Tuesday, September 27, 2011

there & back again

So the thing is, I came to food school for the vertical Barolo tastings, not to learn the optimal environment of a sensory analysis lab (self-evident much?) Since I’ve already done the former and don’t feel like doing the latter, I guess I should write about my summer vacation. When I first returned to Bra several weeks ago, I sat down, told myself to get it on paper while it was still fresh in my mind, and wrote the following:

It was a summer of foraging and remembering, of sticky grape juice up to my knees and pig feed caked onto my skin, of planes and trains and automobiles and hikes and bike rides, of familiar faces and new characters. It was a summer of bread and pie, figs with Roquefort and marinated sardines with mascarpone. It was a summer of heat and sweat, decadence and dirt, swims and the sea. It was a summer of primitivo and prosecco, gamay and sangiovese and rosé. It was a summer of laughter and discovery, of generosity and conviviality, of recognizing that though I may not know what I want to do, I definitely know how I want to live.

And that was as far as I got.

I realize that my proclivity for laundry-lists-of-things-I-ate really doesn’t do justice to the range of experiences and emotions of my six weeks fuori di Bra. It’s also bad and lazy writing. (Side note: my first idea was to write an “Alphabet of Summer 2011” along the lines of “A is for Auberge de la Môle! B is for blackberries and Beaujolais!” Then I remembered that I’m not MFK Fisher.)

I suppose it’s the combination of the intensity of the experience and the infrequency of my writing that makes me feel the need to condense everything into one post. But in this case I think it’s best to address the two legs of my break separately: first there was Italy, and then there was France. (If I never get around to writing about France, I’ll sum it up in one sentence – I crushed grapes with my feet and ate a bloody filet topped with foie gras and truffle cream. Go ahead and re-read that last part. Now wipe the drool off your chin.)

I spent my first two weeks as a wwoofer (a “Willing Worker On an Organic Farm”, not to be confused with illegal migrant labour) at Tenuta di Spannocchia, where I spent three months last fall as an intern. I was one-third of a stellar Tutto-Fare team, meaning I worked primarily in the vineyards, cellar, and olive groves. Not to brag, but I make overalls, flannel, and a bandana look good.

But I digress.

Memories are a strange thing: never fixed and static, they change every time we access them – either voluntarily as when reminiscing with friends, or involuntarily as when provoked by a flavour from our past. Do we distort our memories by accessing them too frequently and consequently romanticize the past at our own peril? Sometimes. Do we neglect them and allow them to fade, and then are never again fully able to conjure the memory in its entirety? What is more important, the actual experience or how we remember it? Is this a false choice? Where am I even going with this?

As my first extended time back at the farm, these sorts of questions ran through my mind on my train ride to Siena. Sure, the place would still be more or less the same, but many of the people that are inextricably tied to my memories would not be there. And what if Angelo – my singing supervisor – didn’t remember me?

On my first day of work Angelo arrived in style – donning his signature royal blue sweater with his head cocked to the side – to the morning meeting, and after his enthusiastic Giulia chi scrive bene! I breathed a sigh of relief. This place made an impression on me, and I (or my penmanship) made some sort of impression on him. Phew.

Between sipping sangiovese on my sunset perch, gossip-filled power walks, and good eatin’, it was strangely wonderful how easy it was to slip back into that pace and to collectively reminisce. While talking to the new interns I sometimes felt like that guy – the college freshman who drunkenly crashes his high school’s homecoming dance in a pathetic attempt to relive the glory days. But honestly, this summer group was lame, so who cares if I not-so-soberly yelled at them for not knowing what vin santo is. For shame!

Maybe Katie (educational director), Heather/Carrot (fellow intern), and I did talk a bit too much about the good ol’ days, but it felt great to relive those moments and have some details – the ones blurred by time or alcohol - filled in. Being home in Baltimore I felt as though the specifics of my experience had slowly faded away; by the time I was heading back to Italy it seemed I was left with just the essence: what do I remember about Spannocchia? I remember that I was happy.

Calm down, Mom. This is not to say that I’m not happy now, or that I was depressed at home, or anything along those lines. It’s just curious how at one moment you feel you have only those three words to describe a whole three months, and the next you’re describing Paolo’s Halloween dance moves over truffle pizza at Radicondoli.

Of course it wasn’t only about reliving the past, but creating new memories, namely alici marinati and mascarpone. No-cheese-with-seafood! rule be damned, give me toasted bread smothered in mascarpone and marinated sardines! I’ve thrice enjoyed this goodness, and the fact that I just wrote thrice means it’s time to wrap this up and call it a night.

Maybe it’s been the glorious combination of place (either overlooking the sea or watching the sunset over Tuscan hills) and people (almost half of my intern group with some other cool kids to boot) that made that simple snack taste so damn good. Comunque sia, going back to Spannocchia to wwoof, and then again this past weekend for a birthday celebration/farewell to Carrot, made me appreciate even more how powerful that combo can be. Good people in a beautiful place? Sardines and mascarpone? That is how I want to eat, that is how I want to live.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

pie & power

Okso, the thing is I’ve been meaning to write more, but then there was bread. And pie. And chutney. And organic agriculture and papers about organic agriculture. I recently reviewed the paragraph or so I had written about my first two weeks of summer vacation at Spannocchia when I realized that in just a couple days I’ll be having a mini-Spannocchia reunion at Cheese. (That sentence probably only makes sense for my two loyal followers: hi, Mom; yes, I’m still biking. And ciao Katie!)

I’ve fallen behind, as per usual. But seriously, have you seen the peppers at the market? They were just asking to be stewed with pears and apples and non-Italian spices. Actually, they’re so perfectly crisp and sweet, I can eat them as is. Or with bagna cauda. Anyway, the peppers are ridiculous, and somewhere in between late night chutney-jarring sessions and bread experiments I’ve lost track of time. Seriously, mid-September? More importantly, how long do I have to knead the bread in order to get large eyes?

So I’m sort of cheating with this post and pulling yet another copy & paste shenanigan, though this time the credit is all mine (for better or worse.) Our assessment in our Food and Pop Culture class gave us the freedom to analyze food’s role in any piece of pop culture. Sometimes it’s better to have parameters. Any piece of pop culture? Where to start? After break, I thought.

And then at Spannocchia I found my inner I-just-want-to-wear-a-frilly-apron-and-bake-pie all-day feminine self, possibly due in part to the film Waitress. Just as peppers need anchovy-garlic-olive oil goodness, a little/lot of buttery flaky crust doesn’t hurt the late summer fruit abundance. Back in Piemonte, a late afternoon bike ride to a certain town that will remain anonymous town resulted in a discovery of a treasure trove of figs. (Ok, so it was Roddi. I guess figs are pretty much done now, and there’s no use in fancying myself a truffle hunter.) Long story short, I procrastinated on my assignment and made pie instead. Oops.

With the deadline quickly approaching, I was still without any inspiration. While trying to think of which towns’ fruit resources I could next plunder Peter Rabbit-style, it hit me: pie in pop culture. The title “pie & power” came to mind, solely for alliterative purposes; then I thought of what films I had seen to fit that argument. Because that’s how my mind works: force connections where there needn’t be for the sake of a phrase that sounded cool in a sleep-deprived moment of “inspiration.”

So here’s what I came up with. I don’t think it’s my best work by any means. I felt I had to simplify a lot of complex themes and images in order to satisfy a word limit requirement. Also, I wrote it the day before, so I didn’t quite get the chance to figure out what said complex themes and images were. I guess what I’m trying to say is, check out Mildred Pierce and Waitress, make a pie and think it all over, and then let me know what you come up with. That’s what I did.

Of Pie & Power: Portraits of Working Women in Mildred Pierce and Waitress

Nothing says America like apple pie. The arguably universal appeal of pie can be attributed to the delicious simplicity of the crust coupled with the infinite potential for variation: the season, occasion, traditions, or mere whim can influence what filling one chooses. Yet for many Americans, the significance of pie is rooted not in its organoleptic qualities, but in its provocative powers. A freshly baked pie can often conjure strong memories of childhood and nurturing mothers and grandmothers. Proust can keep his madeleines; Americans will have their pie.

But what lies behind the Rockwell-esque images of smiling women and warm pie? What does pie mean to the working American woman? The miniseries Mildred Pierce and film Waitress portray the experience of two women who, though separated by time, social status, and geography, are united by the classic dessert. Both Mildred Pierce and Jenna Hunterson are talented bakers, waitresses, and mothers, yet each uses pie and the craft of cooking in different ways; ultimately, their choices either hinder or enable their own self-realisation.

Mildred Pierce must manage her multiple roles as a mother, partner, and working woman in the 1930s, a challenge made even more difficult after she has thrown her cheating husband out of her house. At a time when it was extremely difficult for men to have steady jobs, Mildred attempts to find secretarial work, a respectable position for a woman of her social class. When no jobs are to be found, she ultimately must make the choice between her “belly and her pride” in order to feed her two young daughters, Veda and Ray. She seizes an opportunity to work as a waitress in what she describes as a “hash house,” a position which alters drastically affects her relationship with her family.

Pride, respectability, and aspirations to social mobility figure prominently in Mildred’s perception of her new job, due in no small part to Veda’s influence. Though her family is a decidedly middle class one living in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Veda carries herself with an aristocratic air, shamelessly deriding the habits and lifestyles of many as “distinctly middle class.” It is no wonder that Mildred hopes to keep her job a secret; the thought of her children knowing their mother wears a uniform and makes tips even makes her vomit. Yet eventually Veda does learn of her mother’s work and confronts her in the first of their many intense arguments: “Aren’t your pies bad enough? Did you have to go and degrade us even more by becoming a waitress?” In an almost spontaneous attempt to justify her choice to her daughter, Mildred explains that she hopes to create something they could all be proud of by opening her own restaurant. It is not enough for her children to have just bread; rather she wants them to have “all the cake in the world.” However, her means of doing so – cooking and selling food – will always be a source of tension.

As a single working woman, Mildred quickly learns the power of food. The series opens with Mildred busily making pies and decorative cakes, which are intended for sale rather than for her children. Though she makes her daughters treats with the leftover dough, they are not the primary intended consumers: Mildred’s baking is her small contribution to the household income, which she must manage as wife and mother. Yet pie is not only a source of income: conversations with her best friend, Lucy, teach Mildred how to use her cooking to get the upper hand in her relationships. By inviting Wally, her husband’s former business partner, over for dinner and preparing him a meal, Mildred is not obligated to have sex with him as she might be were he to pay for her dinner. If she plays her cards right, as Lucy advises, Mildred could soon have Wally in the palm of her hand and paying for her divorce.

Mildred uses her relationship with Wally to set up her own restaurant which specializes in chicken-and-waffle dinners with take-away pies. In planning the restaurant’s theme, Mildred considers food as money: to make a profit in a restaurant, one must cut costs, particularly wasted food. By improving the quality of the pie and giving people what they want – different cuts of chicken rather than the same old piece – Mildred guarantees a steady clientele and immediate success. From the way she runs her establishment, it is clear that the business rather than the art of cooking is first and foremost in Mildred’s mind.

Yet despite the success of her restaurant, Mildred’s job is still a source of shame. When her lover Monty – himself an aristocrat fallen on hard times – describes her restaurant as a “pie wagon,” Mildred becomes furious and accusatory: “You look down on me because I work, you look down on me because I cook food and sell it!” In this way Mildred finds herself trapped by the limitations of her gender. In order to support her family, she took the only job that was available to her; she makes money by cooking, something society generally considers to be the woman’s domain. Yet even when she acquires more authority and money in her role by creating a new and arguably masculine space as the proprietor of multiple restaurants, her work is constantly reduced and derided as a poor woman’s work. Mildred is haunted by such circumstances and the idea that she is only good for her money and her body. But these are not just mere insecurities; rather, the two people she loves and supports financially, Veda and Monty, conspire against her. Monty further fuels Veda’s resentment of her mother by explaining that “a gingham apron is the greatest provocation ever invented by a woman for the torture of men.” Despite her role as provider of her family, Mildred cannot move beyond such simultaneous objectification and disdain.

With time Mildred furthers expands, opening a third restaurant with a seafood and steak theme and even incorporating her business. Her days of baking pies for extra quarters are long gone; she can now order crab, lobster, and caviar for a celebratory dinner. Yet despite her transformation, her relationship with Veda has become more strained. Mildred learns of Veda’s manipulative schemes to exploit wealthy men, sparking another fight which ends in a prolonged separation. Far from being proud of what her mother has created, Veda feels resentment and disgust: with enough money, I can get away from you and your pie wagon and your chickens and everything that smells of grease!

Mildred’s brief reconciliation with Veda is abruptly ended when she discovers that her daughter has been having an affair with her husband, Monty. With her personal life in shambles and her ability to run Mildred Pierce, Inc. challenged, Mildred ultimately returns to Glendale. She has re-married Bart, her first husband, and has given up control of the business which she worked tirelessly to create. Her life seems to have come full circle, yet having lost both her daughters through death and estrangement, Mildred is much worse for wear. Though she had hoped to support her family with food, Mildred is left with only a husband in the suburbs and an uncertain future. As the series ends, the only sure thing Mildred can hope for is a drunken stupor shared with Bart.

Pie takes on a very different meaning when crafted by Jenna Hunterson, the protagonist of Waitress. The importance of baking in Jenna’s life is quite apparent from the film’s opening scene in which she asserts, “I don’t want no baby, I don’t want no trouble, I just want to make pies. That’s all I want to do, make pies.” Unable to escape from her abusive husband, Jenna takes refuge in her imagination to create a new pie for each emotion she experiences, from “I hate my husband” pie to “pregnant miserable self-pitying loser” pie. Her pies allow her a form of expression which, for lack of a true confidant, she must otherwise keep to herself. The specificity of the moment in which they were created makes them deeply personal for Jenna, and as such an extension of her self. The giving and sharing of her pies is consequently loaded with meaning. Upon first meeting Dr. Pomatter, Jenna is extremely reluctant to give him the marshmallow-mermaid pie she brought to his office. As the first pie she ever created, it has a special significance for Jenna, and she means to give it to the doctor she has had her whole life. Only after getting to know Dr. Pomatter does she feel slightly more comfortable sharing herself, and so she gives him the pie.

Jenna’s pies are not only personally meaningful, but they also cast a spell over those who eat them. They are described as “biblically good,” and “a thing of expert, a downright beauty.” They are sensual and provocative on multiple levels. Throughout her affair with Dr. Pomatter, Jenna brings him baked goods and pie – such as a “naughty pumpkin” pie – and even teaches him how to make one. By sharing her recipe with Dr. Pomatter, Jenna reveals intensely personal memories of her mother - from whom she learned how to bake -particularly the song she would sing to Jenna as a child. Their affair is not only a sexual one, but a deeply intimate one in which Jenna gains a best friend, someone who cares about her fears and shares her joys.

Jenna’s plans to leave her husband and compete in a pie contest - where she hopes to use the prize money to start a new life – are quickly complicated by an unwanted pregnancy. Thus, her feelings towards her unborn child are overwhelmingly negative; she calls her baby an alien and a parasite and invents a “bad baby” pie. Though she feels her child will chain her to her despised husband, it is ultimately through motherhood that she realizes her full potential. Holding her daughter for the first time ignites a spark in her, empowering her to tell Earl to get out of her life. The film ends with a montage of Jenna and Lulu bonding over pie: Jenna is able to open her own pie diner, which she names after her daughter. Jenna realizes that she can be for Lulu what her mother was to her, a best friend and a constant source of love and support. Singing her mother’s song to her daughter, transmitting her knowledge to Lulu, Jenna unites past and future in pie.

While pie and its meaning ultimately lead to Mildred’s estrangement from her daughter, it brings Jenna closer to hers. The different journeys of the two women in love, work, and pie reflect changing conceptions of traditional roles of women. When Mildred begins to make food outside of the home – the traditional sphere in which women cook – in order to make money, she is tortured by conflicting notions of propriety. Indeed, at a time when most women possessed a certain level of culinary skills, to perform such a common task could be considered degrading. Yet in the contemporary setting of Waitress, Jenna’s baking skills are a source of envy and her pies attract and amaze. At a time when domestic and culinary knowledge is increasingly lost between generations, Jenna’s talents are indeed unique, and consequently respected. But for both Mildred and Jenna, the meaning of pie is much like its structure: seemingly simple yet filled with possibility.