Sadly, I am cursed with an average palate.
My taste buds are the culinary equivalent of meatloaf, the canine version of mutt. Should my palate be granted a license and keys to any car, it would surely choose a modest-grade Buick.
This served me well growing up in the ’70s, a child of parents who never ventured into adventure in the kitchen. We drank powdered milk, and dessert was likely to be either ice milk (no, not ice cream) or daisy-shaped butter cookies, with a hole in the middle for my child-sized index finger. We were permitted three at a time.
Even on the rare occasion of a soda “splurge” with popcorn on Saturday nights, the choices began — and ended — with 7 Up.
Now, not acquiring a taste for finer tastes also served as a bit of self-protection, especially when it came to my mother’s green bean casserole and anything that had broccoli in it. Not that my tastes haven’t evolved and grown over time. I love broccoli today and can at least be in a kitchen with green bean casserole.
So while I have grown to appreciate well-made food and drink, I lack those skills some possess to take a taste into their mouths and, like diagramming a sentence, tear it apart into its component pieces.
Case in point: alcohol. Over the holidays, I enjoyed reading Wright Thompson’s new book, “Pappyland: A Story of Family, Fine Bourbon and the Things That Last.” The book tells the story of the storied Van Winkle family and its rise, fall and rise again in the bourbon realm, a land in which I am a loyal subject.
Thompson writes exquisitely about the intricacies of bourbon making and whether it, over time, “makes the trip” to that destination of specialness. The book’s subject, Julian Van Winkle, is described as having one of the finer palates around. But so too are other walk-on characters in this book.
Drinking a 15-year-aged rye, one of the characters describes the flavor as “‘crazy thick, rich color of dark amber ... sweet and powerful on the nose with a beautiful muted floral and rich grain aroma and all you feel is the perfect combination of vanilla, dark caramel, spice, wheat and magic.”
I can say with certainty that, except for drinking a vanilla milkshake, I can never pick up the taste of vanilla in anything, and I use it extensively in some recipes. And I sure as hell have never tasted magic.
I cannot drink a glass of wine and detect the subtle influences of chocolate and currants. Nor should anyone — isn’t that the whole point of their influence being subtle? Nor can I derive dark caramels, buttery anything (other than rolls) or anything bordering on sublime.
Salty? Garlicky? Sure, but those are battering rams that don’t require a palate so much as a pallet.
And it doesn’t matter what the Van Winkle’s family bourbon ultimately tastes like anyway. I can’t find a bottle of it anywhere and couldn’t afford it if I could. I am a man of average means and taste. I have no more means of detecting a bouquet of adventure than I do magic.
So, yes, I have a healthy appreciation of things that last. But appetite for them? It’d be wasted on me.
Oh, and you know what else lasts? Powdered milk.