If you’re a food lover, one of the best gifts you can give yourself might be to make a lunch date with Greg Gould, self-made food scholar and foodology (the interdisciplinary study of food) devotee.
I can assure you, there will be nary a dull moment. Greg might launch into the misbegotten origin of the European serf class, his favorite Greek origin myth or theories of why native tribes settled in lands rich in sage. He might crack open a soft-boiled egg for you and present to you the golden, sun-soaked interior of a garden tomato. Then, BAM!, he might turn the tables, and pump you, the interviewer, for information. That’s his specialty–collecting information, forming theories and spinning stories. A conversation with Greg feels like a throw-back to another age–the age of intellectual, storyteller and bon vivant all wrapped into one.
Bio: Listening to Greg speak, you get the idea he didn’t stumble out of a middle class family from Indiana. He did not. Greg’s grandfather was a French chef and nutritionist who ran kitchens in retirement homes and hotels in France and Switzerland. His grandmother was a gardener. Greg ate at the table with his family most of his childhood and fondly remembers large meals with a gallery of guests at his grandparents’ table once a week. Needless to say food played a central role in Greg’s life.
When Greg embraced the hippie movement of the 70’s and bore witness to macrobiotic restaurants and the resurgence of food culture at a societal level, a change he saw as part and parcel to the other liberation movements of the time, his maternal grandfather just shook his head at him. “You hippies, you think you invented all this!” Apparently they had not. Greg’s mother was raised in the 1930’s in a nudist/vegetarian social commune outside of Paris that embraced the philosophy of Dr. Paul Carton. Shared communal meals were part of every day life.
Fast forward to New Mexico 2000. Greg, holding a B.A. in Literature and Mythology from Sarah Lawrence and a Masters in Public Administration from UNM, had lost the second of two technology-related jobs when his programs were phased out, one at a computer company and one as an administrator for UNM’s televised distance learning courses. After experiencing firsthand the rapid obsolescence of tech-oriented jobs, Greg says he wanted to “reinvent” himself, find work that brought him joy and meaning.
Guided by Stephen Covey’s book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, he found that the one thing that kept emerging for him as a source of stimulation, joy and meaning was food. And not merely as a gourmand; Greg saw food as a revelatory thread, illustrative of human spirituality, history, politics and culture. “I had an epiphany, a spiritual moment when I realized eating is the fundamental activity of the human species, the fundamental story of life itself. Everything about our species revolves around eating.” He also saw that something was amiss in our current food system, the social stratification of food, the proliferation of diabetes and obesity, and longed to address this dysfunction.
Self-education: So Greg embraced food, all aspects of food, as his vocation, devouring every book, workshop or conference that came his way. The obvious path of an auto-didact is to read, read, read. So he did, “pulling threads” from one book to the next, scouring bibliographies. If you’ve met Greg you know that he is far too social for the life of an armchair academic. He embarked on a three-month trip around the world: Santa Fe, Los Angeles, Taipei, Bangkok, Mumbai, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Istanbul, Sofia, Copenhagen, Paris and New York. His focus was vernacular, homemade food rather than restaurant fare. “I attempted to stay with families so that I could go shopping and observe the kitchen and family meals.”
Greg also took advantage of the University of New Mexico’s gravitational pull on visiting scholars and interviewed over 50 people immersed in the food world for his TV show Foodology, which ran for a year on public access cable. His intention was to document other people’s perspectives and allow the viewer to form their own conclusions, to awaken them to their authority over their own eating. Hoping to take the show to the next level, he met with Sara Moulton, one of Julia Child’s colleagues, executive chef of Gourmet Magazine and current host of Sara’s Weeknight Meals, in New York for advice. She told him that his show was too intelligent for mass broadcast; that the Food Network was dumbing down.
From TV he moved on to a series of presentations and workshops, which he still offers today, alongside his work as a substance abuse counselor. But he now targets junior high age kids, rather than adults, because that’s where he believes he can make an impact. “If I tell twelve-year-old something, it might stick with them for a long time….adults are already set in their ways.” He holds a particular concern for the diet-driven obesity and diabetes epidemic. “My work with twelve-year-olds is teaching them about glycemic strikes. I tell them, ‘You are having a digestive experience rather than an educational experience if you drink soda for breakfast.'” Greg says he is now aiming at inspiration rather than education. He wants to empower people to value their own sense of taste rather than defer to experts. “People are experts in what tastes good to them.”
Aside from his ongoing work in middle schools (if you’re an educator, contact him!), his never ending independent scholarship, and his involvement with the New Mexico Food and Agriculture Policy Council, he is currently writing book reviews for Gastronomica, an academic food quarterly from the University of California Press.
Influences: Greg names M.F.K Fisher as his first foodie influence. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in turn was Fisher’s predominant influence (she translated his Physiology of Taste from the French), “so I’m part of a lineage,” says Greg who will happily share with you Brillat-Savarin’s list of aphorisms that serve as the opening to the book and include such old chestnuts as “Tell me what you eat and I shall tell you what you are.”
On American Food Culture: Greg was born in France to a French woman. He speaks French fluently and applies his “foot in each culture” advantage to his ruminations on food, including comparisons between France’s highly developed food culture and America’s lack thereof. We’re a country of immigrants. His theory is that immigration forced great disruptions in food cultures, particularly in a land where there was a keen desire to assimilate and not stand out. Hence the still extant tension between “ethnic” food and “American” food. Greg considers this a lamentable development because “cultures embody wisdom in foodways. When they lose their foodways, they lose their culture.”
And How New Mexico is Different: New Mexico is gifted with a proprietary cuisine that is local and particular to this region based on indigenous crops and Spanish influence. That’s something to be proud of. Unfortunately, Greg points out, New Mexico produces only about 3% of its own food and we don’t have enough water to sustain the people that live here long term. He doesn’t paint a rosy view of the future, the fact of the matter is the best we can do as a region in the next few decades may just be to scrape by. Greg exhorts residents to plant more drought tolerant, dwarf-sized fruit and nut trees in their yards, raise their own chickens, eat less meat and capture their gray water.
On Meat Eating: “We’re pretty dysfunctional in our meat eating. We’ve lost touch with a sense of reverence with taking life and need to find ways to restore reverence to meat-eating…when you eat a burger, you can’t tell it’s a cow, its bereft of its animal-ness.” Greg looks to the Thanksgiving turkey as a healthy model for meat consumption, beginning with the fact it has bones in it and is easily identifiable as a bird. “A lot of people are gathered to eat this one big animal. Gratitude is expressed and there’s often leftovers.” With the leftovers there’s a redistribution of meat and protein. For the next few days no new animal has to be killed to satisfy our meat craving as we use those leftovers for turkey sandwiches, soups or casseroles.
Greg’s own personal meat practice is to only eat meat when many people are gathered. Bones should be intact, a leg of lamb for instance that feeds numerous people, and leftovers should be shared for the rest of the week. Greg also appreciates using meat to flavor dishes rather than throwing down a whole slab for the main course, cut up in stir fries for example. He notes that other cultures like the Chinese are good at stretching meat. Unfortunately, the newly wealthy Chinese, eager to emulate the luxuries of the West, are now putting more of the animal on their plates.
On Eating Out: One thing we need to understand about restaurants is that they are a relatively recent phenomenon on the food scene. “There were no restaurants less that 200 years ago,” says Greg. “Travelers had to rely on hospitality to get by.” When we go to a restaurant we go as customer to vendor. Greg sees it as renting a table for an hour. While there, we’re presented with a limited selection that gives us the illusion of choice.
Why illusion? Because, Greg explains, most restaurants in Albuquerque are provisioned by Sysco, Ben E. Keith or U.S. Foods. So we are essentially eating the same foods from the same source across a huge swath of restaurants. But when we go to someone’s house for dinner, we’re in a guest/host relationship which is very different. “There’s no menu, no choice…reciprocity is built in. There’s an unspoken understanding if you invite me to dinner, I’ll invite you in turn. All around the world this idea of hospitality applies…and it’s through food sharing that community is built.” Greg sees many of our societal ailments from addiction to broken families as stemming from a loss of food sharing.
Greg points out another benefit of dining as a guest. In a person’s home, you’re not offered a menu. There is no choice; you graciously accept what you are served .”You may end up eating something you’ve never eaten before!”
In the Kitchen: “When I cook, I cook for large numbers of people,” says Greg. He is part of spiritual community that shares meals together on Saturdays. He contributes crock pots filled with stews, beans, posole, or spaghetti sauce which he makes a day ahead so the flavors can marry. “As much as I like cooking for others, I like it when other people cook for me. One of the fundamental principals of happiness is food sharing.”
On Hospitality: Greg recounts Ovid’s story of Baucis and Philemon, a poor married couple who are visited by Hermes and Zeus traveling incognito. Hermes and Zeus, dressed as common peasants, have knocked on the door of every house in the valley, in search of food and a bed, only to be turned away. “All the doors were bolted and no word of kindness given, so wicked were the people of that land,” writes Ovid. Finally they reach the cottage of Baucis and Philemon, and are invited in warmly and lavished with all their hosts can offer, a relatively meager meal for the gods, but the remainder of the household stores.
Baucis and Philemon, as you can imagine, are richly rewarded by the wayfaring gods for their observance of xenia, the law of hospitality or guest-friendship amongst the Greeks. Their humble house is transformed to an opulent temple and, upon their deaths, Zeus grants their wish that they never be separated by turning one into an oak and the other a linden tree with branches entwined. Meanwhile, in classic Greek fashion, the rest of the town’s inhabitants are killed in a violent flood.
Food Greg Loves: Lentils, beets, butter, Italian food, French food, okay, basically all kinds of European food, peasant food, Thai, East Indian, Japanese, Chinese, hot and spicy, onions and garlic. He once studied with a Buddhist lama who told him not to eat garlic and onions as a matter of spirtual health. Greg couldn’t comply. “Certain foods are non-negotiable…garlic and onions are soul food to me.” He realized that what’s true for the Tibetan was not necessarily true for him. His favorite meal? “The one I’ve just finished.”
Must Read Book Recommendations: The Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, The Rituals of Dinner by Margaret Visser, Meals to Come: The History of the Future of Food by Warren Belasco and anything by M.F.K. Fisher.
Greg’s Shelfless Library: Are you a foodophile with some empty shelf space? Greg is seeking a creative arrangement to temporarily house his foodology library, books of academic bent, literature, the foodways of Nepal, Sally Falon titles, and much more. “I am a prisoner of my library. It sort of limits my travel plans. So I’m looking for a possible home for these books,” says Greg. Send him an email if you want access to this fantastic collection and can accommodate.
On the Fork: Soft-boiled eggs from Kimchi Farms, a South Valley plot around the corner from where Greg lives, served with Kimchi Cherokee and Hillbilly tomatoes and sea salt on Fano 9-Grain Bread. Nope, no recipe this week. Greg venerates simplicity and dishes that allow the flavors to “speak for themselves.” Go out and grab yourself some locally-grown tomatoes before it’s too late. Slice open, sprinkle with salt and enjoy. This is the good life, within all of our reach.