Although one of the purposes of this blog is to showcase First Vine, our wine business, we didn’t call the blog First Vine, but named it Vine Art. We liked the name not only because we think there is an art to making wine, but because the appreciation of wine can be very much like the appreciation of art. And since we do a lot of pairing wine with food, we also think that it carries over to appreciation of food as well.
No surprise, then, that an op-ed in last Sunday’s New York Times caught my attention. In “A Matter of Taste?” William Deresiewicz starts off with a nostalgic musing:
“I used to think, back when all the foodie stuff was gathering steam (this would have been around 1994, when everyone was eating arugula and going on about, I don’t know, first-press organic broccoli rabe) that our newfound taste for food would lead, in time, to a taste for art.”
It’s an interesting thought, and as I mentioned, one of the reasons for the name of this blog. As people sensitize themselves to flavors and textures, as well as developing an appreciation for food’s beauty and the (sometimes) intricate processes of creating and transforming it, wouldn’t it follow that they’d also use those senses to examine (and appreciate) art in general? Makes sense to me.
Apparently not to Deresiewicz, at least not anymore. Rather than being a conduit to appreciating art, he claims that food has replaced art. Especially for younger people, and most especially those in or from elite schools, who (he says) used to use their education as a means to better things, but for whom food is now “creativity, commerce, politics, health, almost religion.”
Food “culture” has acquired some of the trappings of art, “its awards, its maestros, its televised performances…its sense of deference toward the European centers and traditions — enriched, at a later stage…by a globally minded eclecticism.” But it’s not art. While it addresses the senses, “it is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it…Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art.”
And what about Europe, which he notes is our inspiration for much of art and food? “[F]ood centers life in France and Italy too, but not to the disadvantage of art, which still occupies the supreme place in both cultures. Here in America, we are in danger of confusing our palates with our souls.”
Reading this sent me straight to Google, thinking the author was someone in his 70s at least, most likely a cardigan-wearing, pipe-smoking academic (possibly a theologian?) who was using this subject as a slightly more up-to-date version of “Get off my lawn!” I was surprised to find that he’s only in his late 40s. As someone who is cranky and cynical myself, I’m envious of just how far he has outpaced me in those qualities despite my being older than he is. Reading randomly from his blog posts makes nearly anyone seem like Pollyanna in comparison. Take, for example, this thought from one of his blog posts for The American Scholar. You can’t help but admire its directness, but I’ll bet he doesn’t get invited to many dinner parties, either.
I love it when people say that they “identify as” something or other. “I identify as a Jew.” “I identify as a Southerner.” Buddy, if it’s a choice, it’s not an identity. Identity is not a suit of clothes you take on and off. It’s a skin; it sticks to you whether you like it or not. It’s what other people call you—people with the same identity, people with different ones—not what you decide to consider yourself. History gives it to you, not some kind of “search.”
Getting back to the food issue, let’s set aside the hyperbole (and the fact that he lives in Portland, OR, where he is no doubt surrounded by a lot of foodies). Deresiewicz’s piece is opinion, but most op-ed writers at least try and give an interpretation of causes and possible solutions along with their diatribes. I’m not sure that either Deresiewicz or I can adequately address the former, but I’m surprised he didn’t even mention an obvious solution — at least it ought to be obvious to a university professor like him. If it’s really an issue of concern, how about actively using food as a conduit to appreciation of what he considers real art instead of just griping that it hasn’t happened organically?
There are a slew of “Literature and Food” courses around, and there could just as easily be ones for music and visual arts. Is it possible that Proust’s obsession with madeleines could be even more alluring to college students who — unlike me when I was their age (and probably Deresiewicz too) — may have actually tasted or made madeleines? What would the villagers celebrating in the scherzo of Beethoven’s “Pastoral” Symphony have been eating and drinking? Or studying Italian still life paintings that are called “natura morta” because they depict once-living things (especially food) at their peak of beauty?
As I said at the beginning of this post, I don’t agree with Deresiewicz. If he had said that because art expresses emotion it evokes a wider range of emotions than food does, and that by missing out on these emotions we were doing ourselves a disservice, I might go along with that. After all, food only prompts despair if it’s badly-prepared or doesn’t taste good, and then only for real drama queens (think Gordon Ramsay, for instance). But endangering our souls? Give me a break.
Reading the Times piece makes me glad Deresiewicz hasn’t turned his pen on us winos. With our food-based vocabulary for describing wine and our insistence on pairing wine and food, we’re like a super-concentrated version of the food-obsessed. If foodies are “confusing [their] palates with [their] souls,” then we winos must be bringing on the apocalypse. Who knew the Mayans were drinking wine when they came up with that whole 2012 thing?
For this week’s recipe, I picked something tasty and beautiful. My blogger friend Emily is in pastry school and wrote a post about making Pithiviers, a French dessert made from puff pastry with an almond filling called Frangiapane. It just happens that I had some all-butter puff pastry in the freezer and was making Frangiapane for a cherry pie (Shirley Corriher’s recipe, which is delicious), so I made twice as much as I needed. In the recipe posted here, I basically took Corriher’s Frangiapane recipe, upped the almonds, upped the butter, and cut back on the sugar. Corriher likes her desserts much sweeter than I do. But she uses roasted, salted almonds out of a jar, and even with more sugar it’s the best Frangiapane I’ve ever tasted.
Although it’s not traditional, I like to put a little apricot jam in the Pithiviers — the acidity of the jam makes the almonds taste better, I think. And while it’s traditional to scallop the edges and score spirals on the top, I think a simple round edge and straight-line scoring will do — it will still be gorgeous, just a little rustic and easier to do as well. Start it the night before you want to make it. Put the puff pastry in the fridge (make sure to use all-butter puff pastry, like Dufour brand, which is available at Whole Foods) and make the Frangiapane, shape it into a disk, then wrap it in plastic and put it in the fridge.
With something this impressive, I’d definitely serve champagne. Try Champagne Bernard Mante Brut Grande Reserve ($38), which has a lovely yeasty flavor. There’s a touch of residual sweetness, too, and it’ll be a perfect way to usher in the end of the world — just make sure you have it before December 22.
1 pound frozen all butter puff pastry (like Dufour brand), defrosted in the refrigerator
1 6-ounce can good quality roasted, salted almonds
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
Pinch of salt
2 large eggs
2 tablespoons flour, plus more for rolling the pastry
2 tablespoons apricot jam
1 teaspoon milk or cream
Crystal sugar for decoration (optional)
Make the Frangiapane: Grind the almonds with the granulated sugar until the almonds are in very small pieces, but not a paste. Add the butter, brown sugar, salt, and one egg, then process until it’s all blended. Sprinkle the 2 tablespoons of flour over the mixture, then pulse a few times to combine. Turn the mixture out onto a large piece of plastic wrap. Shape it into a 6-inch disk. Wrap the disk in the plastic and refrigerate until firm or overnight.
Roll the pastry: Lightly flour a countertop or rolling board or stone. Unfold one of the sheets of pastry and spread a small bit of flour on top. Roll the pastry into a 10-inch square. Brush off the excess flour and set it on a baking sheet that’s covered in parchment paper. Flour the counter again and unfold the other sheet, then lightly flour the top of the sheet. Roll this one bigger, about 11 to 11-1/2 inches on each side — it will be thinner than the first piece. Brush off the excess flour and set it aside.
Assembly: First, preheat the oven to 425 degrees F. Find a bowl with an outside diameter between 9-1/2 and 10 inches (The classic pyrex glass bowl is usually about this size). Set the disk of Frangiapane in the center of the 10-inch pastry square on the baking sheet and spread the apricot jam on it. Lightly brush the pastry around the disk with a little water. Drape the other pastry square over the pastry and Frangiapane so the top sheet is centered and the top and bottom edges pretty much match up. Lightly press the two sheets together with your fingers. Then set the bowl upside-down over the top. Press to seal the edges more, then cut through both layers of pastry with a sharp knife to make the Pithiviers perfectly round. It will look like an alien spaceship. Take the bowl off and cut a 1/2-inch diameter hole in the center of the top.
Beat the remaining egg with the milk or cream, and lightly glaze the whole top surface. Then take a small, sharp knife and score the top with radial lines between the hole in the top and the flat edge. Don’t score beyond where the inside of the rim of the bowl sat on top of the pastry. Sprinkle the top with a little crystal sugar if you’d like. Then refrigerate the whole thing for 15 minutes.
Baking: Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, until the pastry is puffed and brown. It will have a flat top and be considerably taller than you thought it would. Let it cool, then slice with a serrated knife (using a gentle sawing motion rather than pressing down on the knife) and serve.