Welcome e Benvenuto!

Orto translates to “orchard” in Italian.  “So the name of your blog is Orchard and…Orchard? Seems a little repetitive, huh?” Yes, it’s repetitive, but there are reasons behind it! Let me explain.

For one, my last name is Orchard.  We all know what orchards are – those big open fields where things are grown, and where New Englanders in flannel shirts flock to in the fall to pick apples.  The relevance of my last name was never really something I thought about until it was recently brought to my attention by a career counselor.  After sensing my obviously profound confusion, he said, “When people come to me unsure about what they want to do, I often suggest taking a look at their last name.”  I couldn’t help but laugh when he said this, and at how remarkably true this statement turns out to be. Who knew that I could have avoided all of this confusion if I had just looked at my birth certificate! Haaaaa…

It does seem that the path that I’m on now has been staring me in the face for quite some time but, for many reasons that seem stupid now, I’d been ignoring it or pushing it aside.  I went through college and this past year since graduation convincing myself that I wanted to become a doctor.  And I’d pretty much had everything in place!  I got my biology degree, I registered for the MCAT and was taking a prep-class, and I started training to become an EMT.  Yet the entire time, I had a horrible feeling that I was headed towards something I didn’t really want.  Romantic thoughts would constantly bubble up about pursuing a career involving food (or anything else, really) but I pushed them aside, convincing myself that these were interests that would be better off as hobbies.  Doubts would come to me daily, but in the end I always told myself that it was natural to be unsure.  After all, medicine is a big thing to commit to, but I would be helping people, challenging myself, and I’d probably be pretty good at it.  I’d learn to deal with the lifestyle if I was making a difference.

Unfortunately this shoveling-away of doubt blew up in a pretty dramatic way.  I started my job as an EMT and barely finished two weeks before I had a complete mental breakdown.  Yay! It took being exposed to the medical field in arguably the most extreme way possible to show me that I didn’t want to do this.  A lot of the nature of the job struck me as futile – sure, we’d patch someone up and be on our merry way, but chances are this person was in such poor health overall that they’d need an ambulance again sometime pretty soon.  I would sit in the back of the truck thinking about everywhere else I’d rather be, and I felt like I was wasting my time.  Why was I forcing myself to do something that I was clearly so unhappy doing?  I couldn’t find a good answer to that, so I quit.

I was freeeee! I no longer felt stuck, and I can’t describe how amazing that felt. Admittedly I was also a little terrified – what on earth was I going to do now?  I did know what I was going to do that day though, which was eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (still the most comforting thing I know) and binge-watch “Chef’s Table” on Netflix.  I watched wide-eyed as these chefs talked animatedly about their work with such joy and passion, and I decided that I was done trying to pursue a career in medicine that, although prestigious and rewarding, I constantly needed to convince myself was worthwhile.  I took a step back and thought about what I’m truly passionate about, and the answer was always the same: food, food, food.

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I’m slightly obsessed with the culinary world. Let me give you some examples to show how true this statement is:

  • My family avoids giving me the clicker because they know I’m going to force them to watch episode after episode of “Chopped”.
  • While I was studying abroad, my friends and I planned our weekend in Paris entirely around where we were going to eat instead of the, I don’t know, “sights”, I guess you could call them. “Oh, yeah the Mona Lisa was cool.  But remember that falafel place?  Best I’ve had in my life.”
  • If we’re hanging out, chances are it’s going to involve food; either I’m hijacking your kitchen, or we’re crossing another restaurant off the massive list I’ve compiled on my phone over the years.  You’re going to eat, cook, or watch someone cook, and you’re going to like it!

Food is my favorite way to learn about another culture.  It’s my favorite way to bring people together, and it’s my favorite way to destress. So, needless to say, I really like food. It seems pretty obvious that this would be something I’d want to pursue further, but it was only when I escaped the “pre-med bubble” and finally had time to think about where my interests truly lie that I seriously began to consider something involving food as a possible career option.

Now’s probably a good time to explain the Italian part of this blog: the orto.

Italian culture plays a huge role in my life, but that wasn’t until a few years ago.  Like many Americans, I can tell you the rough percentage of Italian blood that runs through my veins (around 25%).  My father’s mother’s parents, the Peressini’s, arrived at Ellis Island from a tiny province in northeastern Italy named Majano.   Unfortunately this part of my heritage has been lost throughout the years; I didn’t grow up speaking Italian or making homemade red sauce on Sundays.  My immersion into Italian culture didn’t begin until I got to college when I decided to take introductory Italian.  I almost took Spanish, but (and this is embarrassing) after reading Eat, Pray, Love, I decided Italian was where my heart was really at.  Plus, I am Italian!  (Sidenote: I’ve since realized that my life is reflecting the events of this book more than I’d like to admit, as I also traveled to India this past January…does this mean I’m going to Bali next??)

Eventually this led me to Padova, Italy where I studied abroad during my junior year.  I lived the life of an Italian every day for 6 months, and like most study abroad students, I loved every single minute.  My host family and I would share stories over dinner (in Italian), I took classes of culture, history, and language (in Italian), and watched movies with my friends (also in Italian).  I fell in love with the culture and, of course, the food.  To this day there is nothing I find more relaxing than sitting in an Italian piazza sipping spritz, munching on salty chips, and playing cards as the sun sets.  I love that the Italian language has such specific, memory-evoking phrases to describe food – my favorite being “fare la scarpetta” which describes that incredibly satisfying way to end a meal by using a piece of bread to mop up all the juices.  To me it seems that Italians share the same love as I do for good food and the powerful memories that surround it, and this shared appreciation is what continually draws me to Italian recipes and culinary traditions.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to keep Italian culture alive in my every day life.  I started working at Eataly thinking it would be a temporary job between EMT training and my internship in India, but 6 months later and I’m still here!  I’m not sure where this will lead, but I know that I love working with people who love food as much as I do, and for a company that is dedicated to the things I hold most important.

Eataly is a part of the “slow food” movement which began in Rome when locals protested the building of a McDonald’s. If only that would happen in the US!  Slow food is all about providing food that is “good, clean, and fair for all.”  So, quite literally the opposite of fast food.  This means taking the time to know where and whom our food comes from (the farmers, animals, and land), and eating foods when they’re meant to be eaten (like giant, misshapen tomatoes in the summer when they’re brightest and juiciest).  The Italians even have a word to describe this attention to seasonality – scorpacciata – which literally translates to “big feed”, but actually represents the idea of eating as much as possible of whatever is in season before it disappears. At work I’m exposed daily to slow food in-action.  Just yesterday I got to meet a representative from one of our coffee producers in Western Massachusetts and learned about how they are dedicated to sustainable, fair bean production with their farms in Africa and South America.  I also get to taste cheeses from all over New England and learn how to make bread!  This job honestly doesn’t feel like work at all, but instead like some kind of endless Italian food tour where I get to learn new things every day, and I love it.

This exposure to slow food, accompanied with my recent obsession with Michael Pollan’s work, have me thinking a lot about our food system.  I started The Omnivore’s Dilemma with a pencil in hand, underlining what seemed to be every other sentence.  Who knew the corn industry could be so interesting?! Reading about the unnecessarily complex path from farm to table in our culture has left me frustrated and confused.  Why does the US have such a weird relationship with food?  Why is it so hard for us to know where our food comes from?

Based on my travels in other countries, this problem seems to be uniquely American.  In Italy, I took cooking classes where we walked out to the market and bought the asparagus and rabbit for our fresh ravioli.  We chose those ingredients not because we had a specific menu in mind, but simply because that’s what was available that particular day.  I saw the extreme of local-eating when I WWOOF’ed on a vineyard in Tuscany and our host prepared a meal consisting of vegetables and wine produced entirely on their own property.  This introduced me to the concept of “terroir” which reflects how the land, wind, water, and sun impact the vegetation produced in a particular area, and I’ve yet to have a more earthy glass of red or vibrantly herbaceous olive oil.  In India, it was as easy as walking down the road – I watched as a family worked to cut and clean the chicken (blood, guts, and all) that we had for dinner that same night.  These meals remain to be the best I’ve had in my life, and I think this is largely due not only to the freshness and simplicity of the ingredients, but also to the consciousness of knowing exactly where each item came from.

In the US it seems that we’ve moved away from this close relationship with our food, sadly mostly due to economic interests.  To briefly summarize a hugely complex system: the government subsidizes corn and soy, so we grow a lot of corn and soy.  We then have to do something with all of it, so we feed it to our animals (which we then eat, indirectly eating more corn and soy) and create a bunch of processed foods.  This is great for the farmer (whom can now make a better living), and great for supply and demand, but devestating for pretty much every other party involved.  Not to mention the effect this has on our soil and the various plant and animal species involved (I could go on for days, but I’ll restrain myself), but in terms of human health, we’re eating a whole lot of two ingredients that provide virtually no benefits; yet somehow, they make up almost every single item that lines our supermarket shelves.  We’re known as a nation of overeaters but paradoxically, we’re undernourished.

Although there has been a lot of progress in moving back to farm-to-table and promoting the food justice movement, the majority of America relies on these cheap alternatives, simply for that reason: they’re cheap, and they also happen to taste good. The strain on the healthcare system created by a diet high in processed foods (obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, to name a few) is enormous, and will only continue to grow if our culture doesn’t adopt a more transparent, sustainable method of acquiring food.  For the sake of our health and the health of our environment, something needs to change in our unnecessarily muddled food system.

And that’s what I’m realizing I’d like to get more involved with.  Rather than treating people clinically, I’d like to prevent people from getting sick in the first place.  And when I think about what has the biggest impact on our health, the answer here is undeniably (again): food, food food.

There is a sign across from my desk at Eataly whose gravity and relevance didn’t hit me until recently: “Eating is an agricultural act” (Wendell Berry).  We can’t think about the food we eat without adressing where it comes from, and this has profound effects on our health.  In other words, it’s all linked – our health, what we eat, how we obtain our food, and how we treat the environment that provides us with it.  As I’ve said, this has all been (quite literally) staring me in the face this whole time!

Basically, I’m slowly discovering a way to combine all of the things I’m most passionate about – food, health, environment, and culture – and this blog is a way for me to explore this further.  I’ll mostly be sharing some of the Italian-inspired recipes I’ve come to love, along with the stories that transport me back to the people and places that have had such an impact on my journey with food.  These recipes usually have a few steps involving simple ingredients, partially because I’m a little lazy, but also because things with few ingredients and steps tend to taste better.  My belief is that, contrary to what it may seem in our country, food doesn’t have to be complicated!  There’s a reason why nature works the way it does, and my hope is that our culture can move back towards that.

So, hopefully “Orchard e Orto” makes a little more sense now?!  I hope you guys enjoy what I decide to post here, and get a better idea of the power of food and the importance of paying more attention to its source.  I’d love to hear from any of you whether it’s feedback, your own journeys with food, or just to say hi.

Grazie mille, e mangiamo!

Rachel

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