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.

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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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