For the past year, I’ve considered applying for a Fulbright scholarship for a one-year master’s degree in food culture and communication at an Italian university associated with Slow Food.
From the first moment I read about it, it seemed a natural fit. After all, nearly all of my non-work activities involve food, culture, food culture, and communication in some way, whether it’s gathering friends for storytelling over a collaborative dinner, or attempting to repurpose waste by growing food with it.
Last year, my travels to Civita coincided with language testing and deadlines, making my application impossible. This year, everything is free and clear…except my resolve. Now that I’ve published CivitaVeritas and presented my work to NIAUSI, the question of, “What happens next?” keeps rising.
For the first time in several years, I’m not sure I have an answer.
The allure of returning to Italy is strong as ever, and the thought of delving deeper into food traditions, origins, rituals, stories, experiences, and preparations is equally enticing. The lessons feel spot-on. Yet, I’ve found myself wondering if attending grad school is the right path towards earning that education at this point in my life.
In my deliberation, I’ve reflected on crucial moments in which travel has been my teacher; the world, my classroom.
In the fall of 2008, Tom and I visited Verona where teenage Claelia taught me the proper way to dress a salad. She instructed me to sprinkle the salad first with salt, then with vinegar to break down the crystals. Only after this mixture was tossed together was it time for olive oil. Claelia explained that, if one starts with oil, it coats the greens, thus preventing the absorption of the vinegar and salt.
I’ll never forget the look of horror on her face as she threw up her hands and exclaimed, “Basta!” with wide eyes as I used too much vinegar; I was previously accustomed to drowning my salads in order to get the right balance of flavor. I think of her fondly every time I make a salad.
Then, of course, there is cooking with Tony, and the many lessons I learned last year–the proper way to clean and prepare fresh porcini mushrooms, how to make homemade tomato sauce with a passatutto, and why gardens are so meaningful in daily life. I learned how to pick lettuces and fresh basil, I watched tomatoes and figs ripen, I smelled thyme and sage on my fingertips after harvesting the leaves, and I observed the millions of bees, bugs, and critters that work in the garden, helping to produce our food–none of which I had given consideration to before.
Italian architect Laura Pighi introduced me to spritz in Verona; a waiter in Florence brought sgroppino into my life. In Paris, a restaurant owner named Dominique served me my first coq au vin, which I’ve since learned to make at home.
In 1999, I celebrated my nuptials in Scotland by sharing a traditional plate of haggis. I ate migas for the first time last year in Austin, and learned how to cook spicy egg burritos from my cousin, Alix, in Los Angeles, since that’s her quick take-and-go snack inspired by local taco trucks.
As I consider my return to Italy this summer, during which I’ll not only shop and cook in Civita again, but in Venice for the first time, I’m beginning to think that my next degree may not be held in a catalog. Perhaps I’ll design my own self-guided master’s curriculum at the University of Rich Experiences rather than follow a prescriptive path set by someone else in a room with a chalkboard.
I sense that I’ll know more upon my return in September, but I’m beginning to think that it’s the time to approach my education as both an advanced student and an assistant teacher. There’s plenty still for me to learn, but for the first time I can also begin to share with and mentor others.
Somehow, in the co-mingling of these acts, I think I’ll find myself an apt student guide of both the dinner table and the open road.