Are historical arguments about “authentic wine” good for anything? (No.)

My June article for Palate Press aimed to take a sensible look at rationale for allowing sulfur dioxide in “natural wines” when adding anything other than sulfur dioxide is widely accepted as not okay. (The short version: the only logical argument I can see is that sulfur dioxide aims to protect what the wine already has rather than add or change something; otherwise, we’re left with the entirely unsatisfactory argument that SO2 is extremely useful…but so are other additives.) Trying to pin down “natural wine” is trouble, but “authentic wine” is even worse. I’ve been thinking a good deal recently about both.

First, let me be clear: I think that the idea of authentic wine has a lot going for it. It’s intuitive: wine that’s less “messed with” seems as though it should have more soul, be somehow truer and realer than wine pulled and pushed through lots of chemical manipulations. And you can taste it. Revelatory wines — the ones that make you stop to think that wine is capable of more than just yumminess — are usually less manipulated, more authentic.

That said, talking about “authentic wine” as “wine the way it’s always been made” or wine made using traditional methods raises my hackles. “Traditional” is only ever relevant with respect to a specific time frame. I can say that a family cookie recipe is traditional, but at some point a grandmother must have come up with it or cut it out of a magazine, and in any case if we go back very far the grandmothers wouldn’t have had modern baking powder, so are my cookies authentic?

Russian tea cakes are a traditional Christmas favorite in my family, passed down from my mother’s side. What we call a Russian tea cake is similar to the nut balls or Mexican wedding cookies many folk make – a half dome-shaped mouthful of nutty, buttery yumminess dusted in powdered sugar – but no one else’s recipe is quite like ours. Betty Crocker and Smitten Kitchen and a pile of other bakers think they have a Russian tea cake recipe, but they’re wrong. Ours are the best. Unlike most, just a few tablespoons of flour are used to bind the nuts together and the concoction is only very lightly sweet: the flavor of the nuts and the butter is the point. And it is, of course, sacrilegious to make these at any time other than Christmas.

For as long as I can remember (until I moved to New Zealand and couldn’t come home for Christmas), every third week of December my mother and I have whipped up at least one and usually two batches in her 1980’s-era Cuisinart, first processing the whole walnuts (or pecans, for the second batch) into meal, then adding the butter, then the two tablespoons of flour and sugar and the all-important vanilla. But as a girl, the eldest of six children growing up in a tiny square house in semi-rural Ohio, it was my mother’s job to do the whole job by hand. Fail to chop the pecans (because in those days they were always pecans) finely enough and the cookies wouldn’t hold together properly. Naturally, my grandmother didn’t own a Cuisinart: I don’t think they’d been invented yet and, even if they had, I’m sure she wouldn’t have owned one with her tiny kitchen and tight budget.

One year when I was in my early twenties, I decided that I wanted to make a batch of Russian tea cakes for my friends before I flew home to my parents’ house for Christmas. I didn’t and still don’t own a food processor, so I chopped those nuts by hand – and the cookies weren’t as good. Doing it the traditional way made for frustratingly crumbly, uneven cookies. In this case, the machine could do a better job than me and my knife. I’m glad to have done it, for the sake of appreciating how my mother and grandmother operated, but I’ve not attempted it since.

I don’t know where my mother’s mother’s mother got the recipe, or if I need to add more mothers to that litany. I do know that my grandmother always used pecans because my grandfather had friends and family in Louisiana where they could get bountious bag-fulls of the genuine Southern article, and that my mother usually uses walnuts, because my father prefers walnuts and because they moved to California after getting married where walnuts came in bag-fulls and pecans mostly didn’t. I know that the cookies I’ve grown up eating aren’t the same as the ones my grandmother knew, not only because of the Cuisinart but because my rather well-to-do mother has switched to using excellent European butter and mail-order Tahitian vanilla instead of the McCormick’s stuff. My own innovation is to use whole wheat flour—the cookies are ever so slightly crumblier (only a problem sans Cuisinart), but the flavor accentuates the cookies’ nuttiness. Mine are the best.

Are my cookies inauthentic? I’m not sure, because if every woman in her turn tweaked the recipe a little, was there ever any such thing as an authentic Russian tea cake in the first place? Who’s to say? Did the Cuisinart technology corrupt the genuine article? Quite the contrary. No woman and her cleaver are going to be able to chop nuts as finely and evenly as a good food processor and, in this case, uniformity is a good thing.

I won’t make Russian tea cakes without a food processor…well, maybe I might twist my own arm on that one of these years if I continue to live food processor-less. What I definitely won’t do is make Russian tea cakes and add butylated hydroxyanisole to them to “preserve freshness.” Sure, these cookies go stale if you let them sit on a too-warm counter too long because all of those nut oils which you’ve liberally exposed to the oxygen-rich air will oxidize or, in other words, go rancid. (Mother-approved tip: this is why you wait until the first batch is nearly gone before making the second instead of trying to whip everything up in advance.) I won’t not add butylated hydroxyanisole because it isn’t in the traditional recipe. I won’t add it because it’s butylated hydroxyanisole. Ewww. To be perfectly clear here, I’m not cringing because BHA has a polysyllabic chemical name – there; the abbreviation solves that problem – but because it’s a synthetic laboratory product that never occurs in food. It doesn’t help that several lab studies say it causes cancer in rodents, even if those rodents were given far more than two or three mouse-sized cookies’ worth of the stuff. Maybe more relevantly, I wouldn’t add even the best concentrated nut flavoring to “beef up” the nut flavor because I want to taste the real nuts here. It’s important to take care to choose really good, fresh, flavorful nuts for this recipe, and it would be anathema to the spirit of the recipe to make the flavor about some artificially constructed ideal of perfect nuttiness. Moreover, the cookie wouldn’t be as good.

I’ve been talking cookies. What if I instead imagine a traditional family chardonnay recipe? If I’m staying true to the spirit of the recipe – maybe it’s a nutty, buttery little chardonnay – but using better technology because doing so allows me to make a better wine, splendid. Who cares whether it’s “authentic” or not (keeping in mind that we can only define “authentic” with respect to a specific version of the ever-changing recipe to call the wine), if it’s tasty and meaningful? Adding potentially dangerous non-food ingredients isn’t okay because people shouldn’t eat non-foods. Adding (or removing) extra sugar or acid might be a problem if the point of doing so was mimicking some ideal wine at the expense of doing justice to really good grapes. But using contemporary technology (does Cuisinart make winery equipment?) to make the wine taste better, or to make the wine more consistent?

 The College of Humanities at the University of Utah produced a splendid poster featuring what has become one of my favorite maxims: science can tell you how to clone a tyrannosaurus rex; humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea. Maybe authentic wine is made the way wine should be made, in contradistinction to the way wine can be made. Maybe that makes authentic wine a very personal concept, or maybe the well-educated wine philosophers and wine scientists among us can help establish a sense of universal wine ethics for us to live by. But, in any case, those judgements about authenticity have to come from thoughtful reasoning about the difference between what we can do and whether or not it’s a good idea. The historical argument is a lazy oenophile’s shortcut.

About these ads

One thought on “Are historical arguments about “authentic wine” good for anything? (No.)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s