Respecting the Italian way of life.

Rob and I this summer spent 10 days in Italy. Ten glorious days. We started in Lucca, a charming town in Tuscany, then spent a full week in Bologna, the spiritual center of Italian food and the capital of its breadbasket, Emilia-Romagna. I simply can’t rave enough about Bologna, with its lovely architecture, its narrow cobbled streets and its food shops.

Oh, its food shops! The Quadrilatero, a maze of tiny streets lined with produce vendors, butchers and salumerias, fresh pasta shops, cheese emporia … you can’t even imagine. It was bliss. Even the neighborhood just outside the Centro Storico (the city center), where we stayed for the week, had lovely food shops that met our every daily need: the latteria with its dairy goods and other essentials, the pasticceria with homemade breads and pastries, the salumeria with meats and charcuterie, the produce stall with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. All right around the corner from our apartment.
We rented an apartment specifically so we could cook. Going into all those lovely shops and not purchasing yummy things to make would have broken my heart. I would say that we cooked a ton while we were in Bologna (we ate dinner at “home” every night), but we didn’t do more than boil water for pasta and slice tomatoes and mozzarella for caprese salads. We cooked—and ate—simply and well.

Weeks after we returned, Italy is still in my heart. I have no claim to it, but I miss it dearly. While they are fresh, I wanted to journal a few impressions of Italian food and culture, impressions that I intend to incorporate into my daily life here in the U.S.

Traveling outside the States is so richly informative, because it opens your eyes to how other people and cultures exist in the world. No country is perfect, certainly not ours. I observed so many practices and norms and ways of doing things in Italy that inspired me to live differently here.

Take food. Food in Italy is ridiculously inexpensive. Like half of what it costs here. A great bottle of wine was 10 euros. A 2-pack of yogurt was 1 euro. A liter of water was about 19 cents. I don’t know why that is. But it was noteworthy.

At the same time, food is very high quality. Fresh. Local. Yes, we were living for the week in Italy’s breadbasket; the peaches and apricots the apartment owner left for us on the kitchen table were from their own fruit farm outside the city. While we didn’t venture into a large grocery, everything we saw, even in the tiniest shops, was of the highest quality.

Perhaps because food is so high quality, Italians don’t overconsume it. There’s a respect for food—and the people who grow, prepare and sell it. Portion and package sizes are sensible; waste is minimal. For Italians, the hunger and deprivation of war are not-too-distant memories. Food is valued. Maribel, who taught the cooking class I loved in Bologna, spoke with great seriousness about not wasting the scraps of our homemade pasta, because the previous generation knew what starvation felt like. We owed it to them to not waste food.

Home life is designed for a small footprint. Refrigerators are half the size of what they are here. You shop for just a few days at a time. (Which isn’t at all an inconvenience, because the shops are literally down the block.) There’s practically no mass-produced, prepared, boxed-and-frozen food. Because ingredients are so fresh and dishes are so simple, it’s not a hassle to cook every day. And if you’re exhausted and can’t turn on the stove, there are fresh house-made salads, meats and cheeses in the market right beyond your doorstep. Or the neighborhood trattoria.

Everything gets recycled. In our apartment’s kitchen, there were separate, sturdy totes for paper, glass/metal and plastic. And a bin by the sink for food scraps. Each household is responsible for sorting and managing their trash and carrying it out to big bins on the street. With homes, streets and cars packed in so tightly, there’s no room for every home to leave a bulky trashcan on the sidewalk, and no room for trash trucks to trundle along once a week picking up bins one by one. Trash, like so much of life in Italy, is a communal effort, and it fosters a small footprint.

It was all so different … so small, so self-contained, so minimal … compared to life in the States. Americans think it’s our birthright to have endless choices in the grocery, to expect huge portion sizes when we dine out, to drive a XXXXL-sized vehicle, to live in a house that’s twice what we need, to buy as much cheaply made clothing as we want. And where does all this multiplicity of choice leave us? With food-induced health and environmental crises, sprawl, long commutes, disconnect from community, and a closet full of regrettable purchases. Heck, you can pay money to hire a company to haul away all that stuff you bought that you never needed (or wanted) in the first place. Bigger, bigger, bigger, more, more.

Immersing myself in Italian life, for just a brief week, made me feel sad about many aspects of American life. I’m not sure there’s a solution … or that most folks even see this as a problem. As for me, I’ll keep working toward the motto that Rob and I have set for ourselves:

Live analog. Live slow. Live small. Live local.

New Work: recipe videos.

I’ve just launched a cool new collaboration with the creative team from Curiosity Advertising and their client, The Christ Hospital. We’re working to develop friendly, approachable stories and videos that encourage people in the Greater Cincinnati area to cook healthfully, love local food and pursue their wellness goals.

First up: a video demonstrating how to make an easy recipe for roasted fall vegetables. Click the image below to see the video!

easy-roasted-vegetables

 

New work: Edible Ohio Valley Spring issue.

This issue of Edible Ohio Valley magazine celebrates the ways that food can bring people together, lift folks up and make the world a little bit better.

Plus, isn’t the cover gorgeous?

Spring EOV coverFind this issue at your favorite Ohio Valley food purveyors, including the fabulous Dorothy Lane Market and Findlay Market, plus bookstores like Joseph-Beth.

New work: Untangling the Farm Bill.

Of all the subjects I’ve covered as a journalist, none is more unsexy—or more important—than the 2014 Farm Bill.

Wait: Before your eyes glaze over, hear me out.

The 2014 Farm Bill (which should have actually been the 2012 Farm Bill, but was delayed by all manner of political shenanigans) directly affects what you and I eat every day. It affects how underprivileged folks get access to healthy food, how young people can succeed in farming, how farmers’ markets can grow and reach more customers, how big industrial farms interact with the environment.

While the 2014 Farm Bill was signed into law in March, the real work is ongoing, as committees undertake the task of translating legislation into reality. How will rules be implemented and enforced? What will these rules look like on the ground? And consumers (as well as special interest groups) can have a big say in how the Farm Bill goes into practice.

If you’re interested in local food, if you want continued access to farm-fresh food, then you should know what’s going on with the Farm Bill. My recent article in the newest issue of Edible Ohio Valley aims to detangle the confusion.

New work: Evi Abeler portfolio.

I’ve never met Evi Abeler in person. But we’ve created a really lovely collaboration.

Evi is a food photographer based in New York, a winner of Food & Wine Magazine’s 2013 Digital Food Awards for her work and her blog, whip+click. Her work is flat-out gorgeous: simply styled, shot in glorious natural light, delicious. A mutual connection, the estimable Ilise Benun, suggested that Evi and I might work together to create Evi’s new portfolio. I was thrilled to help.

Evi wanted a magazine-style PDF that would appeal to the food editors, magazine creative directors, cookbook authors and culinary professionals on her prospect list. We decided that the piece would take readers behind-the-scenes to understand what goes into a photo shoot. Evi makes food photography look easy, and she wanted a brochure that would explain to clients just how incredibly complex (and how valuable) her work is.

I think we succeeded, don’t you? (Click here to view the entire PDF of Evi’s work.)

And I’d be happy to work with you on a similar content-marketing project! Get in touch, and we’ll begin a lovely collaboration.

New work: Summer vegetable recipes for Cincinnati Enquirer.

Ahhh … summer. Funny how Mother Nature syncs our appetites with seasonally available produce. Right now, tomatoes, corn, cucumbers, melons — they’re all abundant in our farmers’ markets, and these are the foods we crave during hot weather.

The August 28 edition of the Cincinnati Enquirer, featured my food writing — including introductory copy, six recipes and accompanying photos. Delicious! (Click on each image for a full view.)

Beautiful food packaging design.

Recently, my colleagues at HOW asked me to create a feature story for HOWdesign.com about beautiful food package design. The pleasure was all mine, since the project combines two subjects I love: food and design.

The featured works included a range of food package designs, from big-box retail to small-batch producer. They take different creative approaches, but they all make their contents look amazingly, appetizingly delicious.

Among the projects:


Cat Lady Preserves: stamped and hand-written labels and sweet string ties


Mast Brothers Chocolates: inspired by vintage papers and textiles


Callegari Olive Oils: beautiful blown-glass bottles for a specialty Spanish producer

For my money, though, you can’t beat the Italians for beautiful food packaging. During our recent trip to Tuscany, we purchased food from small shops in Lucca; everything, from fresh pasta to cheese to wine, was wrapped in white paper bearing the purveyor’s logo and address. The simple paper wrapping was pretty, easy to use and environmentally friendly.


Paper wrapping from Italy: wine, pasta and bakery shops

For the love of food and design.

This has been making its way around the interwebs in the past 2 weeks, so perhaps it’s not new to you. But I’m utterly charmed by Minneapolis-based designer David Schwen and his Pantone Pairings project. Schwen takes two compatible foods and creates ersatz Pantone color chips with them. The foodie and design enthusiast in me love this project in equal measure!

David Schwen Pantone Pairings Project peas and carrots

David Schwen Pantone Pairings project chips and salsa

New work: Chef Michael Paley profile for Edible Ohio Valley.

Metropole is the most-anticipated restaurant debut in Cincinnati for quite awhile. I finally managed to have dinner there recently, and it was sublime. Chef Michael Paley does wonders with the freshest of ingredients prepared in the simplest of ways.

You know how difficult it is to do simple, right? If you’re a designer, you know that stripping away elements until you have the perfectly balanced composition requires discipline and finesse. As a writer, I can tell you it’s vastly easier to write 1,200 words on a topic than it is to write 200.

When I interviewed Chef Paley, he told me: “What keeps me up at night is that this stuff is way too simple. … There’s a lot of pre-work that goes into [our dishes]. I’ve sourced this really great vinegar, I’ve been through three different farmers for lettuce, we’ve got these awesome radishes that are sliced perfectly thin and even. But in the end, after all that prior work—that the diner doesn’t know about— you have a salad with three components. And you really want to make sure you’re doing that right.”

In a new profile for Edible Ohio Valley, “The New Guy,” I write about how Metropole and Chef Paley are doing simple—and awe-inspiring—things with local and seasonal ingredients in Cincinnati.

See the Winter issue of Edible Ohio Valley magazine and read the article on Metropole and Chef Paley.

Metropole’s open kitchen adds to the experience; service counters throughout the space top out at waist level to provide patrons an unrestricted view of the action. Chef Michael Paley likes the synergy and connectedness between the dining room and kitchen. And then there’s the massive brick hearth with fire a-blazing at the back of the room: “You see the fire, hear it cracking, you hear the sounds of the kitchen,” he says.

 

The fireplace is the heart of both the environment and the menu. It, too, represents a blend of old and new: a throwback technique that echoes home cooking circa 1850 and a culinary style that’s part of the city’s current food scene (think: wood-fired breads and pizzas).

 

Paley’s interest in open-flame cooking isn’t new, but it’s in full expression at Metropole. He became interested in the method thanks to the wood-fired oven at Garage Bar, the Louisville hot spot he still owns. “I really like the challenge of bringing this ancient cooking method into a modern restaurant kitchen,” he says.

 

In late morning one weekday in December, six whole chickens were suspended by strings from two wrought-iron cranes mounted above a friendly blaze; over three hours they would rotate slowly, depositing their juices into a hotel pan below filled with aromatic vegetables, which would be turned into sauce for serving. Paley offered a tour of the fireplace, pointing out the hand-forged iron fire cage and swinging cranes, crafted by Kentucky blacksmith Craig Kaviar. To one side, a heavy iron plancha, kind of a footed griddle, sat awaiting a sweep of embers underneath to heat it. On the other side of the cage, chefs can assemble a grill that’s also fired by the hot embers. The brick fireplace is “can be arranged as needed, like an arena gets configured for concerts or basketball games,” Paley says.

 

“We can run a menu off something that doesn’t need gas or electricity,” Paley continues. And he does, or nearly so: whole onions, charred and caramelized in the hot ashes, top a seasonal salad of fresh garbanzo beans and creamy burrata cheese; oysters are hearth-baked; slices of rich foie gras take a turn on the plancha, as does a savory poached pear half served on a salad of roasted beets.

New work: Cooking magazine for Kroger.

So much of my work as an independent food writer and journalist involves helping people learn to cook simply, healthfully and seasonally. My ongoing work with Kroger, the grocery retailer with a massive footprint across the U.S., is an example. Collaborating with the wildly creative team at dunnhumbyUSA, a marketing partner to the grocer, I’ve developed a series of recipes and cooking tips for Kroger’s myMagazine, which reaches various segments of the retailer’s customer base. These terrific magazines are quite well-produced, and the project gives me the opportunity to share some of my favorite healthy recipes for lunch, appetizers and main dishes.

Grocery retailers, food producers, growers and restaurants increasingly recognize the value of customer-friendly, relevant and useful content as a marketing tool to broaden their reach and drive sales. Recipes. Cooking and healthy eating tips. What’s in season.

Why is that important? According to a Google study, consumers interact with 10.4 marketing messages—via printed and online content—leading up to a purchase decision.

Think about that.

More than ever, it’s essential for brands to engage with their customers wherever they are. We know this, right? Kroger is among the retail brands that understand this mix of old and new media—printed magazines with recipes and coupons, Sunday circulars, plus online and mobile tools tied to a customer’s interests.

Used to be, marketers assumed it took three customer “touches” to make a sale. Now, according to Google, customers look at 10 pieces of content to inform their buying decisions. What does that mean? Simply: There’s no one-size-fits all approach to content marketing. And it’s a continual process. With marketing partners like dunnhumbyUSA providing deep customer insights, brands like Kroger can understand shoppers, trace their purchases and tailor offers specifically to them. But what if you don’t have those resources? How do you know what your customers need from you? Easy: Ask them. Take your best clients to lunch and inquire about how they came to you. Look at Google analytics on your website (here’s how) to see where visitors spend their time. Data is more available, and more important, than ever in marketing.

Data + content = a great recipe for marketing. I’m ready to help you with your content marketing. Take a look at what I’ve done for Kroger. Then let’s talk, shall we?

See more of my freelance food writing here.