Some of my friends think that I am a gourmet but, much as I would like to be agree with them, I cannot. I am NOT a gourmet.
A gourmet is defined as a connoisseur of food and drink and , while I do know a bit about food , I lack the most important attribute of a true gourmet—a discriminating palate. I cannot taste a dish and tell you all the spices and herbs used in its preparation. Neither can I recall memorable meals I have eaten in the past as some connossieurs routinely do.In short, I have neither food memory nor a refined palate. I like food and know a little bit about it and that makes me a foodie, not a gourmet.
In a recent issue of Gourmet magazine, I read an account by Francis Lam of a trip he made to China in search of his roots. Lam writes that Great-Uncle Nine, the last of his grandfather’s brothers , is respected for his seniority as well as his extra-ordinary sense of taste. Lam’s father tells him ” I’ve seen him eat a piece of fish and tell how long it was out of the water.” And , again, ” He can tell if a chicken’s ever been in a refrigerator.” So sensitive are his taste buds that , on a visit to a restaurant , he asked the waiter to scoop out rice from a particular place in the pot.WOW !
Then there are wine connoisseurs who can sip a wine and tell you it’s provenance, the bottler and the vintage , Some experts , it is said , can even tell you exactly which part of the vineyard the grapes were from, whether it was an east facing slope or a west facing slope.Double WOW !! Such a refined palate arouses my unqualified admiration. I envy it just as I might envy other extraordinary attributes such as Charles Goren’s memory for cards.
There is a story about Goren relaxing around the swimming pool with a group of friends one Monday morning after a weekend of bridge. The talk got around to how much Goren could remember of the hands they had played and soon bets were being made. Goren then proceeded to win the bet by exactly recollecting the placement of every card and the bidding and play of all 140 deals that they had played. That’s one hundred and forty deals ! To put it in perspective, duffers like me have difficulty remembering the cards even from a deal that we’ve just played.
And then there are chess players who memorise and retain the details of thousands , even hundreds of thousands of games. Amazing !!
But to get back to the appreciation of food and drink… Not every one really can tell such minute differences. One of my friends claimed to be able to tell the difference between the various brands of Cola. He also claimed that the Coke from a small bottle tasted better than that from a two-liter bottle. Stung by my disbelief, he agreed to a blind tasting. On the appointed day , I poured out equal amounts of Coca Cola, Pepsi and Royal Crown Cola into three identical glasses and invited him to tell me which was which. He flunked the test !! Another friend and I both tried a similar test with Scotch whiskey. I would have thought we would be able to distinguish between Chivas Regal, Johnny Walker Black and Johnny Walker Red Label. After all, we had drunk them often enough. Nope. We were able to nail the Chivas but could not distinguish between the other two.Strange, since the Black Label is reputedly much smoother and does cost far more than the Red Label. What then are we to make of those who shell out $ 180 or more for Johnny Walker Blue Label.? Can they really tell the difference or is it just the added cachet of downing something very expensive ? I suspect it is the latter.
But to get back to the appreciation of food and drink,even the experts can sometimes be fooled. I remember an interesting story about Roy Andries de Groot, a blind food writer who was renowned for his extraordinary sense of taste. Blind he might have been but his other senses were highly developed and he could unerringly judge a dish by the way it smelt and tasted . Once he dined at a Buddhist temple, :I think it was in HongKong . The monks there were famous for the quality of the food they cooked and de Groot was there to taste and write about it. The monks served him course after course and de Groot tasted all kinds of meat, duck and chicken and beef .The meal was extraordinary and de Groot complimented the monks .But how is it , he asked them , that you eat meat ? Aren’t Buddhists supposed to be vegetarians? ” We are,” the monks replied . ” Everything you ate was pure vegetarian.” Using soy bean curd, they had somehow replicated not only the taste but the texture of the various meats.Truly, the food must have been amazing for it to have fooled one such as de Groot.
However, I sometimes think that a refined palate can be a curse. Let’s face it. If one is able to make such minute distinctions in the food that one eats , one is going to be disappointed most of the time. So few dishes are truly flawless. Perhaps the owner of a less discriminating sense of taste is better off since he will be able to enjoy most of what is placed before him.