Ballerina turned Field Researcher: A Study on Food Cultures

Since I was a child I was always dancing. With talent, timing, and a tremendous amount of hard work I turned this passion into a fulfilling career as a professional ballerina. However life as a ballerina presented many challenges, one of which was adding stress to my love of food. Food culture as a ballerina means having a hyper-awareness of everything passing through the lips. As the body is the dancer’s only instrument, food becomes fuel. I was not the type to count calories; my philosophy was more based on knowing—as much as I could—where my food came from, and not eating too much of it. Sacrifice was a part of the job and it was worth it, for the most part.

Then I arrived at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy, and food went from supporting role to center stage. Not only do we eat abundant amounts of food as part of our research, we talk about food constantly. That is the remarkable thing about food: it is a fantastic bridge into conversation. And this came in handy, when only four months after retiring from the stage, I was flung out into the field as a researcher.

Ethnobiology looks at traditional knowledge and people’s relationship to their place. My research partner and I chose the isolated area of Val Maira to conduct our work because it is rich in wild edible plants and the habitants have great knowledge of them and use them in their cuisine. There has been a significant amount of migration out of the valley in the past few decades, however, and we hypothesized that we would find traditional knowledge about how to forage and cook these plants, but that there were few people still doing so. We were proven wrong. There is a group of food-conscious chefs and entrepreneurs in their 40s, and younger, returning to the region of their lineage and sharing traditional recipes using typically wild ingredients. We found another food culture very far from that of my former life, and through it I learned the stories, struggles, celebrations, and sacrifices of this cluster of people. It resonated with my own relationship with food during my life as a dancer.

Val Maira is plush with wild herbs and greens—edibles like wild spinach and dandelion regularly appear on restaurant menus. The most common ingredient of the area is the potato, found in gnocchi and ravioles (the local dumpling). For the valley, the potato means survival. Through the harsh winters and economic struggle, the potato kept people alive. Many of the potato recipes are for “poor” dishes: simple, homey flavors, not the kind of food restaurant patrons expect. So the dishes now are being enlivened with the creativity of young chefs through new combinations, different preparation techniques, and artistic plating.

From the diet of a ballet dancer to that of the residents of Val Maira, I have discovered surprising cross-cultural connections through the unique lens of food. What guides us in our food choices (if we are fortunate enough to have choices at all), tells a compelling story of history, place, and identity. The young people of Val Maira who stay in their stunning-yet-difficult locality have opted to go without the alternative of easier access to modern-day food. They understand the value in customs and the fulfillment and rewards that come with making sacrifices for something you love. 

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