Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Week of Blogging: Food Awareness

Recently, I read Jacques Pepin's autobiography "The Apprentice," and loved it. It's a little funny that I loved it, since the whole book is about cooking veal heads and rabbit livers and such with sauces made of butter, heavy cream, and eggs. But still, Pepin's lovely spirit comes through, and most of all there is an ethos of food appreciation that shines out. Despite having very different ingredients on our shopping lists, I felt an affinity with Pepin's dual respect for traditional food preparation and openness to new ingredients and ideas. Pepin was raised in the French countryside, eating simple, fresh food from his family farm or neighbors. Clearly, this experience had a life-long effect in shaping his palette and preferences.

a shot from my local farmers' market

All of this got me thinking - realizing - that each of us has a unique ethos around food... shaped by our life experiences. It made me realize how much my approach to food has been shaped by my time in Italy. The first time I went to Italy, I was 16 years old. My parents and I spent the summer in Padua (near Venice), while my dad was teaching at the University, and my brother stayed home (paaaaarty!). In Padua, there was only one grocery store like the ones we were used to at home, and it wasn't quite so hot. I remember the laughter and confusion that my mom and I shared, trying to figure out where to get what we needed.

We found the dry goods store down the street from our house that had basic groceries. A very friendly family ran this spot, and I loved flirting with their teenage son. It was nice to develop a relationship with the people at the store - so that shopping became an activity that built a sense of community, as well as got us the food we needed.

For bread, we went to the bakery in our neighborhood. For produce, there was a nice old lady across the street with fruit and veggies. And there was the dairy store - with yogurt, milks, and cheeses. Each of these became a stop during the week. And in Padua, you had to figure it out - because each type of store had some unique time when it was closed: like the bakeries were closed on Tuesday mornings, and the cheese store on Wednesday afternoons... or whatever! It was pretty hilarious, especially since none of us spoke any Italian at the time. I also remember regular outings to our neighborhood trattoria for amazing pizza. Unlike the pizzas at home, stacked with one hundred toppings, here you had "mushroom pizza" or "cheese pizza" or "4 cheese pizza". These simplified toppings allowed flavors to come through and shine.

1994, Junior Year Abroad, picking mulberries in Tuscany

Years later, for my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy was the first place I ever lived on my own and cooked for myself. My first experiences providing my own nourishment involved this same pattern: go to the market for the produce, the cheese shop for my cheese (I wasn't vegan yet, foolishly!), the bakery for my bread, the gelateria for my gelato (of course!). I developed relationships with vendors, developed preferences for certain vendors, certain products, I even figured out which times of day to show up at the bakery to get my schiacciata fresh and warm from the oven.

early shot of Amey in the kitchen! cooking mulberry pie, 1994

I wasn't much of a cook then. My mom had gotten me a great cookbook before I left, of vegetarian Italian cooking, and I used it a lot. I made a LOT of pasta with simple red sauce: garlic, fresh tomatoes, olive oil, salt, basil. To this day, it's one of my favorite foods... and I"m quite a fusspot about using only the best ingredients.

San Quirico in Colline, the sandwiches were down the street on the left

Later, I spent a fair amount of time in the Tuscan countryside, even closer to the farmers. We drank wine from the ground where we lived, we used olive oil from the same property, each afternoon we could pick 50 giant green figs off the enormous fig tree outside our door. The sandwiches at the only shop nearby consisted of fresh bread, fresh tomatoes, fresh cheese, fresh basil... and they were the best sandwiches I'd ever had. I didn't know it, but these experiences were sowing the seeds of a future foodie!

setting the table, at our painting residency in Tuscany. 1994

I think the typical American thing is to go to the grocery store and buy every thing you need in one fell swoop. Only after reading Pepin's book did I realize quite how differently I go about things. I religiously buy almost all my produce from the farmer's market. I go out of my way to schedule time for it on Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings. I have my favorite vendors, and I enjoy chatting and learning about them just as much as I enjoy eating their fruits and veggies. I love looking through the offerings and asking the farmer what they recommend. I pretty much only buy bread fresh from the bakery, on the day I need it. Luckily, our neighborhood bakery makes great bread, and will sell you a half-loaf, which I love. I have definitely caught the foodie bug - and I love trying new ingredients, new cuisines, new flavor combinations, and obviously I buy plenty of stuff (including non-local produce) from my local natural foods store - but also, I have the deepest place in my heart for very simple foods of the best quality. Fresh bread, ripe tomatoes, basil, olive oil, good carrots... and I definitely attribute this to my time in Italy, and that coming-of-age-in-the-kitchen experience of working with consistently fresh and delicious ingredients.

One last way that my times in have Italy affected me... I am a real stickler for resting after I eat! I refuse to jump up and move on to the next thing right away. How uncivilized! :) I need some time to sit and relax a little... enjoy the experience.

So, kudos to you if you've read this far. I'd love to hear about your own unique "food ethos" and how it has developed over the years...


  1. That was a lovely story! Now I wanna move to a small town in Italy. It sounds so romantic.

    As for buying thing from small vendors, I love that aspect of the farmer's market season (here, that's May through Oct).

    Also, our Memphis veggie group is called Food I loved the title of this post.

  2. What a wonderful foodie journey you've had so far! I'd also never lived on my own (dorms don't count) and cooked for myself until my junior year abroad in France. That was where I had my first experience with farmers' markets, too. I wasn't anywhere close to your level when living abroad, though (I mainly ate rice and lentils while in France!). That didn't come until 2 years later when I went veg and really learned about preparing and buying food. I love that you always keep your European foodie sensibilities with you. :)

  3. I too love Pepin and try to catch his cooking show on PBS when I can. Thank you for sharing those pictures. You made me long for the Farmer's Market I've neglected to visit in a while.

  4. That's such a great story! I wish I had a cool one to share...I became a foodie because I got sick of eating pre-packaged veg foods and wanted to learn to make my own stuff. I'm so envious about Italy, I've wanted to go there my whole life!

  5. it was a great entry! i would love to go to italy. What an amazing experience. i am jealous!

  6. that is so true...maybe you should write a food history of yourself!

  7. What a great, interesting post, Amey! I didn't realize you had spent so much time in Italy. I love their food philosophy of shopping for fresh ingredients and spending hours enjoying their fresh food and wine. I wish I had something as interesting to share! I was raised on canned and boxed foods. I hated veggies, until I spent summers with my grandmother who had a garden. I finally tasted real food and homemade dinner rolls and biscuits. Not until then did I learn that you don't need a lot of cooking skills if you have the quality ingredients.


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