Top | The Culinate Interview

Amy Trubek

(article, Miriam Wolf)

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p(blue). As an assistant professor in the department of nutrition and food sciences at the University of Vermont, Amy B. Trubek’s job allows her to unite her two passions: food and anthropology. Her first book, [%bookLink code=0812217764 "Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession"], explored the change in French chefdom from craft to art. Her new book, The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, lays out the cultural meaning of terroir and investigates the joys of food and drink that taste like their origins — Vermont’s maple syrup, California’s wine, France’s regional cheeses. She is also the former executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Fresh Network, which fosters connections between chefs and farmers.

You studied anthropology as an undergraduate before enrolling at the Cordon Bleu in London. Tell us more about the connections between the two fields.
I really wanted to keep thinking about food, and at the time — 20 years ago — there was so little being done in academia around food. Anthropology was actually one of the few disciplines that had some generalized interest in food that went beyond the scientific, so that’s what I did. And it’s been fun.

How do you explain the concept of terroir?
I guess I would say there are three parts to how I would explain terroir. One is the idea that the natural environment in which a food or a drink is made has an influence on the flavor or the taste of the food or drink. Second, it's the cultural space where the relationship between the environment, people, and their culinary practices occurs. And finally, you could think about terroir as the notion of the relationship between agriculture and cuisine.

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Terroir is also what anthropology would explain as a cultural category. It’s the way in which we frame our thinking about food and drink every day without even really knowing we're doing it. 

In America, we have a couple of different ways that we think about food in our culture. One of our cultural categories is health. It’s not something that people consciously are always realizing, but they’re having a conversation with themselves about food in relationship to ideas about health. And there are certainly many definitions of health that people are using; people’s concepts of healthy food are very complex right now. 

How does the concept of "the taste of place" dovetail with the locavore movement?
The whole time I was thinking through the notion of terroir, I was also very involved in doing work on local foods in the United States, particularly in Vermont where I live. And it’s been interesting to me to see the rise of the locavore movement in the last three or four years, as well as increased interest by the environmental movement in connecting local foods with the idea of lowering carbon emissions to try to prevent global warming — both of which I think are great ideas. 

But I think that my idea of terroir is more that there are tastes that we’re not taking account of. And if we could celebrate that idea of taste and its relationship to nature and the environment, we could create a complex and richer relationship to farming and artisanal food culture. So I’m a little bit more of a globalist that way, because I’m not just trying to look at it from my particular area; I’m looking for possibilities all over the world. 

And because I think that quality is something we’ve really sacrificed with the industrialization of food, I’m very happy to have a really good wine made using the concept of terroir from France, but I’m less happy about having some really crappy tomatoes that have no real taste and have no relationship to place or the people who made it. 

How do you bring the concept of terroir to an industrialized society like ours?
I’m not interested in saying terroir is an absolute, instrumental relationship between the soil and the taste. I’m not interested in saying there’s absolutely some kind of black-and-white difference and moral issue between a local versus a global diet. I think it’s a lot more complicated than that. 

Mostly I’m interested in creating a kind of lens through which people who are involved in making food every day could start rethinking or championing what they’re already doing, and also give consumers another framework to operate within when they’re making choices about the food that they eat. 

If it translates for one person that the only change that they make in the way that they eat is that they buy local cheese instead of industrial cheese, I would be like, “Great! That’s a wonderful thing to do.”

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How do we overcome America’s obsession with consistency as its leading criterion for food choice?
I think there’s a lot of ways to do it. It mostly just requires a kind of trust that you know something about where your food comes from and you understand that it’s not always going to be exactly the same, but because you have that knowledge, you also have that trust, and so you’ll go there. I think that’s a big part of it.

Name some of your favorite American foods with a sense of place.
Definitely maple syrup, which I’m deep into doing work on here. And in the book, I talk about the shagbark hickory nuts in Wisconsin, which I really enjoyed. I really like seasons. Right now where I live, there’s a lot of rhubarb, so I’m going to start cooking with rhubarb beginning this weekend. I think local wild greens are amazing. Depending on where you’re from, they change, they vary. I like that.

Can you say a little more about your work with maple syrup?
I’m doing research with a team of scholars where we’re trying, from an interdisciplinary perspective, to look at what we’re realizing are all these varied flavors of maple syrup. We’re doing a lot of different types of research to explore why there are these flavor differences and how these flavor differences can be better utilized by people who make maple syrup in Vermont. 

Why is it important to get foods direct from farmers into restaurants?
Well, it’s a really great way to bypass some of the real structural issues for farmers that are preventing them from being able to get a strong-enough return on their dollar. \[They're trying\] to make farming a viable economic activity, because you can basically bypass the middleman if you sell directly to chefs. 

Chefs purchase on a greater scale. When you’re a farmer trying to sell to consumers, you’re hoping they’re going to buy a bunch of your kale, but a chef might buy a whole box of your kale. \[In return,\] chefs might be able to get unique products or fresher products. 

I imagine it’s a little bit about marketing, too.
Right. Chefs are really culturally powerful as tastemakers right now in the United States. And by putting farms on the menu, it’s a way that chefs can have a conversation with consumers and really bring farmers and the other people who are involved in growing or making food into the consumer’s awareness.

What are you working on next?
I’m doing research right now on cooking in the United States from an ethnographic perspective. I’m videotaping people cooking in their homes. Right now, I’m very intrigued about the role of the recipe in modern American cooking.

p(bio). Miriam Wolf writes about books and food for various publications, and is the managing editor of Bitch magazine. She lives in Portland, Oregon.

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