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What I think of "What to Drink With What You Eat"

I missed posting this on Buy Nothing Day. Now I fear I may be too late.

If anyone gets me the most pretentious book of the year for Christmas -- a encyclopedic dining guide called What to Drink With What You Eat by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page -- what to stuff in what you hang by the chimney will surely be a BIG FAT PIECE OF COAL. Why?

Well, there's the wino's angle on it and then there's the foodie's angle on it.

But first I think I need to explain something since every review I've encountered online has been balls-to-the-wall enthusiasm for this book. That I need to explain this is surprising to me because I thought what I am about to say is obvious. Here goes...

The reason folks need guidelines on pairings is precisely as follows: you've got one shot at that bottle and one shot only. You don't want to screw it up by pairing a vintage Brut Champagne with dessert. And so you turn to someone who can tell you how to get your money's worth out of it.

If you need instruction when pairing a frappuccino or some other $2 beverage from Starbucks, then clearly you're missing this point. You could dump the thing over your head and still come close to getting your money's worth. Yet this new book, WTDWWYE for short, seems to get off on recommending pairings for every drink you can think of right down to tap water. That's either silly or pretentious, or both.

If you want to pair your ciders, your juices, your bottled waters, I say go ahead. But you're kind of on your own, aren't you? I mean, there are no established guidelines for you to follow -- and there's certainly no demand to decode something so pedestrian and commonplace -- so you have to rely on your palate to guide you. But that's perfectly okay because those who follow their palate find that trial and error is a viable option for coffee, tea, water and what-have-you. (Whereas "trial and error" and Krug have never appeared in the same sentence. Ever!)

karyn paige andy dorenberg food and wine pairing bookTrial and error pairing is folly when you finally make that soufflé that doesn't sink and you really want to celebrate it in style. Like a fine wine, you've created something rare, and by god, you hope someone's been so kind to advise you how to do it justice (that Cabernet you're fingering is not the best idea -- a fate worse than falling for any soufflé). In this regard, WTDWWYE does an admirable job. It provides matches for a large array of different soufflés. It doesn't have every food under the sun -- no merguez or lamb sausage for instance -- but at least it scrapes by with entries like "Moroccan cuisine".

But that's pretty much where the instructiveness of food matching ends. Telling someone to have Evian with their veal meatballs isn't instructive as much as it's annoying. Telling someone to open a bottle for their fast-food taco is just bizarre.

In this way, WTDWWYE's approach of "we must achieve more than the sum of the parts" to every pairing gets ridiculous real fast. The catchphrase they use is 1 + 1 = 3 but no matter how often it's repeated to me it meets resistance. I think McDonald's Big Mac + any wine in the world = nothing more than a -5, not a +3 as the authors suggest. But Big Mac lovers will disagree with me. Perhaps they should buy this book.

Fast food mentions aside, WTDWWYE does deal with a lot of real food and a lot of wine. It comes at each separately: at the front, food entries are given a list of matching drinks, all supplied by culinary experts, after which beverages get their expert-generated list of pairable foods.

THE WINO'S ANGLE

Here is where the wines that readers like me have been husbanding for that special moment of culinary bliss come to the fore. I turn to Andrew and Karen and ask for advice. In response, I get a mixed bag of interesting tidbits. Personally, I find there to be too many vagaries and the stringing out of list upon list, all of them dancing around the attractive idea of finding common rules for the book's pseudo-science.

The authors get real close to securing some of these common rules at the start of the wine-based section. The clever bits contained under "By Type of Wine" is very interesting and infinitely useful. It spells out the truest and most scientific guidelines for wine matching and arranges ideas by attribute, i.e. acidic wines, tannic wines, etc. But it's only three pages and barely scratches the surface. Then the bigger 75-page "By Name of Beverage" segment begins which is only as successful as it is misguided.

What really bothers me is this guide claims to be a "definitive" source on pairings. Definitive is a big word for such a tenuous science and such a relatively small reference book. There's certainly nothing definitive about wine pairings when entries are grouped by varietal, as they are here. The authors of this book have heard of terroir and as a result some wine regions -- mostly French and broad -- are covered. Occasionally an effort is made to specify California Cabernet and Merlots. The cynic in me suspects that this only serves to better placate their key demographic.

Me, I don't drink much American wine so I first tried looking up what I had already opened from the previous night: A Minervois. There was no listing for it.

Then I tried looking for what I had on hand and was ready to drink: Coteaux du Languedoc. No listing. Not even a mention for any Languedoc wine, perhaps the biggest up-and-coming wine region in the world.

Then I dialed it back a bit and went flipping through the pages for a varietal wine. Though virtually all of my wine cellar makes no mention of grape variety as Old World wines seldom do, a knowledgeable drinker could figure it out. But that's a high-maintenance condition to using WTDWWYE. I just pretended I had a Viognier to crack open, since I recently had one that I really enjoyed. Under Viognier, the first item listed was appetizer. This is less than instructive. Mini-quiche? Pig in a blanket? Breaded shrimp? Cheeseball? What!?

The rest of the list painted a better picture for pairing Viognier. But I have to wonder about what the expert who submitted this particular response was thinking. Either the expert had more to say and the authors left it unsaid (which unfortunately is by design since all the expert-supplied entries are in strict list format) or the expert is masking his or her expertise by being imprecise. In either case, what good do the authors think these vague entries are doing?

Then I moved away from wine and investigated some of the oddities in the previous section organized by food item.

THE FOODIE'S ANGLE

I'm a home cook who owns a tiny cellar's worth of wine. The entries filed in this book aren't brimming with the practical tips they are purported to have for people like me. Strategic tips is more like it. These are strategies that trendy restaurant sommeliers, B&B owners, or program directors at wine resorts would likely use since they are expected to have crib notes for everything they serve. For the everyday chef, it seems like a heaping serving of pedantry.

The book is impractical for other reasons too. For instance, if this book had been written for me a lot of the lists would be left blank. What to drink with Oreo cookies. NOTHING. What to drink with Kumquats. NOTHING. What to drink with Ketchup. NOTHING. What to drink with Epazote. What the heck is Epazote? I don't eat any of these things so I'm certainly not going to uncork a bottle for them!

It's all a bit unnerving. Never has the rigorous employment of weights and measures seemed more like the devil's work. The authors have even deciphered what Spring pairs well with, as have they for Late Afternoon. Indian Summer, February 29th, and Summer Solstice are in there too I'm sure. Missing is what to drink for Coffee Breaks and Teatime.

And so the book arcs from whimsy to the shockingly obvious:

Scones: tea, esp. English Breakfast...
Éclair, chocolate: coffee, medium to dark roast
And then back again to the reverse mapping:
Coffee, in general: apple pies and tarts; breakfast dishes, esp. wheat-based; brunch dishes, esp. wheat based.
Passages like these that make one wonder if there could be a better job than doing this guide and getting paid by the word.

By the time I got to reading up on individual spices, I realized this book can be taken too literally. Marjoram is a white wine spice but oregano is a red wine spice. Fennel, white; rosemary, red. Coriander, white; thyme, red. As this rate, I'll be serving rosé with every bloody meal I cook. The herbes de Provence I use almost nightly is turning out to be a real nightmare lurking in the spice drawer.

But if this part of the book is frequently frustrating, the section on cheese is done well -- admirably inclusive and quite instructive.

I'm sure there are some other lists I would use and maybe even consult frequently, but my feeling is there's not much here that you couldn't get from a two-second google. And besides, when you google "McDonald's Filet-O-Fish + wine pairing" the results you get back are supposed to be funny.

7 comments:

caveman said...

http://www.datamantic.com/joedressner/?2226

here's my fave take on the book...

Bill

g58 said...

I think I did read this, though if you look at what Dressner said according to the Dornenburg/Page blog, you get directed to his sunny pre-review comments!

The real review you point to makes some good points and strong criticisms. Hopefully my mother was reading his blog when she went on her post-Thanksgiving shopping spree.

http://www.becomingachef.com/media_room.php

steve said...

Excellent rant, Marcus. You're definitely no Natalie Maclean. The book has some flaws but - sorry - I find it interesting and useful. Why? Because it's not a definitive guide but more of a big hodge-podge involving many opinions on the subject. It's almost like un-edited research as opposed to an answer book. For me, this is a good thing. For a non-critical, post-ironic reader (which includes most of my relatives) it may be a bad thing indeed. Is that a definitive answer?

I wrote a decent review of WhatTDWWYE which but now feel cheated since I was never approached by the authors like apparently every other blogger. Sucka. Perhaps I was manipulated by one of their agents during a forgotten night on the town. How could I be so naive? Chunks of the review were even beamed up to the Dorenburg/Page mothership. Perhaps the same thing happened to Dressner.

Sadly, the only recent solicitation I've received was by one of the Wine Diva's henchmen. I could smell the cheap suit over the phone. All I had to do was write a glowing review and I would be part of a million-reader media blast no doubt on my way to internet billions, a polyester yacht and inflatable broads all over the place.

g58 said...

Natalie Maclean! Don't get me started.

Steve my respect for you doesn't budge, especially if you're standing up for this book bribe-free (or bribe-free to the best of your sobering recollection).

I like that you like it. I like how it inspired you to do your British food pairings. I even like how we basically agree that it seems to be un-edited research (you jump in; I turn to google). I don't think I like being called a post-ironic reader but let me get back to you on that once I erase the Alanis song playing in my head.

So here's the thing. I totally loved reading about your eels and spotted dick. I was totally unamused reading about McDonald's and still water in this book. I guess for me this book comes across as lacking the sense of humour and joie de vivre that keeps your site bookmarked over here in these parts. Though I would definitely refer to the WTDWWYE cheese pages and the wine by type pages, the remaining 95% really makes my head spin.

And by the way, the reason I posted about WTDWWYE wasn't because I am considered a promo-solicitation-worthy blogger by the authors and their publishers. Obviously I'm not -- three words: public hit counter. I did it because I'm considered an Xmas-gift-worthy blogger by many of my readers (which definitely includes most of MY relatives). Now I'm bracing for the ultimate insult to injury when I find this book wrapped up under the tree.

semi.superlative said...

i'm afraid i had to just skim this one, cause i've got some other things to do this evening, but i will say... i think you were a little unfair to kumquats.

steve said...

Doc, I wasn't thinking of you as post-ironic. Not a guy with a snackshot. No way. I think of you as a protector of the post(and pre and un) ironic. In your last entry anyway.

Coincidentally, I've had a barrage of messages on my answering machine today from the WINE DIVA people. Don't these people use email?

g58 said...

Semi: I'm working on an abridged version now. You'll be interested that the kumquat will likely be cut.

Steve: Post... pre... un? You must mean black fly in your Chardonnay ironic. And I may be wrong on this one but I think WINE DIVAS contact you however they feel like it.