Ignorance Is...............

by Mark R. Vogel

            How would you finish the incomplete sentence that entitles this article?  Ignorance is……..?  Some of you may respond with the old adage “Ignorance is bliss,” which implies that peace of mind flows from unawareness.  Socrates, the famous Greek philosopher espoused quite the opposite.   Socrates stated that ignorance is the root of all evil.  Only in this column could James Bond and world class Bordeaux prove Socrates’ point.  Consider the following.

            In the final scene of the movie “Diamonds are Forever,” James Bond, having completed his mission, is relaxing on a cruise ship with the girl en route back home.  But he’s left some unfinished business.  Throughout his assignment he’s been menaced by two killers who he hasn’t met directly.  He has however, gotten a whiff of the aftershave of one of them.  The killers arrive at his cabin posing as a waiter and sommelier prepared to serve a gourmet meal, with one little catch:  there’s a bomb hidden in the dessert.  The “sommelier” presents Bond with the 1955 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a top notch Bordeaux, to accompany the prime rib.   Bond, setting a trap exclaims: “The wine is quite excellent, although for such a grand meal I had rather expected a claret.”  The sommelier responds with: “Of course.  Unfortunately our cellar is rather poorly stocked with clarets.”  Bond replies: “Mouton Rothschild IS a claret, and I’ve smelled that aftershave before, and both times I’ve smelled a rat.” 

            At this point the thugs realize the jig is up.  They attack Bond but our hero dispenses with them by burning the one to death and blowing the other to smithereens.  Unbeknownst to the wine-ignorant assassins, the British use the term claret to refer to Bordeaux wines.  Their benightedness spelled their demise.  Certainly not a state of bliss for them.

            But let’s contemplate an example of when ignorance may be blissful.  One time I was at a party where I was the sole wine aficionado.  We were all seated around this large table prepared to eat when the host produced a bottle of this dubious quality, mass-market, varietal wine.  Encased in a pretty colored bottle designed for impulse buys and not the serious palate, it’s a quaffable yet simple wine at best.  The specimen in question was an anemic chardonnay, which he was serving at room temperature.

            The host turned to me and queried:  “Is this good?”  Now what am I supposed to say?  Here we are in front of all his guests.  What am I supposed to do, risk embarrassing or insulting him by explaining that his wine choice is marginal at best?  And that you never serve a light white wine at a temperature of 70 degrees?  So I did what any gracious and diplomatic guest would do……I lied.  I told him it was good, he was happy, and the unsuspecting guests enjoyed their plonk-du-jour with glee.  See…….. ignorance is bliss, (even though I stuck with water). 

            But wait.  Ignorance can still cause harm.  What about the times when waiters, butchers, wine shop clerks, etc., steer you wrong because of their own ignorance?  Granted, when the merchant’s employees are ignorant, their misguidance is simply an innocent lack of information.  Nevertheless, innocent or not, the consumer still suffers when the “butcher” doesn’t know what a seven-bone roast is and renders an inferior cut of chuck.  Or the clerk in the wine shop has never heard of Dolcetto and sends you away empty-handed when there are multiple bottles on the shelf.  (I knew the store and couldn’t allow a fellow oenophile to be deprived.  I was compelled to intervene and point out to the departing customer where the Dolcetto was.)

            A more nefarious situation arises when the staff is not ignorant, the customer is, and they take advantage of your inexperience.  Substituting second-rate ingredients, navigating you toward wines they wish to get rid of, or slipping in a few dead oysters in your bag, are not unheard of.  It’s the old pencil on the scale trick as Maxwell Smart might say.  Either way, whether the personnel themselves are befuddled, or preying upon the customer’s lack of knowledge, ignorance is not bliss, (at least not for the customer). 

            But……..on the contrary again, sometimes it is.  From time to time in my cooking class the issue of restaurant hygiene arises.  Every time I begin to discuss some of the unsanitary things that occur behind the scenes I get the same reaction:  Cringes accompanied by “don’t tell me” or “I don’t want to know” or other similar statements.  Think about it, would you want to know, after the fact, about all the places you’ve eaten where the cook picked his nose and then made your salad?  (You don’t really believe that most cooks are washing their hands regularly in restaurants do you????).  Not to mention countless other unsavory antics that are routine in restaurant kitchens.  Yes, most people would rather not know so they can bask in the pleasant memory of the meal as opposed to the emetic truth.

            So is ignorance the root of all evil or is it bliss?  I think ignorance is only bliss when the facts you are unaware of are innocuous.  In my party example, the people didn’t need to know the wine’s quality or proper serving temperature to have a good time.  There was no danger lurking in the 70-degree chardonnay, just a sacrilege.  However, on the other hand, suppose the cook at your favorite restaurant doesn’t wash his hands post-poop and transfers some E. coli to your food?  Now your ignorance can spell your doom. 

            Socrates came to the conclusion that he was wise because unlike his ignorant peers, he knew that he knew nothing.  He was at least cognizant of what he didn’t know, which paradoxically rendered him enlightened.  Sadly his knowledge of man’s ignorance couldn’t stop their ignorance from condemning him.  He could have eschewed the death sentence by renouncing his beliefs but he couldn’t even feign ignorance to save his life.  Socrates would have definitely wanted to know where the chef’s hands were before he made his salad. 

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