Dreaming of a French Farmers’ Market

A Trip to the Farmer's MarketThere are wisps of snow on the ground as I write this, yet I am overjoyed to note that Spring is a mere nine days away!

I’m off to the Culinary to teach how to write an advocacy piece by drawing compelling images with words. If it were up to me, I’d advocate for being transported to … a  farmers’ market in France.

Food and wine are important topics of conversation in France and everybody knows that good cooking begins with the selection of the freshest and best of ingredients.

The open air markets are the jewels of France. Village squares and narrow streets are crowded with jostling throngs of people, buying, bargaining and carrying their evening meal home in string bags and wicker baskets. The displays standing beneath ancient buildings are so seductive that they jolt even the most disinterested of palates into a lathering of salivation.

Cascades of tomatoes are an explosion of brilliant redness. Purple-black, round-bellied eggplants sit majestically next to skinny asparagus. Crackling brown-skinned onions are presented in a family grouping with their heroic garlic cousins, fat leeks, delicate scallions and baby shallots. Blushing apricots are a promise of sweetness, and strawberries, cherries, melons, peaches and pears send the mind reeling in a hundred different directions of choice.

Underlying everything there is an philosophy of freshness. The winter market is as different from the summer as is the spring from the fall. Each food has its appointed season, and when taken in the fullness of its hours, cannot be surpassed.

French cooking differs from region to region and, like every living art, it is constantly changing. Yet the genius of French cooking lies in the rich diversity of the ingredients and the respect with which they are treated by the people, both in homes and in restaurants.

Food Historians Also Cook

Food being ‘prepared’ on Downton Abby

Food historians uncover, record, and reproduce recipes. Their words invite readers to sit together at tables of long ago kitchens. They help us see, hear and smell the aromas of the food bubbling in the pots, frying in the pans, roasting or baking in the ovens.

Historians forage for unique nuggets of knowledge in ancient cookbooks, literary texts, and treasured diaries. They examine records of the daily diets and the culinary customs of our near and distant ancestors. They enable us to get a clearer picture of what the average person, not just the wealthy and privileged, ate at any given time and place.

Food historians are sleuths. They study everything from ancient cave carvings to manor house kitchen inventories. They explore the origins of labor-saving inventions. They delve into trade and taxation records; and analyze hotel and restaurant menus to gain greater understanding of changing fads and trends.

And then, they look around for ways to use their knowledge. Their information may be combined with a job in travel, teaching, writing — even food styling.

Culinary libraries need the help of historians to answer questions, undertake research for special projects, and curate culinary exhibits. Their writings are published in  academic journals and the popular press. Their expertise is sought by modern movie makers and producers of TV series.

Directors must make sure characters, whether they are: gladiators, The Titanic ocean liner passengers, even When Harry Met Sally are provided with the authentic food of their time in history.

 Some Sources To Check Out For Inspiration:

Drinking History: Fifteen Turning Points in the Making of American Beverages (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History) by Andrew F. Smith

The Literary Gourmet: Menus from Masterpieces by Linda Wolfe

Food Stylist: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Dolores Custer

Culinary Historians of New York

What Can I Bring?

A dear friend is diagnosed with a dire disease.  After the first moment of shock and disbelief, we feel adrift, not knowing what to do.

We can cook.

But what?

The inevitable accompaniment to an  illness is the need to take monstrously powerful drugs. They heal. But at a terrible cost. Loss of appetite is a constant companion in addition to feeling horribly unwell.

It was within this context that I heard of another friend who was caring for not one but two close relatives. They lived a long drive from her home. To her surprise she discovered her greatest need was for Tupperware.

Because she was simultaneously looking after her own children, she found she could only become a long distance traveler every four or five days.

She had no experience as a cook. She didn’t know there was such a profession as a personal chef. Nevertheless she rose to the task and spent many hours preparing the kind of simple food that could easily be popped into the microwave, leaving no dishes to wash and no pots to carry back and forth.  Even so providing three meals a day for two elderly people required a considerable amount of packaging.

She appealed to friends, to the garden club and the church whose members eagerly supplied masses of storage containers. They were happy to pitch in, and this small gesture was indeed wonderfully helpful.

Sometimes even a very small gift, (with a lid), becomes a loving gesture.

An Adventure Leads To A Culinary Life

I recently met an enchanting woman named Gina Stipo at the IACP (International Association of Culinary Professionals) Conference. She told me of her culinary adventure and the evolution of her career. Her story began with a trip to Italy. Well, let me ask Gina to tell you her story in her own words:

“About 10 years ago, I was driving down a two lane road through some of the most beautiful scenery in Tuscany. It was a road I knew well for I’d driven it every day over the past two years. It led from the small rural town where I live to the medieval city of Siena. Looking at the golden rays of the setting sun pouring over the green fields of winter wheat, I shook my head in disbelief, exclaiming out loud, “Holy Cow!! I’m actually living my dream.”

I live and work in Tuscany, teaching cooking classes, leading culinary and wine tours and sharing what I’ve learned about regional Italian cuisine with visitors from all over the world.

If I had gone to the library to consult a book on “How to Live and Work in Italy,” I’d still be sitting there, frozen under the avalanche of information on work permits and visas requirements. But I followed a path and, like Alice, fell down a hole into Wonderland.

My passion for good food, prepared with loving care and shared in a convivial setting, was instilled at an early age. I grew up in an Italian-American family on the east coast. We also lived in Verona, Italy for four years. I went to college; I worked in corporate America. The excellent salary I made went towards traveling, throwing dinner parties, eating in top restaurants and drinking fine wines. But it wasn’t enough.

When I was 36, I received a small inheritance from an aunt–enough to pursue a dream and change my life. I wasn’t in a serious relationship and I didn’t have kids. “If not now, when?,” I wondered.

I quit my job, sold my house, put my stuff in storage and took off to Italy for six months. After attending cooking school in Bologna, I traveled around Italy, watching the seasons change. I was blown away by the elegant simplicity of the food and how the dishes changed as the months went by. The cuisine of northern and central Italy was unlike anything I’d experienced in my southern Italian family upbringing.

I was fortunate enough to spend the last two months of my sojourn on a rural estate, Spannocchia, where I worked in the kitchen in exchange for room and board. Situated deep in the wooded hills south of Siena, it was my first exposure to Tuscan cuisine.

I loved the simplicity of the dishes: the strong flavors of rosemary and sage, the reliance on what was growing in the garden in the late fall, the celebration of harvest, wine, and new olive oil. I worked with their Tuscan cook to formulate her recipes in English.

When I returned to America, I started culinary school at the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) in New York. An internship with Odette Fada at San Domenico restaurant continued my education in regional Italian cuisine. I worked in restaurants, making $8 an hour. It was a pittance of what I’d made in my corporate job, but I was so much more fulfilled.

In the spring of 2000, I returned to Spannocchia for a visit. The owners, who by now were my friends, asked me to stay for the season. I jumped at the chance, planning to return to the “real world” at the end of the year.

Immersing myself in Tuscan culture and traditions, eager to learn as much as possible, I yearned to share my experiences with people who shared my passion. The visitors to the estate were the perfect foil. At the end of the year, rather than move back to the U.S., I stayed and found my own apartment in town.

Never before had anything felt so right. I learned that when you encounter road blocks, you don’t beat your head and work harder to overcome them; you look for the road that is wide open and sunny, and walk down it.

In 2001, I built a website, choosing the name, Ecco La Cucina, which means “here’s the kitchen.”

Gina Stipo, Ecco La Cucina

I applied for and received a visa and went through the bureaucratic nightmare of filing every year to renew my permit to stay. I am now a permanent resident.

What began as simple classes teaching pasta has grown into culinary workshops on Tuscan cuisine; week-long culinary tours throughout Italy; market visits and winery tours. My sister has become my partner in the U.S., and we make a great team.

By showing up, working hard, developing relationships and giving people value for their vacation dollars, I’ve built a solid reputation and a strong business. Life in a foreign country wasn’t always easy, but what I’ve learned is immeasurable.

I keep saying to you, dear reader, ICDT–I Can Do That! If Gina can do it, so can you! But you must create your own adventure, your own path.

If you would like to know more about Gina, perhaps attend her next week-long Tuscany classes and culinary tours in June, you can visit her website and plan your trip now!





Charlie Trotter Triumphant

Charlie Trotter’s courage and his ability to create lofty culinary and service standards have paved an inspirational path for not only chefs, but also for innumerable poor Chicago children whose lives he also changed.

The news that he is closing his restaurant comes as a huge surprise to many who have long admired his vision. He was a pioneer years before the eruption of the current crop of avant garders and creative thinkers. He was a prophet who arrived in a culinary desert a tick before his time. Even so, he surely must be tucking a little smile into his top pocket as he surveys his extraordinary accomplishments as a leader in the evolving American food revolution.

If I had to record the three best meals I have had, one would be Charlie’s salmon luncheon.

He prepared the meal for the food press. The Norwegian Salmon Fishing Trade Association sponsored it.

I think it was probably the first time any of us had experienced what became known as a tasting menu; tiny course followed tiny course like principal dancers performing solo or in duets in an exquisitely choreographed ballet. Miniscule renditions of salmon appeared in fourteen glamorous poses. We gasped with delight as each model morsel strutted forth from the kitchen runway to pirouette onto our plate.

What a triumph it was.

Without a doubt Charlie Trotter’s next incarnation will be just as dazzling.

Bon voyage, Charlie as you complete your Master’s Degree in philosophy and political theory. The teacher becomes the student in preparation for the eagerly anticipated next class act.


Vegging Out with the Vegetarians

Garden Vegetables and Farmer

Photo Courtesy of VegNews.com

Today vegetarianism is no longer simply a passing phase for the famous. It is becoming ever more mainstream. Millions of Americans have adopted this diet, and the converts are growing every day.

Even those who still enjoy meat are giving vegetarians greater respect, although we still find it difficult to imagine that a superstar athlete or a Commander in Chief would, or could, get to the top on a diet of beans and rice. T. Colin Campbell, professor of nutritional biochemistry at Cornell University, says it well:

“It’s my guess that there’s hardly another myth in nutrition so insidious yet so intractable as that which encourages us to believe that consuming lots of high-quality protein — basically the stuff of animal-based foods — makes for fitness, bigness, and strength of body. Rooted in antiquity, this myth began to sprout in the minds of men (especially men, it seems) long before protein was identified and named.”

The myth took root in the belief that we could get our strength, our agility, and our ability to soar to unimaginable heights only if we consumed the flesh and bodies of animals.

Much later, in the early 19th century, when scientists identified protein as being more or less equivalent to the flesh of animals they worshiped, it was heralded as the treasured nutrient. In the words of famous chemist Justus von Liebig, it was none other than the very “stuff of life itself.”

A remarkable shift in perception is occurring.

Choosing a vegetarian diet is now equated with having respect for one’s own health and the health of the planet. Those who can afford to buy the best organically grown produce are building a wide range of new vegetarian meals and taking a fresh look at classic meatless dishes from around the world.

Innovative vegetarian dishes are appearing with increasing frequency on restaurant menus. Offered as a summer garden of colorful vegetables and fresh pasta in a bowl drizzled with fruity olive oil, a generous spoonful of Parmesan, and a handshake of freshly ground black pepper, which of us would feel deprived?

In Western industrialized countries, there are more vegetarians than ever before — yet in a parallel shift there are more hamburgers eaten than ever before. It’s also interesting to note that Eskimos, who eat a traditional diet consisting almost entirely of meat, have a very similar life expectancy to that of Indian Hindus who are strict vegetarians.

Go figure.

Jobs for Vegetarians

  • Become A Produce Buyer for Restaurants: Buy a truck. Pick up the produce from a group of farmers and sell it to restaurants and retail markets.
  • Start a Store: Sell vegetarian specialties.
  • Write About It: Find a sponsor to finance a free newsletter to be given away at farmer’s markets, specialty food stores and grocery shops. Include seasonal recipes. Look to Vegetarian Times and terrific Mollie Kazen for inspiration.
  • Teach It: Launch a vegetarian cooking class, even bigger, launch a vegetarian cooking school.
  • Be Passionate About It: Look to VegNews.com as a start in your search.