(On the road to Durham, photo by Anna)
So I go to Durham do to some blogtogether thing because Anton Zuiker was so sweet in the way he asked, and he asked long ago when I wasn’t buried. I was packing and thinking, why am I doing this? Do I really want to spend two nights in the Durham Marriott (though I was once employed as a cook by Marriott, grill station, always wound up on grill), when I ought to be at home with my family, getting money work done? No.
But I went, and Anton, who is such a lovely human being I think he must be from another planet, picked me up and took me to The Regulator, one of the blessed indy bookstores, for a reading and there in the front row was my mentor Reynolds Price in his wheelchair and snowy hair with a gigantic mischievous grin. And an earring. It’s hard to get up and do a reading when your mentor is sitting right there grunting and umming thoughtfully. But a thrill also. The place, of course, was packed, but I spotted a face in the back row. I halted mid-sentence and said “Scott?” The kid, a dukie, shook his head and said, “Brian.” You’re right! Bryan … Zupon, doing whacky cooking in his crummy central-apartments apartment for strangers, and still getting all his homework done on time. I found out about him a year ago when a Duke magazine writer called to interview me about him and I looked into his egullet posts. Very cool to meet him—there’s got to be something wrong with this kid. In a good way. Anton took us to get some excellent local frozen concoction after the reading and then Scott, or Bryan, flip flopped off and we headed our way to the Q shack and Brian Russell or Drew said, “He’s supposed to be in the New York Times Magazine next Sunday, can you believe it?” Good luck, Scott.
Next day, Anton hauled me out of bed in time to make a 10 a.m interview. “Who?” I asked. “His name is Dan Ariely. He’s a professor in the business school.” “Why does he want to meet with me?” “I’m not sure actually. He’s doing some sort of research about food. He’s Israeli. He was in a horrible accident when he was young and was burned over most of body. He’s written about it.” “I see.”
The prof was dressed casually and seated us on large floor cushions, asked if we wanted a coffee and made himself an espresso, immediately launching into a description of the work he did, part of which studied how our expectations changed our responses to the world. For example, one test involved a beer tasting in which volunteers tasted two beers, actually the same beer, but one had some balsamic vinegar in it. One group was told this ahead of time and was asked to evaluate the beer. They all but unanimously disliked the beer with balsamic. But the next group was simply asked to taste two beers and evaluate. They all but unanimously preferred the one with balsamic. The experiment illustrated how our expectations affected the way we experience taste.
So, basically, the study shows that we’re still all five years old when we eat and allow our expectations to determine whether we will like something. This is why my son will only eat macaroni, carrots, peanut butter and plain chicken breast. I think I’ll just tell him that everything pretty much tastes like chicken and hope for the best. This is the American way. Tastes just like chicken caesar.
Ariely studies the irrationality of supposedly rational humans—and has written a fascinating book about it, called Predictably Irrationonal due out in February. It’s enthralling and smart.
Why was I there? Professor Ariely wants to write a cookbook, one that in part explored how our decision making in the kitchen reflects broader patterns about how we live our lives, and he wanted to pick my brain. I asked him if he’d read The Making of a Chef. The rat hadn’t heard of it. But every now and then you find yourself in the presence of someone who is so obviously smarter than you, leagues above you, that you don’t want to leave. And I didn’t—I wanted to stay all afternoon and interview the guy. But I had a radio gig to go to.
Anton took me to WUNC, the local NPR affiliate, to be on the show of Frank Stasio. Frank Stasio? The guy I used to hear all the time, a national political reporter for NPR? Cool. And Kelly Alexander was a guest, too. She was my editor on a story I did for Saveur on Ingrid Bengis, lobster purveyor to the stars, a singer, teacher and author. On the show I suggested that one of the five things everyone should eat before they die is flesh from a recently slaughtered animal, ideally having witnessed the slaughter—I bet that gets cut. I was trying to make a point about knowing what you’re eating, all that’s involved in the food that we eat, but it didn’t come out right.
I worked in the afternoon and Anton picked me up for a splendid dinner at the Piedmont with an outstanding charcuterie platter, dry cured meets, excellent pate and headcheese (thank you Drew Brown and Andy Magowan and staff!). The main course featured the loin of pork, all of which was from a breed of hog that was partly ossabaw, raised by Eliza McLean, local being a feature of the evening.
I met many other bloggers, such as Bora, Anna who takes pictures while driving, and Brian Russell and Varmint, former legal counsel for egullet, among other bloggers. Blogging is in a way a very isolated and potentially isolating activity, regardless the views and comments on the blog. How good it was to be face to face with people. I think this will be an increasingly important part of keeping blogs vital, so thanks Anton for showing me that. I don’t like people and crowds, generally. If I’m not working, I like to be alone. But this was strangely satisfying and welcomed. A delight. And Durham, the place I adore but didn’t want to go to, became the site of a mini odyssey I didn’t want and or expect.
I have to go more place I don’t want to go to.
The next morning I got on a plane and met my wife in New York for the party for The Next Iron Chef America (a swell time but what i really wanted to do was have dinner with my wife at The Spotted Pig, and we did and we had some amazing pig parts) …