Food, Fish and Liquor...in which Uncle Duke examines his lack of Taste


I am jealous of men who cook. In the same way that I am jealous of men (and women) who flyfish. In the land of my birth, fishing entailed loading up a hook with crawdads or grasshoppers, worms or other assorted goobers, putting a bobber on the line, heaving the whole she-bang into a likely-looking farm pond and waiting. It was in fact a battle of wits and wills but not terribly stylish or artistic. There were for sure no metronomes involved in the training, and finesse was not required.

I do not recall a mode of dress associated with it, though it could be said that most of us preferred jeans and feed caps. I know I never shopped for my fishing attire in a catalogue, certainly not one that was offering vests or boots or hats that would make me look like Hemmingway. I was not at that time in search of an alternate identity.

All I recollect is that it was something one did mostly as an excuse to do nothing, requiring as it did, so little effort and taking up, if one did it right, the better part of a day. I do also sort of recall that there was beer involved, and IDs were not required. This did of course contribute to its appeal.

It was swell enough fun, I suppose, but it lacked sophistication. I have always wished that something like flyfishing had been part of my heritage. Something more artistic, something that required skill, dexterity and timing. With perhaps a dash of delicacy, a proper sense of decorum, and perchance a stylish haberdasher.

Where I’m from, our fishing was a little more primitive. As was our cooking. In our quarters we fished for bass and crappie and catfish and sometimes cooked them when there were no women around who would volunteer to do it. We breaded them heavy, salted the snot out of them, threw them in a skillet of boiling Crisco and cooked them ’til they fell apart.

In our defense, the mothers and grandmothers of my acquaintance did not welcome men into their kitchens. It was primarily their domain, and a male presence there was mostly considered an intrusion. We were generally somehow in the way and asked to go elsewhere. Consequently, our mentors were older men whose cooking skills were as stunted as our own. But the good thing was that no one expected much from us. Least of all us. So we generally managed to exceed our own expectations.

My point is that when we did cook, even in this manner, we were mostly happy enough with the results. The men I knew were not what you’d call perfectionists in culinary matters. If it tasted more or less like the foods we were familiar with and was sufficiently filling, why that was good enough. Scrambling was not a cooking method confined to eggs. All foods, it turned out, could be satisfactorily scrambled.

And to be honest, food was fodder, not a delicacy. It was generally wolfed, hardly ever savored. Food was consumed primarily to appease the Hunger Gods. To keep our machine-bodies going. We were a ‘Food as Sustenance’ bunch. Food as vittles, food as something you put in your belly to keep going. Breakfast was to get you started and power you through ’til dinner. Dinner was there to get you and your belly through ’til suppertime. And then supper was meant to get the both of you through ’til breakfast. Then we repeated the process.

Simply put, food was fuel for the engine. And cooking was one of those things which was dictated simply enough by the principle of Conservation of Energy. It was a pretty straight-forward equation. If the preparation and the cooking and the cleanup took more energy than the food consumed actually produced, then you were spinning your wheels. What was the point after all?

So I come from generations of men who ate what was put in front of them day after day, for years on end, and were thankful, by God, to be eating it. Men who appreciated well enough the effort that went into the preparing and the cooking, even if many of those who put in that effort were not particularly skillful or talented or even interested in the process.

As a slight aside, there were only three types of cheese in the Known World at that time. American, Swiss and Cottage. And the first two were conveniently pre-sliced to fit perfectly between a couple of slices of white bread and on top of a piece of bologna. Or goose liver, which should not be confused with pâté. Or liver cheese. Which was not cheese at all. Or really anything else for that matter. Except filling. Which it was plenty. And tasted so good with a lot of mayonnaise and an RC cola on a hot day.

Anyway, as I recollect it, my people were unfamiliar with and unconcerned about Presentation. It had actually not been invented yet, as far as I know. Unless you count colors. There were in fact colors to consider. Three of them mostly. You had your browns, which were the meats. And the whites, which were the potatoes or the rice. And then you had the greens which were the vegetables. These were mostly boiled sufficiently so as to be indistinguishable from one another. Then you slathered gravy over the whole affair. Which could sometimes be artful. But not generally. This is pretty much what I recall in terms of Presentation.

The point is, I suppose, that I would secretly love to be an epicure. I would love to talk ‘food’, to compare and exchange recipes, to discuss spices and seasonings, sauces and marinades and the perfect pie crust. In the same way, I would love to talk about tying a Wooly Booger or using a roll cast in a tight spot on the Snake River. But neither are in my Heritage.

I would love to be knowledgeable and discriminating in all manners of things that I am not. And I have tried on occasion to be that guy, but it just doesn’t play for me.

For example, I have tried without success to be a bourbon snob. I learned the vocabulary well enough and already had the accent. And I tried hard to taste the apples and the cinnamon, the cloves and the clover of those high-end bourbons. I swear I did.

And I would often nod wisely and pretend to show appreciation for those extra couple years of careful aging, rolling across my tongue and examining those additional, thoughtful degrees of proof. But it was mostly a ruse.

The truth is that bourbon consistently burns my tongue in that raucous and charming way that I am so fond of and warms my gullet so delightfully. It settles contentedly in my belly, heating my cold cockles and ringing my bell a little before suppertime. The truth is I prefer a bourbon that rips my lungs out. You can just pour me a couple of fingers of Old Overshoe in a glass with an ice cube or two, and I am as happy as a clam.

And I have on occasion presented myself as an enthusiast of fine wines. And I do drinkwine. A fair amount of it actually. Like it a lot. But I appreciate it in about the same way I appreciate iced tea. It tastes good and washes down a meal really well. But in the latter example, I do not ask for the iced tea list and agonize over it. Neither do I ask the server what they think or sniff the tea bag. It all tastes pretty much the same to me.

I go to a wine tasting, and I taste… “Hmmm…wine. Yes. And I’m going out on a limb here, but…Red? Yes, it’s a Red wine. I’m pretty sure of that.”

It pains me to say this, but for the life of me I cannot tell a Merlot from a Cabernet. I am told they have different personalities, and one is more robust and the other more delicate. But I always forget which is which. And I cannot taste the cherry or the chocolate or the currant in the one, nor even the spice or cedar or tobacco in the other. I will say that they both please me equally and I am honored they gave up their little grape lives for me.

But all those years of pipes and cigars and chewing tobacco now betray me. They have left me with a severe disadvantage. Mine is, alas, a permanently impaired palate.

To my eternal shame, I cannot distinguish between wines from France and Spain, California and Washington, Augusta and Herman. Or France and Herman for that matter. Though I try my darnedest. I always drink the entire sample and generally ask for another.

No, sir. I could not define a ‘body profile’ or distinguish a ‘bold finish’ if my life depended on it. The language of subtlety and hints and refinement simply escape me.

My sons recognize me as a hard-core carnivore, an undiscriminating, blood-lust consumer of calories and cholesterol. And though I am blessed with a metabolism that absorbs and expends all of them, I understand I am often an embarrassment to them.

And there is nowhere to hide in today’s world. I am surrounded by practitioners of haute cuisine, foodies and amateur sommeliers of all manners and stripes. It is a cultured world that I live in, and I am on the outside looking in.

And as long as I can remember, I have aspired be a gentleman of refinement, a fine, practiced fellow of taste and high culture. And I keep thinking that somehow fly fishing might have changed all that. Or maybe if I had grown up playing chess instead of checkers, bridge instead of poker. If I had read more classics and fewer comic books. If I had practiced ballroom instead of boogie, ballet instead of baseball. Billiards, not pool. Or if I had just listened to opera instead of opry, it all might have been different.

It certainly grieves me no end to admit all of this, but sophistication…Sigh…is another lifetime away. Maybe two. This particular die is already cast, I reckon.