Sunday, March 10, 2013

Diana Lempel: With taste, smell, and imagination

I’m standing in the basement of Bondir, the intimate, award-winning Cambridge restaurant, watching Chef Jason Bond dismantle a hindquarter of beef, removing fat from muscle and muscle from bone. As he drops each chunk into its designated plastic tub, he explains to me what it will be used for. Every bit of this 200 pounds of meat will be consumed. The steaks will dry-age for some months; the fat, brightly yellow because the cow was grazing on bright green grass, will be rendered and used for daily cooking; the tough muscles will be stews, cooked with the stock made from the bones. This one animal will feed hundreds of diners; it’s the only way for high-quality meat like this, Chef tells me, to be economic.

But I don’t think it’s just economy that drives Bond’s pursuit of a "snout-to-tail" approach to beef, or his painstaking efforts to remove different kinds of pollen from every dried blossom of a fennel bush, or his abiding affection for his long-lived sourdough starter.To show what I mean, here’s a reflection offered by Sous Chef Rachel Miller, as she prepped spiced kuri squash. "I like to read a lot of old cookbooks because they’re more resourceful... it’s more about ingredients and a process... different ways to utilize what grows here, because that’s what we’re going to have a lot of." 

"This is how we should be eating," she said. Invoking the resourcefulness of their grandmothers or the historic cookbooks they pore through, Bond and Miller are interpreting a way of historical thinking through their food. They are not strict---when Bond wants figs he’ll use figs, he tells me, and the dish I watched Miller prepare was sweetened with Japanese black sugar--but their message about history-inspired eating is clear. We're meant to use the products of our immediate environment, be frugal and resourceful. In doing so, we evoke the land and memory with every flavor. This is historical storytelling--not with language, but with flavor.

It's this process that brought me to Bondir's kitchen. I am working to understand how restaurants are participating in historic interpretation for their guests, acting as de facto learning institutions in their communities and beyond. What causes them to seek this culinary connection to their past, whether personal, cultural, or imagined? What do their guests get from it? What can we learn from this sensory mode of storytelling, and what can we bring to it, to deepen the learning?

Of course, anyone who follows the local food movement (or the maker movement, or the historic preservation movement, or...) knows that historical language like that used at Bondir is surging through our everyday lives. "This is how our grandmothers ate," "Let’s go back to basics," "Bring back the victory garden," someone always seems to be saying. But imagining "the old days" isn’t the same thing as building historic understanding. We need nuance, stories, complexity, lived experience, context, context, context. If the kuri squash is from Rhode Island, what kind of imagination of New England agriculture does that evoke in a diner? If Chefs Bond and Martin are using a historic cookbook recipe to inspire a dish, what of that does the eater get? How can servers interpret more than cooking techniques and ingredients, so a dish, its culinary and agricultural origins, really come to life? So, I’m also interested in trying to figure out how people make this mode of historic interpretation effective.

Hospitality to me has the potential for facilitating deep learning, as the restaurant itself is designed for immersive experience, and smell and taste are such tangible evocations of place and memory. Not only that--every group of guests has their own guide through the experience, their server. Bondir hosts private events--the Burns Night, featuring poetry and the obligatory haggis, for example--that bring together a community of diners around punchbowls, song, instruction, and a thoughtful, informative menu that brings the flavors of Scotland to life. As at all dinners, the servers work ensure that guests are as comfortable, inquisitive, and informed as they desire. "Jason’s food is," one told me, "very special... I think he's born to do this, and it's my job to get that across... Answering questions and making them feel comfortable to ask questions."

As a history-trained, museum and gallery veteran, former cooking class teacher and now urban planning student/scholar, I’m starting to experiment myself. For Mother’s Day 2012, I worked with Cuisine en Locale to develop ONCE in Barre: the Culinary Heirloom Project, an event featuring recipes from a set of archival family cookbooks from Gilded Age central Massachusetts. And over the summer, I hosted a series of public dinner events at a specialty foods farmers market, with the goal of creating intimate experiences with neighbors and food professionals, a space for interpreting and experiencing local products. I am definitely, definitely still learning about how to make these events successful; experiments, I’ve found, illustrate where pitfalls and challenges lie more than they give me a sense of success. For example, as in any exhibition, not all diners at ONCE in Barre engaged with the interpretive materials beyond my basic tableside explanations. It takes "scaffolding," to use the pedagogical term, to encourage even the most inquisitive eventgoer to go from enjoying a tea cake to deciphering an archival document, and getting something out of it.

This is where research comes in. I think if we start thinking about restaurants as part of the system of local learning institutions in our communities, we might start to build better tools to analyze and evaluate how they are interpreting and presenting matters of foodways and heritage. I want to write about and discuss these places in this way, to start helping the public history conversation intersect with the food movement conversation in terms of restaurants, markets, farms and forests, home kitchens and dinner tables. We can learn from them about how to engage every sense, how to facilitate comfort and curiosity, how to give guests the feeling of being "at home." How to do historical storytelling with taste, smell, and imagination. As Chef Jason Bond told me, "the best meal is when your grandmother goes out to the backyard, picks some asparagus from the fence yard, and cooks it for you for dinner." Where the fence yard is, how the grandmother lived, how the asparagus was grown and harvested, what her kitchen looked like--there’s so much story in every bite.

~ Diana Lempel is a PhD student at Harvard University. Her research, writing, and occasional experiments focus on the ways people build meaning in the places they inhabit. Her writing on heritage, cities, and imagination can be found online at; her food events have their home at Follow her @publiccurator.

Images (top to bottom)
  • Pre-service staff meal in front of the hearth at Bondir
  • An abundance of local squash at Bondir
  • JJ Gonson of Cuisine en Locale, serves a table at ONCE in Barre; Liz Donovan records oral histories. Photo by Alykhan Mohamed
  • Colleen Hein of Eastern Standard leads a wine tasting at Swirl and Slice Market, Union Square Somerville, as part of my Tasting Table series


  1. Wonderful insights. How exciting to recognize and include restaurants and other places in which people encounter food as sites of informal learning and interpretation.

    Storytelling and narrative emerge again! When diners are told that their Kuri squash comes from a farm in Rhode Island, that does indeed conjure up a set of associations - informed, probably, every bit as much by centuries of romantic fantasy as the realities of today's farming community. How can we tighten this storytelling connection so that the stories restaurants conjure in people's minds are closer to the nature and experience of contemporary farming>?

    This brings me back to thinking about some of the problematics of narrative brought up for me by Angi's post. I supplemented my income for years as a waitress, and noticed that in the short path of food from the time it enters the kitchen until it's placed in front of a guest, quite a bit of narrative enhancement - even to the point of fictionalizing and sometimes outright fabricating - can happen to it. For restaurants to become more useful sites of learning, the ethic of rigorous honesty and transparency cultivated in the best of kitchens will need to become more pervasive - even when that means, perhaps, a sacrifice in the "prettiness" of a given narrative.

    It seems that public history related to food and farming, like all public history practice, will not be able to escape the task of dealing with myth as myth, even when it's very well loved. The good news is that much about the food movement is already about re-tuning our aesthetic sensibilities - learning to love the
    "homely" tomato for its taste - and there's no reason that can't extend to a greater familiarity with a true, contemporary, understanding of local farms as they're worked today.

  2. So many great ideas here!

    Diana, I'm particularly struck by your discussion about how to convey to contemporary eaters the realities of frugality, seasonality, etc. That seems like an extremely tough nut to crack - how do you get the kinds of people who have never lived on the edge of hunger (assuming most of our audiences haven't) to want to know what it's like to be aware of the possibility of scarcity? I see this in energy-related questions, too - just suggesting to people that they really should be more aware of how much electricity they're using provokes some kind of "fear-of-deprivation" response, and they get all huffy about being reminded to turn the lights off when they leave a room. How do we get contemporary food-secure people to engage imaginatively with those realities, in ways that go beyond just being grateful that we have it so good in the present (or, conversely, nostalgic for "a simpler time")?