On a mission to document the stories of everyday food makers, two 25-year-olds spent their summer giving new meaning to the term "movable feast," making a 15,000-mile pilgrimage in a beat-up van.
Brad Jones and Chris Maggiolo, students in the Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy program at Boston University, visited more than 75 purveyors in 3½ months, from bakers and oyster harvesters to kombucha makers and salumists. They got home in August, and are now compiling the multimedia project "To Cure: A Food Anthology," the name an homage to both the craft of preserving food, and the act of restoring health. In this case, say the pair, the ailing US food system needs nourishment in the form of small-scale, handcrafted goods. "There are people, day in and day out, in our communities making a difference in the way we eat," says Jones. "By sharing those stories, we hope to make a difference."
Jones and Maggiolo are chronicling the trip through a series of e-journals comprising Q&As, short profiles, and documentary-style videos in which the artisans explain their crafts. "I think by building those stories, you share a relationship with the product that goes beyond the grocery store shelves, and that's better for everyone all around," says Jones, an Indianapolis native.
The trip cost about $5,000. Thirty people donated through a crowdfunding site, which covered gas and "Old Blue," a Dodge Ram 3500 passenger van the two students bought online. The idea came when Maggiolo, a beer consultant interested in craft brewing, and Jones, who works at Formaggio Kitchen and studies wine and cheese, were planning a summer trip to Europe. Over a few beers, they wondered why no one was telling stories about all the great things happening in this country.
"Storytelling is an art we've lost, especially involving food," says Maggiolo, who grew up in Virginia. "Our stories now are about vampires and zombies. Stories used to be about where your food came from, who made it." Some of those stories are about places such as Anson Mills in South Carolina, where growers are producing heirloom grains and giving them away to other farmers for free. Or businesses like Buchi Kombucha in Asheville, N.C., a brewery owned by women who are in the process of opening a school for children to learn about farming.
The trip gave Jones and Maggiolo a new respect for the life cycle after witnessing a goat's birth at Caromont Farm in Esmont, Va., and, later, helping slaughter a pig from Farmstead Meatsmith on Vashon Island, Wash. They also made friends on their journey. "People opened their homes to us. We watched 'America's Got Talent' with their kids," Maggiolo says. "They were thankful someone wanted to tell their story."
The project comes at a time when people are interested in the origins of their food, says Rachel Black, assistant professor and coordinator of the gastronomy program at BU. "Brad and Chris are asking some pretty profound questions about food and trying to understand the challenges of our food system and how to communicate that to the consumer."
The trip wasn't all romantic, of course: It meant a few sleepless nights under the gleam of Walmart parking lot lights on sagging cots six inches off the van's floor, their feet dangling off the ends. They blew tires and showered in waterfalls. There were early mornings when the two were up at 4 a.m. with bakers like Douglas Rae, owner of Evergrain Bread Co., in Chestertown, Md., and shrimpers off the coast of Houston, where Eric Leshinsky and Zach Moser are on the water before dawn. "They are labors of love," Maggiolo says. "Nobody was out there just to make money."
One of the highlights was getting to taste delicious eats at every stop. They visited big-name producers like Mast Brothers Chocolate in Brooklyn, N.Y., (see related story, Page 15) and Olympic Provisions in Portland, Ore., along with smaller places closer to home, like Grass Roots Farm in New Braintree, where the specialty is grass-fed beef and pastured poultry.
They rattle off a few of the best things they found: Lacto-fermented pickles from Number 1 Sons in Arlington, Va.; handmade prosciutto at Farmstead Meatsmith; farmhouse-style ales made with ambient, natural yeast from Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas; pig-heart pastrami from the butcher Salt & Time, also in Austin; smoked duck salad at Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse on Long Island; fried cheese curds from The Old Fashioned restaurant in Madison, Wis.
"I don't think we can, in good faith, say this is the way you should eat," Jones says. "Food is so complex." And, he says, "there is even a space for fried cheese curds."
To Cure, www.tocurefood.com.