aged Ribeye at Knife in Dallas (pictured above). It tasted like it was basted in gorgonzola, a little funky, but there’s nothing wrong with funk.
Even Texas peasant food is beefy. Chicken-fried steak is an art form at Hill Country Cupboard in Johnson City, where self-deprecation is taken to a new level. Their sign says “Best Chicken Fried Steak in the World (over 3 dozen sold)”. It’s tender with a crunchy crust, and a creamy gravy packed with cracked pepper.
And at Chris Madrid’s in San Antonio their specialty is the macho tostada burger. The burger rests on refried beans, onions and tortilla chips topped off with a mountain of melted cheddar. But in the burger sweepstakes I think my favorite was the chili burger at Alamo Springs Café near Luckenbach, just because the beef was of high quality.
And of course Tex-Mex cooking is all about the beef. Beef enchiladas, beef-stuffed chile rellenos, beef guisado. It’s hard to find a dish without beef. They probably put beef in their fish tacos.
So what do you do if you don’t like beef? Well, they will condescend to serve you pork if you insist. For porky goodness skip the Tex Mex and look for south-of-the-border Mexican food. Mi Tierra in San Antonio is known for their Carnitas Michoacan. And at upscale Barley Swine in Austin, a sophisticated Carnitas is usually on their small plates menu. But for pure porky goodness, it’s Cooper’s again. They serve a mammoth pepper-crusted chop that just might make you forget about beef, even in Texas.
There 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.