I’ve been a chef (or at least a professional cook) for over 15 years. I’ve been in love with food all of my life. Food has always meant more to me than simply “what’s for dinner.” Even before I understood the concept of food as a symbol of culture, I knew that different families ate different foods and that these foods were important to them – that sharing a meal was akin to sharing personal history, an intimate act.
I remember the first time I realized this. I was 9 years old. My best friend invited me to dinner at her grandmother’s house with her huge Italian family. Until then, I didn’t realize how families from other regions of Italy ate so differently from my own family whose roots are in southern Italy and Sicily. I was served an exotic dish I had never heard of before – polenta, which had been molded into a large loaf then sliced and served topped with meat ragù and grated cheese. I remember being amazed by the silky firmness and sweet corn flavor of the polenta. It reminded me of really thick cream of wheat, so I was shocked that it was served with a savory meat sauce – and for dinner! Everyone was so excited to have Nonna’s polenta – a family favorite. When I got home that night, I told my Sicilian grandmother all about the exotic meal I’d eaten at Michelle’s Nonna’s house. She explained to me that polenta was made from corn meal and that it is eaten by people from the north the same way we enjoy macaroni. That was my first lesson in food as culture.
I was fortunate to grow up in a home where exploring cultures through cuisine was encouraged and relished. When others were satisfied with egg fu yung, we were eating Sichuan dishes; when Rice-a-Roni was considered a treat, we were indulging in squid ink paella. On holidays we enjoyed traditional Italian-American specialties rounded out with traditional Polish foods and classic French pastries or tropical fruits like ripe mangos and papayas for dessert. My sisters and I all had adventurous palates long before we went off on our own, with our mother’s adventurous spirit to thank for it!
Even the simplest foods – or should I say “especially” the simplest foods – speak volumes about where someone is from and the role food played in their development. As an adult, my inner gypsy became obsessed with traveling to the roots of these foodways. It could be as simple as going to Pennsylvania Dutch country for real scrapple or Brooklyn for pizza; or going a bit further to Milan for risotto Milanese, or tasting various types of ensaymadas in the Philippines.
Five years ago, I decided to turn my fascination with food and culture into a career by getting a Masters degree in Gastronomy and focusing my research on immigrant foodways and globalization. The GastroNomad is my way of sharing my travel and eating adventures with you.