Denver Bar Association
February 2007
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7 Questions on Taste and Living Life
An interview with food, travel and cultural history guru and journalist, Burt Wolf

by Matthew Crouch

Burt Wolf has produced thousands of segments for CNN, ABC, The Discovery Channel, The Family Channel and PBS. The New York Times described his programs as "the best food, travel, and cultural history shows on television." He recently completed production of his PBS series, "Travels & Traditions," where he travels the world exploring the history, culture, customs, foods, festivals and tourist attractions of Europe, North America, Latin America and Asia. It will air on PBS on Saturday afternoons. He was the first recipient of the James Beard Foundation Award for "Best Television Food Journalism," and a national Emmy in connection with cultural history.

Wolf has written or edited more than 60 books, including The Cooks’ Catalogue, which TIME Magazine described as "the definitive book on cooking equipment." He founded and managed a national franchise of more than 276 cooking equipment shops called Cooks Kitchens, which was eventually extended to The May Company, Marshall Fields, Ives and Macy’s outlets.)

Denver Docket: How would you define taste?

Burt Wolf: The chemistry of taste — what happens in your mouth and tongue — and taste as fashion. A couple of years ago everybody was eating foie gras and now the government in Chicago has outlawed the sale of foie gras, so it went from taste to tasteless.

DD: Is there such a thing as refined taste?

BW: I think a refined taste means an experienced taste. You get educated to the taste of certain things. My wife didn’t know anything about port, so I got a selection of ports and explained their history. Port ages in two ways: it can age in wood, in which case it is called tawny and has kind of a brown/tan look to it, or it is aged in a bottle, where it has a very different quality and is called vintage. We then tasted the two and she knew she liked the vintage over the tawny. So now we know not to order tawny and we are into vintages. I don’t know if you would call that refined, but I definitely would call it an educated palette.

DD: How does a person refine his/her taste?

BW: Keep eating! You don’t have to travel far, but you need a desire to acquire the knowledge and you have to inquire in the right places. If you are going to learn about cheese, you want the person who knows and cares about cheese and nothing else. If you are interested in wine, you want to go to the wine store with the most knowledgeable people. Pick up a book about cheese or wine. I got my wife Windows on the World Complete Wine Course, by Kevin Zraly, who was the sommelier at Windows on the World. As she got to each section in the book, we bought a bottle of the featured wine. She started in Alsace with a bottle of Riesling and a bottle of Gewürztraminer. She drank them and didn’t like the Riesling but liked the Gewürztraminer. You eat and eat and eat until you find out what you like and you skip the other stuff. That knowledge will save a lot of money over in the future.

DD: Anything you’ve tasted that you were surprised you liked?

BW: I think different people and different cultures have a different sense of what goes together. Marcella Hazan is a famous Italian food authority who was my Italian food teacher 30 years ago. She wanted to give me a dessert called the Chimney Sweep. I asked what it was and she said, "You take a scoop of very good vanilla ice cream and put it in a nice glass so it looks beautiful." Okay, I got it. "And then you take espresso coffee," — not the liquid form but the ground beans — "and spread a teaspoon of that over the entire ice cream." I said, "Oh, this is getting quite weird." "And then you take a tablespoon of Scotch whiskey and pour it over the ground coffee and ice cream." I thought "Boy, I am going to hate this," but it was fabulous. Try it!

DD: How does taste transfer to life?

BW: My advice to my children has been: If it feels good, and it won’t hurt you or anyone else and is not illegal, do it! And the moment it feels bad, stop, and try something else. They will ask "What about investing?" and "Should I go to that school?" I don’t know about any of that stuff. I know if it feels good, do it, and if it feels bad, stop it. That has been my life. I am a great believer in Victor Frankel’s advice: "You cannot control the stimuli with which you are going to be confronted but what you can do is control your response to that stimuli."

DD: Is there one place special to you that you thing everyone should see?

BW: Rome is the city and Tuscany is the countryside. Spending a few days in Rome with a knowledgeable person is a hoot! It’s like a giant mental hospital — perfect for me! (laughing) It beats New York; it beats everything. It is crazy. It has the Vatican right in the middle, and then great restaurants, fabulous art, nutsy people and horrendous traffic. I have been going to Rome for 40 years and I still don’t get the traffic. I told this to a friend who said, "It is very simple — every driver is his own Republic." (laughing) And then spend a week in the early or mid-fall in the Tuscan countryside. It is extraordinary. Tuscan mountains in mid-fall and Rome anytime.

DD: What is your favorite law and why?

BW: I think I like tort law the best. Judge Irving Younger, the great evidence teacher, was my cousin. He told me that tort law was the greatest civilizing influence on Western behavior. Instead of punching someone in the mouth, which could get you in a lot of trouble, you just went to court and aggravated that person to death — you could say things in court and be free from libel and slander. I love tort law! When I was younger, if someone aggravated me, I would pull out the standard form for a summons & complaint and write it in, enter it into the court and I would say to myself, "that will teach that S.O.B.!" For $35, you got it out of your system. Yep … tort law.

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