On gourmet fluids

June 7, 2007

In a post-Martha world, we are all perhaps connoisseurs: we grind, grate, and bludgeon with pestles our alimentary accoutrements – our salts, coffees, nutmegs, cheeses, and so on. No upwardly mobile person can fathom existing without a pepper mill in his cupboard, and all heads turn in shock when some unfortunate with a meager score of taste buds asks for his coffee beans to be ground at Starbucks rather than grinding them himself at home.

The discernment that we’ve gained in the past decade has focused decisively on the liquid, however. Coffee, especially, has been given a boon, but tea, beer, and even water have benefited from our new-found pickiness. (Wine having been the subject of obsessiveness for centuries, there is nothing new to report here.) Microbrews have become more visible, tea producers tout the benefits and quasi-mystical experiences endowed upon its product’s consumers, and one would be hard pressed to find somebody who couldn’t name half a dozen bottled waters.

It is this latter case which fascinates me the most and which has the most bizarre presence on the internet. FineWaters.com seems to be a popular hub for this burgeoning taste, offering mineral analyses and information on provenance alongside advice on optimum drinking temperatures, which level of effervescence goes best with different foods, and what kind of stemware to use. Its proprietary rating system seeks to develop a vocabulary for discussing water: balance, virginality, orientation (all trademarked) are the terms they choose.

As a hub, FineWaters links to many other sites which I was obliged by researches to visit. Aqua Maestro and AquaBar (where they say, “Water is a luxury often taken for granted by many and least understood by even the most refined pallet…”) are doubtless the most amusing of the bunch. Their pretentiousness and their constant bandying of terms like “sophisticated” and “chic” is really beyond parody; I couldn’t add anything to what they’ve already accomplished themselves.

But if it’s too easy to make fun of the marketing aspects of this industry, the question remains why liquids are the medium of what might be termed the democratic gourmet – those once-upscale items which have now filtered into wide accessibility. My own theory is this: that while solid foods are arranged in a meshwork without any clear “basic” food that comprises all others, beverages are arranged more hierarchically, with water serving as a foundation for them all. The connoisseur, therefore, has the privilege of going “back to basics” – to the simple pleasures which underlie all the marketing of these drinks.

Let it not be misunderstood that this is a phenomenon unique to the behavior of food-buying consumers, for the same process occurs in literary theory. When structuralists say that they’ve stripped a story to its fundamental forms and appreciate it on that level, post-structuralists come along and claim that they deal only with the even more fundamental aporias constitutive of forms. And how often do we hear valorizations of scientists who deal with the tiniest of particles – that is, with reality “as it actually is”?

Surely this pleasure associated with the basic is not limited to food alone. But in the obsession with gourmet fluids, we can see it – hopefully not without a bit of irony – in one of its most distilled, pure forms.

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