Wednesday, July 09, 2008

How I spent my vacation (and my rebate)

Much as I like to eat well, I don't like to consider myself a foodie. Part of that is just budget: getting that powerful culinary mojo is unattainable under my family's surprisingly modest circumstances (we continue to piss it away on college, after all these years), and the last damn thing I need is to develop a taste for truffles. As it is, the edjumucational wine extravaganzas we've taken on every year or so have left me, in their aftermath, skulking broken-hearted through the aisles of the local booze emporium, leaving face-prints on the glass cabinets that secure the French and Tuscan table vintages, sifting disconsolately through the mass-market exports and the unlimited bottles of oak-a-rrific California varietals. It's not that you can't get decent wine for under fifteen bucks a bottle--and just because it's common or local doesn't mean it sucks either--it's just that it's hard to find the bargains, and discovering exactly what you like takes a lot of sampling and research. Rewarding work perhaps, but doubly time consuming when you're on a budget, and even then, pricey enough.

Another reason that I'm a non-foodie foodie is that I think the foreign and the exotic can be over-emphasized amongst the movementarians. That is, some cuisine is popular precisely because we lowly hoi polloi can't get us none. Spending top American dollar to import European or Asian peasant ingredients, celebrated fresh in their own neighborhoods, strikes me as a particularly quixotic, and the obvious antidote, American local cuisine that doesn't suck, is a fucking embarrassment in most of the country. Top-notch fresh produce, or at least a tradition of it, is the purview of the wealthy, while the poor people choke down Twinkies and McNuggets. There are exceptions, mind you: peasant (and slave!) food has filtered up through the American south, and it's awesome. The natural foods movements of my parents' generation kept some awareness of actual produce growing among the dirty hippie types. But this nation of imports hasn't, by and large, been here long enough to establish a real culinary tradition of its own, and we have a habit of discarding the old ones, or putting them in a sweetened box. More importantly, we have heavily invested, subsidized, and mechanized food production in order to keep the crappier stuff cheap, and it's gotten to the point that trying to use your food better* takes cost and effort to learn, not at all unlike drinking wine well.

But there are places you can go, even in these benighted lands. In a rare confluence of events that included a restaurant shut-down, an anniversary, several summer vacations, a suggested destination, and a bribe from the federal government, my wife and I finally went out, after all these years. We took our mandatory loan and diverted it from its intended target--the heating oil company--and spent it on a vacation across the Sound. I've never been enamoured by Long Island. It's nice enough, but from the suburbs to the Hamptons, my experiences always saw too much money chasing not enough class. But if you live in the Northeast, you can do worse than to take your Champagne appetite to the North Fork. It's wine country over there, and farm country, and the locals have been working their brand long enough (the oldest vines were planted 30 years ago or so) that it's got some decent product. We spent two days driving up and down the strip, ducking into tasting rooms built by the two or three dozen local wineries, and eating fine meals that were almost worth the expense. As an aspring wine culture, the North Fork has its corresponding food movement going on, and the chefs all advertise ingredients grown just down the street. There are some big and impressive wine shops, but the best ones, more often than not, with the tastier wines, were smaller (my favorite). Random folks (not tourists) would filter in and out and have intelligent conversations about the product. Appropriately enough, there's a great cheese shop in the area too, another habit I should be careful about cultivating. Mostly the wineries grow your Bordeaux style grapes, but mixed together according to the Long Island tastes: a little heavier on the Cabernet Franc than elsewhere, and if the wines didn't taste quite French, I have a lot of posthumous (Keifus lives for a day) scribbles telling me they didn't really taste American either (caveat: I'd inevitably forget to take notes until four or five tasting sets in, after my palate went to total shit).

The economy of the North Fork is evidently supplying living wages, because, after all, people manage to live there, but it ain't cheap. Even knowing where to eat and shop, I can't imagine you're getting by if your family doesn't run the place (or commute, or considerately inhert it). We got into the occasional conversation with a local--the knowledgable kid at the cheese shop, the bus-girl, the wine pourer--and while obviously underpaid, they were usually into the whole culture. Some of them were taking the financial hit to follow their love, and I totally envy them for that. I can better understand how Alexander Payne caught the dynamics between the visitors and the residents in California wine country in Sideways. The tourists fantasize a better life of poverty in the name of good living. And from the viewpoint of the normals, a genuinely appreciative tourist is probably interesting. I saw a lot of annoying visiting retards (of course), and I flatter myself to think that my wife and I were better than the usual ugly Americans as we went through our comically awful cold-readings of flavor and aroma, but tried to take the experience for all it was. Call it the opposite of the story of the rest of my life.

Andrea Immer, in Great Wine Made Simple, includes an anecdote from Tuscany wherein customers brought their cherished ancient (at least as old as I am) Brunello Di Montalcinos** to be lovingly re-corked, such are they worth the wait. My wife's chef (and no, that doesn't help my resistance to foodie-ism one bit) recently returned from Italy on his honeymoon, glowingly describing the backyard garden culture. The restaurant salads were really local there, and everyone slavered over the perfect tomato, cheese, rabbit, whatever. Tiny pockets of the U.S. aspire to that, but regrettably the rest of the country has its head up its industrialized agricultural ass. One of the pourers we talked to, some 22-year-old kid, described how she spent a year in Italy, verifying chef Steve's picture of the idyllic, appreciative populace. For my own poverty years, I was living below alarmingly fecund rednecks, and nursing my professional ambitions with cheap-ass beer. I wouldn't say I've wasted my life, not at 22, but still.

Of course, Europe isn't that different from any wine country. Visiting Italy gets you to the ruins, to the tourist traps, but that experience is ultimately pretty lame. You don't learn a culture by just dropping by, and the appreciation (of both the good and bad aspects) only comes from living it for awhile. My wife and I left the North Fork happy, but more impoverished, and less fulfilled, than I care to admit.

The yearly oil contract politely arrived within days of our return, and it doubled last year's bill, which was about twice the increase we expected. After some serious sweating, I found an out: I've got nearly six years of unused vacation time, and I cashed a chunk of it out.

So to sum up, I accepted the federal tax break and took a couple days to get pleasingly drunk, and then pissed away my remaining time off so that I could heat my house. Is there anything more American?

I want better.

UPDATE: Mr. Riley's take on this is brilliant. Required reading.

* Really one of my best posts. Don't be shy to follow the link.

** I haven't been able to get enough of the Tuscan wines since the Italian experiment, and the Brunello knocked the socks off all the rest of 'em. Not exactly the ten bucks a bottle variety. Only one of the dozens of wineries we visited on the North Fork grew Sangiovese grapes--something about microclimates--and it was a tasty basic Chianti. Even there, I wish I bought a bottle or several.


Archaeopteryx said...

You know what I like? Beer.

My wife and I are forgoing a vacation this year (remember, the trip to Costa Rica was work. We like to drive out west and drop in to crappy-looking barbeque places and tiny Italian places. We try the local microbrews (really, I like beer) and look for birds and vistas. But not this year. Gas costs too much. And we're afraid of what's going to happen to the economy, so we're taking our Dubya Bucks and paying off one of the cars.

Maybe next year.

Keifus said...

My big plan was to pay off the last of the debt (the value of which is pretty close the incumbent vote-buy), but I squandered it instead. I'm not sure if I regret it or not.

Barbecue--and soul food--is the closest thing this country has got to honest native cuisine (you know, except for native cuisine, whatever it was, of which we Americans must never speak). Not a lot of go-to spots in the northeast though.

I love beer. Brewed it myself for years, off and on, depending on how lazy or busy I've been. The price was a wash, but it's so cool to have good beer on tap. My wife prefers wine though, and I'm finding just how special it can also be. Dammit.

Keifus said...

By the way, your yearly vacation sounds pretty sweet.

august said...

The required reading was fucking genius. As was the post.

I'm sure I had something interesting to say about your last comment to my last post, but damned if I remember what it was. Should give you a hint of what conversation with me is like.

Keifus said...

Thanks August. In that spirit, I've axed two potential comments tonight already! Let's make that beer happen one of these days.