Tag Archives: University of Gastronomic Sciences

A Brutally Honest Review of the University of Gastronomic Sciences

Update (Sept. 2017): Michele Fino, a professor of law at UNISG, reached out to me to send an update on the UNISG masters program. It has been appended below.

This is a cathartic rant disguised as a meticulously planned assessment.

Over the past year, I have fielded questions from dozens of prospective students at the University of Gastronomic Sciences (UNISG). They sent heartfelt messages, wanting to know everything from what the classes are like, to whether vegetarians will be slapped in the face with a piece of prosciutto. I carefully replied to every email that was sent to me, giving answers that I felt were judicious while catering to the writer’s sensibilities. See, by the time most people have discovered UNISG, they have fallen in love with the school already, and idealize it as foodie heaven on Earth. Which to be fair, in many respects, it is.

I am not going to discuss the warm and fuzzy parts today; the rest of my blog does that already. Instead, I am going to give a completely uncensored portrait on what it’s like to be in the Food Culture & Communications (FCC) masters program at UNISG.

This piece will not make me popular, and effectively shoots myself in the foot, but I am a big believer in the Louis Brandeis adage that sunshine is the best disinfectant. It should go without saying that the views expressed herein are my own, and not necessarily supported by other UNISG students or the administration.
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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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The Slow Evolution of Fast Money

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Shamefully, it has been a month since I last posted, but at least the thesis brouhaha is over. I spent much of this weekend preparing slides for the presentation next week, and graduation for our class of gastronomes is set for Friday the 13th. Apparently, 13 is not an inauspicious number in Italian culture, however 17 is.

If you are interested in seeing the slides and some dizzying spatial effects, you can check out the presentation in Prezi.

Thesis, or Reasons to Stay Late at the Office on Friday Night

Lately, all my writing energy has been devoted to working on this damn thesis, due on May 6th. I just want to get the thing written and turned in, so that I can move on with other projects.

Already, I’ve had to trim lots of interesting material that isn’t entirely relevant out of fear that this will turn into a book. Only a select few of you will find this topic totally absorbing, but I’ll post a tentative abstract here to ward off the inevitable questions.

Title: The Slow Evolution of Fast Money: A Fresh Approach to Sustainable Investment

Abstract: The Industrial Revolution heralded an age of unprecedented environmental damage and social tolls driven by commercial activity. We can move toward a restorative economy through careful placement of investment funds in socially responsible businesses that focus on more than bottom line profits. The microfinance industry in developing countries and the Slow Money movement in the U.S. are two examples of business models that aspire to move away from the traditional profit-driven financial paradigm. However, they are relatively unproven and are prone to the pitfalls of commercialist mission-drift. Study of these experiments provides lessons to be learned for future models of sustainable finance.

In case you’re wondering, what does this have to do with food or gastronomy, the answer is: it doesn’t. I simply felt like dipping back into the econ fold for a while.

Stuart Franklin’s Political Ecology


Photography: Stuart Franklin

The entry on our school calendar was unassuming and inconspicuous—”Franklin, Journalism.” The description in our student guidebook was even more humble, simply a thin line that read “Stuart Franklin, English photographer.” I glanced at it and the night before, on a lark, I decided to google the name to see Franklin’s previous work. Much to my shock, I soon realized that Franklin was a world-renowned Magnum photographer, the man who had taken the photo of Tank Man in Tiananmen Square. Yes, That photo.

On the appointed day, we eagerly gathered in class, where a bespectacled chap carried himself with distinction to the front of the classroom. “Dr. Stuart Franklin, Political Ecology,” read his first slide. The student next to me poked my shoulder—wasn’t this class supposed to be about journalism? What’s political ecology? Are we sure this Dr. Franklin is a photographer, and not someone else with the same name?

As it turned out, Franklin is a man of many talents, not only a career photographer for Time and National Geographic, but the recipient of a PhD in geography at Oxford University. He now publishes and teaches courses in political ecology and photography at Oxford.

The burning question: what is political ecology? As he defined it, it is the analysis of complex political economic relationships between society and land- or marine-based resources or products. It’s political economy + environment. It’s a network of cultural interactions with the land around them. Food chains and the working conditions of migrant workers are two topics that might fall into this lens of analysis.

Convinced? Skeptical that this is just another newfangled invention of concatenated existing subfields? Regardless, Franklin took us on a fascinating trip around the world, as we looked at slash-and-burn destruction in Indonesia and Afghans fighting in a bread queue, all photographed in pristine condition. The following are some of his thoughts on photography, politics, and the luckiest break of his career.

There was an uprising that spring. A lot of factors were in play, but it was mostly due to increasing flows of information and the large amount of corruption going on. Young people were finally getting annoyed by corruption by people in power, and so they came out to the streets. It was a huge moment for the Chinese to demonstrate, and I asked if I could go to Beijing. My plane ticket was paid for by Magnum, but when I got there, Time put me on assignment and I ended up just staying there.

The epicenter of the action was Tiananmen, and at that point, I had been working as a photojournalist for about 10 years, and I was a pretty hardened war photographer. I knew that I had to get close to Tiananmen, so I found the Beijing Hotel, and I parked myself there.
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Travel Note: Portugal and Extremadura, Spain

Not sure how this managed to happen, but I’ve only got three more weeks left on the continent. (But wait, I haven’t even gone to Rome yet!) Of course, the UNISG masters students will be going out with a bang—for our last stage, we’ll be taking a 2-week long excursion to Portugal and Spain. We start off in Lisbon, then gradually move toward the Spanish border region of Extremadura, traveling east to Évora, Cáceres, Mérida and finally, Seville. The foodstuffs look quite similar to Italian cuisine, with a lot of olive oil, wine, cheese and cured meats, but we are also making stops to investigate the production of pastéis de Belém (sweet pastries), herb liquors, paprika, and eating lunch at a zero-kilometer restaurant (with locally-sourced products).

After the Great Internet Drought that was Emilia-Romagna, I have to admit that the part I am most excited for is that we will have wifi at the hotel for 10 out of the 12 nights of this trip. I don’t have a problem, I swear. Also, it is going to be ridiculously warm, somewhere around 7-18 C (45-65 F). After a decade of suffering through New England, upstate New York and Chicago winters, I am relishing the fake Mediterranean “winter” this year. (We’ve gotten snow about two times in Italy so far.)

Here’s a sample itinerary for Friday, Feb. 18th:

7:30 – Breakfast
8:00 – Depart for Aldeia da Serra
9:00 – Walk in the Montado forest, meet with wine & honey producer
12:00 – Lunch at Aldeia da Serra
14:30 – Santiago de Rio de Moinhos cheese producer
17:00 – Redondo: honey producer and tasting of traditional products
19:00 – Azaruja: unique cured meats and other local products (Slow Food project)
20:00 – Arrival at Evora, dinner on your own

Oy veh, I don’t speak a word of Portuguese, and I stopped studying Spanish in 5th grade, when I switched to French. But I’ve heard that speaking Italian to Spaniards works out rather well, so let’s see if I can make them think I’m Italian. (Random note: when I was learning my numbers in Spanish, my mom attempted to learn with me, and the mnemonic she used to remember “ocho” was 污糟 wu zou, or “dirty” in Cantonese.)

See ya’ll from the Iberian peninsula!