Monday, March 20, 2006

Reclaiming My Heart & Mind & Stomach

As of last month, Food & Wine columnist Pete Wells wasn't exactly the darling of the food blogging world. His article on food blogs was, well, controversial at best. In my estimation, it wasn't the worst article ever, but it fell pretty far short of being truly good.

But big believer in redemption that I am, when the April F&W arrived last week, I turned immediately to Wells' "Always Hungry" column. This month, Wells delves into the world of wine and food tasting research, something that’s been of interest to me lately, too. He does a great job (as far as I can tell) describing the recent UC Davis study and reports on the findings with much less prejudice than the science press did. Maybe he's just more sensitive to the foodie side of the argument than science reporters are. At any rate, his brief study summary is solid and easy to grasp:
“If you’re worried about finding the bottle that will best complement the
raw-milk Pecorino you’re serving tomorrow night, the answer provided by sensory
science is: Stop fretting. They’re all equally good. Or, if you tend to look at
the dark side, equally bad.”


But pithiness is not what drew Wells back into my imaginary inner circle of food writers. No, what did it was his recounting a story told by Hildegard Heymann, the professor who runs the sensory science lab at UC Davis. She is responsible for the study that has so crisply determined that the relationship between food and wine is not necessarily mutually enhancing. But she’s no slave to science.

She tells a story of a fabulous Napa Valley Easter lunch she attended back in the 1980s. Famous and amazing wines served throughout…until dessert. With the final course, the hostess unapologetically served a $7 Gallo imitation Asti Spumante. Heymann describes the wine, saying, “It’s terrible, it’s sickeningly sweet, it has fake bubbles.” She loves it. It’s her favorite wine.

And this is where Pete Wells makes me melt. He showcases this story and closes his article with a handful of sentences that so accurately sum up everything I believe about the relationship between food and emotion:

“You could say that thinking plays an integral part in drinking. You’re not born
loving or hating Riesling – you have to learn. And learned flavors often drag a
bundle of emotional or intellectual associations along behind them.”
It’s very Clockwork Orange, and it’s part of what makes food and wine such a fascinating subject for me. I’ve long believed that the study of food is really the study of cultures (and individuals). And isn’t the study of modern culture largely an exploration of how science (intellectualism) and emotion crash into one another?

Wells concludes his article with an incredibly exciting prospect:
“Yes, we pay attention to the reports being fired off from our tongues and our
noses when we eat. But as that news bolts through the brain, it meets up with
our memories, our beliefs, our ideas. Sensory science can teach us a lot about
what happens in our mouths. But if Heymann’s theories about food and wine
pairing turn out to be right, they will reveal something just as interesting:
Science will show us where our mouths stop and our minds take over.”

And I am enthralled.

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