Conspicuous Consumption of Killian’s

When I worked in an Italian restaurant, a customer remarked by way of compliment that “it’s clear that there are real immigrants working in the kitchen.” I confirmed that the cooks were, indeed, immigrants and that I would pass on the compliment to the chef. I neglected to mention where the immigrants in question came from originally; I suspect very strongly that the customer would have been less effusive in her praise of the food if she knew that the chef was not Italian, but Mexican. Preconceived notions have such a peculiar way of effecting perception.

Some years later, it was my duty (nay, honor) to purchase kegs of beer for campus-wide college parties. Substantial though my allotted budget was, it was not inexhaustible. To save money for very good beer at the biggest parties, I purchased cheaper beers throughout the year. For the most part, people seemed to like this plan, but I occasionally got complaints. I was always surprised when people had the nerve to whine about having to (or, more properly, getting to) drink Yeungling or PBR at a party. Everybody’s favorite beer should be free beer.

One way that I avoided complaints was to purchase Killian’s Irish Red. Killian’s certainly seems classier than PBR or Bud Light. I personally think that it tastes better as well. The twist, however, is that a keg of Killian’s is no more expensive than a keg of Coors Light. (Which is not surprising when you learn that Killian’s is brewed by the same giant company.) Many of the students who complained about cheap macrobrews applauded my decision to serve this cheap macrobrew, simply because they didn’t know how cheap it was.

Thorstein Veblen wrote of fashion that people have a strong bias against anything cheap. People of taste will reject a beautiful, well-made garment as soon as they realize that it is not expensive. “[The garment] loses caste aesthetically because it falls to a lower pecuniary grade.” The same (and its reverse) is often true of beer: if it is 50¢ per can, people believe that it can’t be good, and if it is $15 per bottle, people believe that it can’t be bad.

Part of why I favor drinking from a glass is so that the label (and the price tag) don’t distract you from the beer.

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Beer of the week: George Killian’s Irish Red -Killian’s is ruby red and certainly more eye-catching than a domestic light beer. The roasted malt that provides the color (at least I hope that the color comes from the malt rather than food coloring) also imparts some flavor. To be sure, it isn’t a great beer but it does have decent body and some good bread and caramel notes. I definitely recommend it if you want a beer that seems more fancy than it is.

Reading for the week: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen – Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe the myriad ways in which people indulge in luxury goods and activities (and let everybody else know it.) In this excerpt Veblen discusses how fashion can show off wealth. Not only can a man in a tuxedo afford to buy a tuxedo, the pristine cleanliness of his tuxedo makes it obvious that he does not have to perform any manual labor.

Question for the week: Not that many people would be willing to admit this, but have you ever liked something until you found out that it was cheap and only then decided that you did not like it?

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Penmen: First Class

Last week, the reading was a poem by Charles Bukowski. Aside from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bukowski is the most contemporary author to be featured here. For the most part, the readings on this blog are classics: Homer, Aristotle, Bacon, Poe.  The Bukowski reading certainly did not seem out of place, but it raised the question: what is a classic?

The 19th century literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve informs us that the word “classic” as applied to literature is derived directly from the word for social class. A writer of classics, therefore, is an author from a status above the plebeian wordsmiths, the literary hoi polloi. Traditionally, this meant the great authors whose works survived from age to age: “an old author canonised by admiration.” The Greek and Roman works that were still available in the middle ages were practically classics simply by virtue of their age and origin. But it takes more than time to make a classic.

In Sainte-Beuve’s opinion, the term “instant classic” (if that phrase had existed in the mid 1800’s) would not be an oxymoron. It is not the age of writing that makes it classic, but the quality. A commonly cited synonym for “classic” is “timeless”, and the word timeless really does capture what makes a work stand out among the ever-increasing catalog of human thought. The work of Charles Bukowski certainly may be considered classic, since despite its newness, it captures something eternal about the human condition and something that is true for all readers, in all times.

So what is a classic? Writes Sainte’Beuve: “A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step; who has discovered some moral and not equivocal truth, or revealed some eternal passion in that heart where all seemed known and discovered; who has expressed his thought, observation, or invention, in no matter what form, only provided it be broad and great, refined and sensible, sane and beautiful in itself; who has spoken to all in his own peculiar style, a style which is found to be also that of the whole world, a style new without neologism, new and old, easily contemporary with all time.”

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Beer of the week: Yuengling Lager – I consider Yuengling Lager to be an American classic. Known simply as “lager” throughout much of Pennsylvania, this beer is the flagship product of America’s oldest brewery. Yuengling is also neck-and-neck with the Boston Brewing Company for largest American-owned brewer.  Yuengling Lager is darker and somewhat (though not much) more flavorful than most other mass-produced lagers. It smells and tastes of cheap grain, but for what it is, Yuengling is a decent value. It may actually be a classic because of how long it has been around; Yuengling is partially flavored by nostalgia.

Reading of the week: What is a Classic? by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve – At the end of this essay, Sainte-Beuve imagines a great “temple of taste” with alcoves for all of the world’s classic authors. In the beginning, however, he describes the history of the term and tries to establish his own meaning.

Question of the week: Sainte-Beuve suggests that he may not be able to answer the question adequately, but may guide his readers to answer it for themselves: what is a classic?