A picture won’t always last longer

I took this label photo at a wine show because Cy and I have a cat named Grendel.  I don't remember anything about the wine, though.

I took this label photo at a wine show because Cy and I have a cat named Grendel. I don’t remember anything about the wine, though.

In talking with wine-loving friends over the past few months, I’ve noticed one topic that comes up: how they’re not using wine apps anymore. Maybe apps that help them keep track of their own wine inventories, but not the ones that record new things they’re drinking. The apps get downloaded and used for a while in a rush of enthusiasm, and then forgotten until it’s time to free up memory on their phones.

I think I’ve figured out why.  Most of these apps are photo-based. And, as I’ve now heard discussed twice in the past month, photos aren’t a good way of remembering experiences that have many more components than the visual, particularly taste.

A few days ago, I listened to a podcast from America’s Test Kitchen that was originally broadcast in spring 2014 (atkradio.com, show 310). Many of the shows feature a segment I’ve come to call the Curmudgeon Corner, in which host Christopher Kimball talks with New Yorker contributor Adam Gopnik about some food thing that’s on Gopnik’s mind. (I predict that Adam Gopnik will one day take up Andy Rooney’s mantle on 60 Minutes, and Christopher Kimball is cranky about most things — or at least he allows himself to be portrayed that way.) Gopnik started this particular conversation by noting that many Paris restaurants had banned taking cell phone pictures of the food, and he was in favor of it.

I enjoy Adam Gopnik's New Yorker pieces and liked his book.  When he gets on the radio with Christopher Kimball, though, there's a lot o kvetching.

I enjoy Adam Gopnik’s New Yorker pieces and liked his book. When he gets on the radio with Christopher Kimball, though, there’s a lot of kvetching.

Kimball agreed, saying that while he had once done that (and used an app for it), he stopped for two reasons. First, he was there to enjoy the meal, not to photograph it; and second, because he never looked at the photos again. Gopnik then opined that in his experience, photographing food actually banished the memory of the meal rather than enlarging or fixing it. Instead, it becomes a sort of digital stamp collection, rather than a collection of sensual experiences.

Interesting, although perhaps not definitive, since these two never met anything they couldn’t criticize. But the show reminded me of something I’d listened to last month, an interview Fresh Air’s host Terry Gross did with photographer Sally Mann. Mann’s photo works include many collections that use her family as subjects. In her recently-published book, Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs, Mann expressed an idea similar to Gopnik’s:

Terry Gross: Many of the photos in this book are of your family. And you write that photos don’t preserve our past as much as they supplant and corrupt the past, all the while creating their own memories. And I think I know what you mean, in the sense that a lot of my memories of my parents, who died several years ago — a lot of my most vivid memories of how they look come from the photos that I’ve seen over and over again from different stages of their life…Is that what you mean?

Sally Mann: That is what I mean. I think that using photographs as an instrument of memory is probably a mistake because I think that photographs actually sort of impoverish your memory — in certain ways, sort of take away all the other senses, the sense of smell and taste and texture.

Mann went on to differentiate between the artistic photos she published and the everyday photos she took. Even though her family figured in both categories, her art pieces were concept-based and her family’s appearance in them served a particular concept, which figured prominently in her memory and engaged those other senses.

This in turn also reminded me of a talk by sommelier Tim Gaiser that I heard a few years ago. Gaiser was doing research to understand the habits of people who taste wine for a living. One thing he told us was that the “best” tasters — that is, those who could recall the taste of particular wines in a way that allowed them to make comparisons, identify wines by their smell and taste, etc. — create visual images of the aromas and flavors of each wine.  Recalling the visual image allows them to recall the wine’s characteristics more clearly. In a way, these tasters are creating a kind of concept, just like Mann did in her art photographs.

So perhaps photographing a dish you’ve made could bring back memories of making and perhaps even eating the dish, while photographing a dish in a restaurant wouldn’t necessarily bring anything back? (At least not without some sort of notes or plan for using the photograph in a particular manner?) Certainly, if the meal is a once-in-a-lifetime experience like this one at El Bulli, I would think the urge to photograph it would be overwhelming. Especially since the visual aspect of the meal was so important. But clearly, the blogger Adam Roberts also took copious notes to go with his photographs. (I’m not sure how much that whole process would have detracted from the meal for me, to tell you the truth, but this was clearly an event.)

Of course, the wine apps allow you to write notes that might help you recall the wine more clearly. In my experience, though, that doesn’t happen if they don’t get put in right away or soon afterward. Then you’re left with a bunch of photographs — plus any information that the app has gleaned via the internet from the label image — but without something that’s passed through your brain to attach to it.

Some of this may be my age. People who went to college with smartphones and who came of age taking lots of photos of everything may have a different relationship to photos and linking them to memory than I do. But most of the people I spoke with about wine apps are folks who grew up taking written notes to remember and study things. The act of information passing through my body and out onto the page (or the computer screen) more firmly implants it in my memory. And also makes the information easier to recall when I read what I’ve written. I have some random wine label photos that don’t ring a bell. But if it’s a photo of the label of a wine I’ve taken written notes on, the photo does bring up some other memories of the wine.

Obviously, I don’t know everything about every app out there, and I’ll keep trying them as people recommend them to me. But I’ll stop hoping that they’ll replace my wine notebooks, at least for now.


Last weekend, Cy and I had friends over to taste some wine samples we’d received. I thought we’d be drinking Spanish wines so we planned to make some Spanish food to go with them. Lo and behold, though, I mixed up the boxes and we had South African wines instead (although not the DeGrendel wine in the photo above). But we’d set the menu and bought the ingredients, so we had a multicultural experience.

My version of Claudia Roden's tuna pie.  Less crust, zestier filling.

My version of Claudia Roden’s tuna pie. Less crust, zestier filling.

The main dish of the meal was a tuna pie with a crust made from empanada dough. Empanada dough is often made with oil instead of butter or shortening, and you don’t have to chill it before shaping it (although it does need to rest for an hour after mixing). The recipe came from Claudia Roden’s book The Foods of Spain, and it was tasty. Of course, it didn’t work exactly as Roden described, so I’ve made some changes to the crust. And also the filling ingredients, since I thought it needed a little more zip, particularly if you eat it at room temperature. So I’ve swapped in green olives for the Kalamata olives Roden recommends, and added some lemon zest and a little bit of red pepper flakes.

You’ll need tuna packed in olive oil, between 14 and 16 ounces when it’s drained. Tuna packed in water has a drier texture, so don’t be tempted to use it. And I don’t think fresh tuna would have as much flavor. If you have some, then you could try it, but I wouldn’t go out and buy it to use in the pie. Many supermarkets are now carrying Cento brand, it’s 5 ounces per can so 3 cans work in the recipe.

There’s a lot of flavor here, so it will stand up to red wine. I’d stick with the Spanish theme and serve Bodega Hiriart Roble ($14). It’s 100% Tempranillo, aged six months in oak. Lots of fruit, some spice, and little bit of oak and some astringency that gets you through all that flavor in the pie. And yes, I took a photo of it for you — after all, I had to, right?



Tuna Pie with Empanada Crust

Serves 6 to 8


1 large egg

1/3 cup dry white wine

1/3 cup olive oil

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1/4 teaspoon salt

1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, perhaps a little more

Crack the egg into a large bowl and beat in the wine, oil, baking soda, and salt with a fork. Use the fork to mix in 1-1/2 cups plus 2 tablespoons of flour, switching to using your hands to get it all mixed. It should be soft but not sticky. Add up to 2 more tablespoons of flour if you need to. Wrap the ball of dough in plastic wrap and let it sit for an hour.

Make the filling while the dough is resting.


14 to 16 ounces tuna packed in olive oil, drained and flaked into small pieces

1 large onion, minced

1 large red bell pepper, seeded and minced

1 14 to 15 ounce can diced tomatoes

1/2 teaspoon sugar

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Grated zest of one lemon

24 large pitted green olives (like Manzanillas), chopped

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

Heat the oil in a large skillet. Add the onion and red bell pepper and cook until everything is soft and just starting to brown, about 10 minutes. Stir in the red pepper flakes and cook for a minute. Then add the tomatoes and the sugar. Cook for about 15 minutes, until all the juice from the tomatoes has evaporated. Turn off the heat, and stir in the tuna, lemon zest, olives, and hard-boiled eggs. Set aside.


A 9-inch deep-dish pie plate, or a 9-inch springform pan, lightly greased with vegetable spray

To assemble: 1 egg, separated. Beat the white with a fork until it’s frothy, and beat the yolk separately with a teaspoon of water.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. If you’re using the deep-dish pie plate, cut off about 1/3 of the dough (keep the rest in the plastic). Roll out the dough into a circle a little bigger than the bottom of the pie dish. Roll it out right on the counter without any flour, and let it sit on the counter after rolling for a couple of minutes. Then gently roll the dough onto the rolling pin and carefully unroll it into the bottom of the pie dish. Lightly press the dough onto the bottom of the dish and a little up the sides. Brush the crust with the beaten egg white and bake for 10 minutes. Take the crust out and let it cool for about 15 minutes.

(If you’re using the springform pan, do exactly the same thing, except use slightly more than half the dough for the bottom.)

Gently spoon the filling over the bottom crust, mounding it in the center if necessary. Roll out the bottom crust to a circle just a touch larger than 9 inches and, again, let it sit on the counter for a couple of minutes. Roll it onto the rolling pin and then over the filling. Push any excess crust down between the filling and the edge of the dish. Brush with the beaten egg yolk-water mixture.

Bake for 35-45 minutes. The crust should be nicely golden brown. Let it sit for at least a half-hour before serving. It’s good warm and at room temperature. Store leftovers in the fridge.

This entry was posted in Musings/Lectures/Rants, Tom Natan, Uncategorized, Wine apps, wine delivery washington dc and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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