Tag Archives: culture

What the Hell is Gastronomy, Anyway?

May 2010

It’s the million-dollar question that everyone in my program has faced, yet no one seems to have a definitive answer. I have certainly given my 30-second elevator rendition of what gastronomy is (“Well er, it’s not cooking school, it’s sort of about the analysis of food’s role in the world…”), but I still have niggling doubts over whether I am simply talking out of my ass. Which is why I was secretly relieved when we had a seminar on gastronomy and its meaning.

Where do we begin? The English Wikipedia article on gastronomy begins with a broad definition, stating simply that “gastronomy is the study of the relationship between culture and food.” This begs the question of what is culture, but at least it provides a viable starting point for analyzing the breadth of gastronomy. On the other hand, the French Wikipedia article on gastronomy begins with the definition established by the Académie Française, which suggests that gastronomy is the set of social rules that define l’art de faire bonne chère, or the art of giving good cheer. Hmm, that isn’t nearly as engaging a subject.

Then, we launched into a discussion of food porn. Everyone in the class had heard of the phrase, but no one was brave enough to offer a definition. So, we paused to consider the characteristics of sexual pornography. This is definitely a subject befitting serious schoolars, because after all, even the Supreme Court has ruminated over the difference between obscene pornography and art. After some discussion, we decided that porn has many facets, but is generally in some way exploitative, features an idealized representation, and allows for distanced or vicarious enjoyment of the subject. In the same fashion, food porn offers an idealized portrayal of food held at a distance from the viewer. Though perhaps the tomato is not being exploited in the same way that actors in a porn film are.

Hmm, I’m not sure if I am any more enlightened than when I started, so I’m just going to sit on this for the next year or so…
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A Chat with Slow Food Founder Carlin Petrini

In 1986, the first branch of McDonald’s in Italy opened in the heart of Rome, at the Piazza di Spagna. As in many other countries, protesters howled and demonstrated. One man took decisive action.

Carlo Petrini, or Carlin as he is known to Italians, has quietly grown from being a little-known left-wing journalist, to becoming the leader of one of the world’s largest food activism organizations. Concerned about the encroachment of multinational influence on traditional food culture, he built a resistance movement to defend and protect local food ecosystems, a counterpoint to the unrelenting onslaught of corporate hegemony.

Today, Slow Food spans over 100,000 members in 153 countries, promoting thousands of small-scale producers, communities and educational initiatives. I sat down to interview Petrini (in Italian!), and asked him about the direction of Slow Food, the global food system, and what you can do to get involved.

In America, there are many people involved with Slow Food, but more who have never heard of Slow Food. For these people, what is Slow Food?

Slow Food is an international movement that is involved in the defense of biodiversity, not only in agriculture and food, but also culture; in the defense of small-scale producers, small farmers, fishermen, and artisans because these small producers are the ones who maintain biodiversity. So, Slow Food is a network of these actors that will grow ever stronger, until it finally reaches every country in the world. However, it makes no pretense of having a strong structure or hierarchy–no, it is very, very agile.
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Zurich: Financial Centre with an Edge

Limmat River cuts through Zurich and is crisscrossed by many bridges. You can see the twin towers of the Grossmünster church on the right, and the tower of St. Peterskirche on the left, which boasts the largest church clock face in Europe.

Let’s throw this out there first: Zurich is expensive. And not in the same way as other purportedly expensive cities I have traveled in (Tokyo, NYC), where there is a large range in prices, and some goods are nosebleeding pricey but you can find deals if you look in the right places. Instead, Zurich seems to have uniformly leveled all of its prices about $10-20 up from what you might expect. Strolling through downtown Zurich, it is usual to see coffee for CHF 7 and Chinese take-out for CHF 16. (Right now, CHF 1 = $0.96.) Even the “dollar” menu at McDonald’s has been replaced with burgers for CHF 2.50 and a side salad for CHF 3. A small size meal with an “NYC Crispy” burger costs CHF 12.30. An 800 meter cab ride from the main train station sets you back CHF 26 and dinner at an average restaurant runs about CHF 35. Even Swiss products that I have bought in the US (Victorinox knives, Sigg water bottles) cost more in Switzerland. I am scratching my head as to why there isn’t more cross-border arbitrage.
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Italian Fashion: Then and Now

Gentleman on the right was our tour guide at an olive oil mill in Puglia. I am impressed that even in the midst of farmland and olive tree orchards, Italians are impeccably color-coordinated with purple shirt, lilac trousers and amethyst moccasins. Just a few hours later that night, we saw another man wearing purple pants. Clearly, purple is the new black.

Scenes from Puglia

Clockwise: Gargoyles on a cathedral in Lecce, the 16th century watchtower of Torre Guaceto, a driver awaits outside a wedding ceremony, the cliffs of Pogliano a Mare

Located in the southeastern part of Italy (the heel of the boot), Puglia is a peninsula of a peninsula, surrounded by sea and just a 12-hour ferry ride across the Adriatic to Greece. Ah, the sea. Having lived in the midwest for several years, it’s been a while since I’ve heard the crash and smelled the sting of saltwater. And as you can imagine, the sea plays a major role in shaping Puglian history. Being first point of entry by sea, Puglia has been conquered by pretty much every major civilization and conquering marauder that has attacked Italy in the past few thousand years. Ergo, it has a rich history of influences from a variety of cultures. As such, the region’s people, places and activities are heavily influenced by the bountiful amounts of sunlight, seafood and historical exchange.
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Temptation in the Garden of Italy

My eyes alighted on it as soon as I stepped into the Coop grocery store, akin to spotting the love of your life from across the room. It stared openly back at me. Green, smooth, palpable. An avocado, delicately ripe, full of rich promise and culinary inspiration.

Danielle looked at me with chagrin. “Didn’t we just discuss the merits of eating locally grown food in class? How many air miles has that flown? Where is it from anyway?” I grimaced. “Italy? They grow avocados in the foothills of Piedmont, right?” We inspected the sign. Origin: Israel. Damn. I tried to rationalize. At least we’re not so far from the Middle East, compared to the United States?

I hesitantly placed the avocado back into the basket. But the avocado kept speaking to me. I’m creamy and delicious. Just think of how great I will taste in a salad with locally-grown, humanely-raised, free-range lettuce, tomatoes and olives. Guacamole. Remember how marvelous that Super Bowl guac was? You can recapture those memories with me. Mexican food. Sure, cilantro is nowhere to be found, and the fagiole section is completely devoid of black beans, but at least you can feast on the most important part of a burrito. Eat me. Do it.

I picked up the avocado again. Clutching it with both hands, I went back to Danielle and pleaded. “But I really want this avocado. Screw eating locally; if I can’t get American peanut butter, then I’m at least getting this avocado.” She threw up her hands in surrender. “All right, but I’m going to pretend I don’t know you.” No matter. Gleefully, I carried my forbidden fruit to the check-out line. My expulsion from the Garden of Eatin’ was complete.