Category Archives: food

Ethnography at Borough Market

Borough SignageI arrived with my students at Borough Market on a grey day, a London day. However, the oldest freestanding outdoor market in northern Europe is anything by grey. One’s senses explode with color, if we but let them. And that is the ethnographic task I set forth for my students.

In pairs they worked their way through the market. Sunglasses pulled down as they squeeze their eyes shut, trusting their partner to guide them safely through the maze of stalls, as if blind.

Borough foodRound one, explore Borough with your nose. Let every scent come to you without the bias of sight. Let each aroma take you to that emotional sweet-spot hidden somewhere in your brains. Describe with your heart what you smell with your nose.

Round two, explore Borough with your ears. Switch roles and be guided, blindly, along a different path. Let each sound take you to that same emotional sweet-spot hidden somewhere in your brains. Describe with your heart what you hear with your ears.

Finally, I tasked them with taking their sensory experiences and shaping them into insights that focused deeply on one of their senses, a sense they perhaps too often relegate to the back of their brain. Visit the class blog and see what found sounds and smells they were able to observe. See what their noses and ears stimulated from deep within their hearts.



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Reading Italy

In studying Italian I am learning to read Italy.

The books that guide my rudimentary, albeit growing, knowledge of Italian have taught me a lot about culture. Indeed, words tell us a lot about culture. In books, and the words within them, one also learns a lot about cultural cross-over and the aspirational dreams that shape cultural understanding.

BooksAs for Italian. I begin simply and eventually make my way to grown-up writing on a subject I know well. Il lupo che voleva cambiare colore / The wolf that wanted to change colors will strengthen my understanding of foundational linguistic principles, I hope in the company of my sweet Henry. Perhaps I will charm him with my not too shabby pronunciation. Doubtful. I think is will be the lovely illustrations that will capture his heart. L’albero / The Giving Tree has been a favorite of mine, and Henry, forever! It is also the prefect way to reinforce the all too many tenses of Italian grammar – and have more reading time with the sweetest boy on the planet. I can then move on to Buon Appetito: l’alimentazione in tutti i sensi / Enjoy your food: Using all your senses. In the company of the most divine food on earth, I get to graduate from elementary school. With my feet firmly planted in middle school, I can enjoy the ironic feminist fairytale L’incredibile storia di Lavinia / The incredible story of Lavinia. My dear friend, Sara, promises I will love it, although I fear it may take the full two years of middle school to make my way through it. Finally, I will sit back with my la Repubblica D magazine, D for donne or women, and enjoy an article on La Strategia di Hillary / Hillary’s strategy. As I know a lot about Hillary, I can already nearly make sense of the entire article. Piano, piano! Slowly, slowly!

As for culture. Well, who does not like a wolf that changes colors? And Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly demonstrating the power of imagery to transcend cultures. One does not need words to understand the gift of giving. Then there’s food. Tell me; is food not the universal cultural intermediary? Si e buon appetito! I will have to withhold judgment on the Italian feminist fairytale. However, in seeing the illustrations and knowing la mia amica, Sara. Io lo sai sarà fantastico! When it comes to aspirational branding, all one has to do is look to Hillary Clinton and you see in her an aspirational brand. However, in the end, I must admit that the idea of an Italian feminist fairytale and the Italian obsession with Hillary Clinton feels odd in the land of la velina.

Reading Italy will take me a long time.


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In Italy, when it comes to food all things are sacred and nothing is wasted. In this respect, salume seems its own class of food. Ah, before I go any further, I must take a moment to introduce you to but one of the many intricacies of the Italian language – lest you think my fingers simply fumbled across the keyboard. Salume (class singular), salumi (class plural), salame (sausage singular), and salami (sausage plural) are all the ways one refers to this exquisite food. And, now onto the story that frames Italians wonderful ability to cherish all things edible.

A few nights ago I had dinner with some friends at il Contadino, Azienda Agrituristica, just outside of Reggio Emilia. Il Contadino was once a fully functioning farm. The proprietor, Guglielmo Punghellini, and his sons, who still raise pigs, opened a restaurant in half of the old farmhouse. The food –  è buonissimo – is prepared with only local slow food. It is no surprise that the slow food movement originated in Piedmont Italy in 1986. But I digress…

The jewel of il Contadino is the salame made from their pigs and which won a gold medal – suspended from Guglielmo’s neck. In the U.S. the same medal would, no doubt, be worn as a brand mark. Not so in Italy, where humility and pride seem to live side by side. Here the gold medal functions more like a wedding band worn by a man who married the most beautiful woman in the village.

The process of making salume is the ultimate in slow food – and of course very Italian. As they say, “Of the pig, nothing is wasted.” There are endless naturally cured varieties: salame, prosciutto, speck, culatello, coppa, pancetta, mortadella, ciccioli… The flavor and texture within each variety varies widely by region and even city. Most begin with locally raised pigs – very local in this case. The salume is cured at room temperature, preferably in darkness, air-drying to cause fermentation. When it is cured, the white powdery covering (mold or flour) becomes nearly airtight, preventing photo-oxidation. When it goes to market, and that too will most likely be local, the salume will be sold in shops specializing in multiple varieties. Of course, these shops that will never be open at midday when the very civilized Italians –shopkeepers included – are having lunch with family and/or friends.

Here’s the inside story. My friend’s father grew up in this house.  Guglielmo who was a friend of his father greeted us, took our order, and served us – and everyone else in the restaurant. He also gave us a tour of the curing rooms, while one of his sons prepared the food. But, of course, the father should give the tour. It would be no other way. Remember the symbolic association of the gold medal as a wedding band? Now think of us as the distant cousins coming to meet the beautiful bride. So up the back stairs we went for a tour of the old family home – now the curing rooms – one of which had been the bedroom of my friend’s aunt! Behold the scent of garlic, a hint of pepper and succulent ripening pork with a ceiling of dangling jewels all lit by a single bare bulb.

Recall my comment about a gold medal worn as a brand mark, in the U.S. Now, here’s an interesting branding twist. As the FDA regulates meat and most Italian salumi do not meet its standards, with few acceptations, most cannot be imported – such a pity. However, in San Francisco in the 1960s a group of Italian immigrants, each with a family history as salumi makers, trademarked the name “Italian Salami” for salame made in the U.S.

All photographs copyright: Jean Grow

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