Maximum Rhetoric, Problem Solving and Categories

“I don’t explain—I explore” -Marshal Mcluhan

I guess I must have been ahead of my time, but two papers I wrote back in the day seem to have resurfaced. The first paper from two years ago was the summary of my talk for a science club for girls fundraiser. I was assigned to speak about the Manhattan cocktail and of course I put my own high concept spin on it. The people whom asked me to speak pretty much didn’t know me and were cringing left and right about their wild card speaker. They would have been fine with rehashed & cliched ideas, but I presented something fairly new and the audience, to everyone’s surprise, absolutely loved it. The rediscovery even included a criticism/reflection piece by a well known wine writer which is definitely worth checking out.

The second piece that has been gaining traction, was written four years ago and recently just got a comment endorsement from someone at Atera in NYC, which is a place I deeply admire. It was written with the remnants of pressures from me leaving my last job at a fancy restaurant with an overly ambitious beverage program to work at a cash only, red sauce, neighborhood spot with more regulars than restaurants should have (and I’m still there after five years!). A lot has happened since I wrote those papers and its probably time for some idea updates or maybe just some quality wandering.

The two things I think we all should be chasing in the culinary arts these days could be called maximum rhetoric and improvements to contrast detection. To play in this fertile territory means we have to figure out a couple things. Firstly, for rhetoric, we have to grapple with what art does so we can make it do more and then even hit well articulated targets. This will keep us from being ten thousand monkeys banging randomly to come up with Shakespeare which is a very inefficient business.

Secondly, for contrast detection, which is telling what from what, we really have to grapple with our language/non-language. Contrast detection is far bigger territory than you’d think. It involves analytically deconstructing the multi sensory perception of flavor and putting its facets into categories. It also involves categorizing the symbols that get attached to sensory values so we can see how they exert pressure on each other (the source of our rhetoric!). If you want to work on contrast detection, places to start are the categorization of aromas (to find patterns!) or mapping the path by which we acquire acquired-tastes which it turns out are crucial to sustainability and personal health. For example, fully exploring the path by which some people start to enjoy black coffee could be worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the national health care budget if we could get more people to go black. If we better understood the nitty-gritty etymology of every possible tasting term we might be able to create a successful wine recommendation engine which can respect wine diversity and scale to very polarized tastes (this is what I’m working on using some new post-language hyper text ideas).

Rhetoric is all about persuasion, which in the culinary arts regards persuasion to follow the path to a problem’s solution. This isn’t readily apparent because, in culinary, we are typically dealing with the smallest problems a work of art can solve. I don’t think in the history of art criticism anyone has ever said: what are the smallest problems a work of art can solve? A lot of great art critics like Leo Steinberg or Dave Hickey have danced with the art equals problem solving idea, but their versions could never scale to the smallest problems and that weakened them. When you can categorize the small stuff, you can capture the decorative, indispensable works of art that confuse everybody. This all leads into one of my favorite ideas, that all art is a form of problem solving, and the smallest persistent problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories.

The better we can articulate, contextualize, and categorize our own work, the more likely we will be able to pick a problem and work backwards from it to a solution like media theorist Marshal Mcluhan said would be possible in the future (with enough literacy or as Mcluhan would say, fragmentation). Its all about calling your shot as well as ennobling the smallest problems. The best (what an inarticulate term!) restaurant in a region might not be a hushed place where you have 30 courses of foraged sushi with sauce that you have trouble remembering, but rather a tightly packed red sauce joint where everybody manages to have a good time and remembers their meal forever. Remembering your life is particularly important so if as an artist you can cement a pretty large memory for somebody, that is pretty much as good as it gets. Fancy restaurants at the top of the dining food chain just don’t do it as well as they think. Maybe you’ve have heard that dreaded one word summation of a restaurant experience before? Forgettable.

We can call our shot and articulate all sorts of other small stuff as well. To illustrate with cocktails, I can make your daiquiri a little more tart and teach you how the highly attentional nature of it helps get the work day anxieties out of your head. You will stop reciting ways you are going to tell your boss off in your own head and start chatting with the stranger beside you. We can go back to the complacency problem, and I know daiquiris might be getting played out, but have you had one made from Cape Verdean rum? I can make you something like a daiquiri with Dominican Mamajuana, and you can tell me you’re surprised I know what it is because you haven’t seen it since you went on vacation there fifteen years ago. I get a lot of that last phenomenon, but only from the odd underdog products I make a market for and not the mass market stuff most bar tenders hock to win a contest or to get their kickback trips to TOTC.

We can change it up a bit and I can simply serve you a cocktail you can afford like a batched old fashioned made with an modest & affordable Bourbon or a cocktail on tap because I need that technique to keep the party moving since its so busy and I’m working by myself. Whats possible is, though you’re young and poor, with affordable drinks you’ll be able to go out more often and rub elbows, and because I can serve more people with my batchzilla techniques, you are more likely to meet your soul mate or your next business partner who you are more likely to be able to buy a round for. The average person cannot make the investment and buy a round of $13 cocktails, even if the gesture is the door to the best version of the rest of their life.

Its better to have a notch in your belt for introducing someone to their soul mate than for a nod in a PR about a forgettable new mass market premium product. These notches can probably be looked at with a different metaphor. I can work at a turn & burn where my small problem solutions amass in a large pile of pebbles or I can work at an upper echelon place and share some new details on measuring carbonation with a kitchen scale that only applies to a few people at the moment, which is just one single big rock. Many small solutions or one big one, but they can end up weighing the same. Unfortunately, these days it feels like you will only be called the best if you solve the big problem, but we need to refocus our pursuits and start glorifying those that constantly amass large fading piles of pebbles.

Another way to analyze the difference here is that one set of solutions is very much ephemeral (dust in the wind!) while the other is a big solid precedent, it even made it into a book (though unattributed!). The ephemeral arts are wild territory and not a lot of thought has been applied to them. Just think about it, people can line up in front of one painting and endless amounts can view the work at near negligible cost, but a culinary creation has to be recreated every time and at considerable costs, and in candle lit context after a long work day. Culinary players trying to get immortalized in books get swept up in the ephemeral wave all the time. Beware being ahead of your time.

I made the first house produced vermouths in an contemporary culinary bar program, and actually served them at the James Beard house before any other bars tried their hand, but sadly to a bunch of people that couldn’t contextualize what they were consuming nor even remember it now. My vermouths were also arguably more extraordinary than any of the hundred that came after. But, we drank them all, and nothing is left but some message board time stamps (you all missed my sforzato chinato). Ask around and most people will attribute the trend to someone else, no big deal because I got a lot of small notches in my belt. I got so many five dollars tips making Manhattans for mid western business men who finally met someone else that loved the drink as much as them. I boldly suspect, the ridiculous gratuities for a single drink were because my rhetoric was so powerful; five dollar solutions when the industry average is only a dollar.

That modern era of rediscovery and innovation is sadly over as evidenced by the fall in tips. You used to also get five dollars all the time simply for stirring a drink or stocking rye, now the gestures are post modern and you get pretty much no special notches. One of the deepest notches I ever got back in the day was when I served a ratafia of pomegranate seeds to some Louisiana oil men as a gratis. These guys weren’t particularly into culinary, just business guys anyone would write off as lame, but then 20 minutes later their ring leader released his Louisiana drawl on me and said: “What you’ve done here son, we call Lagniappe, and it’s terrific. Do you know what that means?” Me : “No, sir.” Him: “Something extra.”

One of the great restaurants, that I had eaten at a few times, that seemed really aware (most positive sense of the word) of all the subtle, wonderful things it was doing was the M. Wells Diner in Long Island City. All these subversive little things were happening. I was watching ordinary people think they’ve stumbled into a common diner and get blown away by some spectacular food at the normal prices these stumblers were expecting to find. No monkeys hoping for Shakespeare there, someone was calling their shot and hitting the mark. It was maximum rhetoric and quite memorable. Every time I see a French Picpoul, I immediately think of lunch at the M. Wells.

To see problems, especially the smallest ones, and then solutions is about fragmentation which is about categories, which in turn will require an obsession with language. That is where we go next. The monkeys that make up the culinary world have typed up some Shakespeare, but now the challenge is to contextualize it and wrap language around it. The next leg up in the culinary arts will require new language.

My writing on sensations over the years has included some new language where aromas are described possibly as olfactory-sweet or as olfactory-umami. Olfaction can be categorized in terms of gustation and the technique is justified through non-linguistic contrast detection (that some mistake for synaesthesia) which is induced by accumulated co-experience. Non-linguistic thought can be used to investigate the origins of tasting notes like angular, acrid, and provide new insights into minerality.

New language, which is essentially new categories, has helped see big successes like noticing, in the wild, near all the aroma illusions proposed by RJ Stevenson. They also helped pen probably the leading articulation of wine & food interaction which was heavily inspired by Gordon Shepherd’s Neurogastronomy. Language developed for creative linkage, helped identify all creative linkage in the culinary arts as a form of supernormal stimulus and possibly explained a network flavor pairing mystery published in Nature.

Scrutiny of language has led to an exploration of semiology where sensory values and symbols can be separated and their relationships explored. Each of these categories has its own harmony and disharmony and each influences the other which is a mechanism by which we acquire acquired tastes. Acquired tastes, which I mentioned earlier, are of staggering importance, but which few seem to realize.

Semiology even opens up into phenomenology and we each will have a stance on a dish or a drink. Stance is the baggage you bring to an experience, be it history, literacy, stress levels, or personal nutritional reward requirements and these all can be categorized so they can be targeted for manipulation. An understanding of stance can help us with the Other Criteria idea of judging experiences as well. We judge experiences differently when we are starving or stuffed or stressed or when our mom made the definitive version of it. We can call features flaws when our unique stance allows us to see them as regrets and missed opportunities, but remember, when you have no special stance, they are not yet flaws. Cocktails are certainly not one size fits all, and balance, a term I abhor, if it must be used, is only relative to stance.

Nutritional reward or nutritional preference as it can be called in relation to wine pairings is an interesting idea to explore and might even prove an explanation to the philosophical problem of the inverted spectrum. We think we can have no idea what goes on in the minds of others and our red is their blue and our sweet is their bitter, but sweet and bitter are sensations anchored with nutritional reward and that makes sure that we all have enough commonality of experience to sit at the table together. There certainly is subjectivity, and investigating aroma illusions that arise in the construction of reality when incoming sensations are completed by our personal catalog of recollections, is another way to explore the bounds.

Reward systems and nutritional preference might lead some people to think we are hardwired for certain aspects of flavor perception, but we likely are not as explored in Richard Nisbett’s Geography of Thought. Some of my previous ideas, like the order of operations of multi sensory flavor perception, to be universal, were dependent on hard wiring. Ideas I had used to create or explain aroma driven cocktails like, the simplified gustation model, where a path is flattened to perceiving aroma (best exemplified in port) might not be as universal as I thought, and as someone develops intense experience with flavor, they can warp their attentional spotlight to focusing on whatever they choose. There might prove to be a starting point to the order operations of perception that can be described, but then we are probably capable of diverging from it.

With experience, the acidity of very dry wines can be overlooked to get a better glimpse of the aroma. This idea should make people optimistic and hopefully they will invest in developing the skill, but it also means we have to be aware of this journey and the changing of our stance. Terroirists & wine adventure advocates too often downplay the acquired taste nature of interesting wines and forget all the baggage & skills needed to be fully seduced by those experiences. To be a true steward of wine, the concept of stance must be integrated into recommending wine and helping people on their wine appreciation/therapy journey.

To get back to rhetoric, one of the greatest things a steward of wine can hope for is to help someone select a wine that will deeply cement the memory of their evening. During an explosion of wine literature, this seems to have been somewhat forgotten after it was most articulately proposed by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher in the Wall Street Journal’s Guide to Wine. The flip side of cementing a memory is using wine to retrieve one which was also a big theme of Gaiter & Brecher’s writing. What wine should I bring home this evening? How about one that will remind me and my company about another time we spent together so many years ago. Nothing here is exactly novel, but it does seem to be out of the current discussion.

The somms out there, too often ten thousand monkeys, only seem to aim for your new memories, and too often leave you in the dust for retrieving anything with their wine. Instead of playing musical chairs with the wine list I have now, I try and emphasize that this is our 12th vintage of this wine for us. When I thought regulars were just being complacent by ordering the same bottle over the years, in many cases these astute diners might have been seeking to pick up where they left of with a cherished memory. Without categories or problem solving, I probably would have overlooked that my entire life.

So here is plenty of new ideas, plenty to complain about, and I’m sure plenty I must have left out.

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