Erica Vitkin: Is Ignorance Bliss?

Somewhere, beyond the Sea

Somewhere, beyond the Sea

This is the seventh installment in my guest blogger series “Somewhere, Beyond the Sea”. For this post, I asked the lovely and talented (gave that right back!) Erica Vitkin to contribute something. I had to make a trade with her (yes, she is that kind of a person), so the bread rant I wrote in June was directly attributable to her. Erica’s blog, Now Entering Flavor Country, is an awesome resource for interesting recipes, often with a twist (she published a recipe for zucchini jam the other day!), and general tomfoolery. I love her writing style, which is easy to read, entertaining and doesn’t shy away from making fun of herself. But most of all, I am super glad that I have had the chance to meet Erica and spend time with her in person. She is as awesome as her blog. Thank you, Erica!

Is Ignorance Bliss?

I have a high opinion of myself when it comes to the indulgent arts of food and beer. I have a lot of knowledge, and I have a lot of enjoyment. However, does this knowledge hinder me from other enjoyments? Let me back up…

I was talking with a friend and fellow blogger, Lindsay from The Daily Sampler, and the topic of Sommeliers came up. Obviously if you’ve achieved the title of Sommelier you have spent lots of time (years!) studying and learning about the intricacies, subtleties, ins and outs, and culture of wine. She said “I wonder if all that knowledge would make you enjoy wine less” and that statement has been haunting me ever since. Even the other night, my boyfriend and I were sharing a bottle of red wine, and upon my first few sips I affirmed my enjoyment of our selection. He just replied “yeah, I like this too, but I don’t know if this is ‘good’ wine”, which of course just took me right back to Lindsay’s comment.

I began my study of the alcoholic arts as a wine gal. The more I learned about the fermented grape juice, the more excited I got. Oak aged? Buttery notes emerge. Hard frost? Wonderful ice wines. Swirl the glass? Awake the esters and take in the aromatics! Even the pageantry of wine service at a restaurant: I. Loved. It. All.

A similar thing happened to me a few years ago with beer, and now I (unfortunately) cannot deny I am a total beer snob. Just the other day I bailed on friends I had plans with because the bar they were at had a crappy tap line up and I didn’t want to drink swill (ughhh do you hate me yet? That statement just made me hate myself).

So what does all this mean?

Many people take on knowledge of food, beer, wine, whiskey, cheese, or any other foodie-esque topic much like a hobby, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, does this wealth of knowledge tip the scales too far to allow oneself to just “let go” and enjoy what’s in front of you.

Years ago there was a delightful show called Penn & Teller: Bullshit where they would devote an entire episode looking into modern-day “bullshit topics” such as lie detectors, circumcision or astrology. One of my all-time favorite episodes featured organic food. There is a segment where they do a blind taste test at a Farmer’s Market to see if people could taste the difference between organic and non-organic produce. Check out the clip here and fast forward to 11:20 (or feel free to watch the whole thing, it’s super entertaining).

Notice how disgusted the guinea pigs are when they find out they chose the non-organic tomato as the tastier option. Why, their palates have been trained and tweaked to the utmost superiority to know the difference between a pure virgin tomato and a filthy pesticide-pumped harlot (sidenote: I always thought it was spelled “harlett”…who knew).

If we all think back to the first time we tried beer or wine or coffee or even cigarettes (c’mon, it’s a college right of passage), they were T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. So total ignorance isn’t the answer.

What I love about all this food/drink culture is the knowledge, the history, the traditions, and the science behind it. All those little tricks to keep your produce lasting longer (always take your tomatoes out of plastic bags immediately!) I truly enjoy learning about. However, I can’t help but cringe when I’m eating a sandwich topped with sliced tomatoes purchased at Kroger in August, when I know a much MUCH superior product was waiting for me in the aisles of the Farmer’s Market. The truth? They might taste just the same—the Kroger tomato may even be better—but I’ve been trained in such a way that I’ll always have those thoughts.

I know that you should never drink beer from a “chilled” glass because micro ice crystals form on the sides, and they create extra friction when the beer is poured, yielding a too-frothy head. It also chills the brew down so much that you can’t really taste anything (but I suppose if you’re drinking Labatt or Coors there’s not much to taste to begin with, ba-zing). When I see a bartender grabbing a glass out of a freezer, I practically jump over the bar to say “no please! Just a normal glass or the bottle will do!” I then proceed to judge the establishment for the remainder of my stay, and everyone around me who is sipping their sub-zero sauce. Damn you brain, why must you ruin another evening out!

So what is the answer? Does a magical equilibrium of just enough knowledge actually exist to allow for the utmost enjoyment of your culinary/boozy bounty? Maybe it’s rooted in the person, and not the knowledge. Perhaps if I didn’t start off as such a blowhard I wouldn’t be as inclined to judge the lesser products so harshly.

But then again, we’re all hypocrites, aren’t we? If I could afford to shop at the Farmer’s Market for everything I would, but I’m at least 1 more educational degree away from that reality. No matter what, I love a glass of Ben Marco Malbec or a pint of Brewery Vivant Zaison, but nothing beats an ice-cold can of Bud Light Lime when you’re drinkin’ outside…

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23 thoughts on “Erica Vitkin: Is Ignorance Bliss?

  1. Stefano says:

    Interesting read!
    Personally, I think ignorance is never bliss and knowledge empowers humans, in all fields. It gives you (among other great things) the power to make informed choices and, if necessary, to voice your own opinion based on facts and analysis (just like you did regarding all those interesting beer facts).
    As Dante said long ago “you were not made to live like brutes, but to pursue virtue and knowledge” – I can subscribe to that ;-)

  2. Oh heyyyy! Thanks for the shout out! This is something I still wonder about, especially as I sample the greatest (and the cheapest) wines of Italy, but when it comes down to it, I am happy that I can spot a wine that’s gone bad. That’s something, right? Wine Sommelier still tops my list of dream jobs- along with princess and rock star. All that being said, I still hope to haunt your dreams and your wine paired with cheese outings in A2. :)

  3. An excellent essay and study, which may lead me to ponder this “Sword of Damocles” in a later writing. I think that at some point there is a chance for all of us to get hung up with our knowledge, and opine that X is better than Y, after all it is only a human frailty. I still enjoy finding a wine that I may have had mixed emotions about when I purchased or ordered for an occasion. Then there are the times when my snobbery has led to doom, because I kept putting off a bottle of wine, for the exact (perceived) time to open or the lack of a proper event and the bottle has gone “over the hill.” Now I have no real credentials other then a lifetime of enjoying wines, so I am trying to relay these thoughts to the occasional reader as I remember the moment.
    I also must concur that I do enjoy the writing technique of the author, with a good grasp on clear communication.
    – John

    • I can’t tell you how many bottles of great (hoppy) beer I’ve let go bad because the occasion wasn’t “right” to enjoy it. But that came from a lack of knowledge (you need to know which brews are able to handle time on the shelf) on top of my normal inclination to lean into the snobbery arts.

  4. First off, going into an earlier comment. How can you not love Taco Bell? When I was in the Marines I practically lived on Taco Bell and the Mexican taco stands that are everywhere in Southern California. They both have their merits and charms.

    From my life, we have two kinds of food in our house. There is the stuff that I make and then the stuff that anyone can make. When we go shopping we buy some premade or easily made items so I don’t have to be the one cooking all the time. Sure, life is better when I am the one cooking but that isn’t always possible.

    We have a reverse snobbery in my house as well. My kids were raised on good home made fresh food. They have decent palattes and are willing to try different foods. My oldest daughters fiance came from a home where that isn’t the case. We see it as being raised on a fast food diet. He will occasionally try something new but for the most part will make something on his own like Kraft Mac N Cheese when we are having something out of his comfort zone.

    • I can totally relate with my *future husband* he isn’t necessarily as “into” food as I am, and he likes to stick his classics (although I have been able to upgrade him from regular mac and cheese to something involving Smoked Gouda and some mushrooms…). Sometimes it’s not about the knowledge, but rather your personal history with the item.

  5. What great discussion this has sparked. Thanks all for weighing in!

  6. talkavino says:

    Interesting question. A while back, I heard a representation of knowledge as a circle. When you know little, that circle is tiny, and so is the whole area which comes in the contact with unknown seems to be very small, so you think that you know everything. As you learn, the circle is becoming bigger and bigger – but so is the contact area with the unknown, so you start understanding how much you really don’t know.

    I think having more knowledge should make person more humble – the more you know, the more you understand how little you actually know. Trying new things and be humble about it is a necessary part to acquire more knowledge.

    I love (read – not at all) all those tests where they are supposed to show you how little do experts actually know about their subject, when it comes to food and wine. Can someone easily detect a difference between organic and non-organic food? Probably not, unless one of the items is rotten. However, you know that in a long run, organic food is more beneficial for your body, this is where the difference is.

    If drink the wine (whether it is $2 or $200 bottle), and you like it, who else should be telling you if this is a good wine? Nobody! That is the definition of a good wine – the wine which tastes good to you…

    • Yes, I love your take on this topic! When you find an amazing hidden culinary gem like an authentic taco stand (where the toppings are just cilantro and onions), and you can dine for less than $7, you brag about it. Why should a tasty $5 bottle of Vinho Verde be any different?

  7. Tough question. I like your sassy way of considering what could be a very serious topic–

    at what point does a food-lover cross the line that divides someone who lives an artfully gastronomic and inspiring life from one who is a pain in the patootie to everyone around her/him (in other words, a jerk)?

    Ruth Reichl explores that question indirectly in her memoir “Garlic and Sapphires,” showing how competitive “gourmets” (people who boast about what they’ve eaten/drunk and where they’ve been that you haven’t, always trying to one-up everyone else) tend to bring out the worst in everyone.

    Surely knowledge is always a good thing, in the hands of a sensitive and wise person. Right?

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding I don’t want to eat or drink something that makes me gag. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding not to join a group of people who want to eat and drink that, or with deciding that I’d rather have dinner with people who have more refined tastes. It’s the method of departure (gracious? arrogant?) that determines whether a person has behaved badly. I hope.

  8. FIrst off, it doesn’t take years to be a sommelier… I studied through International Sommelier Guild and it takes less than 1. There’s no real certification like doctor or lawyer involved, all you have to do is hang a sign or print up business cards and – bam – you’re a somm… (One of the many reasons I didn’t finish)

    You raise an excellent point – It does get hard after learning how to appreciate really good stuff. With wine, it’s particularly hard on your pocketbook. Sure there are gems under $10, but after you’ve had some high-end elegant Bordeaux or haunting Burgundy …ain’t nobody got time for that!

    One thing that I did come away with from somm school is an appreciation for pairings, which lead to appreciation of wines I wouldn’t usually have. Now the only thing I’ll have with barbecued ribs (besides beer) is Zinfandel, which I usually loathe. So in that sense, gaining that knowledge has led to less snobbery.

    Ultimately it depends on the person’s leanings, which for me is pure hedonistic. Like your Bud Light Lime, I will never give up my White Castles or Taco Bell…

    • Taco Bell is one of life’s cheap thrills that I never got on board with. Free Andes mints dropped off with your check, I’m all over it. Adding Doritos to a subway sandwich, embarrassing but enjoyable. Scraping the over-flow congealed cheese from the pizza box, I have the greasy fingers to prove it. But alas, my 3 experiences with Taco Bell have not made me a lifer.

      Great barbecue tip! I automatically go to beer, but I will try a nice Zin next time.

  9. I completely understand why you love her writing style! Enjoyable read.

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