Conversations: Amy Trubek '85 and Cheryl Sternman Rule '92 on Food and Place
Food writer Cheryl Sternman Rule '92 talks with food scholar Amy Trubek '85 about her new book The Taste of Place and the concept of terroir in both regional and international settings:
Cheryl Sternman Rule: Can you give us a bit of background about how you ended up studying food post-Haverford? Was it a natural extension of a prior interest in the culinary profession or more of a departure for you?
Amy Trubek: I had been interested in food all through high school. I come from a family that entertains a lot and I loved helping out at dinner parties. A friend and I eventually started a small catering business. I kept cooking throughout collegeâ€”in HPA and off campus and at various jobs in the summer.
CSR: You've obviously spent quite a bit of time in France eating and researching. Had you been to France before you got into food professionally?
AT: Yes. I lived with my family in Brussels, Belgium my senior year in high school and I went to a French lycee. We traveled around France quite a bit.
CSR: Very nice. Now the difference between your first book and this second one is very interesting. The second one is obviously much more rooted in the land, whereas Haute Cuisine probably concentrated more on what happens in high end kitchens. Is that fair?
AT: Well, I can see how you can imagine two books about French cuisine, high and low. However, what I am always interested is in the craft of making food and drink. My first book definitely focused on food prepared for elite audiences in fancy restaurants, and the second is about food and the land, but both spend most of the time looking into how people craft dishes, or wine, or cheese.
CSR: And what inspired you to pursue the subject of terroir this go-round?
AT: I was inspired by my immediate surroundings. I was teaching at a culinary school and I shared an office with the school's sommelier, who taught about terroir to our culinary students.
CSR: When was the first time you consciously remember thinking about a food tasting like the place it came from?
AT: It was after hearing Mark talk to his students about the“terroir” to be found in various wines.
CSR: And when you tasted those wines yourself, did a lightbulb go off, or did you have to train your palate to taste the terroir, if you will?
AT: That's a good question. I think I had to have the language for such tastes provided to me, and once I was told“minerality” and I tasted several wines, I could taste it.
CSR: Are the students able to grasp the concept fairly easily?
AT: Well, in culinary school there is so much focus on developing your palate and such importance put on wine that most students could get it fairly quickly. I also talk about it with traditional undergraduates and I find if I do a guided tasting of cheese or another terroir product they also can taste difference. Convincing them that“terroir” is important is more work.
CSR: I can see why a“guided” tasting would be important. And I think your comment about the importance of language is crucial, too. Do you give students a list of adjectives or descriptors during these sessions?
AT: Often I begin by having them imagine three types of potato chips, say Lays, Ruffles and Pringles. I ask them to tell me why they taste different. They mention saltiness, texture, etc. I then give them more terms, such as mouthfeel, sour, bitter, sweet, etc. to help them and then have them taste. Then we start to come up with descriptive terms.
CSR: I see. Now why is it hard to convince them that terroir is important?
AT: Because our food culture champions uniformity and consistency when it comes to taste. Many young people don't have a sense that taste variety and unique tastes should be of value.
CSR: Is it pretty easy to“convert” them (pardon the charged word choice) once they've had a chance to compare the different foods?
AT: Hmm. I live in Vermont so there are lots of students dedicated to sustainable local foods and I think they get really excited about terroir. Other students, especially those not particularly passionate about food, take a little longer to convince! I have found that tasting generic apple cider versus local apple cider from many varieties of apples is a terroir knockout.
CSR: Excellent point. It's probably the same out here in No. Calif. with locally-grown berries versus supermarket berries...
AT: Yes. For you are the supermarket berries another variety (another way foods can taste different)?
CSR: When Americans visit France, they tend to appreciate things like pate or croissants. When people visit Italy they rave about pizza and gelato. What do you think visitors to America most appreciate about our food? Do you think it has evolved to encompass regional specialties?
AT: The portion sizes!! Honestly, most people I have talked to don't have much to say about American food, although visitors to the East Coast are impressed with the seafood and many French see the high quality of many restaurants in big American cities.
CSR: So how can we sing the praises of Vermont's cheeses, for example, or the hickory nuts in the midwest, both examples from your book, loud enough for the rest of the world to hear?
AT: In many ways, I think we need to sing praises to other Americans, to help create momentum for regionalizing our food system, to help every American region have a vibrant farming and food culture that will become tourist draws for anyone.
CSR: That makes sense. Is there a possibility that championing terroir could be misinterpreted as promoting a form of culinary insularity?
AT: Yes. To me, it is important to understand terroir as an ongoing dynamic between the human and natural environment, more of a culinary dialogue than any form of culinary purism.
CSR: Good point. How can people who live in parts of the country without easy access to farmers' markets discover their region's local specialties, particularly those that are unique or unsung? I'm thinking about unusual foods like, say, nettles...
AT: Go out and talk to people, especially farmers. Find the local knowledge about what is good and bountiful in the region. And start a garden and then start cooking!
CSR: If you had to pick a single Vermont-grown food that most tastes“like Vermont,” what would it be? Would there be one particular cheese, perhaps?
AT: It would have to be maple syrup, a wild food originally harvested by the Abenaki and continuously harvested for centuries in Vermont. The sweet, mapley and at times slightly woody syrup really evokes the verdant Green Mountains.
CSR: Does it taste different from Canadian maple syrup?
AT: Yes, and why is a story for a different day...
CSR: Fair enough. Last question: Are you working on a third book?
AT: Well, I am in the midst of a project looking at cooking skill and cooking knowledge in the contemporary United States which hopefully will turn into a book!
CSR: Very best of luck with that project. And thank you so much for sharing your expertise with us.
AT: Thank you! Amy Trubek is also the author of Haute Cuisine: How the French Invented the Culinary Profession (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).