Saturday, February 11, 2012

Coconut Water Response (and a Discussion of Snobbery and Reverse Snobbery)

I just got an email from an old friend regarding my recent coconut water tasting. He pointed me to this interesting article from today's Wall Street Journal ("The Beverage Wars Move to Coconuts"). Thanks for the link!

But he was unhappy with my tasting report:
"I was shocked at your decision to report on "high-end" coconut water. Seems so out of character for you. My false image of you is the guy who discovers the cheap little out of the way places, not the guys with the big ad budgets."
False is right! I've been dogged by that misapprehension since I first started writing in 1988. There's a subtle snobbery at work.

25 years ago, it was just barely acceptable to write seriously and respectfully about restaurants that weren't high-end French, Italian, or Japanese. Just barely! But swathes of the culinary spectrum remained untouchable. When I submitted a serious, respectful review of a Colombian street cart vendor, my editor smirked and refused to publish it. Eventually, he was persuaded. But it was perceived to be some seriously dodgy stuff, and ridiculed in print by no less than the future NY Times critic Sam Sifton (who was also, interestingly, my editor at the time).

Today, it's become acceptable to respect the full range of creative offerings, even when scandalously inexpensive. But those who do so are forever branded as bottom-feeders. For reasons that can only be attributed to snobbery, it's assumed that this is all they're interested in. If you eat only high-end French, you're a gourmet. But if you eat high-end French and also Dominican chicharrones, you're a cheap-eats person, period (even though chicharrones are lardons!)

As I wrote in the introduction to the "Chowhound's Guide" series for Penguin:
"Different pleasures come at different prices, and a chowhound seeks to enjoy the full spectrum, so we cover it all. Chowhounds are neither snobs nor reverse snobs because both miss out on too much pleasure. The mantra is "deliciousness is deliciousness"; a wonderful brownie baked with ample love, skill, and pride is as worthy of respect and admiration as the richest Persicus caviar. You'll get the best possible use from this guide if you, too, embrace deliciousness in all its many manifestations."
I've written extensively about Vintage port since the early 1990's. After Alain Ducasse opened his first titanically expensive Manhattan outpost on a summer night in 2000, there were several Chowhound reports the following day, from the same folks who'd been gleefully reporting on congee and tacos. Chowhound has always teemed with savvy and complete analysis of some of the world's most high-end restaurants. Yet, to this day, the users of my web site and I are considered by a surprisingly large number of people to be declassé at best, and reverse-snobs at worst.

As stated in the old FAQ:
So chowhounds are bottom-feeders, the types who eat the cheapest possible chow?

No. Chowhounds are not unshaven men in dirty raincoats, darting out of foul-smelling storefronts while shoving cheap greasy yum-yums in their mouths. Chowhounds are driven to deliciousness, period, and they'll go way out of their way to find honest, evocative eating at any price range. That said, they're also savvy enough to appreciate value, so they'd rather not buy their rugelach at Balducci's when the same pastries are available at the baker's outlet in Brooklyn at a fraction of the price. And they hate to pay $50 for dishes cooked better elsewhere for $20. But you can't get foie gras for six bucks, and Chateau Margaux is one heckuva great drink.
It seems uber-reasonable to me. And it's the very point I was always trying to make with Chowhound. And it was, indeed made. Resoundingly! Thunderously, even! Yet the misapprehension remains.

Back to my friend's email:
"And also an odd concept - if it's a natural product, why is Zico "higher-end" than Goya?"
Coffee is a natural product, as well. As is orange juice, saffron, mushrooms, chicken, and any number of foods, including water itself, which are known to range widely in quality. The main variables, as elsewhere, are sourcing (all coconuts are not alike, much less equally fresh), processing methods and diligence, and packaging quality. Plus overall diligence and caring.

I was interested in coconut water well ahead of the trend. And I grew tired of the "cooked" flavor and sour aftertaste I experienced from brands at the time, all of them cheap. Over the past couple of years, new brands have appeared, some of them taking greater care in sourcing and processing. I wanted to check them all out side-by-side.
"In any case, it looks like there is no guarantee that a particular brand will source from a particular place, so it's probably a moving target..."
There is certainly pooling, and there are any number of purely marketing-driven brands (as I noted in the article). And that includes plenty of Goya-esque sour, "cooked" coconut water being marked up in fancy packaging. But the tasting uncovered some standouts. Which was, after all, the objective, no?

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