Raising the Bar for the Wine Dep?

April 10, 2015 - Leave a Response

An article this week in La Presse has finally substantiated the rumours I have been hearing that someone was going to open a natural wine-focused bottle shop in the old space on across the street from NDQ which used to house Preservation Society and La QV. Your first reaction might be “So what? There are wine shops all over this goddamn city, I can get it from giant booze monopolies or grocery stores or by accident when I’m buying string cheese and smokes, it’s in the lift and the lorry and in the bond wizard and what are you talking about who cares?”

However, for all that QC has one of the most liberal approaches to booze access in Canada, there remains a wealth of products that are available only via the comparatively circuitous route of private importation. In this case, wines which for whatever reasons (quantity? volatility? weirdness? the spiteful arbitrariness that seems to be the ab initio of Québec bureaucracy) the SAQ allows to be imported into the province but refuses to stock on its shelves. If you’ve ever had a wine you loved at a restaurant and inquired as to its availability only to be told it’s importation privée, thus not available at the SAQ, this is what we’re talking about. Now the private import world is not actually all that hard to navigate for the lay shlub – one just has to 1) find out who the importer is, 2) get in touch with them and make an order, then 3) pick it up at an SAQ a couple weeks later once the order has been processed. The down side of this is that, with some exceptions, private importers are not allowed to sell in quantities smaller than a case (6-12 bottles, typically), so in addition to the wait, unless you’re a fancy Monopoly-man type you have to find some friends to go splits on the order.

There are any number of reasons that an importer might have difficulty getting a wine on the SAQ’s shelves, which may be best left for another time, but the long and short of it is that there are some truly brilliant (or even merely pretty brilliant) wines that are only available via private import. What this new shop of Juneau’s aims to do is make such wines available by the bottle by exploiting the what aspect of our labyrinthine liquor laws that apparently permits the sale of such individual bottles with the accompaniment of a meal, as if you were getting a drink with your restaurant takeout (but at the same time for some reason precludes just selling it off the shelf as one would at a regular dep). It is indeed a tangled regulatory web, but one which has intriguing potential for rendering many of these wines slightly more accessible.

The big question, however, will be what kind of markup will be applied. It is standard practice to mark up a bottle of wine by at least 100% in restaurants, in the hopes of making it even marginally profitable, but if we’re talking about wines that are already in the 18-40$ range, that sort of thing is not likely to fly for takeout. Juneau references the smaller system of cavistes in European countries as an inspiration, although what immediately comes to mind for me are the little caves à manger that have popped up in France (and spread more widely) which reside somewhere between a traditional caviste and a wine bar – a bottle shop with a small by-the-glass selection and a limited menu, where you have the option of drinking your bottle on premise for a hopefully reasonable corkage fee. Because of the peculiar regulatory situation in QC, however, it seems that Junueau’s Cul Sec would potentially have to operate on the inverse principle, with customers paying a markup (in addition to buying food?) in order to take the wine to go. The details so far are scant, but a similar operation exists already in Québec City, run by another private importer, Les Importations du MoineNot having been, alas, I can’t comment on how their system works.

As should by now be obvious, I am cautiously optimistic about the project, while finding it faintly sinister that this will constitute the third business (along with resto / winebar Pastaga and specialty grocer Le Petit Coin) Juneau has opened in a one-block-radius of Beaubien and St-Laurent in the past year or so. It certainly speaks to the recent “rejuvenation” of Petite-Patrie, if one chooses to interpret the term less in the sense of “making young again” than “filling with literal youths,” but in the long run I don’t think that the conversion of a space previously housing a wine agency and a specialty conserves company into a boutique wine dep is that much of a transition.

What I am hopeful about is the potential of the shop to contribute to what I guess I am calling the désinvoltation of good wine. I say désinvoltation in lieu of the English “casualization” pointedly, because it better captures the sense of undoing something that has been made inaccessible and rarefied. Likewise, I say “good wine” rather than “fine wine” because the latter has particular connotations that I wish to avoid, and the former gets at how much of the wine that has been impressing me in the past few years – much of it “natural” wine – has had a charming directness about it. Whether frank or elusive in the mouth, it is not grand wine, it is fresh, vital, good wine. And while because of the exigencies of small-scale agricultural production and the international export thereof, it will likely never been truly cheap, but I believe there is much work, much good work, to do in the rendering of such wines more culturally and emotionally accessible. There is, of course, much more to be said about this, and I probably will, but not right now.

So we’ll see what happens with this Cul Sec thing.

In the meantime, however, this spirit of désinvoltation is very much what drives the SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA project (to which I contributed the sickening bit of wordplay “Wine Bar Barbara Bar à vins) I have been collaborating on, and which is slated to have its next instantiation in a few weeks (May 16th. Keep your ears open). Details to follow, but it’s basically an illegal wine bar that serves as a forum for my pal Jordan and myself to share wines that we’re stoked on, at a negligible markup, with anyone who is interested in wine or wants to be interested in wine but basically has no idea what is going on, and to use this activity as a basis for tracing a slightly different kind of conviviality than normally prevails at a private party, a bar or restaurant, or an organized tasting. And it rules. And it’s named after my foolish cat.

 

 

pastaga empire

refashioning of beaubien to mile-endification of petite-patrie

 

 

 

On Natural Wine, Punk Rock, and Too Easy Analogies.

April 6, 2015 - One Response

But the shadows have foes, and like weeds, among weeds, we will grow.
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Moving in wine circles one often hears natural wine described as the ‘punk rock’ of the wine world, whether in reference to individual enfant terrible producers (such as Andrea Calek, most often) or to the prevailing anti-establishment ethos of a ‘movement’ which, depending on whom you ask, may not actually exist as such. Tim Atkin, a noted British wine writer, recently published an article to this effect which I was pleased to see attempted to pursue this analogy further than usual:

Punk was a reaction against bloated prog rock or packaged pop like Olivia and John. It promised to return to the true spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. Natural wines are a reaction to over-manipulated wines made to impress rather than to drink. They hark back to some sort of prelapsarian past where wine was pure.

Natural wine, like punk, can be understood as a threat against the established orders of taste and cultural production. Its provocation straddles the aesthetic and moral divide, wielding “authenticity” as a weapon in (potentially irrelevant) battles over what even deserves to be considered “wine.” And, as is to be expected, there is an appropriate amount of vitriol and polemic to be found on both sides of these debates.

Atkins goes on to speculate as to whether the decline in relevance and appeal of punk rock contains a lesson for us about the future of natural wine. After all, claims of music journalists aside, was not punk merely a trend fueled by an able hype machine and the seductive allure of youthful iconoclasm, of which only a few credible scraps remain:

In my opinion, punk’s influence is best heard in bands that took the spirit but not the music such as Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Pogues. But natural wine is surely also, like punk, clever marketing no matter how much the organisers of the various natural wine fairs try to deny it.

This is where I think Atkins’ comparison falters – not however on the grounds of the weakness of the analogy but on his ultimate ignorance of his chosen analog. Like the majority of popular commentators on the history of punk, Atkins makes the mistake of conflating the demise of the phenomenon with the expiry of its time in the limelight. Only in recent years have music critics and wider audiences come to be vaguely aware that long after the Ramones and the Sex Pistols burned out or graduated to stadium shows and Spector Sound, there remained growing legions of disaffected, irritated, impassioned youth who continued putting on shows, piling into vans and releasing shitty, brilliant records (or, as often, tapes) for other shitty, brilliant kids.

Where is the emergence of hardcore punk in Atkins’ analogy, or Riot Grrrl? The founding of Ebullition Records and the publication of Maximum Rock’n’Roll and HeartattaCk, to say nothing of the uncountable thousands of DIY zines and labels? Where are Fugazi and Bikini Kill, His Hero is Gone and Los Crudos in this narrative? They are invisible precisely because the account presumes the significance and the relevance of punk rock were coterminous with the attention paid to it by mainstream music journalism.

So what does a revised, better-informed understanding of punk’s history (and present) contribute to such an analogy? While I don’t disagree with Atkins’ suggestion that “Time will tell which producers turn out to be the Boomtown Rats and which the Pogues,” I think that there is an interesting lesson about taste and appreciation to be considered. Perhaps one of the most valuable contributions of natural wine, on an intellectual and aesthetic level, may be to destabilize and encourage reconsideration of what it means to be a “good wine” (as punk did with the idea of being a “good band”). While there are numerous natural wines that are excellent by even the most traditional standards, whether it be the turbidity of an unfiltered wine, a whiff of animal funk or the slight spritz of latent fermentation in the bottle, many natural producers have helped to create a space for appreciating qualities otherwise proscribed as faults or flaws – new avenues for experiencing and making sense of the pleasures of drinking, like feedback and screaming, outside of the conventional register of taste.

On a recent visit to Montreal, natural winemaker Olivier Lemasson commented in passing that in France for the most part no one knows or cares who he is – there he is a farmer, it is only in Montreal and New York and London that he is treated like a rock star. Indeed, it is notable that much of the furor surrounding “natural wine” is to be found among the wine critics and journalists, rather than the vintners themselves. So perhaps more important is what the story of punk rock suggests for the future of natural wine – the possibility that when the trend has subsided, there will nevertheless remain a community of committed producers and appreciators who continue to believe in the importance of a vibrant opposition to the standardized and soulless (or what they view as such).  Toiling in relative obscurity and indifference to the market as the primary arbiter of taste, making what they love and loving what they make. DIY or die.

 * * *

postscript: If you have no idea what I am talking about re: natural wine, you should just come out to the salon des vignerons naturels – Les Turbulents this Sunday afternoon, April 12th, at the SAT, and drink yourself informed.

another postscript: I do think that there are other ways of pursuing this analogy – the problem of “authenticity” and how its language is mobilized by punks and wine folk; the limitations of thinking of punk as seeking an earlier “pure” form of rock n roll versus wanting to destroy music altogether or interrogate the normativity and machismo of rock n roll tout court; natural wine making recourse to an older, “more” traditional approach to winemaking v. punk treating tradition as itself stultifying and oppressive, etc.

SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA

February 14, 2015 - Leave a Response

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A heads-up to all you frozen, misfortuned Montreal-dwellers that tomorrow evening I’m co-hosting an event for Restaurant Day (which is apparently a thing) where, instead of bothering much at all with the food aspect of things, we’re just going to pour a bunch of cool wines we like. In other words, we are opening a one-night-only quasi-legal (read: not legal) popup wine bar. We’ll have a small selection of natural, biodynamic, and otherwise interesting wines. Sourced from the SAQ and private importation and priced just above cost, in the interests of relative accessibility and the hopes of piquing curiosities or even, I dare say, inciting passions by exposing folks to some wines they might not otherwise encounter in the daily run of things. Expect a casual, convivial atmosphere, good jams, lots of Jura, occasional outbursts of wine prattle.

when: 6pm-1am
where: 33 ave Shamrock (note: this is an apt, so wear presentable socks)
facebook.

Do stop by for a drink or seven. There will be light snacks afoot.

A Rare Moment of Breviloquence.

January 29, 2015 - Leave a Response

This is me.

 

(As interpreted by Merida Anderson.)

To Your (Spiritual) Health.

January 8, 2015 - 2 Responses

Admittedly I would drink this wine for my health. It tastes like fruit.

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If any of you are regular readers of The Guardian (I am not), or spend a much reading about the politics of clinical trials (which I do), you have probably heard of Ben Goldacre. He writes well, has a quick wit, and while I find the rhetoric of his crusade against “bad science” sort of frustrating and tiresome, I can’t help feeling a sense of kinship with someone I see as a fellow complicator. He at times can come across as a typically smug scientific triumphalist, but he is nevertheless no stranger to the complexities of evidence-production. He is also a driving force behind the AllTrials Campaign, which has been advocating – with surprising success – for a research culture/infrastructure that would ensure that all clinical trials (studies on drugs, devices, other medical treatments) centrally register and fully report their methods and results, something which does not yet exist in any meaningful way, and is undeniably essential for medical-scientific research to become more transparent and accountable (In a nutshell, the prevailing tendency, when you are conducting multi-million-dollar clinical trial with hundreds or thousands of participants and you don’t get the results you were hoping for, is to mine the  data for something usable and change the stated objectives of the trial accordingly, or, more commonly, to just not publish and never talk about it again. Although the evidence is mixed as to whether this is especially common for industry-sponsored studies, there is no question that pharmaceutical companies have a lot riding on the results of the studies on their own products that they conduct or pay for).

Anyway, he comes to mind because it is apparently “a new year” and so chatter about resolutions and getting healthy and the care of the self and all that has now risen to a fever pitch. As someone who has perpetually (perhaps cyclically?) miserable health and for whom nothing in particular in the way of diet or exercise or homeopathic hoozlewazzle has ever made any difference, and who has by profession become rather intimate with the maelstrom of contingencies, fine-tunings, and epistemically rationalized fudgings that undergird the production of scientific knowledge, I find the cycle of everything-bad-is-good-for-you / everything-good-is-bad-for-you that often provides the fodder for such resolutions pretty obnoxious. In respect to this, it was nice to stumble across this article of Goldacre’s from around Christmastime a few years back wherein he takes lightly to task the kind of research (and subsequent marketing) that supposes to justify such things as chocolate and red wine consumption:

Moderate red wine drinkers, we are specifically informed, come out better on all kinds of health measures, and nobody wants to ruin Christmas by mentioning confounding variables again (like how moderate red wine drinkers hang out at home with their friends eating salad and talking about their posh jobs and stable social support). A fairytale science story must be simple, reductionist, and mechanistic. Red wine is good for you because it contains lifegiving molecules, like antioxidants. And nobody wants to spoil Christmas—for the whole family—by mentioning that the antioxidants story is one of the great unspoken non-starters of 20th century medical research. . . . Only a malevolent Scrooge-like figure, mumbling over his glass of tap water in the corner, would dare to point out that if you are going to pore over a biochemistry textbook, and pick pathways out at random, then you can prove anything you like.
. . .
And that’s when you might start to think, well now, perhaps people who eat fresh fruit and vegetables are, just like the people who drink red wine in decorous moderation, living healthily in all kinds of ways. Much like the people who buy vitamin pills. Lusty walks around country mansions. Cycling to work. That kind of thing.

The piece is flippant and short on actual citations, but it is meant to be – most anyone who has a subscription to the BMJ can probably search out what they need – and it is a well-needed intervention, as much so in 2015 as it was in 2007 (One needs only look to this Christmas headline from L’Express: “Le vin rouge prévient du vieillissement, c’est scientifiquement prouvé,” which cites a recent paper in Nature that turns out to have nothing specifically to do with red wine, or even with human beings). While Goldacre’s piece is more about marketing and bad science journalism (or science-indifferent health journalism), by ending on an implied note of ‘Just drink it, goddammit’, it also hints at something that I find all the more noxious about the whole phenomenon.

That is, the normalization of a moral economy wherein such things as chocolate and wine need to be justified by their ostensible health benefits – guilty pleasures redeemed, while the structure of spiritual blackmail remains perfectly intact. It is an economy wherein our health and the maintaining thereof take on a personal moral valence – the individual sits at the centre of a constellation of ‘lifestyle choices’ and the story of their good works are believed to be writ on and in the body, like a modern day collapse of the portrait of Dorian Gray. If you will pardon my hyperbole, at its worst this facilitates the blaming of the disease-ridden poor for not exercising and eating too many Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers; at its less extreme it still constitutes the selling of our pleasures back to us as (health) virtues. That is a calculation I don’t much care for. If you are going to drink and gourmandize and gorge at least do so because it is the stuff of life, not because it is supposed to hold out the promise – not even the promise! only a probabilistic, anonymous, statistical implication – of some extension of your otherwise miserable existence. Or, if you are going to lard yourself and your drinking in quasi-medical justifications, at least have the good aesthetic sense to go grander; do so on the basis of old-wives’ tales, epigrams from doomed novelists, the doctrine of signatures or just to keep your damn skeleton in.

Adventures in Sabrage.

January 5, 2015 - 3 Responses

Two out of three ain't bad.

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At least one of these bottles undeniably deserved a better fate than it was dealt. Indeed, I would under different circumstances than the 11 ½th hour of the New Year’s Eve probably choose not to sabre a bottle of crémant du Jura, because it is typically a wine with enough charm and complexity to merit saving / savouring any and all drops. Mind you, it is not a particularly expensive wine, but on its merits it can stand up to many a Champagne several income brackets above it, and certainly any of its peers. At a Christmas party not long ago a friend commented that he has never been much interested in sparkling wines, and views them as little more than a toasting prop. The usual response to this sort of sentiment is “Ah, but you have probably never had a truly good Champagne!”, which is both probably true and equally probably irrelevant, because there is really no predicting what kind of wine, at what price point or level of quality, in what circumstances, will speak to someone intimately enough to catch their ear and confound their prejudices, honestly acquired or otherwise. Also it makes you sound like an ass.

For my own part, I have probably tasted a good champagne, never a great one, but the comment made me realize how thoroughly turned-around on the topic I have become in a relatively short time. I had a place in my heart already for sparkling wines, but tended to favour cavas (Spanish sparkling wines made using a method similar to that of Champagne), because at the lower end of the price range, they tend to deliver the driest, cleanest, most satisfying and vigorously sparkling product. Such wines are ideal party wines, and the image they evoke of lusty and quarrelsome Catalan fishermen only adds to their appeal. Somewhere along the line, however, this changed, and sparkling wines went from a fun diversion or handy refresher while I decided what I really wanted to drink at a restaurant, to being a wine of avid interest for me. It happens, somewhat uncharacteristically, that I actually recall what was responsible for this change, and it was in fact a crémant du Jura. Crémant simply refers to a sparkling wine of a particular quality from a given region in France (crémant de Loire, crémant de Bourgogne, crémant de Die, etc.), Jura is a region in the east of France, sandwiched between Burgundy and the Swiss border, just a little north of where Geneva juts, Lance of Longinus-style, into France’s side. It is a relatively small wine-producing region, one of the oldest in France, and for weirdos one of the most exciting, because it produces truly singular expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and downright weird, wonderful shit with its main indigenous varieties, Poulsard, Trousseau, and Savagnin. But another thing they do is crémant du Jura, made (as far as I know) in the méthode traditionnelle of Champagne. So it figures that this was my point of entry; however strait the gate, I inevitably find for myself the side way.

And this crémant I had smelled like bread. Like, more like bread than anything that is not itself freshly-baked bread – or more specifically, unbaked bread just punched-down from a first rise – could ever be expected to smell. Astonishingly, intoxicatingly so. Bone-dry in the mouth, but with a lingering baked apple effect, although some of that apple quality I must admit may be as much an interpretive overlay as a genuine memory. Having since tasted four or five other wines from the producer – Michel Gahier – I have been struck by how fresh and vital is the expression of fruit in his wines. In discussing it with a friend who has roughly a lifetime more wine-drinking experience over me, he remarked that this, what he called the “bell-like clarity of the fruit”, is for him the hallmark of Gahier’s wines. Filtered thus through my subsequent experiences with the wines and the articulation of this theme, I cannot help but hear, when conjuring the memory of Gahier’s crémant, that bell pealing somewhere off in the distance. So sue me. The tension of memory, ephemerality, and the flesh is what wine is about (NB: also getting drunk).

So that was the first sparkling wine that truly got me. After which two things could have happened, and I am happy that it was the latter that did: I could have spent the rest of my days seeking out a reiteration of that experience, trying to recapture the taste of that wine in that moment, and perpetually dissatisfied because nothing quite satisfied, or I could have used the opening created by that experience as a space for the evaluation and appreciation of other things that had heretofore escaped my attention. You know, like wines. Like liking wines. I could use it to like more wines, more. And I have. It has turned sparkling wines into a matter of interest for me, sure, a great number of those I encounter are serviceable and uninspired/uninspiring, but some have really kicked my ass. Most recently, a crew of us got together to take advantage of the holiday swell in available sparkling wines at the SAQ to do a side-by-side tasting. There are currently five crémants du Jura available through the SAQ (none of them the Gahier, alas) and all cost less than $26. I won’t go into full detail on all five, suffice to say that the Baud Brut Sauvage was the driest and yeastiest, and perhaps my favourite, if not that of the group. The Baud Blanc de Blancs and the Rolet were unremarkable, and both the Domaine Labet and the André & Mireille Tissot were excellent. This last was (I believe) the only that I had tasted prior, and was for me the most exciting. Indeed, I was shocked by how complex it was, given that it had made only a favourable if not particularly memorable impression on me the first time. Now it opened with a bready quality, but far more restrained than either the Baud or Gahier. Like baguette or something with a sheer crust, not freshly-baked but cooled and not overwhelmingly fragrant, and along with it bruised apples and poppers, with a long, tonic (like tonic water and like anything healing for the brain), dry finish that betrayed none of the just-oxidizing apple sugar on the nose. It occurs to me only now that the former tasting was not only the wine of a different year, but also occurred before the Gahier-mediated sensitization of the Spring that had as it were opened up this space for the tasting of sparkling wines.

So it is sort of a shame that the other one got exploded, but it is simply a matter of fact that as the hammer of revelry falls, one sabres what one has on hand.

There, But for the Grace of God, Do I Most of the Time Go.

December 29, 2014 - Leave a Response

I saw this article – “Hop Enthusiasts Are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us.” – go by this morning and was all set to launch into a tirade about its basic stupidity, to point out that craft beer is in fact quite diverse (duh), even or especially in North America where there has been such an interest of late in the resuscitation of lost or neglected European styles; that if a dislike of strong hops is enough to turn one off any further investigation of craft beer, then one can hardly place the responsibility for one’s own feckless laziness with the brewers; that it was the hops enthusiasts who carved out the craft beer world in the first place, quite literally and metonymically opening up the palates of beer drinkers to a greater variety of styles and expressions.

However, then I actually read the article and was disappointed to discover that the author already knows this and makes several of these points in her piece, mostly mooting my initial indignation, but in the process also providing occasion for entirely other a freak-out that has less (but not nothing) to do with the content of the piece and more with its form and superfice. Specifically, I am truly sick of the hyperbole of attention-grabbing headlines for even the most insignificant of articles. It is bad enough with Buzzfeed and the rest of its clickbait legacy, but I find it particularly obnoxious in the case of ostensibly content-based journalism/non-fiction. Taking the Adrienne So craft beer piece as an example, we find that the article has not one, but three, titles varying somewhat in the degree of their intended provocation, all of which are disingenuous:

First, the tagline as it appears in a facebook share: “Hops Enthusiasts are Ruining Craft Beer for the Rest of Us,” which is of course untrue because, as noted above, 1) hops enthusiasts created “Craft Beer”, 2) while hoppy beers remain prominent, and hop-bombs still object of fetishistic appreciation, this has not prevented the explosion of beers in less hop-forward styles (witness the massive expansion in saison-brewing in the past few years), resulting in the availability of a wider variety of beers than in literally any other time in human history – I defy you to go into a beer bar, brew pub, or specialty beer store and be unable to acquire high quality less-hopped beer, and 3) the “Rest of Us” in the title remains unexplicated. As it happens, it does not include the author, who does like hoppy beers, and so in light of points 1 and 2 it can only refer to a complacent, dissatisfied, John Q. Public who is paradoxically presumably interested in “Craft Beer” but unwilling to learn anything at all about it.

Second, the title as it actually appears on Slate: “Against Hoppy Beer: The Craft Beer Industry’s Love Affair with Hops is Alienating People Who Don’t Like Bitter Brews.” Again, the author is not actually against hoppy beer, bla bla bla, and to the extent that the subtitle is accurate, we may see this as the typical conflict involved with the popularization of a niche product, where the level of investment and engagement of the amateur/enthusiast is not matched by the casual consumer, who is by dint of their laziness or non-interest alienated from entering the market.

Finally, the title as it appears in the article URL and consequently in one’s browser tab: “Hoppy Beer is Awful, or at Least its Bitterness is Ruining Craft Beer’s Reputation.” This is my favourite, because it is both the most daring and the most cowardly – not even waiting to be challenged before it retreats from its in-your-digital-face declaration to the softer and more ambiguous position that the bitterness (not the same thing as hoppiness, of course, which is as much or more about aromatics) of craft beer is off-putting. All of which rhetorical surround accompanies an article which ultimately makes no such strong claims. The author opens with an anecdote which highlights their own love for hops, and the realization that they have come to take this for granted, then proceeds to give a potted history of American craft brewing and some of the pros and cons of hops fetishism. It’s actually a pretty decent article in its own right, but the closest it comes to the spirit of any its titles is in the final paragraph:

Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest. Let’s talk about the differences between wild and cultivated lab yeast, and the weird and wonderful flavors that are created when brewers start scouring nearby trees or flowers or even their own beards for new strains. Let’s geek out about local, craft-malted barley and how it compares to traditional imported European malts. And let’s start preaching a new word: Craft beer isn’t always bitter. Who knows? Maybe we’ll finally win over some of those Bud Light fans.

Which is fine, I suppose, although it is not as if this conversation isn’t already happening – arguably saisons have become new darlings of the craft world, with an attendant fixation on wild yeasts and lactobacilli and all things Belgian, and one could even make the claim that brettanomyces obsession is following a similar path to that of hops, with the Platonic ideal of a catbox-and-horse-blanket smoothie in a bottle tracing that of the 1000 IBU objet petit a, which everyone realizes is bad but irresistible idea anyway.

The problem is not the article or the argument itself, but that there actually is no argument. It is a type of journalism (or I dunno, “internet writing”) that assumes the form of confrontation but does not ever deliver on the promise of claims-making. On a certain level I can appreciate this as a prosaic tactic – I think it is a fruit of the desconstructionist turn that we may feel confident in a form of writing that draws us into a labyrinthine rhetorical rabbit warren in order to demonstrate or destabilize the impassible, open up other avenues of thinking, without endorsing the (sometimes) trap of “taking a strong position”. More can be said about the dangers of irony being a dominant mode of cultural discourse (I’m for it, frankly, although it is worth trying to make a distinction between the usefully destructive and the pointlessly destructive), but when it comes down to it, I don’t think that is really what is happening here. This is more like that guy at a party who engages one in absurd arguments, making provocatively absolute claims, from which he continually retreats with the defence “Well, I didn’t mean that so much as…” until one is eventually rewarded for one’s resisting the urge to murder him with the evasion “Don’t worry, I don’t even believe in what I’m saying, I just like to argue.” Which is itself a dissimulation – he doesn’t like to argue, he just likes the attention.

And so in the end, like a modern-day Woodward and Bernstein I arrive at the insightful conclusion that hyperbolic internet headlines are just clickbait, they’re just trying to get our attention! Stop the figurative presses! Where are my Pulitzers in multiple? But seriously, I bother to get into it as much out of sympathy as annoyance. I’m sure Adrienne So had a nice idea for a piece situating and thinking beyond the stereotype of craft beer as totally hops-dominated, and I don’t blame her for the triteness and cynicism of her titles and taglines (unless she wrote them, of course). This sort of hyperbolic feint-and-switch writing is something I often fall into myself, but as this confrontation becomes more and more mere veneer, a window-dressing applied whether or not there is even a cursory analysis underneath, the more accustomed to and forgiving of sucky journalism we become. We can do better.

Two Trick Pony.

December 18, 2014 - One Response

IMG_20141218_010604

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Not food-related, but just FYI, my friend Simon and I have a cover story in the new issue of Harper’s. It’s a short piece about OxyContin, regulatory gamesmanship, and the FDA, with just the tiniest bit of background on the tangled co-emergence of chronic pain as a major clinical object and the marketing of opioid painkillers. I was really angling for a less sensational tag line, but you can’t win ’em all. Available for subscribers now, I think it’ll hit the shelves early in the new year. I’d like to claim this was what I was working on the past few months, while -not- updating the blog, but in actuality I have been drinking wine and watching Futurama. 

Tomorrow Might Not Come, If I Don’t Let It.

November 7, 2014 - Leave a Response

Stop me before I say too much.

~

I ate these sitting on the warm roof of a half-mangled pickup, last May? last June? It was late and warm and we were singing songs to stay awake, and jogging around the truck at every rest stop, feeding on the stimulation of the variety of fluorescent lights.

Two summers ago, I guess. They tasted of pizza pockets.

So ready and specific an association at hand, to my own hand, I wonder whether this did not occur to the makers. But then, who “makes” a Dorito? Where in the network, the chain of translations, is the decision made what a chip “is”, or what it is supposed to be? Was there a moment when, during the fine-tuning of the nth iteration of Summer 2013’s Limited Edition Pizza Dorito, an adjudication was made whether it was more pizza or pizza pocket, and a calculation of the relative market potentials of each? One would almost expect that had the latter presented itself to those concerned, it would have had to have won out, so receptive of novel snack-themed snacks are contemporary audiences perceived to be. So maybe it didn’t come to mind, maybe it was not ready at hand. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they wanted to produce an evocation of a good pizza, of a better pizza than a pizza pocket, or a (worse still) mini-pizza, an icon undiluted by microwave convenience. Maybe they just weren’t listening.

I was reading Proust’s In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower at the time, and thinking about David Lynch, for the first time ever. Lynch, in  Lynch on Lynch  describes the genesis of the Red Room:

One night at about 6:37pm in the evening I remember it was very warm. Duwayne Dunham and his assistant Brian Burdan and I were leaving for the day. We were out in the parking lot and I was leaning against a car—the front of me was leaning against this very warm car. My hands were on the roof and the metal was very hot. The Red Room scene leapt into my mind. . . . For the rest of the night I thought only about The Red Room.

Hands on a (warm) hard body. Proust rendering momentary impressions in elaborately exploded view, so thoroughly as to reveal what is in fact not there. Pizza pockets. Mosquitos.

 

His Measure of Her Powers.

October 25, 2014 - 2 Responses

Photo credit: TCBLRarebooks.com

~

A few weeks back, Esquire‘s Food Editor-at-Large Josh Ozersky published a piece on Medium (“Consider the Food Writer”) declaiming what he sees as the continuing influence of MFK Fisher on food writing in America, declaring that if the genre is to emerge from a creatively stunted and parochial bourgeois hegemony, MFK Fisher must die.

Figuratively, of course. She has been literally dead since 1992.

 

On the one hand, I totally agree. Or, to put it more carefully, I share Ozersky’s distaste for the prevailing narrative and stylistic conventions of much contemporary food writing. His critique is pretty on point:

They all grope for depth, via tropes that are now pretty much obligatory. The author will find in some plate of pie a memory of mother and, later, in the act of their own eating, a universal experience that binds us all together. Somewhere in there will always be found some fond memory of a picturesque past or exotic land, some unforgotten tomato or miraculous couscous that still reverberates, even today, and underscores the persistence of the past and the brotherhood of man.

In this way the unwavering predictability of the form threatens to eclipse – or effectively render irrelevant – the actual content. Like the readymade drama of a bad food documentary, the specificity of the life, the food itself, the creepy ephemereality of experience, all are made pat. Undeniably this is boring and usually trite, and undeniably this is -part- of MFK Fisher’s legacy. Hers was a voice that defined modern American food writing, and Ozersky is correct that she occupies a privileged position as the godmother of the genre, universally lauded by foodies and food writers alike. I can hardly take issue with the critical reconsideration of one of the giants of one’s genre. I also think that Ozersky’s compact analysis of the emergence of a particular classed relationship to food – food eating, food thinking, food writing – in the 1960s and ’70s, as a precursor to the modern ‘food culture’ phenomenon is valuable, especially as it emphasizes the publishing infrastructure behind these developments.

 

On the other hand, I think Ozersky is a bit of a fucking fouler, who should maybe fuck off and, you know, check himself.

Let us leave aside for the moment his summary dismissal of Susan Sontag as irrelevant and banal, with the lament that Fisher may not be so casually dispatched – I am not a giant fan of Sontag, but to glibly dismiss her work on, say, the representational violence of photography, or illness as metaphor, as merely part of an “indistinct din” of midcentury writing of interest only to cultural historians seems almost laughably boorish. His estimation of MFK Fisher’s own literary powers are somewhat confused, and this produces and ambiguity in how he characterizes the consequences of her influence.

Ozersky opens with the pro forma admission that Fisher’s merits as a writer are besides the point, which implies that it is her legacy with which he is solely concerned, although this is not exactly so, given that he spends the rest of the article waffling between begrudgingly acknowledging her talents and declaring her work saccharine, superficial and dull. He grants that she is at best an able epigrammatist, but, personal differences in my and Ozersky’s literary tastes aside, I think he sells Fisher unfairly short. I have always found that it is precisely in isolated quotation that her true strengths as a writer are least discernible, and run most toward the ‘superficially profound’, as Ozersky claims. I don’t believe it is necessary here to mount a lengthy defence of Fisher’s writing, but I think where she succeeds most is as a literary stylist who is able in short passages to communicate a frank and disarming – and, perhaps most importantly, unpretentious – sensuality. As one who considers himself an unfortunate, impoverished anti-sensualist, locked in a garbled and loathsome relationship of mutual misrecognition with his own body, I am not easy to impress on this front, and I am almost embarrassed by my appreciation for Fisher’s work in this respect.  If the aphorism is a form of compressed wit, I would argue that it is in her longer passages that the aesthetic richness of her prose is given space to unfold. Even if at times her romance is too high for me, I recognize that there is something special there, that is more than the “treacle” of Ozersky’s evaluation. But anyway, to each their own, I get it.

What leaves me feeling uneasy about Ozersky’s piece is that underpinning his call for what is in effect a dirtier, more conflicted, grotesque, and perhaps pedestrian, if not populist, food writing, is a very peculiar construction of what “contemporary mainstream food writing” looks like. His dystopian hegemonic landscape is populated by the likes of Ruth Reichl, Elizabeth Gilbert, Kim Sunée, Amanda Hesser, Julie Powell; the heir(esses) of Elizabeth David, Judith Jones, Julia Child . . . if this list seems gendered, it is not conspicuously so for who is included, but who is absent. What about Anthony Bourdain (inarguably as great an influence on the 21st-c voice of food writing as Fisher), Calvin Trillin, Adam Gopnik? Michael Pollan and Mark Kurlansky? What of Harold McGee, or professional bad boys Marco Pierre White and David Chang?

Why do these names – some chefs (professional or celebrity), some historians, some critics, none (save McGee, perhaps) innocent of participating in the tired narrative bathos of memorializing their first oyster / summer strawberry / fermented chick embryo – not appear in Ozersky’s sketch of the food writing oligarchy? Certainly one couldn’t exclude any of these best-selling and James Beard-awarded authors from the culinary cultural mainstream. And yet they are neither identified as part of the problem of rule nor even as aspects of -a- solution. Indeed, in spite of their success, these big names remain strangely invisible:

I’ve read moving and resonant accounts of eating, scenes that rang true from my own experience and that of other dirtbags like me. But I’ve never read them in a glossy food magazine, nor can I think of a single one that ever got nominated for an award . . .  There remains an immense, seething, varied, noisy, conflicted, confused, unclassifiable population of people who eat, and cook, and for whom food isn’t a source of community—at least not with that elite class of mandarins that currently control the field. They can all be heard, but they can’t get published or paid, which makes them invisible and unviable, voices in a wilderness that need to be heard. There is no doubt in my mind that if Fisher were alive, she would champion them. But she isn’t, and her legacy suffocates us, immobilizes us, covers us as tightly as the tenderloin in a beef wellington. Food writing today is one great echo chamber, and the voice it echoes must be silenced.

I am as tired as anybody (as or more tired than Ozersky, even) of the unexplicated, unproblematized mobilization of “community” and the trope of food as a mutually intelligible universal in food writing; food is paradoxically the great leveller and the great divider, debaser, destroyer. Food is a shibboleth. Food is a problem. And it is not for this that people call themselves ‘foodies’. But with the scene as he has set it here, Ozersky’s argument for inclusion comes to seem more akin to a backlash against the ascendance of what is pejoratively called “Women’s Fiction” in food-writing. The interrogation of the formulaic and trite is perhaps everywhere some kind of literary obligation, but to cast this mode as a gendered hegemony held in place by a bourgeois female editorial class – as similarly powerful ‘serious’ male writers recede from the analytic frame – is just gross*, and we can do better.

 

* All the more so, and the more readily legible as such, coming from a guy who has also written an apologia for his ogling of women.

 

 

i have also struggled with the internal paradox of food as the levelling universal, and that which through the caprices of taste, culture, biology, or the inextricable entanglements of all three, is the great divider, the battlefield of taste, of distinction – food as shibboleth, food as lifestyle, food as problem, food as destroyer.

 

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