Sunday, March 24, 2013

Food and Sex - Preface

"Pizza is like sex, when it is good, it's really good, and when it's bad... it's still pretty good.”

― Anon.

Although I don't often find myself making conversation with strangers at cocktails parties, it brings me some satisfaction to know that, when required, I can stand and chat pleasantly with almost anyone for a few minutes. My method is simple: ask a question about the other person and they will take charge of the topic. Listen carefully, and in an instant you get a sense of what interests them, how they define themselves, and to what degree they are willing to have a real exchange of ideas and opinions. Even when the stranger seems "chat-friendly," I often choose to act the role of listener, as this requires less of an effort, and leaves the other person with the impression that I find them fascinating.
Occasionally, a conversation calls for just the right "spark" to get everyone engaged. I am always happy to provide the thesis: "Food and Sex are Fundamentally Linked." Two of my favorite topics. I dare say, two of everyone's favorite topics.
I wrote the notes below a few years ago as the preface to a cookbook. It was really more of a guide for young men to teach them basic cooking skills, but it also taught how to use food as a way to learn about a woman's (really any person's) sensibilities, character traits, and passions. Perhaps, if there is enough interest in this post, one day I will return to finish this project. For now I offer only a beginning.
*** Preface ***
Deeply coded in our genetic program - indeed, in the programs of all living things - is the desire to procreate. The best way to assure our own survival and the survival of our species is to leave other organisms of our own kind after us to grow, spread, improve, and have offspring of their own.
Even before Freudian psychology was mainstream, most adult people were, to some degree, personally aware of this deeply rooted need to survive. Early humans spent the greater part of their lives trying simply to stay alive from day to day; and with luck, a few years into adulthood. Survival was the primary motivation for every act. At some point, survival became the catylist for increased cognitive function, inspiring the use of tools and the building of communities. Against the odds humankind, unlike many, many other species, did survive. Yet, despite remarkable improvements in our survival skills, the world has tended toward disorder, and human life has been defined as the struggle to keep things from falling apart. Civilization is the product of the human need to triumph over chaos, by bringing order to our world. History is the story of our attempt to keep our own species from being swept away in the maelstrom of nature.
Because modern humans are a product of millions of years of evolution, shaped by our ability to adapt and progress, evidence of our past nature is present still in our daily lives. In the evolutionary process physical, mental, and behavioral strengths have become manifest which contibute to our ability to carry on. And although sometimes we are reluctant to admit it, the most enduring of our survival skills are also our most ancient: sex.
Sex alone is not enough (now that's a statement with two meanings). We must survive long enough to procreate if we are to survive as a species. We need food to survive. Therefore, sex and food are linked at the most-basic levels of human nature.
Many who read this will stubbornly refuse to admit that humans today are the result of a long process of change governed by random genetic mutation. One does not need to be a Darwin-ist to honestly admit that humans love to eat and have sex. Others will find it difficult to concede that our most-base instincts are as influential on our 'modern' daily actions as are our rational, conscious choices. Self-control is a noble quality that we admire in great leaders, co-workers, and close friends. But I contend it is a very healthy act to acknowlege to one’s self that you like to eat with gusto and make passionate love. The desire to do so is central to your very being. If you can be honest to yourself about this, many (perhaps most) of the other psychological baggage that encumbers your life will fall away.
This book not about sex; it is about food. Along with our essential physical requirements of nutrition and water, humans have developed an elaborate sensory system to guide us as we prepare our food. Culinary science has indirectly codified how humans respond to various smells, tastes, colors, and textures. There is often a ‘meaning behind the meal.’ In its most simple expression, sex is also about the senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch. This is more than coincidence. Rather, it is further evidence that the two instincts of food and sex are rooted very deeply and very closely in our brains; down in the most ancient campus, hardwired directly for sensory input.
This book is also about relationships. By relationship I mean a mutually beneficial union that provides more reward for each party than could be had if they continued to live apart as individuals. Again, it is through millions of years of fitness-filtering that the ideal of two-living-as-one has become the norm. To be clear, marriage is not the goal. Marriage is a religious invention, where as coupling is part of our nature. In truth, there is no goal. The best relationships are dynamic, ever-changing, and always evolving for the betterment of both parties involved.
I am writing from a male perspective; primarily because I see a need today for men to reevaluate how they factor into in the food/sex equation. Our role as ‘provider’ has become distorted by a society that values a person by how much they produce, how much fortune they can accumulate, and how much austentatious wealth they can wave in front of a potential sexual conquest. Nothing against the modern hunter-gatherer, of course, but I think such notions tend to stack the world vertically, in a sort of infinitely layered chaste system. Where does the woman fit in such a world? According to this social strategy, women are little more than trophies by which men measure the size of each other’s... well, checkbook. Just look around. How many beautiful women marry the ideal man and then go on to live unfulfilled lives, tomented by loneliness, seething with resentment, and acting out a shopping list of self-destructive behaviors?
I prefer to view humankind as a web of individuals, men and women, any two of which are capable of reaching out and building a resonant relationship together; either as friends, or lovers. My primary reasoning for such a schema is that the behavior of women is also driven by the food/sex instinct. Our culture's social code has been founded on a matrix of puritanical, Victorian morals, and the tireless efforts of the orthodox church to fight bad behavior with shame and guilt. We have, as a result, grown accustomed to seeing women through a lens that distorts their true nature - hungry. The tired double standard that so differently defines appropriate behavior for men and women is a prejudice no less unfair than to judge a person by their ethnicity or skin color. If we include both sexes in the mix, and require an equal amount of investment from both to grow the new relationship, much good food and great sex will be found in the balance.
You may wonder if I am suggesting that the man do this or that to manipulate a woman. Manipulation is unhealthy in any relationship, and I certainly do not advocate doing anything that will covertly influence an outcome that serves only one partner. However, I will offer advice on how the man can (without the woman always knowing it) keep a relationship on the right track and growing. Also, over the past twenty years there has been an alarming increase in the number of people, mostly young women, who are diagnosted with eating disorders. Mental health professionals agree that these diseases are not about food, but rather, about control. Some women have lost so much of their own identity, or feel themselves so trapped in hopeless circumstances, that they use food and drink, or the self-withholding thereof, in an unconscious, pathological attempt to grab for any thread of selfworth. In a rich and meaningful relationship, both partners feel valued, and find reassurance and comfort in each other.
This book is not about hedonism. It is about the absolutely natural joys of sensuality. For the record, I am not advocating using our best natural instincts as an excuse for wreckless behavior. Remember, life is (at the core) about survival. Thousands of other books can explain better how too much food and/or sex is damaging to the body and mind.
OK. There it is. If enough readers are interested, I propose to write the entire book on-line - in this blog - one chapter at a time. You can be my contibuting editor! Just sign up to "follow."

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Wine Made Simple

“Accept what life offers you
and try to drink from every cup.
All wines should be tasted;
some should only be sipped,
but with others,
drink the whole bottle.”

― Paulo Coelho, Brida

Four years ago, Lori (my wife) and I returned from Italy having experienced our own personal “Renaissance.” Her eye was clearer, her willingness to take risks unreserved, and her aspiration to be a great painter honed razor-sharp. My mind was more-open, my spirit more idealistic, and my palate reawakened to the beauty, simplicity, and essential joy of good food and wine.
Back in 2009 I felt the desire to share with others, via this blog, my reborn world-view. Perhaps, I believed, if others could get a glimpse of life through my eyes they would understand what had changed in me. If they could taste a morsel of goodness in their own life, they would find a renewed sense of happiness, hope, love... and good taste.
It was not in vain, but it was also not the “seed of change” I had imagined. After ten essays I had exactly five comments from readers and five blog followers. Alas, just because I felt like I had something to say did not dispose others to read. Honest discourse, it seems, is not the best way to inspire people these days. Lori has found a way through her paintings. I am still searching.
Then, a few days ago, I had a very short, very polite, exchange of opinions with someone on FaceBook. An author had published a download-able graphic; a guide to pairing wine with food. Dozens of readers had posted comments celebrating the chart as a Grand Unified Theory of wine selection. I was confused, and troubled to think that many people thought of wine as something one should “fit” into a meal like a piece of jigsaw puzzle. For the first time in three years, I had something to write about!
Simplification is not the issue. In fact, much too much over-sophisticated blather makes wine unapproachable for too many. The availability of so many different wines, each with a label hawking its merits, can be overwhelming. It would be a real benefit if there was a rubric one could follow to make a good choice. Not possible; but framing the topic from a fresh point-of-view may help others rediscover the joy that is wine.
The Basics. If you can understand what is written below, you can buy, pair, and drink wine without worry. All of these statements are generalizations, so I will use the words most and some with frequency.
• Most wine is made from grapes. Most of those grapes are varieties of the species Vitis vinifera.
• A wine that is made predominantly from grapes of only one variety is called a “varietal,” such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir. In the New World, most winemakers create varietal wines to show off the quality of the grapes used, and to concentrate flavors that come from the soil, air, and water that nurtured the fruit.
• Other wines are made by combining the juice of different varieties of grapes to create a blended wine. These wines can be designed to impact your taste experience in a specific way. By blending grape varieties, a winemaker can make a wine that effects the drinker with intention, and expresses their own personal sense of “style.” Most European wines are blends. They are often named after the region where tradition has shape the basic blending practice; think Bordeaux or Chianti.
• Red wine is made from grapes with color in their skins. Those skins (and the grape seeds) also contain compounds that are flavorful and/or effect the wine as it is made and aged. Winemakers allow the crushed skins of the grapes to soak in the juice during the wine-making process to transfer those compounds to the liquid. The actual color of a red wine can range from light-pink to almost black.
• White wines are not necessarily made with grapes with less color in their skins, although this is often the case. White wines are more clear because the juice spends little or no time in contact with the broken grape skins during the wine-making process. The actual color of a white wine can range from virtually clear to almost opaque (in many hues).
• From the above descriptions, you can already deduce that most red wines are more complex than white wines (at least until white wine is aged in oak). It is correct to pair less complex wines with foods with subtle flavors.
• Most wine contains sugar, acid, alcohol, and tannin. Tannin is an astringent that reacts with other compounds in grape juice during the wine-making process and as the wine ages. Red wines contain more tannin than white wines.
• It is not helpful to single out each of the four components listed above when tasting wine. It is better to consider how they balance together, or if one aspect is more pronounced than the others.
• More excellent-quality wine grapes are grown today than ever before. Industrial methods have improved the availability of well-made wine to the mass-market. There are also many makers who care little for the quality of their product.
• You can buy many excellent wines at a reasonable price. However, maintaining high standards, even in a wine factory, comes with a cost. Cheap wine is cheap because the maker has not invested in their product. Of course, cost is relative to the economic health of the region where the wine is produced. As an example: in remote western Argentina they can grow excellent fruit and make a truly delicious wine, then ship it to the U.S., and sell it to me for less money than a California maker can make a bottle of undrinkable plunk.
• The best way to learn about wine is to drink it. Wine effects us at a very primitive level (our most-ancient senses of taste, smell, and sight), so the qualities of the wine will register deep inside you. No need to keep elaborate notes. Just trust your own memory.
• When selecting a wine to go with food, add the imagined flavors of the food to the “balance” equation and ask yourself what would make the taste experience more-completely satisfying. For example: if you are serving a rich pot roast with hearty vegetables, a wine with a little brightness (higher acidity, white or red) might help refresh the palate after each bite, keeping the taste buds from tiring out. Sugar robs the mouth of much of its sensitivity (that’s why we serve dessert last). Alcohol helps re-awaken numbed taste buds, so try brandy or whiskey instead of wine with that piece of chocolate cake.
• There is no wrong way to select or pair wine. When you shop for wine, always buy a bottle you have never tried. Maybe you’ll love it... or not. Give any wine/food combination a try, and you will immediately understand why some basic pairing rules have evolved. You will, in the process, develop your own schema.
• Not everyone likes wine. Not every wine drinker likes the same kinds of wine. It is possible to make bad wine. Even good wine can go bad because it is a biological product susceptible to spoilage. Do not drink wine you are not enjoying; whether because it is of poor quality, has gone off, or simply does not bring you pleasure.
• That’s right. Wine should bring pleasure. So ask yourself - Is the color beautiful? Does the combination of flavors contribute to a agreeable aroma and a mouthful of sensation? Do I want another glass, or is this stuff going down the drain?
If you want specific wine advice, please feel free to send me a note. I can only make suggestions based on my own experience, but am willing to point you in some possible “right directions” so you can grow your own wine drinking experience.