This article originally appeared in “The Mashup,” my weekly newspaper column for Florida Weekly.
When someone takes the time to pair wines with breakfast cereals, as Gary Vaynerchuk did last year (if you’re wondering what to pair with Cap’n Crunch, it’s the 2007 Von Kesselstatt Spatlese Scharzhofberger Riesling), I think it’s time to admit that the obsession with pairing has gotten a bit out of hand.
Don’t get me wrong: I certainly like food, and I’ve been known to enjoy an occasional glass of wine with a meal, but the obsession some people have with claiming that the notes of fruit from the wind passing over the pear tree in the field adjoining the grape arbors sets off some part of the steak sauce is lost on me.
Call me unsophisticated, but for me wine pretty much comes in two varieties: wine that tastes delicious and wine that doesn’t. Picking out the subtleties of why it’s good or bad isn’t my bag, though I might well pretend otherwise if I were to sit down for dinner with the Queen of England (“why yes, your highness, I do find this to be a delightfully playful glass of the ol’ grape”).
During a meal last week at the recently opened Umi Fishbar and Grill in Palm Beach Gardens though, I was surprised to learn that my palate has a bit more of an opinion about sake. Umi’s sake choices go beyond the “hot” and “cold” varieties that I’m usually offered (yes, I understand that I may not go to the right places); their sake list has a selection of premium sakes in varieties like junmai, junmai ginjo, junmai daiginjo and daijinjo, none of which meant anything to me as I’ve pointedly ignored sake menus in the past.
My loss though: our table shared a few bottles that a restaurant employee explained and recommended (though he couldn’t tell us if there is an equivalent term to sommelier for sake experts – we settled on Sake Master) and not only were they very different, I really could pick out specific flavors in each variety; an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
But back to pairings: the concept is sound, of course. Palates can tend to rebel when mixing certain flavors, as anyone who’s chased a vigorous tooth-brushing with a glass of orange juice or a cup of coffee can tell you. But even leaving aside the absurd pairing of wine and Lucky Charms, I find discussions about hyper-specific pairings to be a bit overwrought, particularly as they always seem to include a specific vintage of wine from a little known winery that only produces three casks a month, and only when there’s a west wind and a specific species of bird is nesting between 1.5 and 2.3 miles north-northwest of the vineyard.
As long as the food and wine (or beer) in question don’t taste like chocolate and ketchup when sharing a table, I say mix and match what you like. After all, just as having a beer you enjoy with a tasty burger is likely to make for a fine afternoon (though personally, I often prefer to pair burgers with a recently decanted Coca Cola on the rocks), a wine you find distasteful (which would be Port, in my case – let me eat my dessert in piece, you pushy sommelier) is never going to be a pleasure regardless of what you’re eating it with.
There are pairings that matter; they’re just not necessarily all food with other food. For example, a fresh milkshake with a ride in a convertible makes for a great after-lunch dessert pairing, and a rocks margarita with an evening by the water is a great cocktail pairing. But my favorite pairings by far are food and music, so grab whatever bottle of wine you like and think about some of the following the next time you serve a meal and want to impress your guests with your pairing skills.
Appetizer: shrimp cocktail with Philip Glass’ “Etude #2” (Etudes for Solo Piano Vol. I): I love this pairing, though I’d suggest partaking in this portion of your meal in super slow motion to fully enjoy it. In slow motion, the spray of the lemon zest arcing through the air and the achingly deliberate dipping of shrimp into deep red cocktail sauce play beautifully against the hypnotic piano work, torturously slow builds and exquisite dramatic payoffs of Glass’ etude. It’s really quite striking.
Those of you without the CD are in luck: this particular piece is available on the Orange Mountain Philip Glass Sampler, which can be downloaded for free from Amazon.com. The slow motion part I can’t help you with.
Main Course: marinated skirt steak with salsa and AC/DC’s “Back in Black” (Back in Black). After languishing in the beauty and subtleties of the slow motion shrimp and Philip Glass course, it’s time to wake up your palate and put quiet time and those frou-frou lovey-dovey emotions aside. A flavorful cut of beef with fresh jalapeno-based salsa (served fajita-style or not) pairs perfectly with Brian Johnson’s snarling lead vocal and the guitar brilliance of brothers Angus and Malcolm Young.
I suggest using a marinade slightly on the sweet side to allow it to play off the acid in the lyrics and create proper balance. Also, make sure there’s plenty of heat in the salsa to allow it to stand up to the Young brothers’ rhythm and leads, which carry the kind of weightiness that can obliterate a small planet. The best part of this pairing is that should your course run longer than the song, the next cut on the Back In Black album is “You Shook Me All Night Long” which pairs beautifully too. So enjoy your beef and don’t rush your meal.
Dessert: Key lime pie and Lou Reed’s “Satellite of Love” (Transformer): This pairing is all about avoiding the over-ingestion of sugar, whether taken by mouth or ear. Because of the obvious associations a diner will make when faced with anything made with Key lime, caution must be exercised to stay away from anything approximating that depressing post-Brian Wilson Beach Boys treacle “Kokomo” or any Jimmy Buffet song whatsoever.
Therefore we need to mine the anti-tropics, and there’s nothing more anti-tropics in music than Mr. New York, Lou Reed. Not all of Reed’s music is about heroin, and “Satellite of Love” from the record Transformer is upbeat and fun enough to provide a perfect complement to the pie. The pairing makes a welcome change from the crashing guitar pyrotechnics of the AC/DC track and perfectly sets up a nice coffee course. It also provides a fine sound track to pointed gestures made with pie-laden forks.
It’s now time to make your choice about the rest of the evening: are you settling in for an evening of smoking Gauloises and debating, or heading out for a night on the town? Because the success of your evening depends on the direction you take here.
Coffee: espresso and the English Beat’s “Save It For Later” (Beat Special Service): Brewed coffee takes up too much room in an already full belly, so a shot or two of espresso gives a needed jolt without weighing you down. The compact presentation of caffeine underscores the open feeling in the song, and Dave Wakeling’s vocals make it clear that there’s no time to linger over a cuppa. By the time the song is over, your espresso will be gone and you’ll be in a great mood and ready to roll. An inspired post-feast paring.
Alcohol: shots of 100% de agave tequila with the Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” (“Moving Pictures”): As with the dessert stage, overdoing a theme can end up feeling overwhelming; needing to balance the Tequila’s Mexican heritage with an opposite (which would be, of course, something Canadian), makes Rush the perfect choice. Plus, the drama of doing straight shots of añejo tequila is complimented perfectly by Neil Peart’s drumming. A great pairing.
Coffee: Double-strength brewed coffee and Miles Davis’ “All Blues” (“Kind of Blue”): One of the great things about the Lou Reed dessert paring is that it works equally well transitioning to something upbeat like “Save it for Later” as it does going into a Miles classic like “All Blues.” The tune will evoke visions of finger-snapping beatniks reciting poetry that can almost be understood, complimenting the super-strong coffee you just made. Davis’ brilliant trumpet work plays beautifully against this take on 50s-style caffeine intake. By the end of the song and your cup of coffee, you’ll be well prepared to stay up all night debating the pros and cons of selling out to the man.
Alcohol: a bottle (you’re staying in for deep talk, remember?) of Powers Irish Whiskey with the entire “Johnny Cash at Folsom Prison” album, set to repeat: The very personal performance fits well with the rich taste of the Powers, and the surprise of June Cash joining Johnny on “Jackson” mirrors the surprises that can pop out of your mouth when you’ve had too many glasses of Irish whiskey. By the time the CD starts over and Cash sings “I shot a man in Reno just to see him die” in the opening track (“Folsom Prison Blues”) you’ll think he meant it. Certainly the prisoners cheering in the background did. A pairing worth the hangover.
I don’t have anything against people who obsess about the right wine with the right food, or use pairing wheels, or do some sort of secret calculation based on acidity, carbohydrates, and relative humidity to figure out what goes with what, it just isn’t my bag. Pairing good music with good food, though, that’s something I can dig, daddy-o.