Go ahead: dine on life

by Jeff Cox, PCC Beer and Wine Merchandiser

This article was originally published in August 2001

Sound Consumer artwork

As we bask in the warmth of these lazy, hazy crazy days of summer, most of us have or are contemplating taking our periodic dose of hard-earned leisure. Meaning that we work our backsides off in order to get far enough ahead at work to keep our ever-present companion, guilt, at arm’s length while we hurry off to force-feed ourselves some whirlwind “down” time. This, of course, is a ritual that many of us will doggedly repeat year after year until we reach our “golden” years and are allowed the luxury of “retiring” to nurse the accrued ailments of a lifetime’s worth of working too hard, too much, too often.

Perhaps this should be the year that you give yourself some real down time. Perhaps this should be the year that you get off the merry-go-round, if only for just long enough to contemplate the ride and decide whether you really want to get back on. It’s been said that life is a banquet. Perhaps this is the year you should seriously consider whether you wish to call for quick take-out, or to truly dine.

“You are what you eat”
The truth of this old maxim becomes all too evident when one simply glances around at our peers. We Americans are bigger, fatter, more prone to heart disease, stroke and hypertension, and generally less fit than our European counterparts — despite the ready availability of the finest health care that money can buy. Why? Isn’t it peculiar that Americans experience robust health as the exception, rather than the rule?

The answer is as ironic as it is obvious. In a world where everything has a price, we’ve purchased our productivity at the expense of our bodies, our spiritual well-being and cultural health. Our machines, with their tremendous potential to ease the labors of simple existence and allow us greater leisure, instead enslave us. Speed is our mantra, as we labor feverishly to achieve greater productivity and race to spend our leisure hours as active members of the consumer economy.

Empty calories, empty minds
One of the principal tragedies resulting from this fast-paced, materially abundant world occurs every day at our tables — or counters or cars. The time when we nourish our bodies, once a time of respite from our travails, has become little more than a need to be met. Meals are now forced re-fueling, a mere episode of consumption. They’re also an opportunity for commerce, to sell us our bread, already broken.

Fast food is one of the most obvious manifestations of our obsession with speed and efficiency. As industrialization has reduced food to simple consumption, so has commercialization reduced taste to a homogenized product targeted at the largest possible demographic.

Not that we never dine out, that we don’t often spend tremendous sums dining in lovely places, or on exquisite food. While fast food is certainly the dominating force in the food market, Americans are no strangers to lavishly laid tables. Yet far too often, dining well simply means spending more and dinner becomes little more than another opportunity for conducting business, or a necessary notch in our cultural belts, as we add the latest “been there, done that” to our consumer resumé.

Since we humans first learned to harness the magic of fermentation, wine has become an integral part of the repast, no matter how humble. Hence, wine is likewise subject to the same homogenization and commercialization as its companion foodstuffs. Just as the independent farmer is being forced out of his life’s profession by corporate agribusiness, so has the American wine industry come to be dominated, not by people with passion in their souls and sweat on their brows, but by marketing departments and bankers.

Sound Consumer artwork

Enjoying wine by the numbers
Wine, like food, is no longer so much about taste as it is about numbers. Pleasure is being reduced to a demographic composite. Even at the great majority of the small, independent wineries who produce the trophy wines that garner huge Wine Spectator scores, and even huger prices, the operative verb is “produce” in much the same sense as hit records or Hollywood films.

With wine, as with any other product or service, the consumer economy doesn’t exist without the consumer. We facilitate this relationship by permitting the commercial wine industry to dictate and quantify for us how we perceive gustatory pleasure. In the early ’80s, such publications as Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate began rating wines on a 100-point scale — a means to quantify subjective impressions of a wine, an immediate success with wine consumers. Unfortunately, those scores are more influential than they’re meant to be.

Eighteenth-century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that the average man is incapable of spending just one hour alone, so afraid is he of contemplating the truly significant questions surrounding his existence. It’s obvious, 300 years later, that western society hasn’t grown any more comfortable sitting still in its own skin. We’ve only succeeded in finding myriad means of running faster, as well as a collection of amusements designed to distract us from those same Big Questions. In fact, we don’t even spend time to find what truly brings us pleasure. Ready-scored stylish wines, having bared their souls in one gustatory sound byte, leave us untroubled by the need to delve into any notion of subtlety.

I’m not suggesting that such flavors are “wrong.” Taste, being suggestive, can’t be reduced to a question of right or wrong. Yet a mass-market approach to flavor is a form of gustatory fascism that coerces us to idealize one set of flavors. We then favor the banal and homogenized, which excludes a rich, nuanced realm of sensations.

Further, by allowing fashion to guide our choices, we wed ourselves even more closely to the ever-accelerating consumer economy. Ultimately, in buying a set of aesthetic values, we abdicate the responsibility of making our own choices and avoid the necessity of forming opinions.

Do what you want
So, what’s the alternative? Do what you want. Slow Food’s essay, “In Praise of Rest,” cites a passage from Gargantua, by the 16th century writer, Rabelais, “It is devoted to the Thélème Abbey and the bizarre order of monks and nuns that lived together in that garden of delight … They got up whenever they wanted, they drank, worked and slept whenever they felt like it … Which meant precisely relaxation and rest, drinking and eating well and eating better in complete freedom and respect for one another. They were inspired by a single motto, ‘Do what you like’; yet they knew no discord or anarchy.”

Even if such a utopian picture seems far-fetched to our practical minds, we can take the first steps toward happier, healthier lives. It begins simply with slowing down. Savor the flavors! Step outside the swiftly flowing mainstream and enjoy the taste of food grown by caring hands, prepared with passion. To accompany your repast, seek out those wines from small producers who grow the grapes from which they craft their wares. Allow yourself the time to experience the flavors of wine that express the notion of terroir, the soul of the earth from which it springs. These are wines that know no formula, save the nurturing ministrations of a winemaker who merely aids it in realizing its unique character.

How can one afford the luxury of time necessary to nurture such a way of living? One scarcely has time to grab the proverbial bite, much less to dine. Once again, slow down, stop and consider. Life is short, a moment’s reflection will show that we can’t afford not to savor it, to live it well, to live it slowly. Remember the words of Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

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