Appreciating appreciation

The other night, some corporate types showed up and took our team out to a high end eatery (Hardware Grill). Think around $150 a person. My entrée was described in the typical fashion of such an establishment as a “porcini encrusted halibut with lobster-truffled potato crepes, white corn-arugula & gulf prawns, with warm Portobello vinaigrette”. (I find that though many of these places have rather involved and elitist sounding descriptions they do still tend to be warm and informal at the table.) Had a remarkable scallop starter and a kicking espresso ice cream with fudge sauce desert but this entrée had me wishing for my $9 thai takeout succinctly called “chicken with cashews”. (And why is it that even the best restaurants seem to have bad coffee?) Though my dish was beautiful to behold it was a little too subtle in taste and if there was an underlying motif it belonged in the mustard family. Now, what I had run up against here was a constellation of flavours that I was not fond of but I could tell it was well done. I appreciated the artistry and construction of the dish even if I didn’t like the taste of it. That, for me, was a little unusual. Normally I like food or I don’t but here I was appreciating something that didn’t taste all that good to me.

So what is it about appreciation anyway? Years ago I took an introductory art history course and learned to appreciate abstract expressionism. Though I had always been interested in visual arts, this particular movement left me cold; I just had no use for it. What happened throughout the course was that I came to appreciate, that is, see the sense of, this sort of art. I had needed knowledge of the motivation behind the work more than just the work itself. And yes, even though I still didn’t like it, I got it and I could experience a different kind of pleasure when I was looking at it.

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It still won’t hang on my wall but I can walk into another place and think its kind of cool. And that is so important. More of the world has become interesting. It strikes me too that the more time you spend thinking about or living in a particular place the more likely you are to appreciate in this way.

In a very amusing book called The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten writes about getting a job as the food editor of Vogue and feeling that if he was to do a really good job he should learn to eat (appreciate) everything. He makes a list of all the foods he hates and then eats a little of each every day to acclimatize. He knew he was successful when he looked at a menu in a Parisian restaurant and found he was absolutely stuck because there was nothing he could dismiss. That is the downside but the upside is that he, like Anthony Bourdain, can now walk into the most unusual place and find interesting what previously may have been inedible.

But is that always a good thing? Restricting yourself to only things you like is a big timesaver. Some of the most successful people are those who have no other interests than what they do and feel no need to change. They are liberated from the profusion of the world and can delve deeper and deeper into their chosen study. The rest of us are too easily distracted to go for that Nobel Prize.

That’s food and art but I think it generalizes to everything including people. You can avoid people you don’t like but one thing I have noticed is that the longer I am around and the more people I meet, the more can enjoy interacting with people I don’t particularly like. And at some point it all kind of blurs and you do like them on some level.

My ex-mother in law (still very dear to my heart) had a phrase of “that’s different” and what she really meant was anything or anyone that was odd to her experience right to bordering on dislike but she was just too polite to say so. She was kind of dallying with appreciation I think.

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