Uncategorized

SMALL SECRETS x BAR BARBARA

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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.

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Uncategorized

To Your (Spiritual) Health.

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.

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spirit possession

Adventures in Sabrage.

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.

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of a literary bent

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

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.

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Uncategorized

Two Trick Pony.

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. 

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product review

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

Stop me before I say too much.

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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.

 

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