Traveling to Italy for the first time, I was excited for all the new experiences before me, and considering the course is titled the philosophy of food, I was especially excited for new experiences regarding food, namely eating authentic Italian gelato. Actually, I had the goal of eating gelato every day. Though, I’ll tell you, I haven’t kept to that promise (which is probably for the best), I have consumed a lot of memorable ones. However, surprisingly, the most transformative experience I had pertaining to gelato was not of buying one from an artisanal shop, made by someone else’s expert hands, but when I had the opportunity to make gelato myself.
Every Friday we have a cooking class taught by an Italian woman, LeLe, also known as our “Cooking Mamma.” In this class we learn to make an entire meal including an appetizer, a main course, a side dish and a dessert. The second class we attended, the dessert was gelato alla crème e vaniglia. A simple gelato requiring no ice cream machine and made with only four ingredients: eggs, sugar, cream, and vanilla extract. I was so excited that I would finally learn how to make my own gelato, and made sure to volunteer to help in making that dish. With my own hands, I separated the eggs, and beat the yolks with the sugar and vanilla. I whipped the cream, and egg whites (separately) until they reached the right solid consistency (the way we tested if it was the right consistency was by holding the bowl upside down over your head with out the contents falling out). I then folded them into the egg yolk and sugar mixture, making sure to incorporate enough air to make it light and fluffy. I filled the newly finished gelato into the plastic wrap lined mold and LeLe put the finished product into the freezer to get cold. I returned to my seat with a smile, knowing I had just made my first gelato. It was oddly satisfying.
At first I could not place why I felt so accomplished but after some reflection I thought back to the first article I read for this course, “The Pleasures of Eating” by Wendell Berry. In this article, Berry discusses our detachment from our food source and how that detachment enables the inhumane treatment of domesticated animals and the irresponsible treatment of the land, and considers that today’s consumers are passive. He goes on to give seven different ways in which we, as consumers, can engage with our food source. Upon my reflection of the experience of making gelato, I realized that the process aligned with some of Berry’s suggestions, one of them being able to prepare your own food. By making my own gelato I have become an active participant of a culture, the culture of making gelato, a culture that I admire and appreciate so much. Just like someone who owns a gelato shop, I have control and creative freedom over exactly what I make and consume: eggs, sugar, cream, and any flavoring I can imagine.
In preparing my own food, I have full autonomy over not only what ingredients I use, but also the quality of these ingredients. This brings me to another one of Berry’s suggestions, to buy food knowing where it comes from. When I go home and repeat this recipe, I get to choose the quality of the cream, making sure it came from a dairy farm with humane conditions for their cows and that they have not been treated with antibiotics. I get to choose the eggs, making sure they came from free-range chickens that were treated well. By making my own ice cream I have the ability to omit preservative and other chemicals. I do not have to worry about what is in that tub of Bryer’s ice cream before I buy it. Instead I have the peace of mind of knowing my food source. I have the power of controlling what I put into my body as well as the power to economically support sustainable farming through my responsible purchases. I am no longer a passive consumer, but an active one, making responsible choices.
To me, this is so much greater than just buying a gelato from a well-known shop even if they use organic ingredients, because I gained a skill that I can take home with me. I learned a skill I can share with my family and friends.
It is a little part of Italy that will always be with me.