Monday, June 15, 2009

En Transit

This is a rough draft that I wrote on the train on my way to Paris... it's definitely not finished and there's a huge block of a quote that I haven't yet broken down into the essay, but you'll get the idea.

I wrote an update about my time in Paris and Helsinki but currently can't access it due to a dead computer! Exactly one hour from now I will board a train to Venice, and am officially in my last 10 days here as of tomorrow morning. Hard to believe.

Anyway, here's this... enjoy.

“How we eat can change the world.”
— Alice Waters

Almost as amazing as what I learned each day working with maiali, pecore, vacche, gallini [pigs, sheep, cows, chickens], constantly broken recinti [fences], and my broken Italiano, are the things I learned from the people there. From the owners of the estate, Randall and Francesca, I learned about the history and vision of Spannocchia; from the staff I learned about various workings of the farm; from the other interns I learned about food! Of course, I learned a lot about food anyway, as we were surrounded by traditional Tuscan dishes each night at dinner, and participated in tastings of wine, cheese, and regional aperitivi [appetizers] as much as time allowed. But that aside, I was constantly amazed by the knowledgability of my fellow interns on the subject of all things food. Anne has been working in a New York City bakery for the past few years, and Alison was a waitress at the revered and world-renowned The French Laundry restaurant in Napa before arriving in Italy. We also had the distinct pleasure of getting to know Jay, who came to Spannocchia as a “transformation” volunteer for five weeks. He has worked as the top chef in a number of restaurants in the States and has big plans to open his own small-scale animal processing facility in Kentucky, emphasizing quality over quantity.

And so we come to the crux of the European food experience, the reason Carl Petrini started the Slow Food movement in Bra, Italy, the reason so many people travel to Europe for the food and to America for the vistas. Quality over quantity!
The restaurants in Tuscany advertised their steaks proudly, proclaiming them to be Chianina beef. Chianina is a heritage breed very similar to the Kalvannah beef raised at Spannocchia. In America, steakhouses shout their steaks to you in ounces, the bigger the better. It doesn’t seem to matter where they came from or what kind of beef it is, nor does it matter how it was raised, or on what sort of food. Grain, rendered animal parts and antibiotics? Yum! I’ll take your biggest New York Strip please!

The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the American food system is lacking in integrity because Americans just don’t care. They don’t demand it, from our suppliers or producers. For us, as long as every McDonalds hamburger looks and tastes the same, it doesn’t matter where its ingredients came from. People don’t care that McDonalds beef comes from used up dairy cows [ladies, think about that one for a while!] and they don’t care that the taste is largely imparted by chemicals, created in a lab. And when, every now and then, a grainy video is smuggled out of a slaughterhouse showing a “downer” cow being prodded and beaten so that it can be turned into a “tasty,” chemical-enhanced hamburger, of course people will be disgusted and demand an end to it. But they rarely change their habits. In a slaughterhouse where hundreds of animals are processed per hour, of course cows become commodities. The system is specifically designed that way, and a cow that can’t walk is a flaw in the plan, a broken piece.

The interns, or a few of them, seemed always to be talking in hushed tones about some woman named “Alice.” Who was this Alice lady, and where was I when we met her? Then I noticed an oft-referenced cookbook hiding in the corner of our kitchen in Pulcinelli, titled The Art of Simple Food. So began my education about Alice Waters, the founder of a now-famous restaurant in California that is rated by many as one of the best restaurants in the U.S. and the world. I decided to read a biography about her that sounded interesting, called Alice Waters and Chez Panisse: the romantic, impractical, often eccentric, ultimately brilliant making of a food revolution. Waters, more or less, decided that she loved French culture and that she wanted to start a restaurant, despite not knowing anything about them, or about food for that matter. What she did know, however, was that she loved la cuisine du marché, market food. Fresh food. Whatever looked the best in market stalls was what went into dinner that night.

In some ways, Chez Panisse today goes no further than Alice’s first modest desires for it. It still occupies the same old house in Berkley . . . There is not a Chez Panisse outpost in Las Vegas, or anywhere else; there is no Chez Panisse frozen pizza; and it is only in the last few years that Chez Panisse has become a genuinely profitable enterprise . . .

But for many people, including many who will never eat there, Chez Panisse is a much larger enterprise than a restaurant. It is a standard-bearer for a system of moral values. It is the leader of a style of cooking, of a social movement, and of a comprehensive philosophy of doing good and living well . . .

Alice Waters has transformed the way many Americans eat and the way they think about food. Her insistence on the freshest ingredients, used only at the peak of their season, nearly always grown locally and organically, is now a ruling principle in the best American restaurants and for many home cooks. Her conception of a moral community based on good food and goodwill has helped to spawn a new generation of artisans and farmers . . . .

[Waters] envisioned the soul-deadening machinery of corporate agriculture supplanted by a profusion of small organic farms, sustainable fisheries, and humane and ecologically benign animal husbandry. She dreamed of the fractured American family coming back together, and back to health, around the dining table. She saw that people worldwide could be drawn by pleasure to a new way of thinking about the earth and a better way of living on it.

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