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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What is Gastronomy?

By Avi Schlosburg

Upon telling friends, family, and strangers alike that one is pursuing a graduate degree in Gastronomy, students are often faced with an incredulous look accompanied by a query along the lines of, “so, you’re in culinary school?” or even, “so, you’re studying stomachs?” An understandable response certainly, as Gastronomy is one of those nebulous terms that is part of the vernacular of a very small, but rapidly expanding group of people. While both the culinary arts and the stomach are essential facets of Gastronomy as a whole, there is much more to the field.

Brillat Savarin's La Physiologie du goût

Jean Anthelme Brillat Savarin, the famed 18th-century French lawyer and epicure best known for the axiom, “tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” is also credited with having been the first to really define Gastronomy in his tome, The Physiology of Taste (La Physiologie du goût). Savarin described Gastronomy as, “the knowledge and understanding of all that relates to man as he eats. Its purpose is to ensure the conservation of men, using the best food possible.”

While the first part of his definition is arguably the best way to define Gastronomy in one sentence, the second half is one worthy of heated debate. Defining the concept of “best food” or even “good food” is one that Gastronomy students are consistently challenged with and can rarely, if ever come to a consensus on. Famed 20th century French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss stated, “food is good think,” and this sentiment could not be more applicable when considering Savarin’s notion of “best food possible,” as every person, community, and country has a unique understanding of what “food”, “good food”, or the “best food” means to them.

Gastronomy, as its students study, practice, and progress it today, wholly revolves around Savarin’s idea that it is an all-encompassing field, both interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary by its very nature. Ranging from the study of agriculture in urban environments to international commodity trade, from what role our senses play in shaping our individual and cultural notions of food to the various roles pots and pans have played in crafting culinary traditions across the world, Gastronomy can be defined as nothing short of holistic. It utilizes historical, anthropological, economic, socio-cultural, and scientific theories and methodologies, while embracing the sensual, experiential, and hands-on aspects that makes food and eating worth studying, and ultimately, worth living and dying for.

While there is a wide range of foci and career goals amongst Gastronomy students, from food writing to policy advocacy, sustainable entrepreneurship to urban farming, all Gastronomy students recognize that each of these are an essential piece of the puzzle moving forward. That, in order to achieve global, national, regional, and community-based food systems providing equitable access to sustainably produced foods imbued with taste, texture, and cultural significance, these seemingly disparate, yet entirely connected roles must continue to be filled, and flourish.

Policy cannot be influenced without the support of the widely read food writer; sustainable food businesses cannot thrive without the sustainable farmer; equitable urban food access cannot be achieved without the cultural anthropologist’s research on unique traditions that define every city; and stifling the diet-related disease epidemics currently plaguing virtually every single country in the world will never, ever be fully achieved without significant sociological, anthropological, and cultural comprehension of what food means to each and every one of us, and the roles it plays in all of our lives.