“When you leave this place, you will be even more confused than you are right now,” declared Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini through a set of translation headphones to a room of 23 eager students forming the 18th Master’s class in Food Culture and Communications at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy last November. I, Katherine Harris, was one of those students.
I came to UNISG (more specifically, to a program dedicated to exploring Representation, Meaning, and Media) seeking to strengthen my skills as a writer. What I didn’t expect was that while some of my learning about food would come from within the UNESCO-protected walls of the university, much of it wouldn’t. Still, the experiences I pieced together there gave me the fodder to fuel my work, and more importantly, my soul, for the foreseeable future, and beyond.
Founded ten years ago, UNISG is a place dedicated to exploring the interdisciplinary nature of food and facilitating the transformation of curious (some would call that confused) students into gastronomes. I recognize that this word has little bearing outside the bubble of Bra, the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and a small-ish town where I often wandered the cobblestone streets trying to ascertain which businesses would re-open after lunch at 2 PM and which at 2:30 PM, so I’ll take a few (virtual) moments here to explain what it means to me.
Carlin, as his acquaintances affectionately call Carlo Petrini, in part re-appropriated the term gastronome from French philosopher Jean-Barthelme Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste. This isan informative and amusing work filled with moderately sexist comments (“A meal without some cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye”) as well as nuggets of wisdom such as, “The destiny of nations depends on how they nourish themselves.” To someone with a Political Science background, I could not agree more. Look at the bread riots preceding the Arab Spring. Look at the paladares popping up in Cuba. Look at the straining American healthcare system.
If I had to sum up gastronomy in one pithy phrase on my own terms (well not really, because I have also re-appropriated a definition, in this case from my program’s director, David Szanto), I would describe it as the point of view that food is complex.
Food is about pleasure (and unfortunately, sometimes also pain), import and export taxes, problematic Italian to English translations, and rare apples with made-up-sounding names. It’s also about what is said at the dinner table when everyone has semi-covertly discarded their napkins somewhere, but there’s still a bit of wine left in the glass, and you put forth a slightly inebriated musing to celebrate this particular evening where you came together and shared something, you created something.
Gastronomy is a science (hence, the appropriately named university), yet it touches nearly every area of the humanities one could name, from politics to economics, to chemistry and sociology, to geography to environmental science. For nine months, I plunged myself into almost 40 classes involving Belgian food history, agroecology, participant observation at a wine bar, and foraging for wild spinach. We even had classes in evaluating (code word for eating and drinking) high-quality products such as wine, beer, cheese, honey, olive oil, chocolate, and cured meat.
“Beer tasting class” sounds like a dream, and in many ways it was, inciting much envy from my Instagram followers. However, the prospect of sampling over 20 brews in the span of two days was particularly daunting to me, as I almost never choose it if other beverages are available. As we passed the bottles around and around, jumping from California to the Czech Republic, I anxiously searched for a dump bucket. (Alas, this was not a wine tasting, so someone scrounged up a blue paint bucket until one of my classmates generously offered to finish my leftovers.) In the end, though, I learned how to say more than just “I do or don’t like this beer” by calling upon a vocabulary involving place, taste, and process. I’m armed for my next happy hour with the scoop on Trappist monasteries and some musings on the material nature of food to boot.
So Carlin was partially right. Yes, I left UNISG with more questions than I entered with, but I also feel farther along on the road to finding some kinds of answers. At the same time, I’m not looking to be in an industry or a career path where everything is perfectly linear and certain. I think it’s actually a good thing for gastronomes to be confused (and constantly curious). In that way, we remain open to new foods and experiences making their ways into our small intestines and hearts, and to initially crazy-sounding ideas that we might never have generated on our own. I always want to be (at least a little bit) confused, because then there’s always something to investigate, to look forward to, and to reflect on. In the meantime, I plan on applying my passion and capability for expression in the written form to the exploration of topics such as sustainable meat production, the representation of lived experience in travel writing, and the potential power of technology to create a healthier, more just food system.
My day-to-day life in Bra was quite simple, and living in the chaos of New York City now, where it seems quite possible to be trampled while crossing an intersection in Midtown, I can see now that the time I had in Italy to explore the crevices of my own mind and the minds of others was a special, special thing. Now, it’s time for me to make space for myself in this big, buzzing world where everyone is tweeting and shouting and concocting the next Cronut. It’s time to take the knowledge I acquired there and make something of it.
It’s my turn to assert myself as a gastronome in the world.