Why I don’t like tasting

Photo @ Marcia Gagliardi, a.k.a. the tablehopper.com*

I briefly hit the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event at the end of April (wow, I know, this post is amazingly late!). As I ran into colleagues and confessed that I hate tasting events, I was asked again and again, “why?”

While this may be shocking to people, I did not go into food writing because I like to wander around giant tents, convention halls, or hotel ballrooms eating bite-size portions of stone crab tamale with mango foam and drinking two-sip servings of wine.

I went into food writing primarily because I like to write. I also like to cook and I like to eat. I prefer to eat sitting down, surrounded by friends and family and the fine conversation that tends to follow. Remove the social element or an authentic context (I’m using “authentic” to denote a context that has some life and history to it since I am well aware that even a tasting event in a hotel ballroom is a context, it just happens not to be a context I value or want much of a part of) from food and my interest plummets. Quickly.

And wine? I would chose a full pour of something tasty I could sip while engaged in riveting or even just interesting conversation over six of anything I had to evaluate while standing at a folding table and being talked at by the winery’s director of marketing. Anything.

That said, I was amused that as teeny rabbit tamales and the aforementioned stone crab tamales (there, that’s my reporting from the event—chefs with a ton of servings to make ahead and serve to the masses have figured out what abuelas in my neighborhood have known for generations: the answer is tamales) were being doled out by chefs who seemed very earnest about their role in the Grand Tasting Tent (ugh, is the word “grand” a total flashing red light to anyone else? it’s like the classy, understated version of “classy”), the masses there to taste were busy lining up 40-deep to get a handful of the roasted lamb Tom Colicchio was meting out.

I believe at some point the roasted lamb was part of a dish or sandwich or something (there was no way of knowing because Tom, unlike the other chefs, did not bother to put the name of the dish he was serving on his sign), but after about an hour into the tasting the crowd’s insatiable demand for food Tom had touched meant the other ingredients had been run through and only the lamb was left. Lamb that had been, I should note, beautifully roasted and perfectly seasoned, but still simple roasted lamb. The people stayed in that line. They waited for plain roasted lamb that Tom Colicchio himself was carving up and pulling apart into serving shreds with his bare hands.

It warmed my heart. It really did. It exposed four things for which I was glad to collect empirical evidence: 1) No one really likes tastings, not really. If they did, they wouldn’t have waited around for something they already knew what it tasted like. 2) In the end, most people want simple, well prepared food, they really do. 3) To a striking degree people are complete celebrity whores. Shocking so. 4) Tom Colicchio has a wicked sense of humor. He is nice enough to play it off to great effect, too, and that is a sight to behold. He seemed to know that the first three things are unbelievably true and work it for his own entertainment. I mean, the guy was actually laughing as he tore the lamb apart with his bare hands and dropping handfuls of ripped-up meat onto the eagerly held tiny paper plates. There was a twinge of “fuck you” to the crowd desperate for his attention, sure, but he also posed for pictures and signed shirts and napkins and whatnot. He seemed to take pity on the poor bastards, paying their hard-earned—well, at least good—money to spend a beautiful California Saturday in a crowded tent standing in line to eat his meat. (Yes, I went there. Can you blame me? I mean these people were waiting forever just so Tom Colicchio would handle their meat. Oops, there I go again….)

At this point in this long-winded “story” you might have the presence of mind to wonder, “but Molly, if you hate giant tastings in tents so much, why on earth were you there?” And that, dear reader, would be a very good question. The short answer is that failed to scroll down on an email until it was too late. The full and complete answer is that I was invited by Driscoll’s berries to visit their research and testing farm in Watsonville and if there is anything I love more than visiting a farm, it’s visiting a research farm at which I am promised face time with a berry breeder. The email then went on to mention that Driscoll’s was a major sponsor of the Pebble Beach Food and W…. Oh, I don’t care who you sponsor, I thought, I just want to chat with the berry breeder. So I set aside a Saturday and agreed to go. I was sent the complete itinerary the Wednesday before, but I did not open said itinerary right away. The exact order of the field visit and the berry breakfast and the lecture from the berry breeder didn’t, I thought, make much of a difference. When I opened it on Friday I realized that I had mistook the stick for the carrot: Driscoll’s was getting other food folks to stop and learn about berries by promising them tickets to the Pebble Beach thing. After a morning visit to the berry farm we would be shuttled over the the festival and the Grand Tasting and seminars and such. It was last-minute and the mistake was totally mine and I wasn’t raised in a barn, so I didn’t cancel. But I did, I maintain, end up in the Grand Tasting tent totally and completely by accident.

* Cheers to Marcia for her mashing purple dress at the event, not to mention permission to use her photo of Tom Colicchio. If you don’t subscribe to tablehopper.com for her e-newsletter about dining in and a little bit around San Francisco, you are missing some very good weekly dine and dish in your inbox.