The Parkerization of Comestibles
“If it’s not the best, it’s not worth eating!”
The omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Robert Parker inherited from his father the ability to smell garlic breath from across the room. This preternatural sensitivity was the talent on which he built a career as the world’s most influential wine taster. If he had chosen to evaluate hot dogs, his reputation would not have extended beyond the backcountry of northern Maryland where he grew up and where he still lives. Instead, he wisely chose to apply his talent to a prestigious product whose manufacture might cost, at the very most, thirty dollars a bottle, but to which snobbery and scarcity could add a zero or two. With the ability to create or dissipate fortunes, he became as puissant as a Christie’s art maven with x-ray vision.
Taste in foodstuffs, as with wine, is a class indicator, and so Parker-style numerical ratings are increasingly applied to a whole range of comestibles. For a recent Guardian food feature, Rose Gray and a team from the River Café set out to evaluate a range of ten extra virgin olive oils, ranging from upper supermarket to expensive proprietary labels. None were single estate. Seven of them were rated only between one and five out of ten; the other three were rated six or seven. Even their own River Café oil merited only a six, with comments such as “old and “bitter”. The highest, sourced by Jamie Oliver and selling for a breath-taking thirty quid a litre, rated a seven, though with dismissive comments such as “vegetabley” and “bitter”. It made Rose Gray think of petrol—which, considering that its name was Petrolo, was not wholly inappropriate.
Once the product has been certified, it may safely be sold to the ignorant at any price, no matter what abuse it has suffered. A friend tells me of her fashionable corner deli, where the only olive oil on offer was an expensive organic variety of which they were so proud that they had put their stock in the window. It’s the same hubris that led an American zillionaire to pay a six figure sum for a 1787 Château Lafitte from the cellars of Thomas Jefferson and display it in a spotlit cabinet. When the cork inevitably dropped into the bottle, it became the world’s most expensive vinegar.
Even dearer, in fact, than a twenty-five-year-old bottle of aceto extravecchio balsamico tradizionale di modena. Balsamic vinegar that is not labelled tradizionale takes a critical bashing: we are regularly told that there is nothing worth buying for any purpose at less than forty pounds a small bottle. The alchemically complex process of its manufacture was originally motivated by belief in its efficacy as a universal cure-all. If it took so long to blend and cost such an astronomical amount, then it had to be—well, balsamic. A gourmet delicacy? That would come later.
Why must our daily foods, as opposed to our special treats, be subject to such Olympian standards? I may be lacking in discrimination, but I rarely encounter a reasonably fresh olive oil that I find less than palatable, at least for cooking. As for balsamic vinegar, my everyday choice is bulk-bottled for Aspel and costs less than six pounds a litre. It’s organic, it's not overly strong, sweet or acidic and I can afford to slather it on like ketchup. It must indeed be a balsam—at seventy-five I’m enjoying rude health!
The motives for raising our standards ever higher are more economic than aesthetic. The purpose of large scale comparative tastings is selective promotion, not publicly exposing inferior products. Such events could be doubly useful by winnowing out the chaff, but the most useful information is privy to the judges. There are many terrible “gourmet” foods on the market, and it would be salutary to have a black list of the dismal failures that drop off the bottom of the score sheet, together with the gory details. Alas, such revelations are forbidden—faced with such a threat, what producer would risk shameful exposure?
A list of recommendations is useful when awards are given non-competitively according to intrinsic merit, but that's not enough: in order to stimulate the publicity required to make such an event economically viable, there must be Grand Champions, and these can only be arrived at by the dubious exercise of grading, say, an excellent cheese against a first-rate ham.
With food, as with wine, we are at the mercy of the experts. They are expected to eat better than us, in every sense, and they have the vocabulary to demonstrate that we ordinary consumers are like blind men in an art gallery. The more contempuous they are of the many, the more reliable must be their praise of the few. Some of the anointed are indeed supertasters. Parker explains in a matter-of-fact way that he remembers every wine he has tasted over the past three decades and, within a few points, the scores he has given them. That amounts to several hundred thousand relevant memories, which apparently he can summon up at will.
Such a heavy double burden of supersensitivity and total recall could lead to a miserable old age. Jorge Luis Borges writes in Funes the Memorious of a similarly gifted man who spends his final days in bed in a darkened room so as not to burden himself with still more never-to-be unloaded sensory perceptions. “I have more recollections in my solitary brain than all men together since the world began,” he declares. “My memory is a rubbish tip in which nothing decomposes.”
Why must mere mortals allow their diets to be determined by those with superhuman sensitivity? If you can't taste a truffle, you needn’t be ashamed—according to Peter Barham (The Science of Cooking) , about 40% of men and 25% of women can't smell them at all, and that's where the “taste” comes from. It’s not a matter of obligation, or even of self-improvement. Let your culinary preferences be governed by your health, your taste and your wallet.
The subliminal purpose behind large scale competitive tastings and their promotion is to make us dissatisfied with what we eat and persuade us to trade up to something more profitable. In the gourmet press, the editors must demonstrate to their advertisers that the reader is being softened up for the sales pitch. We have no defense but to take the spirit of Slow Food into our own lives: let us become artisanal eaters! Like peasants throughout history, we should make the most of what is available to us at a price we can afford. French peasants ate chestnuts in the winter, and Italians polenta, not because such humble fare had been blessed by gastrocrats, but because that was what they had. Accepting the inevitable, they set out to optimize it.
Unless it is our job to search out the finest foods, we may have neither the time nor the money to climb very high up the gastronomic ladder. But enjoying our daily food does not require constant variety and huge expense, only a modicum of care and attention. As for the complex numerical rating of comestibles, it is as preposterous as keeping a score card on your wife or your lover. Neither feasting nor fornicating occurs in a vaccuum—context is all. The idea that pleasure of any sort can be graded with scientific precision is absurd.
Both gastrotours and honeymoons are meant to create an ambience in which pleasure is heightened by unfamiliarity and expectation. The salami or the wine that you take home with you rarely tastes as ambrosial as it did under a grape arbor on a starry night, and the divorce courts are full of couples who demanded that the honeymoon should last forever.
There are writers that we keep returning to for the vicarious pleasure they give us in their evocation of foods we may never experience, but there are others (and they are highly paid by the gourmet industry) that dare to tell us that we don't know how to eat. Culinary exploration should be led by curiosity, not authority. What's the point of learning to be dissatisfied with the simple foods that you find readily accessible and affordable? Consume what genuinely delights you, for as long as your health permits—sufficient unto the day is the pleasure thereof.
©2006 John Whiting
POST SCRIPT If this little essay reveals a change in tone, it is because I find it increasingly difficult to write about food and drink as though they were the most important things in the world. Every enthusiastic plug for some new delicacy seems like a wilful denial of imminent crisis. If you follow current events (particularly in those sources not dedicated to the preservation of the status quo), and if you understand something of the history of civilizations as outlined in Ronald Wright's A Brief History of Progress, then you are liable to be haunted by a premonition that the fragile framework that has made life pleasurable for a tiny minority of late 20th century humans is about to be smashed to smithereens by their blind optimism and unbridled greed. Agriculture could turn out to be one of nature's less successful experiments. Applications are being taken from prospective members of the burgeoning Cassandra Club.