What to Make of Pebble Beach Food & Wine

Now that I’ve finally digested the three-day orgy of oysters, Champagne, and what-have-you.

You can both agree and disagree with this sentiment simultaneously. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Some things in this world make you doubt your own commitment to Sparklemotion.

A couple weeks ago, a grin-prone Lexus LS 500 at my house and I drove it to Pebble Beach Food & Wine, repeating the phrase “rich, Corinthian leather” in my best Ricardo Montalban voice as we fumbled with the Bluetooth. Once there, my boyfriend and I got chauffeured around with other journalists, and we didn’t even have to gas up. I’m pretty sure I still feel like a progressive San Franciscan, but this felt like a tempter-in-the-desert-level test, and I’m even surer I failed. For eating six pomegranate seeds, Persephone had to go to Hades for six months out of the year. I ate every fucking thing I could get my mitts on, so I deserve banishment to an alternate universe like on the “USS Callister” episode of Black Mirror.

PBFW is a gathering for big spenders and industry folks, an opportunity to hobnob with or otherwise be dazzled by culinary masters like Daniel Boulud, Dominique Crenn, or Stephanie Izard. It transpires over the course of a long weekend at various venues on the 17-Mile Drive, including The Inn at Spanish Bay and The Lodge at Pebble Beach. Built for golfers in an age before CEQA, they keep the oceanic horizon always within sight, as seasick passengers are instructed to do.

This isn’t to trash it; I forfeited that right and in any case, you make your own fun wherever you go, and I enjoyed myself. (The things that really make me queasy are elaborate galas that raise money to combat hunger. That’s tone-deaf, in a Lindsay Bluth sort of way. And I realize that in saying that, I’m ranking brazen hedonism above philanthropy in my private moral hierarchy. But affluent liberals’ smug self-congratulation really is the worst, because you can feel it in the room.)

People who’d been in years past slagged off PBFW’s vulgarity, but ostentatious displays of wealth weren’t what struck me the most. What kept hitting me was how capitalism’s core tenets are an absurd joke. At the uppermost echelon, the idea that a set sum of money can be exchanged for certain goods and services completely breaks down. I’d long known this, but only in the abstract. At Pebble Beach, I saw it everywhere. When rich people and the brands that yearn for their business converge, instead of absurd markups, the alchemy of the market somehow makes everything free — in a giddily solicitous way. Further, the cost of supporting this infrastructure for those who need it least is obviously baked into the prices that regular people pay for stuff. We subsidize this dynamic, every day. By the end of the weekend, I felt like Rowdy Roddy Piper, wearing sunglasses in They Live — or, weirder still, like my brother, ranting about the tyrannical hegemony of fiat currency.

Of course, there was vulgarity, but not the juvenile, hey-watch-me-snort-pulverized-diamonds-with-a-Kumamoto-chaser type. It was the metastasizing kind that’s encroaching on San Francisco more and more all the time, of extremely boring people who see no reason to question anything because they have a ton of money. At Friday’s after-party, I was cornered by an insufferable Euro guy with a loud watch who kept peppering me with questions about the future of print media and dropping one name after another. Yes, I’ve heard of Sheryl Sandberg, but no I don’t know that other person who’s on whatever commission in Brussels that handles things like the Cambridge Analytica nightmare. Wow, look at the time. I really have to go over here now. And there were plenty of men who looked like they’d gone to a barbershop on Sand Hill Road, threw down $700, and said, “Gimme the Bill Gates!”

But mostly, people were friendly and pleasant — to me and, more importantly, to the winery reps and restaurant staff at the Grand Tastings on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. (Most of them, anyway. I made a point of asking.) I didn’t see anyone scream or vomit or land in a chartered helicopter or lose their inhibitions in a way that made me hate them for all eternity then write about them, typically my default response to barbaric entitlement.

The only cartoon villain I encountered was a woman who snapped at former SF Weekly contributor Omar Mamoon of Dough & Co. that she was saving a seat for a friend at Daniel Boulud and Ludo Lefebvre’s chef demo on Saturday. Caught off guard, Omar apologized that the seat had been marked for his plus-one, who wasn’t coming, and he didn’t want the servers to bring extra food that wouldn’t get eaten.

“Well, I don’t know what a plus-one is!” she harrumphed. Later, she would also demand of everyone and no one that she didn’t know what a shakshouka was, even though the chefs were preparing one on stage and going through the dish’s ingredient list and provenance. Her friend never showed.

If a scene like that had gone down in a restaurant, I would have flared my nostrils and lower teeth and given her my power-faggot death glare until she tesseracted through space-time and we were rid of her forever. But you can’t stay mad when the Champagne never stops.

I’ve told this story backward, because the Champagne was first. Barely an hour after we arrived, a Champagne Delamotte dinner paired exceptional vintages with a pithivier of Provencal asparagus, lobster, and black truffle, and a braised Alaskan halibut — one of them being a stunningly smooth glass that had aged for 42 years on the lees.

“Save Water Drink Champagne” read the neon sign that I sweet-talked my way into some VIP area in order to photograph on Saturday, simultaneously agreeing and disagreeing with its “Let me eat cake” philosophy. We then found a 2012 Domaine de Chevalier Pessac Léognan Bordeaux that tasted like dead leaves and the dirty ground, and returned to the Morro Bay Oyster Company station, waiting behind the barnacle-encrusted buoy for the shuckers to meet demand for Pacific Golds.

Like everybody else, we took pictures with the tricked-out, deep-blue Lexus LC 500 from Black Panther. Not all the brands were that luxurious, though. In one corner, next to Rogelio Garcia of The Commissary was a Kerrygold booth, serving Irish cheese and butter. I tried to maintain some pitiful semblance of professional composure, but after five minutes of being the only idiot taking notes, I gave in completely. It was like being a secret shopper in F.A.O. Schwartz while Tom Hanks is tugging at your shirt, begging you to play the left-hand part in “Chopsticks.” I’m a Pisces, congenitally incapable of saying no.

The relationship between delicacy and disgust is a complex one. In Strange Gourmets, literary theorist Joseph Litvak posits that the capacity for dealing with one’s own sense of disgust is an essential element of good taste. In other words, you must become capable of calmly analyzing that which others instinctively turn from, if you are ever to adjudicate aesthetic merit properly. In the context of PBFW, though, it’s hard to maintain that critical remove. You eat your own disgust, in fact. You bury it under a layer of Tsar Nicoulai caviar and keep eating, hoping to neutralize it in time for the next wave, hoping you’ll somehow be hungry again by then.

 

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