Each year, a growing number of country villages across Italy cordon off their downtown areas and host open-air street festivals dedicated to the celebration of “slow food” – a phenomenon which has given birth to an international counter-insurgency movement decrying the world’s obsession with what for want of a better term we call “Fast Food”. While I tend to be suspicious of all “movements” which threaten to become socio-political cults, I find comfort in the renewed focus on the idea that we would be happier people if we took more time to savor and appreciate the food we eat.
As a young boy, I was invited by their son to spend some time on a small farm in upstate New York, owned by an Italian family we had come to know in a more urban environment. The parents of my friend were immigrants from Sicily, and on their newly-acquired farm they had embraced a return to the country life they had once known in the “old world”. While I was already thoroughly-indoctrinated into the ethic of family dining (I had a mother who required our attendance at the kitchen table if we wanted to eat), I was unprepared for life with the Bruno Bralla family, where the thick board table was piled high with a dozen different kinds of smoked meats, sausages and cheeses, including rounds of Provolone and lengths of Pecorino which hung from the low ceiling on cords and from which each person was free to cut off slices and chunks. We each were equipped with a wooden platter, a large very sharp knife, a thick glass of red wine, and total freedom. One could choose home-cured veal, pancetta, salami, mortadella, capacolla, breseaola, prosciutti, or a variety of pickled peppers and marinated olives, which we could pile on the half-loaves of crunchy bread we pulled apart by hand. It took an hour to eat, all the while Senior Bralla regaled us with stories of his former life as a smuggler in the Italian Alps. And you had time to taste everything in its own moment!
Science tells us that we humans possess four well-known and long-identified taste centers, scattered around the mouth, tongue and palate. We distinguish sweet, sour, bitter and salty, and from these neuro-sites, signals are sent to the brain. They help to activate the metabolic system that converts what we eat into what our bodies need and, given time, when we should stop eating. (Satiation takes about twenty minutes.) All of this is interesting and helpful, but there is more.
Since around 1908, we have known there is a fifth taste center. Isolated by Professor Kibunae Ikeda of Tokyo University, it was given the Japanese symbol for “delicious taste” which translates into the spoken word “umami”. The closest word in the English language which has some equivalency is “savory”, thus a food which is imbued with umami we might say is possessed of “savoryness”, or perhaps, “meatyness”. The chemical which produces this taste quality is a glutamate, and can be found in many non-meat foods, such as cooked mushrooms, certain kinds of seaweed and in things like anchovies, and pastes made from these sources.
One of the joys of cooking lies in the art of using ingredients, combinations, and kitchen science to discover and amplify the almost limitless nuances of tastes and flavors with which to bring pleasure and enjoyment to those who dine with us. In no other venue can we touch the creative possibilities available to us in quite the same way. This being true, why don’t we slow down, leave the world outside, and give the inner self time to explore, savor and relish the culinary gift of the moment ?
Years ago we were able to visit with the late Scott and Helen Nearing on their self-sufficient homestead on Maine’s Point Rosier, where they had settled to live and write about their search for happiness. They explained to us why they chose to eat with chop sticks from the simple wooden bowls in which they served up the daily fare from their gardens, berry patches, orchards, root cellar and greenhouse. “We have found”, Helen said, “that we are better able to concentrate on each morsel, consider where it came from and give our palate the opportunity to celebrate life deliberately, piece by piece”.
From a health standpoint, we are told that if we eat slowly, we will improve digestion, avoid high acidity, and eat less. Some say it can amount to a lifelong weight-control strategy. What I know for sure is that good food, well and lovingly-prepared is too great a gift to take for granted or to disrespect with thoughtless, thankless and “high-speed” consumption. In my quest for the mythical umami, a fifth taste tells me this is true.
A simple meal of fruit, crusty peasant bread, and a well- aged cheese invites diners to eat slowly, enjoy conversation, and linger long enough to savor time spent in carrying out an ages-old human tradition.
A meal guaranteed to titillate all five taste centers, a Dutch oven of home-made file gumbo brings together four diverse culinary cultures in an amalgam of at least fifteen key ingredients; a marriage of Spanish “Creole”, French” Cajon”, Choctaw Indian, and African “Carib” food traditions.
Photos by Al Cooper