Sweet Bitter, the fifth taste and Agnes Martin on perfection.

Union Square station.

Union Square station.

When Chris and I go to New York we have several restaurants that are on our must see list. Gotham Grill, ABC Kitchen, Japonica, and Union Square Café are our favorites.

We don’t go to New York to eat, well maybe a little, mostly we go to New York to see art and practice yoga. We think some of the best art and finest yoga teachers live in the big apple but the food is also fun. 

SweetBitter, a novel by Stephanie Danler is an insigtful book about the Union Square Cafe that turns eating into yoga while simultaneously exposing the service enterprise with all it’s dysfunction and collateral damage.  

Wines, oysters, truffles, salt, sweet, bitter, and sour are the starting point. Taste is cultivated developed, and nurtured. This elevation as education is also part of the path that is  deeper yoga and art.

“You will develop a palate. A palate spot in your tongue where you remember.” SweetBitter

There is much in this book that describes the exhilaration felt as a result of hard work paired with adventure. Agnes Martin, one of my favorite painters and  an advocate for boredom, talks about this same exhilaration in her book Writings, which is a text everyone should own.


“I would like to consider further those moments in which we feel joy in living. To some these moments are very clear and to others of a vagueness that can only be described as below the level of consciousness. Whether conscious or unconscious they do their work and they are the incentive to life. A stockpile of these moments gives us an awareness of perfection in our minds and this awareness of perfection in our minds makes all the difference in what we do.” Agnes Martin

This aliveness in SweetBitter leads to super human feats that, perhaps from a yogic perspective, are imbalanced including: late night partying and serious use of drugs like cocaine. But it also provides a portal to taste, the art of wine, food and friends. The protagonist explores art and understands the workings of her village (her restaurant compatriots). Nothing is idealized, including the lifestyle of the patrons but what struck me most significantly was the awesome portrait of life in Manhattan and the excellence/excess in all things that survive there.

 “Moments of perfection are indescribable but a few things can be said about them. At such times we are suddenly very happy and we wonder why life ever seemed troublesome. In an instant we can see the road ahead free from all difficulties and we think that we will never lose it again. All this and a great deal more in barely a moment, and then it is gone.” Agnes Martin

Of course the joy of that instant, a restaurant career not yet jaded and fueled by unsustainable practices, can only last so long. In the end there must be change.

But I wonder does that make the endeavor futile? Does it suggest the wrong path?

Life is so very many faceted, there is so much to explore and know. There is so much I do not know and my struggle often seems to be a misunderstanding. A turn of events evaluated as a waste, a mistake. As if life is supposed to be a single trajectory leading to mastery without any left, right or even u turns.

“ Running a restaurant means setting a stage. The believability hinges on the details. We control how they experience the world: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. That starts at the door, with the host and the flowers.” SweetBitter

This stage is what we are all, to some extent, victims of and players in. Awareness is our tool for knowing and participating, and then ultimately choosing a path that once again runs true. 

In my life, everything that I thought was forever true turned out to be temporary from an external perspective, changing. Of course succumbing to that change meant I never became a master of anything. As a result, I feel quite ordinary in my accomplishments. I think about masters like Yoyo Ma, who took up his instrument at the age of four, or fellow artists who have stuck with a particular path and found success not only through talent but perseverance, endurance, and patience. I think 10,000 hours is only the beginning.

But all such moments are stored in the mind. They are called sensibility or awareness of perfection in the mind.

'We must surrender the idea that this perfection that we see in the mind or before our eyes is obtainable or attainable. It is really far from us. We are no more capable of having it than the infant that tries to eat it. But our happiness lies in our moments of awareness of it.” Agnes Martin

This creation or sensibility as Martin would describe it, is not reality and yet according to yoga philosophy the stage is all we really have. All of it is a stage, our career, our relationships, and our health. The stage is a playground and there is no there there, to paraphrase my favorite Gertrude Stein book.


“We are creating the world as it should be. We don’t have to pay attention to how it is.” SweetBitter

The deeper reality in yoga is awareness, awareness of our role on the stage and how we feel and react to that particular play. Martin says our happiness is dependent on that, lies within that, is contained of nothing more than that. So I think about the “what” contained in SweetBitter:

“ I learned four different and elaborate systems for managing what were essentially rags they kept under lock and key.
There were never enough. We could never attain healthy bar mop equilibrium. The kitchen always needed more….” SweetBitter

And recognize how arbitrary the "what " is, a subject to tell the universal story of struggle, growth and change. Without this arbitrary subject emerging from a very specific persons very specific life, you would only have a meme (a useless piece of dribble with no context or specificity). So the "what" is important, it is a metaphor, it is art. The art of life. 

“The function of art work is the stimulation of sensibilities. The renewal of memories of moments of perfection. There is only one way in which artists can serve this function of art. There is only one way in which successful works of art can be made. To make works of art that stimulate sensibilities and renew moments of perfection an artist must recognize the works that illustrate his own moments of perfection.

“Perfection, of course, cannot be represented. The slightest indication of it is eagerly grasped by observers. The work is so far from perfection because we ourselves are so far from perfection. The oftener we glimpse perfection or the more conscious we are in our awareness of it the farther away it seems to be. Or perhaps I should say the more we are awareness of perfection the more we realize how very far from us it is. That is why art work is so very hard. It is a working through disappointments to greater disappointment and a growing recognition of failure to the point of defeat.” Agnes Martin

Then in sweet Bitter the fifth taste arrived

“ Umami: uni, or sea urchin, anchovies, Parmesan, dry aged beef with a casing of mold. It’s glutamate. Nothing is a mystery anymore. They make MSG to mimic it. It’s the taste of ripeness that’s about to ferment. Initially it served as a warning. But after a familiarity develops, after you learn it’s name, that precipice of rot becomes the only flavor worth pursuing, the only line worth tasting.” SweetBitter

In yoga the place where the inhale becomes the exhale is called a point of contact, maybe it is Umami. This point of contact is a landmark where we can place our awareness and begin to experience directly how vast a moment, place, or singular experience is. Furthermore, in relation to the three gunas, when sweetness is at its peak, just before tamas or decay arrives we find perfection. This place is elusive without presence and vast when we are here and awake. The idea that this place is on the verge of rot while simultaneously embodying it peak of sweetness embodies Martins idea that perfection occurs in the minds ability to grasp it, hold it in awareness before the continual process of change takes it away. She goes on:

“But still one wakes in the morning and there is the inspiration and one goes on.I want to emphasize the fact that increase in disappointment does not mean going backward in the work. There is no such thing as going backward in anything. There is increased and decreased awareness that is all, and increased awareness means increased disappointments. If any perfection is indicated in the work it is recognized by the artist as truly miraculous so he feels that he can take no credit for its sudden appearance.” Agnes Martin


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