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The Perils of Pairing

By |  March 7 2012

In this, the food world has learned from wine. The wine industry has long sold itself as the purveyor of a uniquely gastronomic form of intoxicant, and it is true that to dwell upon food pairings successfully diverts attention from the louche side of drinking. On a wider scale, the flavor-pairing hypothesis, which suggests that foods linked by their flavor chemistry taste good together, has attracted much attention. Chefs have embraced it to conjure unusual dishes. For example, white chocolate and caviar both contain trimethylamine, so they might be served together. A bestselling book, The Flavour Thesaurus by Niki Segnit (Bloomsbury, London; 2010), has brought these ideas into the domestic kitchen. But as a mechanism for exploration and education, such focus upon the act of pairing inevitability leads toward some form of prescriptive rules. It is perfectly natural to ask what constitutes the best combination; and if there is a best combination, then surely that must also be the correct pairing, for who wants to consume anything other than the best?

There is no coincidence that the key text in the food-pairing movement describes itself as a thesaurus-a simple work of reference. By this logic, skill as a gastronome becomes the possession of an encyclopedic recall of the list of best combinations. Superficial knowledge becomes a proxy for direct engagement and a thousand website food-and-winepairing tools are launched. It is reassuring to be able to consult a simple database in order to decide what to drink with dinner, but the apparent simplicity of such a systematic approach obscures the real and troubling questions at the heart of the act of pairing. How do we know what constitutes a good combination? Should it be the union of two equal partners, or a case of soloist and accompanist? The myth of the grand synergy, where the whole is greater than the sum of the two parts, is misleading. Food and wine interactions are complex, but rarely is it a case of mutual magnification.

Even the most fundamental organizing principles are by no means universal. A recent paper in the journal Scientific Reports ("Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing"-1 [196]) has demonstrated that the pairing of foods containing similar flavor compounds is very much a function of the Western diet. Working from three online recipe repositories-allrecipes. com and from the US, and the Korean site the researchers from Cambridge, Harvard, Indiana, and Northeastern constructed a flavor network that captured the aromatic compounds shared by different ingredients. Broadly put, where Western recipes favored the pairing of like flavor compounds, East Asian recipes avoided such shared compound ingredients.

In place of the reference library of rules and correct answers, I prefer to think of the sommelier or wine drinker as curator. To assemble an exhibition in the visual arts is not to pretend to try to find a single correct answer. The artifice of the curator is to arrange exhibits so that they reveal new facets and previously unexplored interrelationships. Similarly in music, the construction of a concert program is in itself an artistic expression.

A Mahler symphony might equally be positioned as a summation of 19th-century Romanticism or savage prophecy of 20th-century angst. Food-pairing anarchism does not render wine knowledge irrelevant; it just means that the knowledge takes the form of thinking about the food and wines themselves, rather than a secondorder collection of appropriate pairings.

As a concrete example, consider a meal of shrimp cocktail, followed by coq au vin, and crêpes suzette. Beyond the physical properties of each of the dishes, what is the meal, as a whole, trying to say? Is it a romantic attempt to capture a French provincial idyll, or an exercise in garish nostalgia? The chicken could readily be paired with the grandest of grands crus in a sleek evocation of French haut bourgeois glamour, the gastronomic equivalent of an Hermès scarf. Then again, with its rich sauce, it would also be perfectly happy with a Sonoma Zinfandel or Zinfandel-based field blend. To the correct audience, the richer wine would riff happily on the Gallo Hearty Burgundy that was essential to the coq au vin of their youth.

It is a pairing that gives a nudge, a wink, and a hint that this might be an evening of bawdy 1970s excess. After all, Gallo originally made its Hearty Burgundy from grapes sourced on California’s North Coast, mostly Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Carignane. Anarchism means taking responsibility for finding answers to these kinds of questions yourself.

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