Friday, April 22, 2016

give me corks or give me death

M F K Fisher was a great observer of the rituals that gather around meals. Here she is about drinking wine in France, which she first encountered in 1929: “Drawing the cork is a great ceremony--waiters cluster around the wine-master, and the man who has ordered it listens anxiously to see if the pop sounds right. Then the cork is waved under his nose, and he sniffs it loudly. Finally the wine is poured, still in the cradle, into his glass, and he sips it slowly and with the most amazing noises. The waiters and the wine-master watch his face to see if he likes it, and finally go away.”
This is funny and ethnographically accurate, for its time.
The funny part, of course, for Americans, is the fuss. At the time, and even now, the middle class American norm is to separate food and drink – which is good or bad, and served in large or small quantities – from how it is delivered. Yet oddly, no people on earth have ever devoted more ingenuity to packaging and photographing food. Incredibly threatening blown up pictures of, say, hamburgers are a standard part of the American visual ecology. I’ve never heard anybody remark on how gross this is, but I assume that my feeling, when confronted with a picture of a sloppy taco that is ten times the size of an actual taco – which is that anorexia is not such a bad option after all – is not uncommon. Americans are bombarded with films of meat frying, of fruit being crunched at orchestral sound levels, and of fizzy drinks being poured, deluge like, over ice cubes like small icebergs, and we shrug it off. But when it comes to the activity of the meal, manners and customs are as rigidly separated from the substances the meal aims at as cookbooks are from etiquette books.
In spite of this, eating is not, I’d contend, a rational, calory maximizing consumer activity that has accidentally spawned a few ignorable spinoff behaviors. To my mind, taste and the pleasures of taste are inseparable from context. By which I mean, corks count.
The cork, as we all know, is being replaced, little by little, by the plastic bottle cap, suitably geeked. And wine geeks are all about this, since, chemically, they assure us that these caps can allow us to assert more control over oxydation and all the chemical processes that go on when the juice from a cask is syphoned into a bottle. I’m confident that this may be true.
I don’t care, though. I like it that a dry cork alerts me, immediately, that the wine is probably suckworthy. But I like even more that the cork, the normal, healthy cork, has to be taken out of the bottle before I can get into it. That friendly cork, that bit of a tree grown, as I vaguely imagine, in Portugal, accompanies the whole wine imbibation. The plastic top does not. The plastic cap is not about trees in the hot Meditteranean sun, but about a factory in East Baton Rouge converting petroleum to the polyurethral products that are inexorably junking up our world.
Taste. Taste is association. This just isn’t some Proust effect. The meals you eat and the people you eat them with wrap themselves around the meals you will eat.
But what can I say? The world goes downhill on all fronts, and I need a sign to hang around my neck so I can parade around 3rd street in Santa Monica, warning of doom.

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