This fall, I will move to Bra, a small-ish city in the Piedmont region of Italy to study Media, Representations and High Quality Food at the Università degli Studi di Scienze Gastronomiche. When people ask me what I’ll be doing at UNISG, I say, “Eating.” That’s true, of course, but there’s more to it, and more to why I applied for a Fulbright grant to study at UNISG in the first place.
I have been an eater for as long as I can remember. I was the sort of child who got just as excited about the fruit salad at my birthday parties as the ice cream cake. My favorite part about visiting my Grandma in Brooklyn was ordering pizza from Frank’s on Flatbush Avenue. When I was in second grade, I asked to go to the nurse’s office at lunchtime every day in hopes that my mom would pick me up, take me home, and whip me up something more exciting than my PB&J.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t a picky eater (I peeled the cheese off my slices of Frank’s for years) or that my family was the biggest proponent of healthy eating (my mom never forced my brother and I to eat foods that we didn’t “like”). But, food played an important role in my family life. My parents, brother and I sat down to dinner in our dining room daily. We lingered at the table and talked. We ate a lot of Italian-American food–the food of my culture. I remember eating dishes spaghetti and meatballs weekly. On Christmas Eve, my Nanny (my mom’s mom) cooked the Feast of the Seven Fishes.
In seventh grade, I started studying Italian, the language of three sets of my great-grandparents. I knew even then that I eventually wanted to spend a semester of college in Italy. My main motivating? Eating, of course. And I did go to Italy during the fall of my junior year at Penn–I was in Padova, in the Veneto region, to be exact–and boy, did I eat. I spent most weekends that fall traveling with friends to different Italian cities–Bologna, Mantova, Venezia, Firenze, Roma, Siena, San Gimignano, Verona–and consulting the trusty Let’s Go! guide for restaurant recommendations. I had glorious versions of lamb bolognese, pasta all’amatriciana, pumpkin gnocchi, and bistecca fiorentina on those trips. Back in Padova, I dined nightly with my host family, the Sattins; I learned more about Italian food culture at their kitchen table than I could have ever learned in a classroom. My host mom, Monica, always made time to cook dinners from scratch, even though she was a full-time nursing student and mother of four. Her best dishes were the simplest—polenta topped with sautéed porcini mushrooms, sweet cherry tomatoes simmered in olive oil and garlic until they burst. Monica taught me how to cook risotto and how to be at ease in a kitchen. Living with the Sattins inspired my goal of returning to Italy for a more concentrated study of food.
I came back to Philadelphia with new dedication to food: I taught myself how to cook, I started shopping at farmer’s markets, and learned more about the food issues facing America. I had already read Michael Pollan’s now-seminal study of America’s “national eating disorder,” The Omnivore’s Dilemma, prior to my freshman year at Penn–it was the book that made me first realize that many Americans find feeding themselves confusing. After my semester in Italy, I became a devotee of Mark Bittman and became a member of Slow Food USA. I read Slow Food Nation: Why Our Food Should be Good, Clean, and Fair by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the Slow Food movement. All of this reading got me wondering: why has something as fundamental as the question of what to eat become so perplexing for Americans? My time in Padova proved to me that Italians are not nearly so anxious about their dinner–they look to cultural traditions to tell them to eat balanced meals. I started to feel that the American dialogue surrounding food is filled with too many zealous voices all saying different things: there’s fetishism of haute cuisine by culinary elites, glorification of high fat and high calorie foods by Average Joe food personalities, and moralizing about the benefits of organic, local, sustainable products and the detriments of the average American diet. I figured that there had to be a simpler way to teach people about eating, and that maybe Italy held answer.
Then I found out about the Fulbright/Casten Family Foundation grant for a year of study at UNISG, the Slow Food University founded in 2004 by Petrini. As UNISG’s website explains, the school’s “goal is to create an international research and education center for those working on renewing farming methods, protecting biodiversity, and building an organic relationship between gastronomy and agricultural science. The result is a new professional figure – the gastronome – skilled in production, distribution, promotion, and communication of high-quality foods. Gastronomes are the next generation of educators and innovators, editors and multimedia broadcasters, marketers of fine products, and managers of consortia, businesses, and tourism companies.”
I could be a more than just an eater–una mangiatrice. I could be a gastronome. I applied for the grant, proposing a project in which I would develop a method of “Slow Food” food writing—a way of writing about food that is simple, candid and free of elitism, fetishism, and pedantry.
Recently, I found out that I was awarded the grant. Here’s a preview of what I hope to do, excerpted from my Statement of Grant Purpose essay for the Fulbright application:
“Throughout my year in Italy, I intend to build relationships with several members of the Cuneo community, with the goal of discovering what the average American can learn from Italian food culture. By interviewing, shadowing, and eventually writing journalistic profiles of people who live in the vicinity of the University of Gastronomic Sciences, I hope to understand their relationships to and respect for the food they eat. I want to investigate their habits in three main facets of culinary life—food shopping, cooking, and eating; I believe that in these areas I will see a great divergence between American and Italian food cultures. By conducting this journalistic research and studying communications at the University, I hope to come away from my year as a Fulbright scholar with a knowledge of how real Italians conceive of food, and with a new mode of food writing with which to present my findings to an average American audience.”
So, that’s what I’ll be doing, and why I’ll be doing it. Until I leave (at a yet-undetermined date) I’ll update this blog periodically, . First up: a rundown of my weekend at Brasen Hill Farm, a small, sustainable farm in Dudley, Massachusetts run by my dear friend Eleanor Kane and her boyfriend Theo Wiegand.