On the Times video about listening to lasagna and experiments in enjoying wine with your ears

The New York Times (sometimes flippant, often chic) “T Magazine” published a short video this past week in which Massimo Bottura makes and eats some lasagna. This is performance art or experiment, not a cooking show. Here’s why:

  • Bottura is the headline chef at Osteria Francescana, recently the first Italian restaurant to top the annual World’s Best list.
  • The “lasagna” comprises a small mound of meaty ragu topped with a puff of artfully piped dairy (some kind of fluffed ricotta cheese?) topped with “pasta crackers” made by pureeing cooked pasta, re-rolling the resulting dough into rectangles, deep-frying and then blow-torching the rectangles. The result does not look like lasagna, and Bottura eats it by picking up and dipping the cracker like a nacho.
  • Bottura and his two assistants prepare one serving of this lasagna in a heavily mic-ed studio. We listen.
  • Bottura feeds the dish to a humanoid robotic head with visible audio pick-ups in the ears by eating a bite next to the head, which hears him. It’s crunchy stuff.

As performance art, I think this is fantastic because it provokes questions about what food is, what we appreciate experiencing about food, and who can experience it:

  • How much of the enjoyment of eating has to do with the flavor of what you put in your mouth? How much has to do with how it looks, or how it sounds? How much has to do with the reactions of the people around you? How much of the experience of food happens as you listen and watch and smell during cooking?
  • Is the robot head hearing or listening? In other words, do those microphones just sit there while Bottura chews, or are the microphones the audience, or is the head “eating?” In the first case, X is acting on his own as an individual and presumably for his own sake (or at someone else’s command). In the second, X is performing, which changes his own experience. In the third, we’re now thinking about eating as something involving multiple senses and multiple people, which means that eating is always a communal activity, which means that sound is part of the experience of eating, which means that you eating changes your environment.
  • What do we pay attention to when we pay attention to food? What happens when you design a dish meant to be listened to?

We could design experiments to ask these kinds of questions about wine, too. We know that part of enjoying sparkling wine is the sound of popping the cork, and there’s plenty to be said in favor of the tenor of good glassware. But I wonder about creating an experiment that asks how enjoying wine could be tied to the richness of the experience of making the wine (maybe even thinking about the experience of the yeast?), and about how enjoying wine can be about someone else enjoying wine.

Here’s the hang-up: to me, the T Magazine piece is a successful, intriguing, worthwhile experiment. To some other people to whom I’ve shown it, it’s not. It’s absurd, it’s wasteful, it’s silly that all of this effort goes into making something that doesn’t look as good as a plate of good old saucy traditional lasagna. It just doesn’t work for them.

Huge swaths of contemporary cuisine are about blending performance art and fine dining to ask these sorts of questions about food and eating. Some folks think that’s brilliant; some call it balderdash.

How would we design an experiment to ask these kinds of questions about experiencing wine? I’ll be thinking about this for the rest of the weekend. Do you have any suggestions?

**The Times carries a companion piece to the video about Jeff Gordinier’s experience eating at Osteria Francescana. The best parts of the article talk about Bottura’s vision for his food as a tool for changing how people think through some kind of edible embodiment of seminal moments in his own experience. I wrote this post after watching the video and before reading the article, so now I can add that the video works for me, too, because it doesn’t depend at all on how I feel about Bottura and his restaurant (that’s a different matter), but uses a short film platform to great effect to ask a different set of questions.

On Palate Press: When Nobels + wine = more than just festive toasts

My latest piece for Palate Press points out that last week’s Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine has a lot more to do with sparkling wine than just being an excuse to raise a few glasses of Champagne. Dr. Ohsumi’s work on autophagy provides a lot of detail about what yeast are doing during that long aging in the bottle, and how a particularly organized form of dying means that they’re doing a lot more than you might imagine.

Find the full piece here.

Wine democracy, part II: Crowd-sourcing

If one way to make wine more democratic is to make wine writing more “accessible,” another is crowd-sourcing, asking “the consumer” what they want and finding ways to make it for them. Washington State’s Columbia Crest billed the “Crowdsourced Cabernet” it released in June of this year as “the first wine to be crowdsourced all the way from the vineyard to the bottle” via community input solicited online and, of course, filtered through one of their staff winemakers. I’ve yet to find one of the resulting 12,000 bottles in Edinburgh and can’t comment on the result, though there’s only so far you can go wrong with a $30 Horse Heaven Hills cabernet.

Taking crowdsourcing in a different direction, Brock University and Ontario Grape and Wine Research announced a new initiative this past summer to increase Ontario red wine sales by monitoring tannins to help winemakers produce the “rich and robust” reds that “the consumer” wants.

I have to put “the consumer” in quotes for the same reason that I, as a responsible scholar of science communication, have to put “the public” in quotes. In both cases, there’s no such thing. There are multiple publics, and multiple consumers, and anyone talking about them in singular form is either imagining a more specific group of people or being horribly vague.

That problem – the problem that “the public” consists of all manner of different people – is at the heart of the problem with crowd-sourcing. Crowd-sourcing calls on averages: the strategy takes a whole bunch of individual views and homogenizes them into a single outcome. Crowd-sourcing makes “the consumer” into a single group that votes to produce a single outcome that is then supposed to make most people happy enough most of the time. Crowd-sourcing imagines that the customer is always right, displaces passion, and erases diversity.

The customer is always right is wrong: That appears to be fairly common business knowledge, at least in the post-Jobsian era in which we’ve all been deeply saturated with i-products we never knew we wanted. Customers don’t always know what they want. For starters, their professional expertise doesn’t lie in arriving at new commercially viable solutions to daily problems. And customers certainly don’t know what manner of new and previously unimagined product they’ll buy when presented with the option to do so. Being asked a question about what you would like is different than being asked whether you do like something actually in a glass in front of you.

Passion is what makes wine: Passion is one of my least favorite words. It crops up on resumes in unlikely places, has been co-opted by business jargon in the service of banal and insulting sales pitches, and is pulled into service as a catch-all for people who haven’t thought deeply enough about what motivates them. Passion is also an enormous part of what makes wine, though I could just as easily call it pigheadedness. One person or a few people in collusion have an idea of something they’d really like to see happen because it would make them happy. They pursue it in the interest of making themselves happy and – lo and behold – other people are made happy by some of the same things, and that kind of satisfaction is contagious. Replace one person’s idiosyncratic passion-driven pipe dream with too much market research and a game of averages and you end up in a world of desk jobs. Most of us did not become interested in wine because we were looking for more desk jobs.

Diversity is a good thing: Consumers want “ripe, rich, rounded red wines?” I’m certain that some of them do. Heck, sometimes I enjoy the robustness of a big Horse Heaven Hills cabernet alongside the great diversity of other red wines I can find in eastern Washington. Crowd-sourcing as a fun marketing tool is one thing for an individual big-brand winery like Columbia Crest. It’s another thing to apply a general idea of what “the consumer” wants as a tool to guide the production of an entire region. Do we really want to encourage wine production to be less diverse, even if doing so increases sales? It’s an open question with many possible answers. But I’m skeptical that anyone, even the large producers making inoffensively homogeneous wine, wins by making wine more the same.

All of that said, I’m skeptical, but not worried. The best thing about the wine community isn’t that it’s democratic so much as that it’s a free state. Wine crowdsourcers can do their thing; plenty of more interesting wine will still be around for those of us who’d rather not follow the crowd.