La Dolce VitaZachary Nowak '99 thinks, talks, and writes about food as much as the most devoted gourmet; just don't expect him to demonstrate an epicurean command in the kitchen.
As a professor of food studies in Perugia, Italy, his interest is strictly academic. “I am a notoriously mediocre cook,” he admitted.
The affable expatriate may not be ready to rival the culinary skill of celebrity chefs Mario Batali or Giada De Laurentiis, but if you're curious about the history of pizza or pesto, he's your man. “Asking me to cook is like asking an art historian to paint,” Nowak said. “I'm more interested in food as that intersection of politics, economics, and culture.”
Toward that end, Nowak recently created the Food Studies Program at the Umbra Institute in Perugia, an American study abroad program where he has been working for seven years. Nowak launched the multidisciplinary curriculum to investigate, through food, broader issues such as sustainability, human rights, market logic, and cultural identity. “Food is a holistic way to look at the world and an easy way for students to swallow the bitter pill of academics,” he said.
With Perugia and other parts of Italy as their extended classroom, students complement their course work with field trips and practica. They visit farms, factories, and restaurants, attend wine and aperitif tastings, pick olives, hunt truffles, and watch master cheese makers and vintners ply their trade. They even operate their own restaurant, Trattoria Umbra.
Christopher Pappalardo '13 took the Food and Culture class fall semester and went on several field trips. “It was an amazing experience,” he said. “Coming from an Italian family, I thought it was important for me to recognize the role food plays in the Italian culture. I got to see that firsthand at the institute.”
Nowak's interest in food studies took root during his junior year at Kenyon when he began attending lectures sponsored by the Family Farm Project through Kenyon's Rural Life Center. “I can honestly say that until my junior year, I had never considered what food I was eating, how it was made or where it came from,” said Nowak, who majored in history and “dabbled” in modern foreign languages.
Kenyon also kindled his desire to live overseas. Encouraged by Associate Professor of Italian Patricia Lyn Richards, Nowak emigrated to Italy after graduation to work on an Alpine dairy farm, pick apples, and teach English, eventually settling in the picturesque university city of Perugia.
He made an international media splash in 2007 when the scheduled publication of his mystery novel, originally titled Murder in Perugia, seemed to presage the murder of British university exchange student Meredith Kercher.
Coordinating the Food Studies Program is “my newest adventure,” he said. His teaching philosophy is to use food as a “lens to look at our world . . . and share some great meals with students.”
He believes any university course “worth its salt” should attempt to answer the question: What is the good life? “How to live was something I thought a lot about at Kenyon,” he said. Nowak relished the opportunity last year to share his success with Professor Richards over a meal in a café in Sicily. “She had encouraged me to head off to Italy and find my fortune and, here I am, 13 years later,” he said.
“Bravo,” Richards told him. “Well done.”