Thursday, June 21, 2012

Curse of the Epicure


Adam and Eve had a pretty easy life in Eden, with very few complications.  God took care of most things, and Adam could make minor fixes around the place.  Adam joked to the snake:  “How many humans does it take to screw in a light bulb?  /  It better not take more than two!’”  The snake, unimpressed, changed the subject:  “See that tree?  You should really try an apple from it.”  Adam refused, remembering it was forbidden.  But the snake eventually convinced Eve to try an apple.  When Adam saw this, he immediately had to have his own.  God appeared when Adam was on his second bite, but before He could say anything, Adam looked up and said, “God, these apples suck!  They’re all mealy and mushy and the flavor is so cloying.”  God roared back, “That’s why I told you not to eat them!  I haven’t perfected them yet!”  God was so furious He banished Adam and Eve from Eden.  Not long after, Adam suddenly noticed things about Eve that he hadn’t before.  “Eve … I don’t know how to tell you this, but, uh … you need a bra,” he said.  She fired back, “Well, I was just checking out your, uh, endowment, and you’re not exactly Big Man on Campus!”  So they were embarrassed and covered themselves up.  And that is the tale of the original sin:  being finicky.

A confession

I have a confession to make:  I used to love Chevy’s.  I once walked 2 1/2 miles to a Chevy’s, when I lived in San Francisco, only a mile from what is now my favorite taqueria, in the Mission.  I liked Chevy’s’ really thin chips.  I liked their stupid beans.  It seemed as good a Mexican restaurant as any.  What an idiot I was.  My roommate confronted me about it:  “Why would you want to eat mall food?”  He would bring salsa home from his favorite place in the Mission, and once even brought a couple quarts back from his favorite place in Denver.  But I didn’t listen.  It took me years to realize not only that Chevy’s is a mediocre corporate chain hawking non-spicy soulless fare to the uncultured masses, but that I should feel embarrassed to have ever thought that place was worth going to, especially when I lived in the best taqueria city in the world.

A cautionary tale

When I was in college, my then-stepdad took my mom and me out for a nice meal at this upscale French restaurant called the Metropole.  It was an old Berkeley standby, exactly the kind of place college kids get taken to when their parents are in town.  I was impressed by how swanky the place was, and thought the food was pretty good, but my stepdad complained about absolutely everything.  He had been to France, and this food didn’t seem French, and blah blah blah.  By the end of the meal he seemed downright miserable.  And yet, there were plenty of things he could have been happy about:  having enough money to eat in a fancy place like this; the fact that nobody was smoking like they would have been in France; the fact that were it not for his complaining I’d have thought it was an awesome place.

So there’s a flip side to having sophisticated tastes.  Once we know what we’ve been missing, we’re no longer satisfied by what used to please us.  Meanwhile, there’s an ego aspect.  Consider my confession about Chevy’s:  should liking a restaurant chain really be embarrassing?  Should there be any shame in not knowing from good Mexican (or French) food?  I mean, so what?  But there you have it:  we’re all a bit afraid of being seen as uncultured rubes.  (What, you’re not?  You mean it’s just me?  Fine—go read something else then … your sensibilities are too advanced for this blog.)

When we become judgmental about aesthetic choices, we sometimes stray into other territory.  Have you ever noticed that when you see litter, it’s always a McDonalds wrapper or a 7-Eleven Big Gulp cup?  You never see a Godiva wrapper or an empty Veuve Clicquot bottle on the side of the road.  It’s tempting to conclude that unsophisticated tastes, or at least the poverty that makes it necessary to embrace them, are a sign of vulgarity, part and parcel with the ignorant impulse to just throw your trash out the window.  But (as I shall explore) there’s also a coarseness in aspiring to impress people with your aesthetic sophistication.

Sophistication for sale

Consider Godiva chocolate:  it’s really expensive, and the packaging is really fancy, but the product itself is mediocre.  No, I’m not some expert or chocolate or anything, but I was shocked at how waxy and bland it was when I first tried it.  (My opinion isn’t unique; I had my albertnet fact checker google “godiva chocolate sucks” and he reported 444,000 hits.)  Am I trying to impress you with my taste in chocolate?  Well, maybe I am, but I’m also making a point:  Godiva chocolate exists simply because there are plenty of people out there willing to pay extra for it, just to look rich and savvy.

We’re surrounded by the blatant marketing of sophistication.  For example, there are Stella Artois billboards that show a glass of the beer with the headline “Perfection has its price.”  Normally “price” in such a context is figurative, suggesting sacrifice, but with a beer I guess the point is “this beer is expensive so it must be good.”

Magazines like “Cigar Aficionado” make their nut teaching, or seeming to teach, their readers how to be more discerning about cigars.  I suppose there are people who actually do love cigars (though the only thing I’ve found them good for is filling a friend’s car with smoke), but could you really predict how much you’d like a cigar based on its ratings?  A review of a mainstream product like a camera gives all kinds of objective information, and can provide sample photos taken by the camera itself—but the flavor of smoke cannot be described in any useful way. 

Each issue of “Cigar Aficionado” has a rich celebrity cigar smoker on the cover and I guess that’s really the point:  the reader can think, “Yeah, if Jack Nicholson and I met, we’d hit it off.  I’d show him my humidor, and we’d hang out and smoke some fine Cubans.”  This seems like the kind of magazine you’d leave lying around on your coffee table to showcase your expensive tastes (because your wife would never let you light up around guests—cigars stink too bad).  I’m going to guess not many subscribers to “The Costco Connection” would leave that mag lying around.  (I’m not the only one to mock “Cigar Aficionado”; consider this.)

I’m not quite as skeptical of “Wine Spectator” (put out by the same publisher as “Cigar Aficionado,” by the way), because I understand there is a huge, rich vocabulary available for describing wine.  I won’t attack the validity of that vocabulary (how could I, being an uncultured rube?), but there does seem something fishy about “Wine Spectator.”  First, there’s the name.  Spectator?  Like, the point of wine isn’t just to drink it, but to watch others drink it?  See, drink, be seen, and be drunk?

Okay, I’m quibbling.  But consider this:  the magazine has an award it presents to restaurants that have great wine lists, which brought about a great hoax in 2008.  A guy created a fake restaurant (nothing more than a mocked-up menu and website), put together a wine list comprising wines that “Wine Spectator” itself had reviewed harshly, submitted his $250 application fee to the magazine, and his “restaurant” won the Award of Excellence, following which magazine’s ad sales department contacted the “restaurant” soliciting an ad to accompany the Award of Excellence listing.  I dare you to try to convince me this is anything more than a circle-jerk-for-profit.  Subscribers would surely defend the magazine, but that’s because their own standing as wine experts depends on its good reputation.  It’s the emperor’s new wine journal.

Taste, if I’m not mistaken, is supposed to be a personal thing.  We try a bunch of different things, and decide we like certain ones more than others.  (Yes, our friends help turn us on to new things, but those friends presumably know us well enough to guess what we’d like.)  Defining our tastes by ratings in a magazine smacks of insecurity.  Really, what could be more vulgar than letting ourselves be manipulated by advertisers and other profiteers, just to make sure “our” tastes show sophistication and class? 

A dilemma

On the one hand, it makes sense to cultivate refined tastes, lest we miss out on the best the world has to offer.  (If Adam and Eve hadn’t eaten the apple, humanity would still be in Eden, getting nothing but Middle Eastern food.)   On the other hand, striving to be an epicure can end up being just another treadmill of one-upmanship, with the ever-present threat of getting jaded.  (I sometimes wonder if the hallmarks of a mid-life crisis—fancier food, better booze, faster cars—aren’t actually the cause of the crisis, given the ageing process and how it ruins our earthly pleasures via heartburn, hangovers, and the need to drive responsibly.)

So the question is, how can we best walk the fine line between cultural refinement and mere contentment?  I’ve mulled this over and here are my suggestions.

Don’t forsake your old tastes just because you’ve developed new ones.  Take Chevy’s, for example.  No, I no longer think it’s great, and wouldn’t recommend it to others, but if I went there, could I still enjoy my meal?  Sure—my taste buds haven’t changed, and I won’t let my attitude spoil my appetite.  (That said, those doughy, baking-soda-y “tortillas” made by “El Machino” are pretty disgusting.)  Former delights we’ve transcended don’t have to be abandoned; they can have a long afterlife as our guilty pleasures.  I kind of like the Uno pizza chain, which is more like Pizza Hut than it is like the original Uno.  And speaking of pizza and forsaking old tastes, when I told my daughters I was coming to prefer Little Star over Zachary’s, they looked stricken, like they might never get their beloved Zach’s again.  “Take that back!” Alexa demanded.  (I told her not to worry … I’ll always enjoy getting bloated on stuffed pizza even if it’s not from my favorite place.)

Try to keep ego out of it.  Naturally, when we discover something wonderful, we want to turn others on to it, and occasionally to help them overcome their hesitation.  This is well and good—but we should keep an eye on how we conduct ourselves.  I’ve seen my own enthusiasm turn into a bludgeon, where the person I’ve exhorting to try something becomes reluctant to admit he dislikes it.  Things can get worse if the supposed expert demeans a product rather than promoting one.  Consider this rant on chowhound where, instead of answering a question, somebody decided just to complain, unbidden, about the pizza crust at Zachary’s:  Had a think [sic] crust slice at Zacharys on Solano the other day and was kind of shocked at how bad the crust was.  Of twelve replies, eleven were negative, and it seemed like the reviewers were trying to outdo each other with their explanations of why the crust is bad (e.g., “the cross section of the dough that touches the pan was dry”) and of what else is wrong (e.g., “I find their sauce rather bland”), and with their own credentials (e.g., “didn’t start disliking Zachary’s until I returned from an Illinois trip … doesn’t come close to Giordanos or the even better Art of Pizza in Chicago”).  That Zach’s pizza is hugely popular among a discerning Bay Area clientele, and yet gets such poor treatment on chowhound, suggests a striving among these reviewers to out-foodie each other.  On a somewhat related note, I’m often relieved I know nothing about wine, because I’d hate to see myself getting into one of those logorrheic pissing contests you sometimes see when wine experts clash in the night.

Cultivate tastes that can’t be marketed.  If you’re afraid of being played for a sucker by luxury brands, slick marketing, veiled ads (i.e., magazine “articles”), and/or peer pressure, consider focusing on pleasures that are impervious to such manipulation.  For example, you can search for the perfect taqueria (which will have no advertising budget at all), try to learn how to mix for yourself the perfect martini (which, I have it on good authority, has as much to do with technique as with good ingredients), or tackle a culinary challenge (e.g., learn how to make your own pasta).  Such quests for the finer things take effort, as opposed to merely “buying” sophistication by trusting the authority of this or that brand, magazine, or celebrity endorsement.

Along these lines, would you like to know what soft drink is my very favorite?  I’ll tell you:  it’s that ice-cold can of Coke (or Pepsi, whatever) you get at a convenience store in the middle of a long bike ride, on a hot day fifty miles from home when your blood sugar is crashing.  Try that out and you’ll be the greatest snob of all:  the connoisseur of epic experience.

1 comment:

  1. I'm almost afraid to tell you that I am going to Chicago next month for the sole purpose of eating in one particular restaurant. And it's not even a pizza joint...