As she was preparing to head out for the evening, my host called out to me, “What you should do is to take out all those bottles of vinegars and oils, and taste them one by one.” It was a generous offer on her part, but as I stared into the narrow kitchen cupboard, I realised that it was a challenge as much as an invitation. Each of these bottles—nine of which were balsamic vinegar, five of which were olive oil—had been individually infused with something different. She’d bought them from a specialist shop in the neighbourhood. Presumably, a collection of these were supposed to extend the palette of available flavours that you could add to whatever you might be cooking. But I was just trying to put a simple salad together for dinner. After tasting everything, I was at a loss. Some of them were indeed very nice, but I couldn’t help thinking—if I’d wanted a taste of lime, I’d just used lime juice, why a lime-flavoured olive oil? If I’d wanted bacon flavour, why not just panfry some lardons and throw those in? If I’d wanted fig, I could just include fig, why a fig-flavoured vinegar?The traditional Italian approach is to have two bottles of balsamic vinegars: a good 10-year old for salads, tomatoes, meat or just about anything, and a special 15-year old for dessert, good cheese and steaks. Similarly, just two bottles of olive oils are sufficient—one of lesser quality for cooking, one extra virgin and of better quality for fresh salads. Good oils and vinegars do the job of elevating existing flavours in what you’re making, a bit like turning up the volume on a good song.“Do you have any plain old olive oil?” I eventually asked. She laughed and said, “No, that’d be boring.” There has been one complaint that a couple of friends have independently made to me about the culture of living in San Francisco. To them, there seems to be a kind of obsessiveness about everything, except that the relentless pursuit of “cool” often comes with a contradictory dilution in perspective. I hadn’t really understood what my friends had meant, but as I stared down the bottles of olive oils and vinegars, I wonder if this was what they alluded to: a habit of deep fascination with something, leading to multiple acquisitions of these things because they were all special, to the extent that the original point of having these things were lost.The irony is that it’s highly probable this exact willingness to get away from tradition, coupled with the unbounded sense of what is “enough”, are the very bases for reckless innovation in this part of the world—the latest of which, is, of course, the Apple Watch. On that, I remain cynical: we already have trouble putting our phones away, let’s own yet another thing that makes it easier to constantly distract ourselves! But perhaps a more subtle irony: when the Apple Watch was launched, another announcement came earlier in the day that no one apparently drew a relationship with. On September 9th, some hours before the WWDC, the World Meteorological Organization put out a press release on new record high in greenhouse gas levels in 2013: “The observations from WMO’s Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW) network showed that CO2 levels increased more between 2012 and 2013 than during any other year since 1984.”It is a difficult to draw coherent connections between the rise of CO2 emissions to invention of the Apple Watch—or even to hoarding nine bottles of balsamic vinegar in a kitchen—without touching on climate science, the spectacle of media, the built-in obsolescence of tech, the food systems that make us eat more than what we need, the economic vessels whose success is bent on getting us to always buy more. Each of these areas are complicated and contentious systems that are too perplexing to casually explore on their own; how they interrelate, or the totality of their causes and effects are punishingly difficult to grasp. And so, it’s hard to understand what damage we might be doing to ourselves and the world we live in due to the throw-away culture that we inhabit. But then, it’s difficult to imagine what could be different without jumping off into the extreme and opting-out completely, into a mythical self-sufficient cabin in the woods. A balanced existence is, ironically, also an uneasy one. Packing my small suitcase for the flight home took a little more skill and consideration than usual. In the end, I couldn’t help myself: I still flew home with three small bottles of balsamic vinegar and one large bottle—which I know would be a staple in our kitchen—as well as two bottles of Californian-sourced olive oils. We’d just used up our Italian balsamico and white truffle oil from Tuscany, it seemed timely to try something new.
21 Sep 2014