September 3, 2016

The Alchemy of Cooking Together.


Food unites us all.

Variations on this theme are everywhere these days. You may have seen the common image of an endless farm table in a field, where strangers raise glasses and tear gnarled bread loaves while a symphony of tall grass sways at their backs.

Frankly, a lot of this has become advertising, particular to today’s hyped-up food-media world where many big food companies are striving to look and act small.

As someone who works in food education and watches the industry closely, I have become weary of, and somewhat cynical toward, such romantic-cum-commercial images. But recently, I received a window onto the communal power of food I had never seen before—and witnessed this maxim (“food unites us all”) made multi-sensory.

Food.Stories.Travel. (my husband’s company, I should point out) is a boutique tourism business that specializes in bringing Americans closer to traditional Italian food cultures and, ultimately, closer to their own. This summer, my husband Cristiano and his friend Angelo, a Neapolitan-born professional chef, co-hosted their sixth cooking class at an airy, sun-soaked gallery in bucolic Westport, MA.

To call the experience a “cooking class” is both accurate and insufficient. The group of 15 gathered mid-afternoon to embark on what should really be called a food journey.

It began at two nearby farms: Eva’s Garden and Round the Bend Farm. From her three acres in South Dartmouth, Eva (now in her 70s) has been supplying top Boston area restaurants with fresh herbs and greens for decades. She pioneered the practices that have since exploded in the farm-to-table movement. In exquisite contrast, Round the Bend is led by two internationally-trained, Millennial farmers. Desa and Geoff tend to animals and vegetables in harmony through managed intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) in order to cultivate the richest soil possible, entirely through nature. A full education center, with a library and commercial-cum-teaching kitchen, is underway.

We were inspired to our bones by these people who nurture our food (and who furnished us with our ingredients for the cooking class). From Round the Bend, we returned to the gallery for an all-hands-on-deck cooking expedition through four Tuscan recipes: two antipasti (appetizers); one primo (first course, usually a pasta); one secondo (main dish); and one dolce (dessert). The effort culminated in our arrival at a long farm table of sorts, positioned artfully in the main, high-ceilinged gallery. There we sat together, poured two Tuscan reds, and savored the results of the day.

Farm-to-table is a pretty idea. But more interesting is the question of why. What misty nostalgia calls us back to the pasture and its table in this way?

The evening ran so much deeper than knife skills and rolling pasta. The simple, pure human connection among this group of strangers is a rare and precious thing in modern life—and one for which I believe most of us are starving.

At the farms, the atmosphere was collegial (as one might expect of a group museum tour), the distance between us arm’s length, conversation crisp and cordial. Back at the gallery, as Cristiano and Angelo introduced themselves and the menu, it was the same.

But then, within minutes of putting our hands on food, we were shoulder-to-shoulder, pressed together and gossiping cheerfully about this and that. A little egg, a little flour and an old-world sort of intimacy bloomed.

With everyone helping, the things that tend to separate us—color, language, age, money, beliefs—left the kitchen.

Of course, the wine helped—but it wasn’t the catalyst for our camaraderie. The camaraderie came almost instantly, certainly before the third or fourth sip.

Something else was happening.

Perhaps it was in the way that Angelo and Cristiano guided us. “I don’t use recipes,” Angelo said. “Except for the cantucci where we need exact measurements. We are going to cook with our senses, and learn and memorize by taste.” He encouraged our artistic confidence in the kitchen, leveraging what most Italians seem to know in their DNA—and what many Americans crave to learn.

Referring to how guests always go home with leftovers, Cristiano added: “I always think of Savarin’s quote about how hosting is about taking full responsibility for your guests’ happiness for as long as they are under your roof…in our case, I think we maybe even go beyond that.”

“It is really important to us that we not waste anything. To do so would dishonor the farmers and in a way our mothers, who were the first ones to teach us food when we were children.” He smiled to himself, remembering. “It’s a nice way to end—to be like our mothers sending people home with food.”

We accepted the leftovers gladly, edible mementos of our six-hour food journey from field to fork, which carried us far away to Italy and, at the same time, right back home.


Author: Rachel Greenberger

Image: Food.Stories.Travel./Instagram

Editor: Toby Israel


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