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A sense of place — and taste

(post, Harriet Fasenfest)

I went to Ecotrust recently to hear Portland’s Slow Food delegates speak about their experiences at Terra Madre, the international Slow Food event held every other fall in Turin, Italy. 

The delegates were a committed group of food activists — chefs, farmers, educators, administrators — all speaking of their varied impressions before, during, and after the “main” event.

To a point, they all acknowledged the “glorious mess” of Terra Madre, a phrase coined by Linda Colwell, a member of Slow Food Portland’s board, a chef, writer, and consultant in food, farms, and school-garden education. (She founded the Garden of Wonders school-garden project and the scratch kitchen at Abernethy Elementary School in Portland.) 

(To read Linda's impressions of the trip and see a slideshow of her time in Romania before Terra Madre, head over to the Slow Food Portland blog.)

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Portlander Linda Colwell took this photo of cheese being made at home on a Romanian farm."] 

Some felt the disorder to be a missed opportunity; they were hoping for something tangible to bring back to their farms and communities. Some considered it a celebration and didn't mind the chaos, deeming it the inherent consequence of inviting 8,000 passionate food people to gather in one place. 

Given the indomitable spirit of Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, I might say the “mess” was nothing less than manna for him. He seems like that kind of guy. 

But that wasn't what I was thinking about that night. Rather I was musing, as I often do, on the true meaning of a regional cuisine. And what better place than Italy to consider such a condition — a place where every 50-mile radius offers another cheese? 

It was clear and expected that the delegates, particularly the chefs among them, would speak of the experience through the foods of the region. And it was clear and expected that we, the audience, would sit in awe watching the slides of locals cooking, eating, and making their regional foods. But what I noticed in the background of every slide was something so precious and clear that I wanted to speak up. I wanted to bring it home.

What I noticed was a life, not a profession. What I noticed were regular people, hardscrabble people, people who, as I might imagine it, had lived forever on their land and in a way and who would value their bread, wine, cheese, or prosciutto not so much as “artisanal” foods but as life-sustaining food, as foods that they could grow and cook and feed themselves with and whose bounty was supplied within a system that was as logical as it was old.  

What I thought I saw were families — mothers and fathers, uncles and aunts, along with the children who would learn (if they did not follow our American lead) the skills that could only be passed down by hand, sight, and feel. Children who would inherit a love of their ancestral lands if, that is, they aren't lured away by industry or "easy street."

I did not notice (or else none hung on the walls) the diplomas and degrees from universities suggesting the type of vaunted knowledge and preparation required for the upward mobility and careers we Americans love to promote. What do we expect our children to assume when we prompt them from childhood to expand their horizons? How far, in the end, do we want them to go or, rather, who will be left on this good earth when they do? 

What I did see in those frames were the well-worn kitchens of the countryside, the utensils and bowls chipped here and there from utility’s strain. There were counters and cupboards covered with nicks and scratches, smudges and stains — all reasonable touches in a space filled with long and hard living. There were outdoor ovens that were older than our nation and looked refreshingly distinct from the back-yard kitchen theaters so popular in our culture.  

I did not see, as I recall, that many fancy outfits. I did not see logos or designer sportswear or cool glasses or coiffed hair. I did not see crisp and polished people but rather what I imagine to be functional people, people who haven't the money, space, time, or inclination to fill their closets with this year’s fashion trends. Not that they never do, or would not for an occasion, but that raising pigs or cows does not really scream for haute couture. 

Which brings me back to the food, the “artisanal” foods: the prosciutto (pigs) and Parmesan (cows), the wine (grapes) and balsamic vinegar (more grapes) that everyone loves and longs for and wants to have for their own discerning palates. Which brings me back to the life that is hardscrabble and historic, and the legacy and logic that supports it. A life that says, “Here is the land you have been given, the land that will support you and future generations for years if you care for it.”  

I assume that these folks on those lands simply ate what they made and loved it for how it sustained them. Some of it was bartered and later went to market, but mostly, and before industry, it was just their cheese, their bread, their prosciutto, the food of their “terroir” or territory that was as indistinguishable to the final product as the sun and the moon, the stories and traditions that centuries of living in one place can offer.

And if they had pride in it, it was likely because it gave them the opportunity to do what we have all been instructed to do: to feed and keep healthy the land and the people of our families. This is the long (albeit disappearing) objective of putting down roots and staying invested in the land of your people. It is perhaps the irony of our culture that we want what we see in other cultures but are not willing to stay put long enough to create it in our own.

So our delegates went to see all of it and to bring back stories of how we can create these slideshows in our own world. In the end, I think they, we, and all of us are talking about fostering a culture whose tradition of place is stamped on not only our food but on our families, our land, and our communities. A culture that embraces more hard work and less fashion. A culture that creates, by its own hands, something not only worth eating, but worth living. And all of it without the slightest trace of design. 

And that is when I try my hand again at making the pasta I am getting better at, the sourdough bread that will hopefully hold its shape this time, the ricotta that might be as creamy as I dream of, or the countless other foods that I try to incorporate in as close a story of terroir as I can get. What I take on is the hard work that must surely connect me to the folks in the slideshow. 

What I attempt is the pride of setting a table for my family and friends from food that is neither packaged nor shipped from any place too far away or fancy. What I am looking for is the logic and systems that, in the beginning, prompted all the foods we now hold dear in hopes that by following those steps then, some day, if I am persistent, folks will be talking about 14th Street yogurt from Portland, Oregon.

reference-image, l