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A Conversation with Peter Machamer

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 Peter Machamer recently completed Eating, Drinking and Living Well in Pittsburgh: Some idiosyncratic notes about City spots (self-published, $11), a user's guide of sorts for both visitors and long-timers. A professor in the University of Pittsburgh's Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Machamer has written about food and wine for Pittsburgh Magazine and served as the Post-Gazette's wine columnist for 15 years.

 

You say in the book that your life has been "an exercise in excess." What exactly are your credentials on this front?

Well, some of them we can go into and some of them don't belong even in an alternative newspaper. But I take it that 15 years writing the wine column and having tasted usually on average 5,000 to 7,000 wines a year -- most people would consider that to be excessive. And of course it's not limited just to wine: Virtually any kind of potable substance that could be poured down one's throat has been in my throat at one time or another. But in a most discerning way, of course.

 

Considering your painstaking explanation in the book of how, where and when to buy booze here, you likely have some opinions about the Pennsylvania Liquor and Control Board.

It is much better than it used to be, but it is still probably the most perverse form of state monopolistic control that I've seen any place in the world. It's easier to buy booze in Poland these days. They have made big strides; essentially they're doing everything that private firms have done. So I take it that they are essentially arguing themselves out of business. That is, if they're doing everything a private enterprise would do -- if they're open on Sunday and we've got better hours and you can order by mail -- then what happened to the control idea? The big argument for the PLCB, remember, was we need keep the good citizens of the commonwealth from becoming drunkenly sluts.

 

Why do you write that "Pittsburgh is not a city for perfectionists"?

If you're not a native and you come to Pittsburgh, you're going to be disappointed if you think of it in terms of New York or Chicago or San Francisco. I grew up in New York, I went to school in Chicago. I've lived in Florence, Paris, London, all that shit. So if you come to Pittsburgh and you think that you're going to approximate that, you're just crazy.

 

But there are still a lot of places that you can go where you can get an ambience, you can have fun with your people, you can enjoy the food. You shouldn't let the best be the enemy of the good, and there are lots of good things here.

 

How do your academic pursuits and this effort intersect?

The most clear intersection has to do with the theory of perception and aesthetics. I've worked for many years on the theory of perception -- that is, what's involved with people hearing, seeing, tasting, etc. I study how people see art, or how they see other people, or how they react to various conditions and stimuli under different conditions -- what both their cognitive and emotional responses are. My historical work is on Galileo and Descartes, for example, and the contemporary work I do is related to psychology and cognitive neuroscience. And then there's the aesthetic dimension, which is how do you make interpretive judgments, how do you do interpretation such that you come up with more or less objective evaluations of, for example, art works, musical performances, plates of food in front of you?

 

And this applies to you ordering a hamburger at Tessaro's and concluding, as you have, it's the city's best?

Yup. I think you walk in there and in a way, every hamburger that you ever had is there while you're eating that one. Because your impression's formed by the memories you have, the associations, everything you've learned about the nature of ground beef and the amount of fat that needs to be in it in order to make it juicy. Everything that you've learned about what the various amount of condiments that will go best with beef are going into that one act. You're bringing all that to bear on this evaluation that you're making about this hamburger. Of course, you're not sitting there consciously thinking of all that stuff, or you'd never get around to eating.

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