The University of Gastronomic Sciences—or, in UNISG student short-hand, “Food School”—does not teach the culinary arts. In Pollenzo, we take courses like “Consumption, Food, and Culture” and “Language of Gastronomy,” which encourage critical and theoretical engagement with the realm of food studies. Sure, it’s not all theory about the commodification of food and the semiotics behind gastronomic advertizing—we eat a lot too. But in the classroom, that eating remains in the domain of theory and not practice or pleasure. We’re asked to identify the primary flavors and tastes of Robiola cheese or determine the relative elasticity or plasticity of a piece of prosciutto. In this sense, eating is a conduit through which we learn to recognize high-quality products, products that we then derive meaning from and represent, hence the title of our Master degree: Food Culture and Communications: Media, Representation, and High-Quality Food.
When Barny Haughton, the founder of the Square Food Foundation, came to Pollenzo two weeks ago to teach a course on food education, he shook up our understanding of Food School by asking us to, well, cook. Haughton is an experienced chef, and his Bristol-based Square Food Foundation is a cookery school (I’ll bow to the Britishism just this once) that offers classes to a wide range of social groups, from well-off adults looking to sip wine and learn artisan breadmaking, to at-risk youth in foster care who don’t know how to feed themselves (the programs for the latter are funded in part by the fees for the former). In Haughton’s view, everyone over the age of seven should have the capacity to cook something from scratch. He’s not promoting an army of wee ones chopping pounds upon pounds of onions in chef bootcamp—he believes that learning basic cooking skills helps develop self-confidence, a sense of belonging, and the recognition of a wider worldview. What’s more, according to Haughton, the culture which comes from people cooking sustains communities and local food systems.
We spent the first day of our course with Haughton in the comfortable Food School domain of theory, brainstorming solutions for a variety of food-education-dilemmas that the Square Food Foundation is sorting through (How to design a “Cooking on a Budget” workshop to convince single mothers on income support, none of whom know how to cook, to stay on for a free ten week course? How to engage a group of ex-offenders, mostly drug addicts, in a cooking class taught at a halfway house?). But our overnight assignment was a bit unorthodox: cook a dish that represents what you love about food and present it to the class at lunch.
The next day, we met at the Gastronomic Society, a student space on the outskirts of Bra that comes equipped with a professional kitchen and large dining room. Haughton had already set up a cooking demonstration in the center of the dining room: eggs nestled in a bowl, produce spilling over a cutting board. He wanted to illustrate food education in practice, to show us how to capture a classroom’s attention by thinly slicing radishes for a salad, or by preparing an omelet in complete silence, so we could pay attention to the sounds of eggs cracking and the smell of butter melting. As we went along, Haughton taught us some tenets of a good cooking class through practice rather than theory: constantly change the dynamic by inviting others to participate, make the space look like a TV set by setting up in an appealing manner before students arrive, never use recipes in the classroom. When Haughton called us to the table to peel ribbons of carrots, squeeze lemons, and whisk together a mayonnaise, it marked the first time in Food School when we were asked to truly use our bodies—to prepare food, not just think it.
As lunch time approached, we banded together to put the finishing touches on our dishes and push four-tops together to make a table long enough to seat 20—things we’ve done before on the extracurricular. But now, we prepared lunch with a new purpose: one of using our food, our practice, to demonstrate the theory that cooking creates a sense of belonging, flipping Food School logic by privileging the show over the tell.
Before we danced the buffet line tango, we told each other about our dishes and how they show what we love about food. We spoke about how Korean sushi can call to mind long-ago picnics and a mother’s love and devotion; how cardamom-scented semolina halva stands for comfort and childhood; how fava bean crostini display freshness and seasonality. And though our class has shared meals together at countless long tables across Italy, this lunch made up of simple, inexpensive, and homemade dishes recreated our community in a way that a restaurant meal couldn’t.
In the spirit of encouraging cooking, I’ll share the recipe for the dish I made. It’s another strawberry dessert, this one much simpler than the cake I made recently. To me, this crumble represents the adaptability and magic of cooking: you can make it with whatever fruit looks best at the market, and through some simple baking chemistry and a little bit of time and effort, you’ll end up with a heavenly-smelling kitchen and a comforting, not-too-sweet dessert.
For the topping
1 1/3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 stick unsalted butter, melted
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
For the filling
6-8 cups seasonal fruit, peeled and sliced (I used hulled and quartered strawberries, other good spring/summer options are strawberry-rhubarb, peach-raspberry, and nectarine-blueberry)
1/2 cup granulated sugar (you can adjust this based on the sweetness of your fruit)
3-4 tablespoons cornstarch (depending on how juicy your fruit is)
pinch of salt
1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Whisk together the dry ingredients for the topping, then pour the melted butter over them. Using a fork, mix the butter into the dry ingredients, until crumble clumps form. Stick this in the fridge until ready to use it.
2. In a 9″ x 13″ baking dish, mix together fruit, sugar, cornstarch, and salt, so that fruit is evenly coated. Cover fruit evenly with topping.
3. Bake for about 40 minutes, until the fruit is bubbling and the the crumble topping is golden brown.