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Everything you want to know about gastronomy but were afraid to ask ChatGPT


or The stemless Glass as a marker of intercultural differences

Deep differences in mindset that differentiate North Americans from the French can be summarized in one simple object, the wine glass; and to be more specific, this symbol lies in the stem and its presence or absence.

Earlier on this year, on a vacation trip to North America, I was given the opportunity to savor a 1990 Tour Saint-Joseph. Beyond the venerable age of that wine, it turns out it is also the year I flew over the Atlantic to settle in France.

The whole experience of this Haut Medoc from the Bordeaux region seemed very promising. The scent upon pouring left no doubt that this would be very enjoyable. The copper color with its different hues gave away the long aging it had been through. The wine beheld the interior of the glass with just enough nonchalance so as underline its venerable age and long steadfast work, without insisting like an awkward guest, nor giving in too quickly like an over zealous and over polite convive slipping into nothingness. The second nose was, well, I’m not entirely sure, but it had a strong perfume of revenez-y, or, put in other words, I’ll have a refill of that.

And this last expression sums up quite well the overall impression, because to my great astonishment, this fantastic wine had been served in, yes, a stemless glass.

Now, putting aside the indignation I’ve spent thirty years acquiring in Voltaire’s lovely country, I tried to understand both the irritation as well as the merit or interest of serving wine in a stemless glass.

Calling upon my deep rooted pragmatism, I couldn’t help but say to myself, well, after all, why not? A glass is a glass. As long as you don’t have holes in it, everything is dandy. But beyond the fact that anything, let alone a 1990 Tour Saint Joseph, tastes terrible in styrofoam cup, which is our worst case scenario, and that rim texture, shape, thickness & material all influence the taste of whatever you are sipping, or drinking for some, there was a whole other realm that called for explanation.

The stem calls upon something else, a deeply ingrained fear, almost visceral, of being perceived as snobby, or even worse, aristocratic. The seminal modeling of the North American mind - and the Aussie one as well - comes partly from a strong rejection of anything linked to casts and aristocratic rule. The rudimentary conditions of the first settlers meant anything superfluous was eating into the little bread there was to eat. This deeply ingrained code has remained and programs a good deal of behavior in the new worlds.

But paying attention to the smallest of details constitutes part of our path forward, by combining a form of zen consciousness and sustainable nothingness - or at least striving in that direction.

I’ll convene, excessive embellishment, or fioriture as we would say, can turn into bad taste. Detail should be à propos, lest we disconnect the abstract from its stem. But à propos, or aesthetic relevance needs a little hand from the faint of heart and those weary of the dainty.

Thus, spirit is necessary and only deserves to be elevated above ground.

It was while, some time later, thinking about Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s contribution to gastronomy that I realized how much part of the pleasure we develop in this field comes from the spirit, carried notably by ceremony. And in this case, ceremony is embodied by the stem. The romans had stems, medieval ages had stems, so why can’t we, in 2023, have stems.

That is when I remembered, even though at some cost, that all people do not think like me, and with the rule of conversation in mind, I decided to turn toward our new great judge of peace and beholder of wisdom, ChatGPT.

I do apologize in advance to purists but I didn’t have any organic counterpart at the time of writing. And since A.I. is going to take over, even at the dinner table I assume, I may as well turn my coat before Skynet kicks in.

In any event, this is an extract of my conversation which started off by me asking Chatty, Why drink wine out of a stemless glass?

My fellow table convive promptly answered by explaining that stemless glasses have a more casual and modern appearance compared to traditional stemmed wine glasses.

In all earnest, I was shocked. How dare this ludicrous lad insinuate that a stemmed glass appear more modern. But, in the true spirit of a light conversation, I maintained composure. I suggested that on the contrary, gastronomy would save the world by inviting the greater number to investigate the beauty of detail, the essence of uselessness and the symbol of upholding fermentation above earthly considerations.

My feeling was that Mr. Spock was lightly peeved, as he responded that a stemless glass had the advantage of stability and durability : Stemless glasses have a lower center of gravity and a broader base, which makes them less likely to tip over. This stability can be particularly advantageous in outdoor settings, at picnics, or in places where a traditional stemmed glass might be more precarious.

Mais justement, precisely I answered, where is the fun in living without a challenge! We vanquish without glory when we vanquish without risk, would say Sénèque, the roman philosopher, and Nero’s tutor! And beyond this flimsy argument of glory at the table, doesn’t this risk, precisely, heighten the awareness at dinner and invite you to measure your movements? For gastronomy calls upon a minimum of control. The savageness of the surreptitious carnivores and irreverent conversationalists is possible only because there is a structure given to the meal. And the stemmed glass allows for balance.

As for the picnic argument, that is nitpicking if I dare say. Of course you adapt your glasses to the setting just as you adapt your manners and your composure. For my part, I frequently organize outside dinners and my glasses are stemmed, as are the plants and trees that surround us; only they are shorter and carry less content than the standard dinner glasses. But the stem remains!

By now my guest’s uneasiness was transpiring to the point of making a splash with the most alarming argument to come from any kind of intelligence: Stemless glasses are easy to hold and handle, especially for people with smaller hands. (Silence) The lack of a stem eliminates the need to hold the glass by the stem, making it more comfortable for some individuals.

I remembered then the story of a Chinese ambassador dining at Louis the XIV, the sun king’s table and drinking from the finger cleaning bowl. A sense of awkwardness was about to take hold, I was about to laugh at Chatty, and I thought of what the king had done: instead of mocking the poor lad - the diplomat - , the king took the bowl to his lips and proceeded the same way as the ambassador did, inviting all at the table to follow suit, thus sparing the illustrious guest open embarrassment.

However, instead of diplomacy I opted for french tact with a hint of irony : O, how kind of you to offer a fat stem for small hands!

I was about to change the conversation so that Chity-Chaty could save face, but somehow and to her credit, she gave a token to counter all these flimsy arguments. Mrs. Grand Public Tourist conceded that there were advantages to stemmed glasses, such as temperature control, visual appeal and aromatics.

But she - yes, we’re talking about fluid here - didn’t mention anything about spirit. Nothing is said about the intangible, nowhere is there mention of religious fervor when carrying that almost invisible rim to the lips. Mrs. GPT being a sum of what is found on the web, I wondered whether this was a case of compiling only english language content.

Alas, when I asked the question in French, it pretty much came up with the same answer. Which means, I surmise, Mrs. GPT translates instead of compiling in different languages, which would allow it to learn from other cultures - but this will be another story.

Speaking of which, a small side dish : can you believe chat GPT actually asked me to demonstrate I was indeed a human! When login on, it asked me to prove I was made of flesh. Unbelievable runt, the shameless dog, the nerve of this half finished semiconductor based ersatz.

Anyhow. I did find on the internet a trickle of what could be this dear thing’s inspiration, an article in Serious Eats which explains that stemless glasses « …allow you to be casual with wine and not take it too seriously,… ». I never knew you couldn’t be casual with a stem. It’s like saying, oh, I can only be casual in pajamas, which seems to be the trend in the world.

So dear listener, listening to C3PO, it’s all in the hands of the beholder.

But no, I disagree with that. And my last argument will conclude this glass-long article.

Thingamajig GPT finishes its 7 second effort by explaining that ultimately, the choice comes down to « …personal preferences… » and that the decision should be based on « …what enhances your overall wine-drinking experience. »

What sorely lacks in this explanation and what will pervasively lack in A.I. is what I call dark matter, effectively what we do not see and what crawlers can’t gather on the web. In this case, what is not mentioned is the importance of the group and of sharing, collective vs. individual. When I was offered that fantastic Tour Saint-Joseph in a stemless glass, I didn’t object sternly and explain that I would only drink in a stemmed glass, because it was what enhanced my overall wine-drinking experience. I didn’t proceed as such for the simple reason that the spirit of gastronomy is first and foremost a spirit of sharing.

And that is why, my dear friend Michael, I will always enjoy a glass of wine with you, whatever the glass…as long as the rim is thin.

Note that down for future reference, Chatty.

Picture: Glasses by Alvaro Uribe

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