Any Scotch Will Do as Long as It’s Not a Blend of Course: Cultural and Gender Signification of Food and Alcohol

I remember big family gathering where drunken relatives would get us youngens to sip and taste the alcohol they were drinking, usually an after dinner brandy. Of course, already drunk, they would laugh at my cousins and me as they told us to breath through our noses while we tasted the harsh liquors that made our faces crunch up in horror and distaste. The idea was that we were supposed to learn how to drink and learn how to drink properly. The other idea was that if my cousins and I knew we could drink at home, we wouldn’t overindulge as teenagers at parties.

My brother tells me a story about our grandfather teaching him (my brother) how to drink scotch. After taking a sip, my brother stood up saying “This would go great with some coke.” Of course, my grandfather explained to my brother that the point was to enjoy scotch for its taste and that adding a mixer or ice would take away from the taste. As I got older and started drinking, my aunt introduced me to good wine, my brother taught me to drink scotch, and my uncles taught me how to drink beer. My friends taught me what it looks like to overindulge.

The more I bartended and learned about alcohol and food, the more I saw how all food serves as a sign for modern society and culture and the more I became a snob. As Barthes says, “People may very well continue to believe that food is an immediate reality (necessity or pleasure), but this does not prevent it from carrying a system of communication” (22). In serving the public, I quickly began to see the signification. A man on a date orders a steak and scotch to signify his masculinity and “refined” taste, but he nullify it by ordering his steak well done and his scotch with coke . The woman, to signify a feminine refined taste, orders fish with vegetables and a glass of Sutter Home blush wine. These choices are a break down of the signifying system of what these foods represent while also illustrating how food is gendered.

Right now as I write this in a coffee shop, I got up to serves myself coffee from the table the cafe has set up. Next to the table the owner and a woman sit, and as I poured my coffee, the woman apologized, “I’m sorry. I think we used up all your soy milk or cream, whatever was there.” “I like my coffee to taste like coffee,” I responded. She looked at the owner and said “Why is it men drink coffee black?” As I shrugged and walked back to my table, the answer became obvious: because black coffee signifies masculinity for men and seriousness for women. This signification is the same that manifest itself in people’s food and alcohol choices. A steak signifies manliness; a well-done steak signifies ignorance. When a man orders a single-malt scotch, it signifies good taste as well as status. Here is a man who appreciates the finer things in life and is willing to spend the money to enjoy it. Additionally, woman who orders a good wine that pairs well with her food demonstrates her knowledge and status; a woman who orders blush wine reveals her ignorance.

The manners in which certain foods signify appear to be a glitch in Barthes’ system. Barthes’ makes the observation that once food is the standard for consumption, “as soon as it takes on the characteristics of an institution, its function can no longer be dissociated from the sign of that function” (21); however, scotch, wine, and steak have become an institution symbolizing wealth, class, and good taste, but only when consumed properly . When not consumed properly, these items can signify the exact opposite of what they are meant to signify and reveal the character of their consumer. The man who orders a Macallan single malt scotch and puts more than one ice cube in it or adds a mixer is signifying the opposite of taste and class just as the woman who orders blush wine is signifying the opposite of good taste and refinement.

Furthermore, food and alcohol signify gender as strongly as clothes. This signification is the same that works in sexual engagements. A man who experiments with having sexual encounters with men is gay or at least bisexual; a woman who engages in sexual encounters with women is not necessarily lesbian and is just “experimenting.” This same societal rule applies to food. A man who orders a salad with a crisp white wine is considered feminine while a woman who orders a raw steak and a beer is seen as down to earth or as “real” for eating like a “real” person. While I know this signifying systems mean very little, I still can’t help to scorn the man who can afford to order Macallans but puts ice in it; just like in Starnucks, I judge the guy who gets the salted caramel Frappuccino® with extra whip cream.

————Notes:
I think there is a cultural significance to this as well. Most of the people who would get their steaks well done are Central American or from the Caribbean. My Cuban family eats its steaks well done while my brothers and I eat our steaks medium at most. I don’t know what this cultural difference signifies. This cultural difference correlates to the alcohol as well. It was mostly South Americans who would drink their scotch with a mixer, but my family is the one who taught me not to mix good scotch with anything, which was later reinforced as I started bartending. I don’t understand it.

Scotch’s status symbol is perfectly illustrated in a scene from Swingers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_GNoto7sVRc
Mikey makes it a point to order a scotch, single-malt, of course, because he is trying to signify wealth and status.

I was going to put “properly” in quotation to signify that there is no real proper or improper way to consume these food items; however, as I stated before, I am a food snob and believe these foods do have a proper way to be consumed.

Advertisements

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.
-James Joyce, Ulysses

Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of fowls. Maybe he should have used relish to mask the taste.

Burnt sand.

Maybe he should have battered and fried it, but the liver tastes like burnt sand. The texture is crunchy and plastic and not awful but not good.

He wondered if he ruled out the possibility of pleasure because it put up a wall in front of his openness to the experience. How can he describe the taste, which must be subjective since people eat this all the time and like it? This meat brings no pleasure to his palate, and if Taste comes to provide the chief analogy by which the apprehension of the beautiful and of fine artistic qualities and even social style is explicated, then this taste in his mouth can be used to describe the ugly.

Shit.

Not literally shit, but what he imagines the word “shit” taste like. Not actual shit, which can be guessed by the general smell and look. No, liver tastes like what the word “shit” might taste like or the word “yuck.” As the piece of organ hits his tongue there is not the initial taste he expected, which was a taste of blood and urine. (Maybe because Bloom describes his kidney as tasting of urine). He has to chew and chew because the texture is plastic. He chews quickly so the experience can be over. This is the opposite of mindfulness.

His mind thinks of the other choices he contemplated. Cover your heart, Indy.

He is glad he passed on the chicken hearts. It was more from the ignorance of how to cook them than from aversion to them although he does have an aversion to them. Disgust wasn’t the right word, but it was the first word that came to mind.

“What food grosses you out?” he asked the tall blond sitting across the table from him.
They were in a fancy burger joint; the kind of place with buffalo burgers, turkey burgers, tuna burgers, and a choice between angus or prime meat.

James Joyce’s Ulysses played in his head because he kept noticing just how much food comes up in the novel. Also, he had to write about a food he dislikes. He mistook the instructions of eating one food he hated and amplified those instructions to eating a food that he finds gross. Jose did not eat with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He preferred the outer body and fat of beast and fowl—maybe an occasional rib or wing of beast or fowl.
“Crickets,” she said without hesitation.

“Ya, I think eating any bug would be gross, but that seems too obvious. So why crickets?” he asked as he took a bite from a pulled pork eggroll. She made a face and began to explain: “Because… they have all those legs and those weird eyes. It is grossing me out just thinking about it.” She took a slow bite from her eggroll after looking at it to make sure it was pulled pork and not cricket.

“It’s interesting what we think of as gross. If you think about it, bugs eat leaves and stuff, so they’re pretty clean.”
“Maybe if it didn’t look like a cricket, I could eat it. But I couldn’t do it if I was putting all those legs in my mouth” she repeating the ritual of looking at her food before eating it. Jose thought about how the food we eat doesn’t look like the animal it comes from. The only time he has ever seen the actual animal he is eating is when his family cooks a whole pig for the holidays or a big event.

They sipped some beer and made small talk about life. Jose thought about what he could eat that he finds gross. And maybe a part of him wanted to rationalize how eating an insect would be too obvious. He was too grossed out at the thought of trying to eat with relish an insect. Where would he even find a cooked insect? He thought if he could find a chocolate covered worm, then maybe he would be brave enough to stuff that down his gullet.

“I think I am going to recreate the Ulysses episode where Bloom buys, cooks, and eats a kidney, and I’ll accompany it with some gizzard” he thought aloud.

“You think this pork is cooked all the way through?” she said.

The next day Jose checked what he had written down for the assignment:
Response Paper:

Eat 2 foods
One that appeals to you
Never tasted
One food you hate

He wondered how accurate his notes were. If all he had to do was eat a food he hates, he would go down to the butcher, as Bloom does, and ask the guy for some mutton kidney.
But the butcher didn’t have mutton kidney—or any kidneys.

“What about liver?” Jose asked since liver is an inner organ of fowl.
“We got some chicken liver over there” the butcher said pointing Jose in the direction of his breakfast for the morning. Jose looked forward to the second part of the assignment.

It taste like good poetry. Silky and smooth like violets or roses. It taste like the word “sin.”

“Are you a fan of desserts?” He asked the Ulysees reading brunette sitting across from him at the coffee shop.

“Oh ya, I like desserts better than I like food; I just don’t have them often.”
He couldn’t think of a food that appeals to him that he hadn’t tasted. If something appeals to him, he is going to try to eat it. However, living so close to Bern’s steakhouse, he thought that indulging in a dessert he had never eaten would qualify as something that appeals to him he has never tasted:

Dulce de Leche Liquid Center Cake 11.00
A rich dark chocolate cake filled with dulce de leche, and served with vanilla bean ice cream and dark chocolate sauce.

The first bite was just chocolate cake accompanied by cold, creamy ice cream and warm chocolate sauce. He thought creamy is the word ice cream taste like. And sticky sweet is the word for chocolate sauce. He thought “heaven” does not apply to desserts, which are too sinful and decadent to be associated with a savior begotten from a virgin.

The next bite was perfect: a combination of the smooth, sticky texture of sweet dulce de leche, surrounded by a moist chocolate cake with a side of cool ice cream and sauce—the texture changed from sticky to moist to the hard cold of ice cream until all the textures and tastes mixed together to form a perfect utopia in my mouth. With more room to describe this experience, he would describe the private booths with their private music, he would describe the brunettes face as she closes her eyes in that thing we all do when we taste something so good we try to deny ourselves all our other senses to concentrate on just taste and smell. If he had more room to describe things, he would relate these private booths for eating this decadent food as an extension of Glenn Kuehn’s essay about sinful food.

But it’s time for lunch…

Symons begins his essay with what he says is a silly critique: “How could you be so interested in food when half the world is starving.” I do not understand what is so “silly” about the question. I understand his implication. He is interested in the aesthetics of food as food employed in and through the meal; he finds value in this exploration and perceives the meal as a space for ethical and political thought as Epicurus taught. However, are current thinkers not thinking about “the pleasure of their own stomachs” because those pleasures are so hard to discuss (as Hume points out)? Additionally, Symons goes on to say there needs to be more talk about food, “both dinner parties and Third World hunger;” however, he never addresses Third World hunger. While I agree with (some of) his conclusions, I disagree with his attitude towards the ethical question of meals. Moreover, I disagree with how he is exploring his subject matter.

Symons’s exploration of friendships formed at meals is insightful (if not obvious), but what he does not explore in meals is more insightful. The silly question comes up again: what about families who cannot afford meals? What does Symons mean by “meal?” The meals Symons discusses appear to be elaborate dinning experiences that are shared in community and where there is more than enough food for everyone. However, in spite of Symons’s oversights, I agree that friendships are “maintained at the table.” I also agree that sharing food requires “a sensible etiquette that adds up to a view of ethics.” However, the ethics inspired by sharing food are limited. One of the greatest pleasures I have when I visit friends and family at home is eating with them, but it is a pleasure because we get to decide when and where to have our meals. What about people who do not have the pleasure or privilege of deciding when and where to eat?

It is through food that I build relationships with my friends and family. Every trip home involves sharing a decadent meal at a Cuban restaurant with friends; most of the time I spend with my family is sitting around a table, whether at my brother’s house or at a fancy establishment my aunt recommends. Sharing foods and places to eat and exploring new places to eat involves me in an entire process of building friendships and strengthening familial bonds. Furthermore, going to places to eat enhances my taste for fine foods. As Hume would point out, I can only know what fine food is—the art of food—by engaging in that standard, and I have been fortunate enough to have an aunt who has impeccable taste in cuisines. However, these relationships and exposures to fine foods, my ability to engage in the pleasures of my stomach (and palate), are only possible because I am privileged, and my problems with Symons’s analysis and exploration of Epicurus is his oversight of this privilege.

Symons’s oversight to the ethical of food choices is most acute when he criticizes scholars who examine food as a sign of social and cultural status. He appears to deny Barthes’s reading of food as signification. Food does mean, and the upper-crust drinking champagne “to demonstrate their social superiority” is not a deceptive way of reading food as Symons would imply; furthermore, inverting this approach, “as if people could be said to eat gruel to show they were poor” does not work in the same manner. The poor eating gruel is not a choice in the same way that the rich drinking champagne is. The poor eat gruel, precisely, because they are poor. I understand that Symons is implying that a rich person eating gruel would not signify poor-ness; however, a poor person can’t even afford champagne in an attempt to signify rich. On a basic level, these foods do signify a social status. Even a rich person eating gruel would signify the rich person’s connection to “the people” or “the street” or to some romantic past when his or her family was poor and had to work hard. This signification works the same way as when a rapper from a poor background raps about drinking Cristal or Don P.

Symons appears to want to justify his studies of the pleasures of the meal by trying to force a faux ethical stance when he should just assert that his thinking aligns with his elitist stomach. I don’t mean to say “philosophizing” food in the manner Symons wants to is bad. The basic difference here is one that can parallel literature: it is the difference between W.B. Yeats who wanted an art that can affect the world and change it, against an Oscar Wildean view of art for art’s sake. Of course, “eating is living, and living is eating,” but Symons’s tautology fails to explore the implications of those who do not get to eat, who do not get to share meals, who do not get to drink mimosas with their Sunday brunch with friends and family.