Revisiting the 2003 eGullet Symposium

Recently I came across a staggering body of work I previously wasn’t aware of, even after being a long time eGullet member. The Boston apothecary blog was born out of eGullet as a place for things that didn’t really fit and its even probably safe to say the entire modern bar tending scene is a product of eGullet.

I came across the Symposium Fridge while searching for the essay Wet Dogs and Gushing Oranges by Sean Shesgreen that was referenced in linguist Adrienne Lehrer’s beyond brilliant look at wine tasting language, Wine and Conversation. The essay was republished with the consent of the author who even provided some follow up commentary.

The body of work reminds me of Ruth Teiser’s interviews for the California Oral History Series which I have read a ton of and profiled briefly. Any one wanting to make a career in wine should definitely spend time with them.

Many of the ideas I’ve been grappling with I’ve been finding discussed by probably the most brilliant gathering of minds culinary has ever seen. Grant Achatz, of Alinea fame, even participates in a few of the discussions and of course there is the voice of my favorite thinker of the series, Steven Shaw aka Fat Guy, the creator of eGullet, who tragically recently passed (anyone young in the culinary arts should familiarize themselves with the contributions of Steven Shaw). The symposium shows other great thinkers, I had some familiarity with (Lord Michael Lewis, Janet A. Zimmerman), at their absolute best and I just wish it wasn’t well before my time and I could have participated.

Issues of language, acquired tastes, art theory, and rhetoric were up for discussion and received the brilliant debate that eGullet is famous for. Sadly, its eleven years later and so many of these discussions have been abandoned. There is a new generation interested in the culinary arts and they just aren’t producing thoughtful commentary anywhere as close to what is revealed in the 2003 symposium.

I thought it might be useful to highlight my favorite parts of the symposium and comment here since the forum is closed.

Mind Over Palate A Divergence of Opinions
This discussion covers what I’ve started calling stance and I touched upon in my last essay on rhetoric, problem solving and categories. The discussion starts to bring ideas from phenomenology into the culinary arts and looks at the polarized opinions on very high profile restaurants.

Secrets of the Incredible Shrinking Brigade
This discussion is really interesting and you hear the first murmurs of sous vide cooking. What they are talking about is the shrinking staffs in high end restaurant kitchens which I guess is a result of increases in labor productivity. People had mixed opinions on whether labor saving technologies like temperature controlled cooking methods were positive or negative.

On the bar I’ve done a ton to increase labor productivity in the face of the cocktail renaissance’s challenges. Pretty much all of modern batching is attributed to the bostonapothecary blog and batching represents the most significant trend in the bar world. In the past, some forms of batching were illegal and people had strange notions that liqueurs would separate in the bottle or ratios had to be changed as the batch scaled up. I disproved those ideas and then eventually created the craft cocktail on tap, reflux de-aeration, the champagne bottle carbonated cocktail, and now new ideas for hot drinks. I also have new equipment I’m keeping a secret for the time being.

To bring it back to kitchens, one of the coolest things I’ve been seeing in NYC is people cooking beyond the logistics of their kitchen. Basically, they are putting out the food of a kitchen with twice the square footage and twice the staff in a tiny retrofitted postage stamp. They do this using the best new ideas in organization and logistics and the results are spectacular. This is about to be pushed even further with new tools like the searzall.

A Hierarchy of the Senses or of the Arts?
This post examines the works of two horribly confused people from the fine arts world musing about food and thinking “food cannot express emotion”. The art world here is just so lost and really shows how incomplete their ideas are and how they do not scale. What I have to add is that all art is a form of problem and solving and the smallest problems a work of art can solve are anxiety, complacency, cementing memories, and retrieving memories. Food typically works on these small problems but they are no less important than other larger problems painters try to tackle.

Eleven years later, food is the new painting and people like me work on painterly problems relating to the nitty gritty of perception just like so many mid 20th century painters whose work is fetching big dollars these days. One of the problems is that food is so ephemeral and that once its eaten its gone and that is something touched upon in the discussion.

The best part of the discussion for me came in the beginning from Suvir Saran. Then ballast_regimes comments are a must read. Ultimately, Lord Michael Lewis crushes everything :

“Taking this further, it may be reasonable to claim that food, in the proposed hierarchy, is above Art being, as it is, so worthy of Art’s attention.”

Complexity or clutter in tasting menus
I loved this topic because it got into the territory I’ve been attracted to lately of cementing memories. Clutter and excess can destroy the memory of a meal. Some culinary experiences you can remember forever and others, though delicious, are somehow forgettable. Not much articulate and analytic attention seems to go into cementing memories and I see it as a big area culinary should be focusing on.

Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting
This discussion covers the journal article Delightful, Delicious, Disgusting by Carolyn Korsmeyer. It gets into the territory of acquired tastes but doesn’t get very far. Lord Michael Lewis opens with a question I’ve been tracking for quite some time : “why is there commonality amongst the items that provoke this reaction?” But then commentors start to compare adventurous eating to bungie jumping. LML even mentions hardwiring which today is being disproven by new ideas in neuroscience. The problem with the discussion is it looks at examples that are too nth degree like high meats and not less extreme scenarios like enjoying black coffee or dry wine. I could probably write a book about this.

Achieving balance in a menu
I was attracted to this discussion for the Thomas Keller quote:

For Thomas Keller, the answer is “five to ten small courses, each meant to satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity. I want you to say, ‘God, I wish I had just one more bite of that. ‘The way to keep the experience fresh is not by adding flavors, but rather by focusing more on specific flavors, either by making them more intense than the foods from which they come, or by varying the preparation technique.”

The focusing of flavors Keller describes is the creation of a super normal stimuli. I have theorized before that all creative linkage in food & beverage is a means of creating a super normal stimuli and its something we can study in more depth and possible find more patterns in. I touched upon the patterns in recent post inspired by an amazing book, the Geography of Thought.

Are we likely to go the post-modernist way…
The thing about this discussion is it uses the word post-modern in the opposite way I do. I suspect I’m correct in my word choice, but many in the art world also do not see my logic. Basically, people incorrectly see post-modern as the state of the art, but really modern is at the forefront of creation and newness. Post-modern is when the imitators come around. They could not create the modern patterns themselves when immersed in the broader culture, but they could work with them later on after culture has absorbed the newness. That is why Adria is modern and his imitators are post-modern. The flow of money can also help us differentiate the two. When I used to stir a drink or make a Manhattan with vermouth I made myself, I used to get a $5 tip, but now I only get a dollar. The gesture used to be modern and extraordinary but now its ordinary and less worthy of $5. But stirred drinks are classic so how can they be modern? and some forms of art called modern resemble primitive forms, but yes, a renaissance can be modern and then go post-modern. It all has to do with the ideas relative to the broader culture and then with how they finally get absorbed. As time marches on what retains the desirable stamp of modern is the precedent. An artist’s subsequent works can become post-modern even though they hold the modern precedent. The artist is imitating himself, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it just means the work of art won’t be worth as much money.

Point/counterpoint
This discussion interested me because I just read of the point/counter point musical metaphors at the end of Adrienne Lehrer’s Wine and Conversation. Here the context is different and best exemplified in Jonathan Day’s quote:

I was struck by how rarely menus are constructed around point and counterpoint – alternating warm and cold dishes, for example, or sweet and savoury, or rich and meagre. Why is it not possible to introduce a theme at the outset, then return to it later in the menu? Have members encountered contrapuntal menus? Are there chefs who think explicitly in this manner? Are point and counterpoint impossible in the medium of food?

I think one problem is that one comparison is in space (music) while the other comparison is in time (food) [at least in relation to tasting menu progressions]. My theory of food & wine interaction was called contrast enhancement in space and time which is borrowed from the work of neuroscientist Gordon Shepherd. That being said I don’t have much to add. Fat Guy had the best comment of the bunch. As far as hot & cold dishes go and throwing sweetness into the bunch, I think strong symbolism comes into play of hot and cold which makes it only appropriate in certain contexts. A cold dish is too often a flaw; a regret or missed opportunity. Sweetness also comes with strong nutritional reward phenomenons. Sweetness can change contrast markedly with experiences that come afterward and it might create some sort of palate fatigue where contrast detection abilities decline.

Comparing food, music and other arts
This is a follow up conversation to the previous discussion and relates to a metaphor project I’m working on now to improve wine language. Fat Guy has my favorite comment :

The point I was trying to make — and I was, perversely, trying to make the point metaphorically — was that metaphors don’t work unless we’re all referring to a common pool of experience and understanding. Otherwise we’re speaking different languages.

Some have been skeptical of my metaphor project because how could anything new not be more specialized like music jargon and therefore sacrificing common experience? Well common experience can be gained, especially when introducing a new word, by grounding the metaphors! Don’t let a term exist on its own, ground it in common understanding (through the magic of hypertext!).

Wet dogs and gushing oranges
This was the discussion that led me to the 2003 Symposium. The essay is a lot of fun to read and the comments are even better, particularly that of Fat Guy who refutes some of Sean Shesgreen’s conclusions. What is funny is I’ve never lived in the Gordon Gecko world that Fat Guy describes as contradicting Shesgreen. In my corner of Brookline Village where my clientele hails from the most expensive neighborhoods in the entire country, I’ve only seen it as Shesgreen describes it, but years later, under different presidencies, after recessions and therefore on a completely different time scale, but very much similar.

Developing my new wine language project has coincided with five years of intense conversations with a friend whom is a poetry professor, translator, and national book award winner of his own poetry. He doesn’t believe in wet dogs and gushing oranges. He thinks wine speak is silly. A poet, really? We are due for our next conversation but the last one ended with me liberating David, or so I told him. Aromas are often illusions, I told David. A wine never has enough chemical compounds in common with a cherry to objectively be cherry. Therefore wine speak is not descriptions of the wine, wine speak, I guess counter intuitively, is an exploration of our own recollections. Perception is the meeting point of incoming sensation and out going recollection and thats how the cherry gets there. But then can there be a point in sharing this with the goal of recommending wines? Yes, and finding commonality against the challenges of articulation and specifics of our own experiences is a way that wine brings us together.

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