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What determines “taste”? A review of Adam Gopnik’s new book

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I am enjoying reading Adam Gopnik’s new book, The Table Comes First, which is a (sort of) celebration of French cooking, with an American democratic [small “d”] accent that says you don’t need to worship at the shrine of Brillat-Savarin to know and love good food.

Adam writes with the depth and allusionary complexity of a New Yorker regular, which he happens to be. It’s sometimes hard to wade through the verbiage, but there are enough nuggets to make it worthwhile–almost one per page, which is the writer’s equivalent of Ty Cobb’s career batting average of .366, which, I think, remains Major League Baseball’s record.

The book is about food, but touches often on wine. When writing is so stimulating it prods thoughts about one’s own interests so frequently, you have to give it props; and Adam made me think frequently about wine. How do we determine questions of personal taste versus objective analysis of quality? That’s a big one. Another question: how do we liberate ourselves from whatever historical era we’re trapped in? Once upon a time, connoisseurs liked Yquem with roast beef. Today, a sommelier would be fired for so suggesting. Were the 19th century experts “wrong”?

This is a slippery slope. If we allow that Yquem might be a worthy partner for beef, where does this permissiveness end? What about a 16% Zinfandel with grilled ahi tuna? A tart Pinot Grigio with tornedos of beef? A sweet, oaky California Chardonnay with grilled veggies on toast crisps? These pairings sound horrible, yet someone will like them. Somebody will write about them, and that person may be read 100 years from now and sound sensible. So how do we arrive at appropriate determinations of taste?

Mr. Gopnik struggles mightily with this question and is, unfortunately and predictably, unable to answer it. That is not his fault. We humans collectively are unable to arrive at conclusive definitions about anything, whether it be the nature of God, who should be allowed to marry whom, what millionaires should pay in taxes, or how lamb should be served. That’s our fundamental liberty: we disagree about personal taste, and that’s fine. So what does that mean for a wine critic, who delivers authoritative judgments on individual wines? Speaking for myself, I know people will disagree. They should. But why should my opinion–and that’s all it is–matter more than Joe Blow from Kokomo’s, in a democratic [again, small “d”] democracy?

Well, this is the eternal question concerning “taste,” which Mr. Gopnik struggles with so articulately. While he does not and cannot ultimately resolve it, he makes us think. Why do we like what we like? Why do we arrive at consensual opinions concerning what is “good” and what isn’t? Have these decisions shifted over history? Of course they have; Mr. Gopnik illustrates this abundantly. This given the case, how can we say that (for example) a Harlan Cabernet Sauvignon is “better” than a Temecula Cabernet Sauvignon?

We obviously need to determine common parameters for such things. But I would be the first to concede that such parameters have an arbitrariness that makes them suspect. I have my opinions; I’m a product, or victim, of my own background and prejudices. I believe what I believe, and strongly, and can argue my convictions. But I also understand that you’re entitled to your own convictions, however they may differ from mine, and however silly I think they are. I think it’s insane to say that a Temecula Cabernet is equal to a Harlan. But if you think so, fine. It’s your money to spend as you see fit. If you believe that, you probably have a lot less influence on the public’s buying decisions than I do. I think that’s good. I want people to agree with me, not because I think I’m “better” than anyone else, but because I think my taste is more in tune with modernity.

  1. Our own favourite quote from Adam Gopnik’s book, and one with which we surely all agree:

    “Dinner with water is dinner for prisoners”

  2. Steve said: “We humans collectively are unable to arrive at conclusive definitions about anything. . .” So, I’m going back to sleep: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pk8H6AzbTAM

  3. raley roger says:

    Love Gopnik’s writing. So cool that you reviewed him here!

  4. Sauternes and beef works well, especially if the beef is ‘fatty’ or ‘marbled’ and preferably pasture fed. It also works well with fish (e.g. oysters or lobster), roast meats (traditionally wild boar or roast free range chicken) and spicy foods (there is a long tradition in India of serving sugar alongside some of the hotter dishes). In fact I have more problems matching Sauternes to sweet dishes where clashes often happen.

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