Early Spring Appreciation

In early spring, on the first warm day, it's tempting to want to taste summer. The sun shines longer, we linger as we walk home from the subway or the parking lot, and those who are lucky enough to have a bit of private outdoor space at their homes drag patio furniture to the sunnier side of the yard.

But in the New York area, March through June is one of the toughest times to eat.

Although spring permeates our bones and our taste buds start craving sweet vegetables pulled straight from the garden, we have to bear in mind that it's only the very beginning of the planting season, and local, seasonal produce won't be ready for another two months.

Around this time last year, I signed up for a community-supported agriculture (CSA) share. (CSA shares allow individuals to buy products directly from farmers, usually vegetables, but often other farm goods, too, like fruit, dairy, eggs, honey, and meat.) Although it was March when I enrolled, the first delivery wasn't due until June.

When June came, I was shocked at the grubby little produce. Last year (2009) farmers took a hit all throughout the northeast United States. Cool temperatures, flooded fields, and blight wiped out or stunted tons of crops. Nevertheless, the small amount of produce that was ready to harvest in June shocked me and gave me a new appreciation for people in this region who try to eat a local-seasonal diet.

June brought forth garlic scapes, kale and other bitter greens, bok choi, micro greens, and turnips. It's not until late July that I saw anything more diverse than "green" vegetables, garlic, and onions.

So even though the weather may bat its eyelashes and dangle a few unseasonably warm days before us in March and April, anyone trying to eat seasonally and locally will have to stick with what's in their cellars, cans, and jars for a few more months.

Wine, Cars, Guitars

Car mechanics have long carried the torch for being the biggest jerks to talk down to the people who pay for their services. Having suffered the humiliations of shopping at Guitar Center once, I'll add big-box music salesmen to the mix. And every now and again, I think wine merchants and sommeliers are no better.

Why do they have to be so intimidating? Or, well, I shouldn't speak on behalf of everyone, so I'll rephrase: Why do I feel so belittled when I have to deal with car and car-parts salesmen, Guitar Center employees, and wine merchants and sommeliers?

Whine Guys
I've taken up a new interest in wine, so I recently read Lettie Teague's Educating Peter.

There's a section of the book where she mentions the snobbery of wine merchants and sommeliers, but I don't think she does it justice. Specifically, what Teague doesn't address is:

1) wine snobbery turns away new people from taking up and pursuing an interest in wine (and maybe that's intentional)

2) wine enthusiasts are often just as snooty as the sommeliers and merchants, as evidence in the book by the constant one-upsmanship displayed by Peter and roused by Teague herself.

In other words, what snobbery is really doing is keeping wine elitist and classist.

People have been making and drinking wine for thousands of years. It's just a drink.(For more of my thoughts on this topic see "The Year of the Cucumber Part II: It's Just Food".)

In drafting this blog post, I started to write that wine has historically been just a drink, has been consumed by people, rich and poor alike for thousands of years, when I thought to myself, "Wait a second. I don't know for sure if that's true."

So I checked.

And indeed, it's not.

Wine has historically been associated with the upper class.

The Egyptians generally kept their wine out of the hands of the common people, who drank beer for the most part instead, and in the hands of Pharohs and other upper class people.

Wine has played a significant role in ceremonies and rituals for thousands of years, for not only the ancient Egyptians, but also the Jews and Christians.

In ancient Rome, as in Egypt, "ordinary citizens did not consume wine. It was considered a privilege of the upper classes."

"The best quality wine was reserved for the upper classes of Rome. Below that was posca a mixture of water and sour wine that had not yet turned into vinegar. This wine was less acidic than vinegar and still retained some of the aromas and texture of wine. ... Still lower in quality was lora (modern day piquette) ... Both posca and lora would have been the most commonly available wine for the general Roman populace. These wines also probably would have been mostly red since white wine grapes would have been saved for the use of the upper class" [cited from R. Phillips (2000), A Short History of Wine pg 46–56 Harper Collins, which I've just added to my list of books to read].

This was a whole lot more food for thought than I had bargained for when I started looking into wine and elitism.

As with anything that's subject to personal taste (food, movies, music, fashion...) the people who are intimately involved with it, including connoisseurs, producers, academics, and journalists, deliver mixed messages. It's their job (or pride) to overanalyze and deconstruct the object of their study (or affection). Knowledge and strong opinions are their currency. But at the same time, and this is where the mixed messages come in, their role as knowledge master is to extend something, such as their knowledge or opinion, down to those who know less and haven't yet formed an opinion (or don't care to).

To appeal to this group, they need to empower them on some level. Learning about wine reminds me a lot of the few times I've gone to chocolate tastings and lectures. "Ultimately, it's about what you like!" someone will proclaim (see the attempt at empowerment?), without really meaning it. Moments later, the same person will assert the hallmark qualities that differentiate one inferior thing from a superior one, hence knowledge- and opinion-flexing. On the one hand, they want to validate the common man, but on the other, part of their job as experts is to be critical, to be the discerning party, to spread word to the public in a way that helps the common man make his decision without being an expert himself. "If you like milk chocolate, that's okay!" And later: "You really can't taste the nuances of the cacao in a chocolate unless it's at least 64 percent. And only dark chocolate has health benefits, so, yeah, if you actually do like milk chocolate, you're a dolt."

For wine, they'll say, "Just drink what you like!" unless you like an oaky and buttery Chardonnay, or Yellowtail Shiraz, or wine that's been adulterated with (gasp!) 7-Up.

The double-standard? Sangria! Also known as wine that has been adulterated with oh so much more than soda. What about mimosas, Bellinis, and the other sparkling wine-based cocktails? And what about all Belgian-style truffles, which meld some of the world's best chocolate with a full gamut of flavorings, booze, colorings, cream, and butter!

What I really want to know is when did wine connoisseur-ship become unnecessarily poetic? Why do oenophiles spend so much time naming fruits they smell and taste and describing all the other characteristics, and all the subtleties they observe? More than half the time, it's not to make a sale, or inform the public who have not tasted or smelled the wine. I won't say I've never partaken in this activity, but I do find it narcissistic.

When did that happen? When did wine morph from being the liquid of a ceremonial cup to a monstrous piece of open-mic-night poetry? Or is that just a stereotype—not at all what goes on at the higher reaches of being a wine aficionado (though some of what's in Teague's book suggests that charm-school rules of refinement and decorum dictate behavior).

Exploring the aromas and tastes of wines is its own journey, the way deep reading can be. And the process of making wine still fascinates me in a way that will set me musing about food production, cost of production, and value of consumable things. But I actually want for my level of appreciation in tasting and drinking wine to never swell beyond it being too much more than a simple enjoyment in life.

I do want to try a lot of things in life. I do want to taste enough wine to have educated my palate to the point where I can feel confident selecting a wine to share with friends, or drink with dinner, or enjoy by myself. That's my sincere goal. I want to be able to ask myself what I'm in the mood for, and then be able to answer.

You Don't Need to be an Expert

A professor of technology once said to me, circa 2005, you don't need to know how a car's engine works to drive a car, and you don't need to know how a computer works to use one.

The next time your grandma fusses about how she can't "learn to do the computer," just tell her what my professor told me. (Unless of course she never learned to drive. Then you might be in for some trouble.)

It's critical at this point in our national, international, and societal development, that we extend that metaphor to food shopping, preparation, and consumption.

You don't have to be a nutritionist to realize that a Frappuccio is not coffee, but an ice cream milkshake. You don't have to be a liberal hippie vegetarian to figure out that instant mashed potatoes aren't vegetables. You don't have to be a locavore to decide that imported ingredients should be treated as luxury items, bought and enjoyed rarely rather than frequently.

What you do have to be is educated, willing and able to identify and ignore marketing and advertising practices — and education continues to be the major hurdle in fixing our global food problem. We have a lot of work to do poorer neighborhoods, where people are largely uneducated about these things.

On the other hand, there are plenty of educated people out there who are not thinking, acting, and eating wisely. My guess is they believe — whether they've thought about it consciously or not — is that shopping, preparing, and eating foods that will keep them healthy is too hard, too time-consuming, and outside their reach.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

You don't have to be an expert to know what a vegetable is and is not. You don't have to be a nutritionist to glance at two labels and realize that the container of yogurt you've been feeding your children for breakfast is nearly equivalent, nutritionally, to a half cup of ice cream. You don't have to be a trained chef to put an inch of water in a pan, boil it, and add green beans, which your local grocery store will have already cleaned and sorted by size for even cooking times for you. You don't need two hours, or even 45 minutes, of extra time every night to tear up a head of lettuce (no knife required!), dribble on it vinegar and olive oil, and scramble two eggs.

Fear of Living

What are we so afraid of?
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about, talking about, and asking others about their life dreams. (People who follow me on Faceboook and Twitter will find this topic familiar, as that’s where I ask a lot of my questions.)
  • What’s your dream job?

  • What do you want to do before you die?

  • If you had the ability to hit a “reset” button and change your mind at any time, what would you do?

Surprisingly, and happily so, a number of people have told me that they are already doing some ideal thing with their lives, though most of the time, they tell me they’d like to make a tweak or two, such as earn more money doing it, or quit some other obligation so they have more time to do it.

Asking these kinds of questions of course means I’m thinking about how to answer them myself.

I don’t always try to answer the question directly, but I often end up wondering:

  • Why am I not doing this?

  • Why are some of my friends not pursing their dreams, or even doing anything close to it?

  • When will I stop this half-assed pursuit and go at the thing 100 percent?

  • Why do we hold ourselves back?

Most people probably assume the answers to these questions is fear of failure.

Fear of Failure
Fear of failure is what makes us hold back, and it can manifest as anything from fear of invisibility (“I try, but my ideas or works aren’t acknowledged or accepted, which is failure”) to fear of rejection (“My work or idea is acknowledged, then evaluated, and finally actively rejected, which is failure”).

Then there’s the fear of criticism, which is again a kind of fear of failure and is similar to rejection. It’s the fear that someone will come along and destroy the illusion you’ve been living under, that what you’re doing is good—and not just qualitatively good, but good. What if someone tells you the product you’ve created is harmful, or that the ideas you’re spreading are flawed, or the food you’re feeding people is contributing to a national health problem? What if you are doing others harm and don’t even know it or realize it until someone points it out publicly?

It can also be fear of commitment. I remember being gripped by fear of commitment to my area of study all through college, despite being a gung-ho English major, and for at least the first five years after college, despite getting a job in my field. What if I had studied something else? What if I wanted to work in a different industry? Would I be compromising what I could do later if I committed too seriously and went too far down any one path now? What if I am making sacrifices now to do this thing when a few months or years from now, they will all have been for naught? What if I’m making the wrong choice?

Losing the ability to control one’s life, which is often tied up with money, is another fear that holds us back. I’d say this is particularly true in any culture where success is measured not by happiness, but by money and things we own. Fear of not having enough money is just another way of saying fear of not measuring up to those around you, or fear of public failure, fear of being seen as a failure.

Conservative Lifestyle
Personally speaking, on a grand scale, I am notoriously conservative and risk-averse. I cling wildly to a handful of stable and reliable elements of my life, for example, full-time employment at an established organization.

My career is in publishing, and the majority of the work I’ve done has been in the technology sector, because that’s where the full-time, paying, sustainable jobs have been in the last 10 years. I’m an editor for a couple of print and online publications at a technology-focused membership organization. The kinds of things I read and occasionally write about are fairly dry. I jazz them up if I can, but it’s never a shock to anyone when they learn that my heart isn’t in the subject matter.

Luckily, I’ve found that the communities who read about these topics and contribute to the publications are extremely bright, insightful, and affable, so although I am not invested in the topics, I am invested in the readers.

Still, it’s more than just a job. It’s predictable income, health insurance, a 9-to-5weekday routine, predictable time off allowances and downtime. It’s structure, certainty, and stability.

The Dream of Giving It All Up
I dream all the time about three things:

1) giving up editing to write full time,

2) remaining a full-time editor (I do love being an editor) but refusing to take any position unless it covers food, wine, and dining

3) owning a food business.

To go for that lifestyle, though, I would have to take a number of risks. I would have to temporarily give up all those security nets that come with the full-time job I have now. And if I didn’t succeed, then I wouldn’t be giving up those things temporarily, but permanently—and then, I worry, wouldn’t it be even more difficult to go back into another full-time editing position, with a two-year stretch of unsuccessful self-employment on my resume?

The thought of it sends me into a panic. My fear of not having security is what keeps me from giving it my all.

That’s not to say I do nothing. For one, I keep this blog. I started it as a means to practice writing about food more regularly. Second, I have worked as a food editor, though in a capacity and work environment that was to me unacceptable and unsustainable. In other words, I am experienced; but when I had to change jobs, I valued having a full-time job and all the security that comes with it as a higher priority than having a food-related one. Third, I write freelance about food when I can. But it’s tough to cultivate writing assignments, see them through, and watch your own bookkeeping, while staying focused on a 40-hour-per-week job.

Identifying What You Want To Do
My mom and I were talking about these big questions not long ago, the “What do you want to do” questions, and she said that now that her children are grown, she feels like she can do whatever she wants; “But I don’t know what I want!” she said. “I can do anything in the world, and I don’t know what to do!”

Her youngest daughter, my sister, asked my mom about the path she took after she graduated from Ithaca College in the 1970s. My mom said she drove to Eugene, Oregon, because she thought she was going to study park design and planning at the university there. Then, when she drove back to the east coast, she stopped in State College, Pennsylvania, met my father, and the next thing she knew, she was married and had three kids. “I kind of thought that I was putting that other part of my life on hold. But now that the kids and marriage part is over, I feel like I could pick up where I left off.”

And yet, she doesn’t know what she wants to do.

On Starting
The hardest part of any long-term plan is starting it. As much as technology and this interconnected world we live in enables us to do at any moment, I see it as tending to steer us toward the short-term achievables. Why write a conscientiously thought-out book when you can cobble together a blog in a few half-hour sessions a month? Why enroll in a matriculated degree program for photography when you can watch a couple of tutorials on YouTube, discuss lighting techniques with other photographers on a forum, and continue plodding along as an amateur-hobbyist?

This is an argument I have been thinking about in terms of learning in general, how technology is often put at the center of learning rather than being used an auxiliary component to enhance or enable it. It’s the difference between training a skill and teaching someone how to think and analyze deeply.

On the other hand, if we ask ourselves why we have the goals and dream we do, to what end, then perhaps the small, cobbled, dip-in-dip-out, technology-driven moments fulfill us. If my goal of wanting to be a full-time writer or food editor were to share with others what I know about food and how I think about it, then maybe this blog is enough. However, if my goal is to lead a life that has considered deeply and thoroughly (and daily) what our relationship to food means and why it’s worthy of such deep contemplation, then a more complete and dedicated approach is absolutely and unequivocally the route.

And again, the hardest part, after admitting what your deepest aspirations are, is starting.

Come to think of it, admitting it and thinking it through is pretty hard, too. But I for one am going to try.

The Admissions
What is it that I dream of doing?

a. being a real, full-time, food writer

b. traveling the world

c. owning and operating a small food business

d. living abroad again

e. writing full-length books or having a “real” journalism job centered on writing rather than editing.

Why am I so afraid to do any of these things?

a. fear of striking out on my own and leaving the defined and controlled world of working for someone else; not being accepted as someone who can do the work; not succeeding financially and thus not having the stable and reliable elements of my life to help get me through (income, health insurance, housing or a “home-base” of some kind)

b. fear of prioritizing time and money irresponsibly; fear of putting myself in dangerous situations (I have half-refused to go to about 50 percent of the world based on safety concerns); fear of commitment, as extensive travel does require tradeoffs

c. fear of ROI, meaning I fear I would have to put everything into it, and if it failed, I would have nothing left and nothing to show for it; fear of making a fool of myself; fear of leaving a the safe and established work world of someone else’s organization

d. fear of commitment: fear of having made a bad choice that I will have to live with for a set amount of time or fear of making sacrifices that I will regret; fear of giving up what I have now, which I am very happy with, and getting in return something less

e. fear that my writing is not interesting; although I am not afraid of people disagreeing with my ideas or of criticism, I am afraid of ‘invisibility” or being passed over entirely

To put it more generally,

I am afraid that I will not be in control of my life.

I am afraid that something bad will happen.

I am afraid of loss.

I am afraid of irreversible things.

I am afraid that I will never be respected for what I know or what I think.

I think the real fear that drives it all is a fear of living. I’m not about to run out and buy any self-motivational books or feel-good “Hang in there, kitty” posters. Everything I’ve ever done successfully in life has required a great deal of build up, as well as a huge amount of telling others beforehand, by way of announcing that I intend to do something; I feel motivated most when I tell others, as a sort of self-imposed fear of failure (“I’ve told them, so now I have to do it”).

So now then, where is the beginning?

Related Content: A talk given by Wine Library TV's Gary Vaynerchuk in September 2008, titled "Do What You Love."