March 14, 2016

Michelle eats world

For almost 4 years, I lived in rural Southern Vermont.

There, I had the unexpected pleasures of being able to grow my own food and of having friends who owned small farms. It was easy to make my husband a plate of pasta and know that the tomatoes and basil were from my garden, that I’d made the cheese from milk from Laurie’s farm and that the eggs in the noodles were a gift from Ellen Stimson's chickens. I knew that the plate of food was made with love at every stage.

Sitting down to eat a meal like that with people I love, I feel nothing short of triumphant – it’s one of the few times in my life that I am unapologetically proud... seriously, you should see how smug I am spreading jam made from wild berries I picked in the woods onto bread I made fresh that morning…

The level of connection I got from gardening and cooking – connection to my community, to my environment and to the people I’m cooking for – is what I miss most now that I’m a nomad. I don’t have the time to see “labor as a kind of leisure.”[1] I don’t have a space to host, I don’t know my local farmers or even what’s grown here, and I don’t have the space or time to plan a meal (I’m still at the stage in my culinary development where planning is a crucial and time-consuming step).

In a perverse way, this sudden loss has been fantastic.

Instead of cooking, foraging and gardening being a natural backdrop to my life – something to do on evenings and weekends – it’s something I have to actively seek out… to figure out what it is about food that makes me feel so fulfilled, and to see if there’s a way to share those feelings with others. Being able to create a shared emotional experience in a group of people is such a powerful tool, and I wonder if that’s something that you can do through shared visceral experience, like food…

I feel like I’m at the beginning of a puzzle without the box.

And actually all the pieces are tucked away in other people’s heads and kitchens and businesses.

Right now I’m on a hunt to find them - I’m taking food tours and culinary skill classes (I nicked myself and got to wear a finger condom!). I’m simultaneously reading four books that take an anthropological view of food and what it means to eat and cook. I’m exploring strange Chinese fruit markets and trying to eat somewhere new every time I go out.

The best place I’ve found for puzzle pieces, by far, have been conversations and interviews. Chats with people who cook, who build community through food, and who create great hosting environments – environments where people are cared for, and safe, and most importantly… well fed!

For now, I’m recording some of those pieces in blog format. Here are a few of my favorite thoughts from written and pending interviews:

“Food has that almost unique super-power to leap across age, gender, class and race to create these common shared experiences, to create bonds, and to dissolve the distinction between the other and yourself – we all know it tastes good.”[2] “The best part was the dulce de leche ice cream with bananas on top...I remember feeling like I was so a part of the family, everyone was so happy and laughing a lot - it was the first time I felt at home in a different country - I’d never felt that welcomed in someone else’s home.”[3] “If you put a beer down in front of somebody, they’ll talk about anything.”[4]

And I’m putting them together with concerns about food equity, and the Design Thinking tool kit I’ve been working on.

I’m still not sure what the image will be when I’m finished:

Will it remain a blog?

Will I prototype a curated dinner?

Will I lead the ultimate hosted food experience?

Is it possible to create a moment where a group of people share a visceral food experience, and all their differences of experience and emotion fade away?

What happens after that moment?

… but whatever it is I have that excited feeling where I’m pretty sure it’s going to be delicious.

[1] Secrets from the Greek Kitchen: Cooking, Skill and Everyday Life on an Aegean Island, David E. Sutton

[2] Len Senater, The Depanneur -

[3] Caroline Myers, Market Share (interview not out yet)

[4] Annie Swank, Drink Tank (interview not out yet)

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