Advanced Culinary Communication Basics

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This is an amateur rant targeted mainly at enthusiasts of popular, contemporary, culinary art. All ideas are mainly the product of meditations I’ve gone through to make better, more powerful cocktails as well as become a better steward of wine. Not every “foodie” will be amused by my targets of inquiry and in regards to aspects of art criticism, Peter Schjeldahl said it best, “a chemical analysis of water would irk someone mostly aware of being thirsty” so either turn back now or quench your thirst and lets keep going.

Interest in culinary art really seems to be growing these days. It could easily be because the news of late is so depressing that people are opting to only read the dining and sports sections of the newspaper. This explosion of interest has even led to a few of the chefs I know appearing on TV (looking like idiots). My oppressively blue collar parents have even started drinking wine. I never thought I’d see that day.

I feel though, that this growth of interest is all happening with barely any advances in our ability to communicate about our experiences. We are taking all this culinary art in, and it is touching our souls like art does (awesome), and we want to talk about it (naturally), but we are only able to market these experiences to each other in conversation (“balanced” wines with 97 point RP scores), not describe them or differentiate them. Our methods of converting sensory evaluation and emotional content to language needs more attention.

The first question we have to ask is what can culinary art communicate? What can I say with a cocktail and what specific aspects of it say anything? A drunk bar regular once told me his glass of tequila whispered to him “the desert is large”. We cannot expect the most useful things to be said, but I have been moved to my greatest joys by things I’ve drank. What takes us to that joyful state (or any state, even repulsion) are tensions that exist in the work. These tensions add up to emotional content and are therefore the provoker of your reaction.

My cocktails aim to have particular tensions between elements of structure (acidity, sweetness, alcohol, etc.) as well as tensions between symbolism (particularly the aromatic type), however vague. The symbols do not have to be too precisely read because there is no plot to the story. Olfactory symbols are intended to be more like reminders or reference points. We string them together or bounce off of them creating tension that adds to the emotional content. Emotional content via symbolism functions relative to the micro or macro context you frame it in, therefore each “reminder” doesn’t exactly point to the same place for each person and we will react in different ways (why we have preferences).

Conversing about our experiences is important. For starters, when we have a conversation with ourselves we may be more likely to etch an experience into our mental library. We rely on this library to build the schemas that we use to parse experiences. New wine drinkers are often frustrated that they have little to say about a wine while experienced wine drinkers have tons to say and probably have more feelings, positive or negative about the experience. The difference between the drinkers lies in the size of their library, which I bet, discussions of sensory evaluation and emotional content enlarges and maintains.

Our culinary history has a historical record that begs to be written and sensory evaluation should be a key component yet it often gets left out. Somehow our recipes have always been slim on details. Julia Child (among others) changed recipe writing and culinary history when she detailed the techniques used to physically link ingredients so dishes could actually be recreated by laymen. Child’s insights ended a long era of purely “shovelware” cook books, but things could be taken further by adding some sort of sensory evaluation to the recipes. This is easier said than done. A spaghetti Carbonara recipe cannot practically turn into a book in itself (bad marketing material) where every possible relationship is mapped, but if it had to be done, does anyone know how to do it? We seem to have some sort of deficiency of technical analysis skills and a lack of creative linkage jargon to push the theoretical limits of recipe writing.

The current state of most our recipes is that they are highly dynamic, but what happens if we can write them in a way that makes them static? The static recipe is a way to walk a day in another man’s shoes, which is usually my goal when I ask someone for their recipe. A static recipe can convey the regional acid ethic of a classic dish which is something so many chefs get criticized for missing. Culinary history would be firmer and culinary art objects would become more accessible and enduring.

Many cocktail recipes have made the static shift which is not difficult because of the simplified texture and temperatures. In 19th century books like the The Bon Vivant’s Companion, early mother recipes like the gin sling or whiskey cocktail were encouraged to be dynamic and stretch up and down to an imbiber’s whim. By the time the Savoy Cocktail Book came around, some recipes were on their way to becoming more staticly locked (many will challenge this assertion). The result was that new recipes could be more expressionistic and packed with emotional content that we can still experience today just like other art mediums such as Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting The Scream. The Lucien Gaudin from the Savoy (look it up!) is not the “Lucien Gaudin” if the proportions, which largely define its emotional content, change. Of course a new can of worms gets opened up because these statically motivated authors did not have the foresight to see that brands would waver or go defunct.

The cocktail renaissance has often stumbled because of so many defunct ingredients. Many ingredients have no sensory evaluation in their historical record so substitutions are impossible. We will never know if products with a fantasy names like Hercules or Caperitif were anise or orange aromatized, but we do however have all of their marketing which makes the products seem enticing enough. It is really a shame that they are gone forever (or their static recipes are just stuck in Internal Revenue Service laboratory records that the Freedom of Information Act can’t seem to penetrate. Yes, the IRS did pioneer static recipe writing with their importation forms for aromatized wines).

Many imbibers strive to reenact the Civil War and make historically accurate cocktails (I love the idea of taking in the same experience as the first Martinez, Manhattan, or Martini), but some suspect the ingredients have wandered aromatically and if they haven’t, how did they do it? Developing and maintaining aromatized products like the Chartreuses or the vermouths takes a team (generations of teams) who obviously have to communicate. What do these teams say to each other and can we benefit from their communication techniques? American liquor law might state circularly that “vermouth is a wine which looks and tastes like vermouth” but generations of vermouth producers have hopefully come up with something better.

Culinary communication might be furthered if we could refine or popularize some definitions. The word at the heart of it all that needs more attention in defining is flavor. Flavor too often gets confused with it’s component parts, therefore the ambiguity of the language used can make it difficult to communicate. Flavor is the synesthetic summary experience of tasting, touching, and smelling. Things get confusing because we use the verb taste to take in flavors but taste as a noun is only a component of a flavor. This communication setback probably happened because we did not realize flavor was a synesthetic experience.

Synesthesia in this context means that, for example, the aromatic component of a flavor will influence perception of the taste component and separation of the components while perceiving will be challenging if not possible. This happens because certain aromas make things taste sweeter than they really are while other aromas make things taste less sweet. The components of flavor can be identified, named, and relationships between them can be mapped. This knowledge, like the formal aspects of painting, can be used to charge culinary art with extra potent emotional content (my obsession).

The painting analogy can teach us a lot about breaking down the flavor phenomenon. Early in the 20th century, painters started to be intensely concerned with exploring spatial effect in the picture plane (sensation of three dimensions using the two-dimensional picture plane). These plane conscious artists mapped all the illusions that led one to believe they were experiencing three dimensions on the two dimensional picture plane. These artists even liberated us from mere illusions which often have negative connotations. What was once illusory became a plastic reality. What this means to flavor is that if you think a wine is sweet, but there is no measurable sugar in the wine, you aren’t really wrong. Not being wrong isn’t the end of it. You still have to work harder in communicating if you want the waiter to bring you a wine whose perception of sweetness via aroma you actually enjoy.

Plane consciousness is the future of culinary art. The painter Hans Hoffman stated “a plane is a fragment of the architecture of space”. A culinary art experience is easily analogous to taking in space because space isn’t so much real as just an abstract concept. Each culinary art object is an entire world created out of relationships between these planes. Isolating planes and defining their relationships is going to motivate artists to develop the science behind manipulating them (we have already seen great growth in this recently).

The great frontier of culinary communication is in aroma. Each of us has an olfactory construct that we use to divide and categorize our aromatic world. Research shows that olfactory symbolism or the meanings we attach to aromas which guide the divisions of our constructs are culturally relative and therefore we are not exactly hard wired to believe anything smells good or bad. Many constructs are possible and aromas can be divided into all sorts of categories, some more useful to culinary art than others.

There may even be a hardwired type of olfactory construct that is intensely useful to building and describing flavors in culinary (someone please study this I’m dying to know if it is hardwired). We can divide aromas based on how they change the perception of sweetness in a flavor. I call this construct the “round/angular olfactory construct”. Round aromas are the fruits like orange, apple, apricot, etc, but also aromas like anise, and almond. If only slightly, these aromas will all increase the perception of sweetness in a flavor. Angular aromas create the opposite effect and some bartenders call spirits like rye whiskey, that are dominated by hard to name angular aromas, drying agents. Other angular aromas are spices like juniper, clove, and cinnamon.

Multiple round aromas in a flavor experience can be described with the analogy of overtones and intervals. Some round aromas together like apricot and orange are intensely hard to parse and create an overtone. Distinct intervals happen between more disparate round aromatic linkages like coconut-pineapple or anything-anise. The aromas are perceived in a succession that can add serious depth to a flavor experience. The round aromatic interval is analogous to how depth is created in the picture plane by intervals of warm and cool colors (warm & cool is an arbitrary analogy that we’ve grown to accept!).

Angular aromas exist in what could also be called intervals, but they seem to have a slightly different nature where they do not produce overtones (or maybe they do? My theory is not firm). An analogy to describe the groupings of angular aromas could be terraced with few intervals that seem to climb in larger steps (fernet) to crescendo where there are many intervals which seem to climb gradually and are hard to differentiate (vermouth, Chartreuse).

We seem to love the linkage of round and angular aromas. They often lead to a very pleasurable sense of spatial effect (Arnold Palmer) and are great considerations when improvising drinks. Strangely, both Chartreuses seem to be elaborate sets of only angular aromas absent of nearly all roundness. The skewed nature of it all may have had strange symbolism to the early monks such as celibacy or the denial of pleasure (though it could also be a cover up for their deviate behavior). No matter what the Chartreuses symbolize, it must have taken some sort of communication of sensory analysis to exclude any botanicals with round aromas (Anise lurks everywhere. The anise aroma can actually be found in green Chartreuse but the aroma is locked up by the high alcohol. When the proof gets cut, the anise aroma is more free to be volatile).

Another great olfactory construct which relies heavily on searching for universal symbolism in Western culture is the temporal olfactory construct which separates aromas based on a time association with them; does an aroma remind you of the past or the future? Just like we enjoy the clash of the round and angular, we also enjoy the violent juxtaposition of the past and future (and often both constructs overlap). Examples of backward looking aromas in Western culture would be the Garden of Eden fruits and antiseptic preservative aromas like juniper, sage, and wormwood. Forward looking aromas are often exotic like coconut, pineapple, Demerera rum, or Cognac. Some aromas like cherry have a tonal range and can point in both directions. Cherry liqueurs like Heering point towards the past with their stodgy density while forward looking Kirschwasser glows aromatically in a neon sort of way after being liberated from non-volatile aromas via distillation. Famous temporal juxtapositions would be gin (epic olfactory tension!) with purifying juniper contrasted with exotic saffron and orange peel or absinthe with glowing futuristic anise contrasted with ancient preservative wormwood, but of course it is all culturally relative. These days we have lost touch with the symbols and our reference points are too personal. The olfactory literacy rate being so low really stifles the art.

The emotional content that olfactory symbolism creates makes aromatic tonality very significant though overlooked. Ferran Adria might have made playing with texture the hot topic, and texture has its own emotional content (as well as makes for good fluffy journalism), but aromatic tonality is where its at (not to diminish Adria, I bet his team is really into aroma and I’d really love to hear what they have to say about it). Shifting the shade or tone of an aroma charges it emotionally, but we talk about it strangely. When you see tasting notes for wines that address aromatic roundness they are always written as “fruit comma fruit comma fruit comma etcetera”. The commas lead one to believe the wine will have all those aromas, (maybe in intervals or via a true time element provided by rapid oxidation in the glass) but somehow the shade of round aroma really exists between the fruits (beautiful mermaid-grotesque!). When we abstract and build wines, we aspire to push and pull aroma into this unknown space between the known values. We need to trade the commas for another logical operator that indicates between-ness.

Admitting a love for the space between two known values does not solve much. We still can’t comfortably articulate in conversation shades of strange aromas like “organic earthiness” in a wine (In my eyes the most emotionally charged of all wine aromas!). My favorite shades are emotionally very sensual and romantic because of their similarity to animal aromas and can even be divided symbolically into the masculine and feminine. Other organic earth aromas at the far reaches of the spectrum are analogous to a white truffle that is past its prime (so sad!) and are in the negative end of my olfactory construct. Using these analogies, in a hundred years will anyone understand my descriptors of the red wines of Bolgheri, and if Bolgheri never produces a bottle again, will anyone feel they found a similar shade of earth aroma in another part of the world?

Tonality and juxtaposition bring up another communication issue. What exactly is complexity in a flavor experience and is it a useful descriptor? The desire to call something complex seems like an instance where we settle for one word to market an experience, but we really need to divide it into multiple words to describe an experience. Experiences of rare expressions of roundness often get called complex even when they don’t have any distinct intervals. The same thing happens with angular aromas. Is complex appropriate or should we say something like distinct, rare, or enigmatic to denote the out of the ordinary experience? To me complex seems reserved for flavor experiences that have many intervals of aromas, employ many planes of taste, and maybe even a have a time sensitive evolution via rapid oxidation.

My favorite spirit at the moment is Medronho from the Algarve region of Portugal. Medronho is a brandy made from the Strawberry Tree or Arbutus. Nothing is more esoteric or made under rarer circumstances. I could easily call the brandy spectacular or balanced (hells no!) and market Medronho to all, but I can’t really call it complex. The aroma of the brandy basically consists of a strange, distinct, pungent aroma very much like Tobasco minus the vinegar and another mousey-autolytic aroma similar to what you find in some Champagnes (who knows if it is a from yeast autolysis). There is the typical taste structure of a distillate plus the two distinct aromatic intervals. The juxtaposition is as strange as it gets and the aromas are rare for a fruit brandy, but complex does not fit the bill. I’ll settle for distinct or even avante-garde relative to the normal Western culinary experience. Medronho has no counterpart.

The dissonant nature of some experiences challenges another word that we commonly use in our culinary marketing. Everything in culinary seems to be balanced, but the word has a lot of problems. Balance does not seem to have any provisions for cultural relativity and cannot account for the acquired tastes that drive modern culinary art. We can build in cultural relativity or we can switch to another word. The musical world has championed the word harmony and sorted out every nuance of its use. Harmony is relative because of consonance and dissonance which have been acknowledged to be flexible and always in motion. Arnold Schoenberg famously stated that there is no dissonance and rather “a dissonance is a further removed consonance that we have yet to absorb.” Schoenberg’s learned harmony idea opens up a world of acquired tastes that balance, with its fixed connotations, closes off. There is a new crop of foodies out there whose hobby is essentially acquiring acquired tastes.

Tossing the art of dissonance metabolizing fetishists into the market is dangerous because of our mastery of marketing. We so easily sell acquired tastes to people that are not ready for them, creating dissatisfaction and potentially hindering the progress of expanding harmony. Embracing plane consciousness in communication might be a solution. If we describe the direction of planes to summarize spatial effect (identifying the dissonant space in few articulate words), we can keep people that shouldn’t be from swimming in the avante-garde of culinary art.

Culinary communication is an art in itself. The task of communicating what artists consciously abstract into the synesthetic unknown is a crazy proposition. Hopefully plane consciousness, olfactory constructs, culturally relative harmony, and acknowledgment of grotesque tonality will give us an edge. Ahead of us, we have static recipes to build so we can preserve the complicated ethics of our culinary heritage. There are monumental works that still need to be maintained and modern symbolism that still needs to be explored. It would be nice if through more discourse, the art of culinary communication will catch up to culinary art itself.

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