Critiquing the Critics: Why Food Differs From Art

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There's no point pretending otherwise—I didn't pay for my snifter of 50-year-old Glenfiddich. Nor did anyone else gathered in the Mandarin Hotel's Lotus Suite, 38 floors above Central Park. Payment, after all, wasn't an option: the Scotch came from one of 10 bottles released this year, and the only one available in the United States. And though my glass held a mere half-ounce pour, I couldn't have afforded it. Last year a 750-milliliter bottle went for $38,000 at auction, making my few sips worth about $760.

There's no point in playing it cool, either—this was damn fine whisky. Probably the best thing I've ever had. It had more complexity than a Pynchon novel. The fragile amber-gold color danced in the mid-June sunlight. The nose was full of floral and herbal notes, though after a few minutes a subtle, smoky peat came through. The taste? Starting with orange zest, it moved through smoke, fruit candy, and garden flowers, ending with a searing dryness and, like barely audible strings, a note of bitter root vegetables that was still petering out when I got back to the office, an hour later.

I have nothing but thanks for the folks at Glenfiddich for inviting me to the tasting, but since then I've been asking myself: why did they? If I talk about the experience, all I'm doing is bragging. My thumbs up or down cannot possibly persuade anyone to try it, since almost no one can afford it, and those who can, and want to pay the price, will probably do so for reasons other than pure Dionysian delight. The easy answer is marketing, that letting me taste the best of their lot will endear me to Glenfiddich in the future, either because I love their whisky or feel indebted to their kindness.

Let's face it: readers aren't looking for an intellectual discussion of a restaurant's spaghetti alle vongole—they just want to know if it's worth the extra clams.

But more troubling is that the question raises another question: what is the role of the food and drink critic? If I talk about a whisky no one else can try, does anyone else care? And is there another, more intellectually satisfying way to discuss the experience?

The role of the art critic—dance, literature, painting, film and so on—is hardly a straight-forward one, but for now let's say that there are generally two parts. On the one hand, the critic provides a catalyst for thinking about a work of art, and art in general; on the other, the critic tells his audience if it's worth their time and money. The worst critics merely do the latter, the best do both.

You might say the same about the food and drink critic, but let's face it: readers aren't looking for an intellectual discussion of a restaurant's spaghetti alle vongole—they just want to know if it's worth the extra clams. The same for anything you buy in a store, from wine to watermelons (though I'd like to meet an actual watermelon critic). That's no short order, and the good critic needs an exceptional palate to be of real service. But Sontag it ain't.

At the same time, the sense of taste is an intensely subjective one. Unlike visual or aural media, we really don't have a common intellectual framework for evaluating and discussing food and drink. With a painting, I can bolster my argument by pointing to brushstrokes that we can all agree are there. But at my table at the Glenfiddich tasting, some of the critics found peat notes, and others didn't. If we can't agree on whether they're present, how can we discuss their quality?

The extreme rarity of the Glenfiddich that day spins the question even further. Is there a role for the food and drink critic outside of providing a consumer service? If I taste a whisky that probably none of my readers ever will, is there any point in writing about it?

If this were a work of art—say, if I got to see a work of art that few others ever will—the answer would be yes. For one thing, the appreciation of art is a sufficiently robust intellectual exercise that even if my readers never see that particular work, they'll be "catalyzed," in H.L. Mencken's phrase, spurred to think about art in general and hopefully think more deeply about the next painting they encounter. Can the same thing happen with food and drink? Sort of. You might learn a thing or two about what to look for in a pot roast or a Chianti, but it'll hardly be a mind-expanding read.

And while some art forms straddle the line between aesthetic artifact and consumer good—say, books, film, and other reproducible items—food and drink is something else altogether, purely a consumer good. Only rarely does anything rise to the level of a work of art simply by virtue of its taste.

There's no doubt the Glenfiddich 50-year-old belongs in that category. What makes it so troubling is that it doesn't belong in the other, that of a consumer good. It is a work of art and nothing else. And yet it is also a whisky, and it demands consideration as such. So how do I—we, as critics—discuss it in ways that are relevant to readers? I don't know, and I doubt anyone else does. But we need to figure out how.

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Clay Risen is an editor at The New York Times, and is the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination. He has written for The New Republic, Smithsonian, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine.

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