The scene of the crime: Azienda Agricola Monte Jugo in Viterbo, Lazio, Italy. Pietro, our fearless tutor (not like someone that helps you get good grades, more like the person who made sure we stayed 23 people all week) on the left and Ferdinando, the owner, on the right.
Yesterday and the rest of today will be filled with a seminar on “Enogastronomical Communication” (translation: Food Writing) with Corby Kummer, senior editor at The Atlantic and author of several books on making coffee. I passed Amazon links said books along to a coffee-crazed friend, noting that a lot of ground has been covered in the last 10 years and it seems now that things that were once reserved for chemistry class are not being used to brew a cup of joe.
If nothing else, this man has presence. He positioned himself on top of a desk, no powerpoint in sight, with his legs crossed, showing off his 50 shades of grey socks, and we began to discuss our first of three assignments.
1. Select a 1-2 page passage from Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book and explain why it is particularly interesting to you.
“A cookbook?” I hear you saying via the interwebs. No, this book is like a subtly hilarious life narrative which happens to give you ideas on what to do with things like purslane.
Naturally I picked Brussels sprouts. Partially for the political history (Thomas Jefferson planted them in America after basically stealing them during his time as Minister to France!) but also for this description on preparation (which I never do).
“When you come to deal with the sprouts, cut away the mess before you put them into a bowl of well salted water. This encourages miniature forms of life to come out of the sprouts. Some people cut a cross in the base, as one does with a cauliflower or cabbage, but I think this is a waste of time. They cook perfectly well without it, and the cutting can lead to a loss of shape and flavour” (119).
Anyone else getting weird medieval science-y/religion knowledge vibes here? Brilliant.
Assignment 2: identify a 100-200 word passage from anywhere in the world, from any source and explain why you like it.
I must say, I have amassed many a bookmark on my Google Chrome browser under the folder “Read Me” since beginning my time here, but a column I recently discovered and am drawn to is Food & Consequences by Aaron Thier on the Lucky Peach website.
The particular piece I picked to bring to the attention of Corby Kummer and company is called Mind versus Body. I think it’s a great piece of writing because of the varied sentence structure, the punchline at the second paragraph, his use of ingenious phrases like “exceptionally sane,” but also because I am lucky in the sense that I suffer from this “disease.”
“Food is magically abundant and magically various in a place like the United States, and this makes for an unusual problem. Most of us don’t struggle to get enough food; we struggle to get the right food. The consequences of poor food choices are, for all we know, cancer and heart disease and a premature death, so it’s not an idle concern.
Today there’s an emerging psychiatric diagnosis called orthorexia nervosa. It isn’t listed in the DSM, but its descriptive power is obvious. It’s applied to people who—I’m quoting Michael Specter’s exceptionally sane New Yorker article about the gluten-free diet—“progressively withdraw different foods in what they perceive as an attempt to improve their health.” In a clinical setting, a person would need to be significantly malnourished to qualify for a diagnosis. But orthorexia is really just an extreme manifestation of the problem of food choice, a problem that many earnest and sane people grapple with every day. The disorder is a problem of too much information. It’s a disease you catch from the Internet.”
As someone who is an “earnest and sane” slash health-conscious consumer, how do I navigate between gluten-free, Paleo, Bulletproof Coffee, non-GMO, fast food, slow food, organic, biodynamic, foraged, wild, fresh, anything using the word “cleanse…” How do I know what to eat and not to eat? The internet? My friends? My school? My parents? People magazine? (This is a rhetorical question, I’ll leave this can of worms for another day.)
Assignment 3: write a 750-word piece that mentions a memorable food and the person who made it.
I cobbled something together on Sunday night after returning from a whirlwind weekend in Torino (more on that soon) about a girl (me), a guy (a goat cheese producer) and his 450 goats.
Corby was not enthused. Remember, this guy is an editor at The Atlantic.
In my feedback session with him (using a trash can as a stand-up desk), he said, “Where is your organization? This is just lazy. Your story is buried in here somewhere. You know what your story is? Talk about Vermont! Talk about why you love cheese. Talk about how it makes your stomach hurt. Talk about Peggy at Cowgirl Creamery. Talk about California.”
Rather than being discouraged by someone calling me lazy, I realized he was right. For about a month, this blog sat collecting virtual internet dust. But people, I am pursuing a Master in Food Communication and Culture!!! If I don’t take the time to write now, I’m just being silly. I have been appropriately kicked into gear. And now I would like to share with you my revised piece as the last part (I promise) of this overly long blog post that is making me increasingly motivated to get out there in the world of journalism and just do what I love to do: write about food.
Go for the Goat
by Katherine Harris
I am a child of the early nineties, so I missed all the fuss up in Berkeley at Alice’s wonderland about the pivotal goat cheese salad of thirty-some years ago. Still, I read all about it via Joyce Goldstein in the midst of my own food revolution—when I headed off to the homeland of Ben and Jerry’s for four years of college. While never choosing to self-identify as “lactose intolerant” (I also went through a “non-vegetarian” vegetarian phase), a healthy dose of gelato or pizza usually has uncomfortable aftereffects in some ways comparable to the feeling I have after being in the backseat during a road trip for too long or when I am near a stagnant body of water full of mosquitoes. The problem is that I love cheese.
Our love affair together was born of pure innocence. “Oh Vermont, that place of plentiful green grass (wrong) and cheddar (right, but also wrong).” With no idea really about what cheese could be other than it caused me physical (and often emotional) pain and a few solid grilled cheese sandwiches for reference, I bumbled around the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-Op for a year as I struggled to get into the swing of things both socially and gastronomically at school. Mostly I was left feeling A. challenged in the digestive sense and B. somewhat guilty for buying mildly expensive cheese with plastic packaging that never seemed to preserve freshness.
One night at the local pizza joint (offering gluten free crust to both celiacs and those suffering from orthorexia nervosa), I came face to face with the pie that turned this sad little narrative around. Her name was “Punctuated Equilibrium” and while I never deciphered the philosophical meaning behind it, I think it’s better that way. She was the epitome of gut-pleasing tanginess: kalamata olives, roasted red peppers, rosemary and red onions peppered with clumps of goat cheese. This pizza was downright delightful. Crispy yet chewy. Herbaceously salty. Filling but also light, meaning I ate the whole $11 thing by my not-so-lonesome self.
Google tells me that lactose could or could not be a factor in the easier digestibility of goat cheese. It also might have to do with the shorter fat molecules. I’m not a chemist, so I can’t say for sure. All I know is that the stuff is airier than cow milk cheese and less reminiscent of grandmothers than its sibling cottage cheese. It makes my microflora sing like the thick, plain yogurt I consider my daily bread. Over time, I learned that I prefer goat cheeses at the beginning and end of the time spectrum—the freshest of fresh ricottas (which I could tell you with my soon-to-be Masters degree is actually not a cheese, but a dairy byproduct) and also the crumbly aged stuff that always manages to leave a pungent reminder under my fingernails.
A few weeks ago in a town just outside of Rome, I met a goat cheese producer named Ferdinando Ciambella, a white-haired sixty-something armed against the cold by a tasteful brown cashmere scarf (ironic only in retrospect). Through a translator, I asked the question that had been brewing in my mind since I stepped into his surprisingly odor free and calm barn half an hour earlier, “Why goats? Like, why not sheep or cows?” Ferdinando smiled, revealing a deep vertical inter-eyebrow wrinkle that I know is coming for me someday soon.
Ferdinando’s father had cultivated several grains integral to the human and animal food chains throughout his lifetime, and for a while, his son followed suit. When the 90s came around, an economic crisis drove prices for cereals way down and this business no longer became a viable option. What to do then? Market research, obviously. His study of both the regional and national scales led him to a few key conclusions: there was an overproduction of cows, cow milk and cow meat. Switching from growing barley to raising cattle wasn’t the right move. It was time to bring in the goats. “Goats are mild mannered. They are clean. Look around. Does it smell in here? Is it crazy? No. That’s why I love goats,” he answered with a smile. I smiled too. I had noticed the same things.
For someone so in tune with the emotions of his goats, Ferdinando was also well-versed in numbers: 450 goats reproducing 1 time per year, producing on average 2 calves and also 3-4 liters of milk per day with less than 4% milk fat. While his initial goal was just to produce goat milk for sale, he saw the opportunity to expand his business and opened up a small retail shop—a blindingly white assemblage of both fresh and aged award-winning cheeses.
Once inside, the ricotta beckoned. This one was just barely sweet and had the wobbliness that I find both charming in the mouth and frustrating in the face of inadequate serving tools. The stagionato, a close relative of Grana Padano in appearance, smelled vaguely of tropical fruit and prompted a tingling sensation that my brain registered as an umami bomb. Unfortunately lacking in consistent refrigeration in the days ahead, I purchased a block of the longer aged cheese to savor at a future date in the comfort of my own apartment.
One month later, I still have a bit left that I break out when I am feeling particularly peckish or when I am low on intriguing salad components in my fridge. My love affair with cheese has progressed to one of mutual understanding over time. My gut now says, “Go for the goat.”