Cuisine Questions, No Answers

Emma Rayner studying abroad in Italy.

Emma Rayner is studying in Ascoli Piceno, Italy as part of the UNH-in-Italy program.

From eating gelato to wearing a black faux-leather jacket, Emma Rayner has learned a lot about Italy and what it takes to blend in there. She does her best not to stick out in the streets and alleyways of Ascoli Piceno…

…That is, until she has to talk to someone.

“If they didn’t talk with their hands so much, I seriously would be hopeless,” Rayner laughed.

But in all seriousness, Rayner has not stopped learning about Italy since the moment she arrived at the beginning of the semester.

“I took a Philosophy of Food class, and we went on a lot of field trips,” Rayner said. “We learned through experience rather than through a textbook, which I think made for a way better learning environment [than at home].”

All this learning, however, and especially the field trips, have raised several internal questions for the junior English and EcoGastronomy major.

The first field trip Rayner went on was to a restaurant right in Ascoli Piceno.

“It was pretty fancy, and we went there as a class and we had a meal, and talked about if food can be aesthetic or if its just for fuel. Like, can food be enjoyable aesthetically or is it just for nutrition?”

Rayner took several field trips for her Philosophy of Food course.

Rayner took several field trips for her Philosophy of Food course.

The second field trip was to an Italian farm where they make all their own food from scratch.

“They have their own plumbing system and the couple that lives there have part time jobs and a simple life. They do everything on their own pretty much,” Rayner said. “And so the point was to go and see it and then ask ourselves if that’s something we [students] could do.”

And the last field trip Rayner attended was a wine tasting.

“The class discussed whether or not we think that certain wines taste better because they cost more or because an expert tells us they are better, or do we really taste them and think they taste better? So is taste subjective or objective?”

Rayner said she hasn’t found the answer to any of these questions, and isn’t sure if she will.

“I’m still thinking about them and talking about them. I can’t necessarily come to a conclusion, but I guess that is kind of the point,” Rayner said, adding that keeping the questions open-ended has forced her to think about them throughout all her travels this semester, in and out of Italy.

Rayner has come to love the Italian cuisine, which has sparked many academic questions for her.

Rayner has come to love the Italian cuisine, which has sparked many academic questions for her.

This is why Rayner believes the entire study abroad experience has been something beneficial to her student life. She is out of her comfort zone, not only asking questions within her field of study, but also asking questions about herself.

“It’s hard to be yourself here,” Rayner said of Ascoli Piceno. “On Halloween we all went to this bar, and we were being loud and having a good time. All the Italians were on the other side of the bar and staring at us. It makes you wonder why you are the way you are.”

Rayner laughed about the fact that she went to a market and bought a faux-leather jacket and boots.

“I mean, I liked them and wanted to buy them anyways, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t thinking that they’d help me blend in,” Rayner said. “They dress very muted here and a lot of people wear the same things, and that’s something [I’m] not used to.”

So has studying abroad not only changed Rayner’s view of the world, but the way she wants to portray herself?

“[College] is the first part of your life when you change and grow, so submerging yourself in a new culture and taking yourself out of your comfortable box is an enormous opportunity and absolutely worthwhile,” Rayner said. “If you change when you’re there, I think that’s okay. I am the most nervous and anxious person in the world and even I can see myself become more confident and changing a little.”

“[College] is the first part of your life when you change and grow, so submerging yourself in a new culture and taking yourself out of your comfortable box is an enormous opportunity and absolutely worthwhile.”

So like the rest of the questions Rayner’s time in Italy has raised for her, it seems the question of whether or not she’s changed is also open-ended.

“I am having a blast, and I don’t want this to end,” Rayner said.

But so long as Rayner continues to think about her Italian teachings, keeps on asking herself those open-ended questions about her food and herself…will her study abroad experience ever truly end?

Taking a Bite of Ascoli Piceno

Victoria Georgetti has tried her best to talk to the woman selling baked goods in Ascoli Piceno. The woman is at the street market every week, ready to sell some of the most authentic Italian goodies the Euro can buy. She is kind, but assertive, according to Georgetti—“a typical Italian.”

“You can tell she loves what she does,” Georgetti said.

However, much to Georgetti’s dismay, the woman can’t speak a lick of English, and Georgetti is still perfecting her Italian. So the two have resorted to smiling at each other and using a combination of facial expressions and body language to make pie transactions.

Woman selling homemade baked goods at a street market in Ascoli-Piceno, Italy.

Woman selling homemade baked goods at a street market in Ascoli-Piceno, Italy.

“Let’s just say I’ve eaten a lot of her baked goods,” Georgetti laughs.

Georgetti is part of the UNH-in-Italy: EcoGastronomy program, spending her entire fall semester in the small town of Ascoli Piceno, Italy. As a Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems major, she is taking the opportunity to soak in as much edible culture she possibly can, and describes the daily market as her favorite place to spend her time.

“This program revolves around around slow food and culture, so it takes someone who is interested in that subject and type of lifestyle in order to be successful here. You have to appreciate small towns, and culture that isn’t your own…You can find that culture in a market—they have food ones, antique ones, a bunch—so it’s my favorite place so far.”

In Ascoli Piceno, however, you can pretty much find that deep-rooted culture anywhere you go. Known as “the city of one hundred towers,” several travel guides describe Ascoli Piceno as an ancient city, wherein the culture—and more specifically, the food—has not changed in centuries. Traditions and recipes have been passed down for years, remaining an important part of day-to-day life.

Which is why it’s a great place for the UNH-in-Italy fall semester program, as the program is the gateway to a dual major in EcoGastronomy: a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary program, which allows UNH students interested in nutrition, hospitality, and sustainable agriculture to study food, cooking, and holistic eating habits.

“This program revolves around slow food and culture, so it takes someone who is interested in that subject and type of lifestyle in order to be successful here. You have to appreciate small towns, and culture that isn’t your own.”

Of course, Ascoli Piceno’s unchanged food history did not surprise Georgetti upon her arrival to the city. She has been to Italy before; while taking a gap year between high school and college. She spent time tutoring in English for an Italian family. So, having experienced the flavors of Italy before, she knew she would find delicious food in a small town like Ascoli Piceno.

It is another, widely accepted tradition in this particular Italian town which Georgetti did not expect. A tradition she was part of before she even knew it was a tradition.

Every fall this small town, with a population of 51,000 (versus Florence’s 370,000), increases by about dozen people. A dozen bright-eyed, curious, hungry people: students from the University of New Hampshire.

Homemade Pizzas by UNH Students

Pizzas made by students in the UNH-in-Italy program, made from scratch with fresh ingredients from a farm in the Sibilin Mt. Range.

“It was one of our first nights here, and we were sitting at a small bar, all speaking English,” Georgetti said. “All of a sudden this guy came up to us and said, ‘New Hampshire?’ And we were all so stunned, like, how could he know? And then he said, ‘it’s just a regular thing, the New Hampshire students come every year.’ And then we talked for a while. You know, it’s such a small town, everyone knew when we arrived.”

And luckily, according to Georgetti, not only do the locals know UNH is coming, but they also embrace the students’ arrival. Most locals don’t speak English, and beg the students to help them practice it.

“It can be really frustrating, though,” Georgetti said. “Because we’re trying to practice Italian, but the second they realize we speak English, that’s the language they want to use.”

So that’s why Georgetti finds herself wandering back down to the street market, doing her best to communicate with the woman who sells delicious baked goods.

Georgetti points at a pastry covered in something that looks sweet, silky—delicious. Maybe a Zeppole, or an Anisette cookie. Her mouth waters as the middle-aged woman shouts something in thick, authentic Italian, trying to explain the taste, trying to sell her item. Eventually, though, the woman resorts to splitting off a piece of the goodie and handing it to Georgetti.

It’s a universal message: free sample.

“[And it’s] a good thing,” Georgetti said. “Because half the time it doesn’t taste how it looks.”

Georgetti (right) and classmates visiting the Colosseum.

Georgetti (right) and classmates visiting the Colosseum.