Gourmet, August 2004

I don’t usually purchase cooking magazines (correction: Gourmet bills itself as “the magazine of good living”, a broader lifestyle claim, though it is grouped with the cooking magazines at the bookstore, rather than with, say, The Robb Report or Cigar Aficionado) though I do subscribe to Cook’s Illustrated (the cooking magazine for gadget geeks, what with its scientific-method laboratory tests of cooking methodologies, kitchen tools, and foods). Cooking magazines are dangerous for a pack rat like myself. I can’t bring myself to throw out magazines that contain useful information I might someday need or use, however remote the possibility. By that definition, cooking magazines are almost never disposable, filled as they are with recipes and articles on various foodstuffs and magical cooking techniques and secrets. However, I purchased the August 2004 issue of Gourmet because it included an essay by David Foster Wallace.
I go out of my way to collect magazines with essays by Wallace or Malcolm Gladwell or short fiction by Tobias Wolff (in the case of Gladwell and Wolff, nearly always the occasional issue of The New Yorker). I enjoy Foster Wallace’s fiction (okay, let’s abbreviate to DFW, as his fans refer to him), but I adore his essays. His essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again is, in my opinion, his finest work. It is in his essays that DFW's odd writing tic of inserting copious footnotes throughout his writing (to a shallow inspection, it’s the habit that most identifies him as a sui generis of the writing world) is most effective and endearing rather than ponderous, as it can be in his fiction. I admit to a similar tendency (one could argue that it’s a symptom of being a writing pack rat, unable to jettison the least relevant train of thought), albeit in HTML my digressive train of thought manifests itself in an abundance of parentheticals due to laziness (creating footnotes in HTML is a hassle, and for longer works not broken up into separate web pages, anchor links are necessary to prevent the reader from having to scroll back and forth vertically, an action which, if performed multiple times in succession, might lead to repetitive stress injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome).
DFW’s essay for Gourmet is a paragon of the DFW essay style. What makes him such an unique and engaging journalists is not just his cool, perceptive, and almost clinical eye, or his flat and just slightly satirical, acerbic tone, but his complete disinterest in writing a conventional half-investigative, half-advertorial piece that most travelogues or celebrity interviews turn out to be. Gourmet commissioned a piece on the Maine Lobster Festival. A third of the way into his essay, DFW abruptly shifts gears from a straightforward overview of the logistics of the Maine Lobster Festival and the taxonomical and culinary history of the lobster itself to raise the real topic of his essay:
”Is it all right to boil a sentient creature alive just for our gustatory pleasure?”
It’s a question DFW spends the rest of his essay attempting to answer with his usual cubist mind. But enough on DFW and his essay. His work is nearly impossible to describe simply through a few excerpts. The footnote-laden style demands a journey to the source material.
This issue of Gourmet also contains another article that fascinated me, one that investigates whether or not wine glasses, particularly Riedel wine glasses, actually make a difference in how wine tastes. It’s particularly relevant in light of the recent news that Riedel purchased Spiegelau, creating the world's largest wineglass producer.
The article recounts how Riedel claims that their glasses improve the flavor and aroma of wine. How do they do this? At a Riedel-sponsored seminar, a Riedel representative explains that their glasses are engineered to deliver the wine to precise areas of the tongue, taking advantage of the "tongue map" which charts which regions of the tongue experience which tastes (e.g. sweet, acid, bitter, salt). Riedel has glasses for just about every variation of wine you've heard of, and many you haven't.
There's only one problem. The tongue map is a myth. It's one I was taught in grade school health class, and even I hadn't heard that it had been debunked until reading this article.
Furthermore, the article points to all sorts of scientific studies that have not only shown that in blind taste tests, the type and brand of glass makes little to no difference. It also cites one famous experiment in which wine experts were fooled into thinking a white wine with food coloring and another in which wine experts pooh poohed a mass market wine while praising a luxury wine to the heavens, only to discover that the testers had reversed the two wines.
Wine has always been a front in class struggles, bolding otherwise imperceptible lines between the highbrow and lowbrow. Non-wine snobs always suspect that they’re being bamboozled, victims of an elaborate hoax, and perhaps they’re right. Price disparity of wines is high, and objective measures are lacking. I often find myself in the wine aisle of the supermarket or a wine store, baffled by the selection of wines, the hundreds of brands, all priced seemingly randomly.
On the other hand, as the article concludes, expectations can have a huge impact on one's enjoyment of an experience or product. If you believe that paying more for a bottle of wine will buy you a better wine, or if you believe that a $40 Riedel glass will improve the taste of that Pinot Noir, that belief may indeed improve that bottle for you. Certainly Riedel wineglasses are more aesthetically pleasing than a Dixie paper cup or your average wineglass from Target. Disentangling form and function altogether in assessing a product is counter to how we experience them in everyday life. Despite the fact that most golfers would be better served by spending their money on lessons, sometimes it helps to spend it on a fancy new driver that they believe will improve their drives. If you feel more confident with a certain club in your hands, that can translate to better swings. Mind over matter.
Many people wish to affirm their purchases after the fact, like reading a Pauline Kael review after seeing a movie in the hopes of finding her in agreement with your opinion. After reading this article, I won't feel quite so bad snickering at the wine snob at the next party I attend. There's always one.
Related: Ordering lobsters online
Kinky sex secrets of the lobster (in which Trevor Corson, author of The Secret Life of Lobsters, debunks DFW's Gourmet article)