Monday, April 30, 2007

Creeping Connoisseurship

I blame cigars!

Previously, my world was divided between "likes" and "dislikes." I "liked" coffee ice cream; I "disliked" butter pecan. If it was coffee ice cream, I liked it, whether we were talking about Häagen-Dazs or Dolly Madison.

When I recently heard myself offering an opinion regarding Starbucks Mocha beverages--"I don't like the finish"--I realized I was sounding an awful lot like a connoisseur.

This is a departure!

And as best as I can determine, cigars are the reason.

I started smoking cigars because I thought I would be able to transition from cigarets to cigars and gum as my source of nicotine, a drug I love and which I'm hopelessly dependent upon. (So far, no luck.)

I started buying cigars from a place on West 29th Street between 6th and 7th in NYC. In their wee little storefront sat several latino men, puffing away and rolling them as you watch. As Will Smith said, "I don't like'em but I just want the look." (Or something like that.) Then, I discovered good old machine-rolled Grenadiers. Cheap, readily available, and a nice smoke.

Then I moved here, and one day I ventured into the Classic Cigar Parlor in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.

I'd go in, pick out a few, and take note as I smoked them of whether I "liked" or "disliked" that particular cigar. On my next trip, I'd get a few of the "likes" and a few unknowns to evaluate. Then one day, a sales rep from some cigar house set up shop at the Classic Cigar Parlor, hoping to steer customers towards his wares.

And he was an excellent salesman, enthusiastic about the product as he was knowledgeable, and more interested in you leaving happy, even if you didn't leave with a pocketful of whatever he was pushing.

Our conversation initially went like this...

Rep Guy: So, what do you look for in a cigar?

Me: Uhhhh...

Rep Guy: Let me ask it this way, which cigars do you prefer?

I pointed them out.

Rep Guy: Aha! You like maduros!

He explained that the wrapper of the cigar lets you know how the cigar is going to taste. A "Claro" has a pale greenish wrapper, a "Natural" has a brown wrapper, and a "Maduro" has a dark brown wrapper. (Here's a good run-down.) He asked what I liked about the maduros I'd been sampling. I explained that the cigars I had tried with the paler wrappers, the claros and naturals, had an acrid flavor that hit me as harsh. Rep Guy told me that quality, which many people like, was called "grassiness."

Apt! Ever burn green grass? Or smell a farmer burning off his field in the Spring? That's just what it tastes like to me. And I'm not fond of it.

Ahhh... But maduros! So rich! So full of flavor!

The way I've come to think of it, Claro is green tea, and Maduro is espresso. Bitter, some would say, but so full of flavor.

And Rep Guy pointed me in the direction of a few of his favorite maduros (not from the house he worked for).

And I loved them.

I loved them so much that I came to experience cigars differently. It wasn't just "like" or "dislike," as in, how it hit my palate right off the bat, coffee ice cream style. Well I remember my first Trilogy. I lit it, and there were these luscious billows of seemingly narcotic smoke. And such a complexity of flavors. It evolved. They told a story. As the smoke unfolded, I'd notice different aspects.

And I've come to appreciate that complexity in other things. that multifariousness. What Gerard Manley Hopkins was talking about when he said "Glory be to God for dappled things". It's all about the interplay and the subjectivity... Because it's my experience. There's this aspect, but also that. And that. And that, too. And that and that and that.

Keep going down that road, and your palate becomes less and less a Star Chamber, dividing experiences between "like" and "dislike." Rather, it's all about noticing, paying attention, and appreciating the experience.

So with a mocha frappucino, there is that first hit of rich bitter-sweet. Yum! But there's a powdery quality, something insubstantial. But then there's the finish. the final third of what you suck up the straw: bad tasting water that leaves a nasty bolus on the back of your tongue, tasting of nothing in particular.

1 comment:

Xris said...

I see nothing wrong with becoming a connoisseur. It need not slip into snobbery.

Not being one for the nicotine, I draw my analogy from gardening. When a gardener learns to appreciate the foliage and forms of his plants, not just the flowers, he has become a connoisseur. He's a plant snob if he thinks flowers, and any who only notice the flowers, are beneath him.