Alumni Spotlight: Chris Maggiolo

Alcohol is an ancient food. It is a social lubricant. It is a component of ritual, of art, of dream-making. It is powerfully charged and, yet, so completely misunderstood in American culture.

chrisI moved from Virginia to Boston in September 2011 with these words in mind – words jotted down while taking notes during my freshman seminar in alcohol and culture. I was keen on studying the anthropology of alcohol and the Gastronomy program, I felt, was the perfect tool by which to do so. A few years honing my studies and then I’d apply to a PhD program. Well, the best laid plans…

To say I concentrated in alcohol studies would be putting it lightly. It was everything I did. I worked full time managing the Modern Homebrew Emporium in Cambridge, leveraging contacts and a vast network of brewers to find interview participants and volunteer opportunities. I took a second job in the summer managing relationships between wholesalers and retailers. I conducted every project and wrote every paper (save for one, I think) on the subject of craft brewing and alcohol culture. And when I wasn’t working or hunkered down over a book for school, I volunteered with breweries and, later, distilleries. I believed in the holistic approach fostered by liberal arts studies, and I tried to engage the industry from all angles.

siloUltimately, it was the liberal arts approach that landed me my job at SILO Distillery. Craft producers need to be swiss army knives rather than specialists, and the Gastronomy program prepared me well for this. To a degree, I understood marketing and sales, production practices, legislature and regulations. In a pinch I can crunch financials. And if I didn’t know something, I had the tool set to figure it out. I never would have guessed that I would know as much about boiler systems as I do now, but last week I answered a call from an aspiring distiller with a background in chemical engineering and we had a half hour call about our boiler unit. The liberal arts approach is real, and it can be very valuable.

But it can also be too vague, too broad. It’s important to have a goal in mind – something to anchor the Gastronomy net. Focus your intent, and the program will open amazing doors.

I frequently draw on my experiences with the Gastronomy program to fuel SILO’s growth. As a company we focus intently on local and regional agricultural systems. I’ve held meetings with groups of farmers in order to discuss potential crop growth for distilling purposes and to facilitate the collection of our spent grains. Having an understanding of their work and struggles goes a long way to securing these relationships. In conceiving of new products, I consider both modern trends and historic and cultural precedents. For example, amaro is really hot right now in trendy restaurants and cocktail circles. I’ve been working on a fun analog rooted in a mid 17th century cookery book. It’s been a blast and I think it’ll be quite successful.

Just as Gastronomy studies the art and science of food, distilling practices the art and science of spirits. In a craft that is as technical as it is creative, having a liberal arts background is a keystone of success. Sure, work can be stressful at times, but familiarity with the big picture brings everything back into perspective and keeps me energized and excited for what lies ahead.

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The Schlesinger Library

Looking for resources to finish up those final papers? Check out the Schlesinger Library at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute.

With hundreds of volumes of cookbooks dating back to the 17th century and leading to the present, culinary magazines, and other periodicals, to manuscripts of world renowned and lesser known chefs, cooks, television personalities and restauranteurs the Schlesinger Library offers an interesting and diverse sojourn into the American culinary landscape. Here, researchers can follow the development of cooking techniques, the introduction of and popularity of new ingredients in American cooking overtime. Get answers to questions like how have the menus for holidays and special occasions evolved since the 18th century? What were the most popular seasonal foods in 19th century New England? And really, when did green casserole become a thing?

schlesinger

One of the largest and most well-known collections here is that of American born French Chef, Julia Child. In her more than 100 boxes of material are correspondence, audio visual material from television shows, journals and of course recipes! Her papers not only tell her personal story as a woman, wife, and chef but that of a changing American food culture. Her efforts simplified and made French cuisine more accessible to the American cook and complicated the American palate.

Amidst the vast publications, advertisements, audio-visual material and large collections like that of Julia Child is one of our smaller collections that explores the introduction of Chinese cuisine to the American food culture. The “Frist Lady of Chopsticks”, Grace Zia Chu, is largely credited with making Chinese cuisine more accessible to the American home cook. Born in Shanghai China in 1899, Grace came to the United States to study physical education at Wellesley. As a student there, she was often homesick and to remedy her longing she began experimenting with Chinese cooking styles using local ingredients. After graduating and getting married she returned to China where she taught physical education. When her husband was called to Washington, DC in 1941 to serve as a military attaché to the Chinese Embassy Grace began instructing the officers’ wives who were interested in learning Chinese cooking.

Madame Chu stressed the cooking technique rather than the ingredients that made a meal uniquely Chinese. She taught her students about the variety of Chinese cooking from region to region. It was in 1954 that she was established as Chinese cook when she was invited to teach at the China Institute in America (New York). By 1962, Grace published her best seller The Pleasures of Chinese Cooking. In this and subsequent publications she provided pictures and anecdotes to the recipes simplifying the food preparation methods. One of the most important aspects being the use of high heat. This lead to her being a spokesperson for the American Gas Association and a short film based on the book in 1963.

Like Julia’s papers, Graces, although limited also tell of more than her personal journey with cooking. One tidbit that is included in her papers is a story of the advent of the Fortune Cookie. According to the notice from the San Joaquin Valley library system the fortune cookie was part of the charitable works of Los Angeles Restaurant owner David Jung. After World War I, Jung would see passersby that needed food and encouragement. After trying many recipes he found the perfect cookie and included scriptures and encouraging words given to by a local clergyman. This staple in American consumption of Chinese food was born in LA as an offering. Many more interesting developments and customs of American food culture have been chronicled in the collections at the Schlesinger Library. Come explore the food culture material in our archives, you never know where the journey will take you!

Kenvi C. Phillips, PhD
Curator for Race and Ethnicity
Schlesinger Library
Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study
Harvard University
3 James Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
617 834-8550