Sarah Lohman, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Simon & Schuster, 2016.
Sue and I have been reading Eight Flavors, a fascinating new book by Sarah Lohman about food products that have transformed the American palate. Once exotic, now they are ubiquitous. Can’t imagine American cuisine without them.
This Changes Everything?
Lohman passes on coffee, chocolate and a few other “usual suspects,” she says, because they have been examined in great depth by other authors. Fair enough. So what are her eight flavors? They are: Black Pepper, Vanilla (which replaced rose water as a flavoring), Chili Powder, Curry Powder, Soy Sauce, Garlic, MSG (the umami flavor), and the most recent addition, Sriracha
Each chapter presents the history of the flavor along with elements of Lohman’s personal investigation and a handful of recipes, too. In its approach and deft writing syle Eight Flavors reminds me of another of my favorite food books, Lizzie Collingham’s Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerors. High praise!
The story of Sriracha is particularly interesting to me because I have watched as this product and its intense flavor have moved from “ethnic” to mainstream right before my eyes. Once upon a time I found Sriracha mainly at Vietnamese restaurants, but now it is everywhere: in ketchup, potato chips and popcorn, jerky, candy canes, lip balm, cans of baked beans, a special Big Mac sauce, and even craft beer (the Rogue brewery makes a Sriracha hot stout beer). Amazing.
Readers are treated to a personal tour of the huge California factory where Sriracha is made, which is also amazing. What’s the next big flavor? There are several possibilities, but Lohman thinks that pumpkin spice might become flavor number nine.
I haven’t seen Sriracha wine yet, but I suppose it is only a matter of time.There is a version of Sriracha from Colorado that is flavored with Ravenswood Zinfandel! Searching the web I discovered someone who added Sriracha to a glass of red wine (not a total success) and an innovative wine-Sriracha pairing event (looks like it sold out).
What About Wine?
Eight Flavors got me thinking (which usually means trouble) about wine. Are there eight flavors that have entered the world of wine and transformed it the way that chili powder and soy sauce have changed food in America? Not particular wines or wine brands (although it is difficult not to think that way), but flavors associated with the wines?
Here are a few half-baked ideas that I have come up with to get things started. I invite you to comment on my choices and to suggest wine flavors of your own.
Lemonade. This flavor is suggested by the great success of Gallo’s Thunderbird wine in the 1950s. Thunderbird took flight when a Gallo salesman noticed customers adding lemon drink mix to white port, giving it a fruit flavor that appealed to the American palate of that generation and was so successful that it provided a solid financial foundation for Gallo’s growth. Although Thunderbird fell out of fashion in most areas, the market for fruit-flavored wines has hung around in various forms (Google “fruit-flavored wines” and you will see what I mean). You might think of the many Sangria-style wines as falling into this category, too. Authentic Sangria shows that fruit flavoring done right can be delicious indeed.
Red Coke. Cola drinks are typically sweet, with balancing acidity, a nice fizz, and served ice cold. Riunite Lambrusco was developed to be “red coke” for the American market — sweetish, fizzy, low in alcohol. It was for many years the best-selling imported wine in America. Riunite on ice, that’s nice — or at least that’s what millions of consumers said. If you are of a certain age you might remember Cold Duck wine, which is still produced under the André California Champagne label. (Canadian readers might recall “Baby Duck” wine.) This cold, soft flavor, or something like it, can be found in a host of “chill-able” red wines today.
Butterscotch. I am sure you have already guessed that I am talking about a particular style of Chardonnay that partly fueled the Chard boom, then fell out of favor, and is now experiencing a renaissance in some circles. Buttery, slightly sweetish with lashings of oak, this was the taste of the 80s and 90s. That flavor transformed wine more than you might think. It helped introduce Americans to inexpensive Australian wines, for example, and it created a revolution in American vineyards. Fifty years ago there were only a few hundred acres of Chardonnay vines is all of California. Now it is probably the most-planted white wine grape and Chardonnay outsells all other varietal wines, red or white (although Cabernet Sauvignon is catching up).
Silver fizz. After reading science editor turned wine writer Jamie Goode’s new book I Taste Red I have come to understand that taste is complicated — it is hard to separate color, texture, aroma and flavor. They are all mixed together and it is probably impossible (or at least counter-productive) to deconstruct them the way that wine tasting notes often do. With this mind, I want to propose “silver fizz” as a flavor — the flavor of Prosecco and wines like it, which are sweeping through the wine world today much as Siracha has done over in food world. Is the secret the way that Prosecco (or Cava? or Champagne?) tastes, or how it makes you feel? And does it even matter which it is?
Four flavors — it is a start. Somehow I don’t feel like I have captured that transformative dynamic as well as Lohman did with her food flavors. Is it because my choices are poor? In that case, I would appreciate your critique and suggestions.
Or is it because wine is different? Is wine somehow more rooted in traditional methods and flavors and less able to accept or be changed by outside influences? If so, is that a good thing?
See, I told you there would be trouble. Instead of answers I seem to have questions. Typical!