April 01, 2010

The Personal Statement

This is a followup to my NYU rejection post, in which I promised to share my personal statement. Remember kids, this did not get me into grad school. So don't try this at home.

You’re taking a risk when you ask someone if he or she has ever eaten a Fluffernutter. Most people will look at you as though you’ve asked them whether or not they’ve ever eaten a booger.

A Fluffernutter, you explain to your friend, is a sandwich made of peanut butter and Marshmallow Fluff. He or she says something like “Oh, I’ve heard of that. Never had one though,” and for that person, the conversation is over. But for you, there is a lingering need to prove yourself, to make your friend understand the simple goodness of a Fluffernutter.

There’s no way to do it, though. Going into full-length descriptions of the texture of the bread or the taste of the Fluff just confirms that you’re crazy, and forcing someone to sit down and eat a Fluffernutter against his or her will takes a lot of the fun out of it.

The only real way to appreciate a Fluffernutter, I’ve discovered, is to have grown up in New England, where kids of all backgrounds eat them at least twice a week. Until I left New England, though, I had no idea that the sticky mess I’d been indulging in all my life was a regional thing. Now, I understand why at least forty-four of the United States rolled their collective eyes when Massachusetts Representative Kathi-Anne Reinstein of Revere filed a bill that proposed the recognition of the Fluffernutter as the Massachusetts state sandwich (this in a state that already recognizes the baked navy bean, the corn muffin, the Boston cream pie, and the Boston cream doughnut as state foods).

No, the Fluffernutter isn’t a healthy sandwich. And no, Massachusetts hasn’t really turned out any other regional delicacies that could be classified as healthy. But from Lynn’s Marshmallow Fluff, to Boston’s Boston Beer Company (maker of Sam Adams), to Canton’s Dunkin Brands Inc. (Dunkin Donuts), my state is known for its comfort food.

And then there’s greater New England’s claim to fame: chowdah. Most New Englanders grow up with a taste for chowdah and for seafood in general, and look upon non-seafood eaters as second-class citizens. I’ll admit it; when I meet someone who “does not eat denizens of the sea,” as a friend put it recently, I feel a barrier go up between us. As New Englanders, we’ve grown up with the taste of the sea in our mouths. We don’t understand people who are afraid of the food we’ve eaten all our lives.

I did not realize how much the relatively modest cuisine of New England meant to me until I got swept up in the action of a Red Sox game one day and shouted “CHOWDAH!” I received not concerned glances but shouts of approval. We are as proud of our food as we are of our baseball club.

This regional pride, I have learned, is not limited to New England. Especially when it comes to food, people both in the United States and throughout the world can name at least five reasons why theirs is the best. And perhaps the best reason I can give regarding my desire to pursue a Master’s in Food Culture is that there is nothing more fascinating to me than the way people make, eat, and share their food.

From an early age, I’ve been lucky enough to go on trips that allow me not only to see other regions, but also to taste the food of each region. Of all these trips, I recently discovered, the one consistent memory I have is what the food tasted like. I have a fuzzy memory of walking by the Seine in Paris when I was eleven, but I remember clearly the moment I tried my first ever tomato tart tatin at Les Philosophes, a café in the Marais. In much the same way, I have no recollection of what Colonial Williamsburg looked like when my parents took me there during a long road trip from Massachusetts to North Carolina. What I do remember are the piles of pulled pork, hushpuppies, and cornbread on the buffet line the first time I ate at a true barbecue joint in Raleigh.

In May, I started writing a food blog that I wanted to use as a way to practice my writing, to document my successes and failures as I taught myself to cook, and to discuss the food health issues I had begun to notice both in America and abroad. I became particularly inspired by the efforts of Jamie Oliver and his Ministry of Food project, which seeks to teach cooking skills and recipes to people throughout England who have become downright afraid of the kitchen and are instead depending on fast food as a main source of nutrition for themselves and their families.

In earning a Master’s in Food Culture, it is my hope that I would become well enough informed about the economic and societal factors that have influenced the history of American food consumption that I would then be able to use my knowledge to start a small community food education project in the style of the Ministry of Food. As Oliver has shown, reeducating a whole generation of people takes time and patience. But, in my opinion, projects such as these are the only hope we have in order to revive the passion and ability for cooking once shared by many. I don’t know now what form my impact on America’s kitchen illiteracy will take. But I do know that, if we can tap into Americans' deep-seated regional pride, each region’s passion for cooking could be rekindled to the point where, at the same time as we pass down our sports teams and our accents, we might also pass down our recipes.

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