Archive for September, 2008


Monday, September 1st, 2008



Susan Gordis

Native New Yorkers are a very special group. We are not the people who scurry by visitors who are hopelessly lost and are trying to catch someone’s eye, and we are not the people who are totally devoid of manners in the streets or in stores or, for that matter, anywhere. We are in fact warm and friendly, helpful and polite, and amazingly talkative, and part of that is because we know for a fact that we live in the single greatest place on the planet. In my small amount of global travel I came to love London (where I almost speak the language) and Rome (where every policeman, never mind the populace, is so stunning that it’s heart-stopping), but I can not imagine living anywhere but on my island.

There was a period of time when people were wearing buttons that said, “I AM NY,” but I don’t wear buttons so I never did. But I believe that I am an embodiment of that thinking, so much so that I am virtually unable to make myself pass people on the street who are scrutinizing the street signs, or squinting at the bus numbers at a bus stop, or holding a map. There are maps of the subways and buses, of course, and all kinds of guidebooks, and maps of the streets. I have discovered that people will not let go of their maps even when I stop to help them (and they want my help), so if we do not have a language in common (and I have only one) I often have to physically turn them around to get the map and the island to face in the same direction as the only help I can actually offer. (I get away with that more readily than I would if I were a man, but that’s another discussion entirely.) I do, of course, locate the intersection on the map that coincides with the place we are actually standing (the human version of the arrow marked “you are here”) and that can be a service as well.

The people who speak English almost invariably tell me that they have had nothing but good experiences in making their way around the City, although we all agree that in the business districts they have more difficulty eliciting help. The reason for that, I explain, is that the people they encounter there are not native New Yorkers, but the commuter population who come here because they must in order to earn their living (and often are not happy to be here). It’s impossible for visitors to tell the difference between “them” and “us,” but unless natives are running hopelessly behind to be on time to an appointment or an important rendezvous we stop and make sure that our guests can find out how to get to where they want to go, or at least get their bearings so they can decide what’s next on their calendar. We adore showing off our city.

On West 57th Street on the way to the dentist I found myself saying to an American woman, “It’s morning and the Sun is over there. Therefore that direction is east.” She seemed surprised that she hadn’t thought of that herself, as she learned that in elementary school too, and no third grader had stopped to educate her. After I provided her with a little more information about the buses that run on 57th Street and acquainted her with the signs at the bus stop she seemed happy and secure that she could undertake the next part of her morning with no further assistance. Like most people for whom I stop she thanked me numerous times, and we set off in differing directions, each pleased with our meeting.

On the subway one Saturday last October on my way to the Union Square farmers market I was seated next to a young woman who was looking at photographs she had taken of the Empire State Building in her cell phone. From what I could see they were not terribly good photographs - the postcards one can buy would have been better images, but she had taken them herself. She was seated to my right, and on her right was another young woman, while two others were standing in front of them sharing a pole. One of the standees was wearing a sweatshirt that said, “Indiana State University,” the other was wearing “Columbia University.”

As I am indeed proud of my place I was the one who started to talk first (that’s not unusual, actually). I said to the girl next to me, “So you’ve seen the Empire State Building. Where else are you going and how long are you staying?” “We’re going now to Ground Zero.” (This is a term that used to mean the whole of Manhattan Island during the Cold War, but now of course it means the plot of ground where the World Trade Towers used to stand.) And then she added, “We have to leave tomorrow,” in a mournful tone. I gave the necessary instructions about having to be in the first six cars of the train in order to get to Ground Zero, and then to make sure to include all four of them in the conversation I said, “You are wearing a sweatshirt from Indiana State University. Are you ladies from Indiana?” “Yes,” said the Indiana State University advertiser, “we are.” She was interrupted as she started to say more by her friend the human Columbia University billboard who said proudly, “I had this sweatshirt before I came to New York.” I nodded.

“So what else have you seen so far?” All four began to talk at once, spilling out their feelings about having come to New York for United Nations Day in the hope of bolstering the work of the UN. We were getting dangerously close to my stop and I knew I was going to leave them very soon, so I said, “The UN was the best idea of the 20th Century, and perhaps the worst disappointment, but I’m really glad you have taken the time and made the effort to come here to try to reinforce what my generation had hoped for.” Three of them began to talk at once, but the girl seated furthest from me was quiet. When the cross talk died down she said, thoughtfully, “Thank you for what you just said. Of course we think we are the first ones to want peace and tranquility for everyone. We need to remember what has come before.” I loved her, of course.

I stood up and explained that I was getting off at the next stop, and said, “You four have made me hopeful for what’s coming in the future,” which they all loved, and when the train stopped and I got off I deliberately headed to the stairway that would allow me to look through the windows of the subway car, where they were in a conclave which I believe I had started. I was, as always, proud to have spoken to people visiting the City, and to have given them a little something to think about and take home to Indiana. And I was indeed very pleased that their generation is optimistic about the future of the human race, and they’re trying to figure out how to undo the enormous damage that has preceded them.

The thing about true New Yorkers is that we talk. We talk to each other and we talk to “outsiders.” We talk in the buses and subways, on line in the supermarket and post office, in elevators, in the street when the light is against us as we wait to cross, everywhere. And once someone starts a conversation it leads to people feeling more comfortable about striking up other conversations. Children know all about this, of course, but we adults need to be reminded. Children, after all, talk to one another in the playground, on the sports field, in the hallways at school, and are so good at this that they need to be instructed not to do it with strangers and not to be so garrulous in their classrooms. But once we are old enough to distinguish among people who are unknown to us we can do it too, and I talk quite a lot to lots of different people.

© 2007 Susan Gordis

Tasting Notes or Testing Notes?

Tasting Notes or Testing Notes? The Nose Knows

by Sharyn Yensko

Strawberries, cherries, leather, coffee, cinnamon, mushrooms…I thought wine was made from grapes. How do all these other aromas and flavors come into this? Tasting notes can be confusing. Are they actually meant to help you understand how a wine tastes? Well, maybe, but it can seem as if they’re speaking to a select group of initiated and poking fun at you. Or perhaps just trying to impress you with the great complexities of wine or give you a bit of vertigo. It is daunting to try to perceive all the aromas/flavors depicted in some columnists tasting notes. Take heart. Tasting notes really do provide valuable information (Okay, there are those who wax a bit too poetic and describe flavors such as quince, wisteria, and sawgrass …perfumes/flavors not all of us can relate to as easily as, for example, red berries). By and large, these descriptions are not all pompous displays of how many fruits, spices and flowers the reviewer knows. Most notes, whether well written, completely accurate or not, can help you understand how a wine will taste.

How? You say? First, as bizarre as it might seem, it is not just an illusion that many aromas and flavors are present in the wine. Yes, really present.

First let’s clarify the role of smell in tasting. It is indispensable. Humans perceive only four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour. Humans perceive thousands of smells…detect, identify, differentiate them. Think of eating when you have a stuffed nose. The tastes are almost non-existent. Smells color those four flavors and give us nuances and a repertoire of flavors we easily recognize (Mmm, I smell chocolate, bacon, roast turkey..).

No, it is not with smoke and mirrors that these aromas and flavors permeate the juice of fermented grapes. How is this possible? The answer is natural law. Wine is made from grapes…we all know that. But did you realize that wine is alive? Yes alive because it contains yeasts, which are living organisms. All living organisms change over time and conditions. The same is true for wine. As the grapes ferment and then age, many molecules develop. Here’s the great scientific fact: the same molecules that make strawberries smell and taste like strawberries can be present in some wines. So when you smell cherries, leather, coffee, nutmeg…in wine, yes, you really do smell those fruits flowers and spices. Tasting notes are supposed to help you identify and therefore appreciate the multiple and seemingly unrelated tastes and smells that rush at you when you taste wine.

With the help of tasting notes and lots of practice, you begin to sense the aromas and tastes together and recognize each flavor as it unfolds in layers. The aromas are manifestations of the characteristics of the specific grape(s) and the wine made with it. Each grape varietal exhibits specific aromas called Primary Aromas. Many, or even most wines are a blend of several grape varietals, each with its own set of primary aromas. This is why lots of practice tasting is key. The aromas that result from the vinifying process are called secondary aromas and they indicate the wine’s origin and style. As a wine ages and oxidizes it gains tertiary aromas. Here’s where the fun really gets rolling. Tasting regularly becomes a mind puzzle as well as a sensual pleasure. Even in the early steps you recognize, but can’t name lots of aromas/flavors…just can’t put your finger on it. Memories come rushing from your mouth and nose to your brain faster than you can say Marcel Proust.

Most of what you will taste is revealed in repeated sniffing. As you start to sense more and more aromas, you will also notice that you taste these flavors in layers that develop in your mouth. After swallowing, exhale through the nose and observe the persistent aromas. This is called retro olfaction and it gives you the rounding out of the flavors.

Count the seconds the wine flavors last in your mouth. The longer the duration, the better the wine
Mmmm. Enjoy the road.