While most culinary-focused events become celebrations of excess, it was refreshing to see this year’s Austin Food & Wine Festival feature several earth-friendly demos. South Carolina’s Mike Lata gave a lesson on pickling while Mississippi’s John Currence showed audiences how to can fruits and vegetables for year-round enjoyment.
“My grandparents were fashion photographers… my mom was an actress… I just learned early on that there was a way to carve your own path.”
And Georgia Pellegrini, the queen of DIY, shared tips for using discarded citrus peels, made chocolate bread pudding out of stale crusts, crafted body scrub from spent coffee grinds, carved a watermelon keg and waxed poetic on red wine popsicles.
A self-proclaimed “modern pioneer,” Pellegrini trained at the French Culinary Institute before going on to work in acclaimed kitchens such as Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Gramercy Tavern, and La Chassagnette, a Michelin-starred restaurant in the south of France. When she’s not traveling, making TV appearances or leading adventure getaways to teach women hunting, fishing and foraging skills, Pellegrini can be found cooking and relaxing in her home in East Austin, where she’s now established roots.
Pellegrini broke away from the Austin Food & Wine Festival to snack on some charcuterie with Citygram at Salt & Time and chat about her third and latest book, Modern Pioneering.
How did you first become interested in “modern pioneering”?
I grew up on the same land that my great grandfather lived on, so I grew up pioneering in a way. My grandmother taught me so much about using my hands — manual literacy, I call it. I used crushed grass and berries as my ink to make paintings, hung on vines until they fell and then made wreaths out of them. I was always very hands-on and very much about getting dirt under my fingernails.
I definitely grew up with a very food-focused family — we had chickens and honey bees, lots of gardening. We’d fish trout and eat it for breakfast. We were big on cooking together and then eating meals. So I’d say I had always been very enmeshed in food, but I didn’t start cooking professionally until after I went to culinary school.
You come from a very creative family. How have they influenced your career?
My grandparents were fashion photographers back in the ‘50s and ‘60s and ‘70s. My grandmother, particularly, was always very female-focused. And everyone’s always worked for themselves. My great grandfather was a writer, my dad worked for my grandparents as a photographer for a long time, my mom was an actress — very creative types. I think I just learned early on that there was a way to carve your own path and make it work.
“I think organic can be a mislabeled thing. A lot of small producers can’t afford to grow all organic.”
Can you talk a little bit about your new book?
This latest book, Modern Pioneering, is sort of a road map for ways to get back to the way our grandparents did things. It’s broken down into four parts — The Garden, The Home, The Wild and The Rest. The idea is that, if you have very little land or no land, there are ways to do small space gardening– whether it’s using a garbage bag, or your window sill, or your fire escape, or a back alley. There are all these ways to get back to the land in that way. The second part is called The Home and it shows you what to do with all this stuff you grow with your hands. Curing with fat, salt, sugar, oil, preserving and pickling, making your own bacon, smoking. The third part is the The Wild, all about how to go find those dandelions in your yard and make a salad. Or how to make a 48-hour survival kit that fits in an Altoids tin. Or how to change your own tire. And then the last section is The Rest and it’s these ways to upcycle and do all these really cool projects with your hands – making planter boxes, and how to turn your wine bottles into glassware.
What are your thoughts on the industrial food system?
I’m not one of those people who thinks that everything needs to be organic, because I think organic can be a mislabeled thing. A lot of small producers can’t afford to grow all organic. There’s too many barriers, too much red tape, and it’s so expensive. So, for me, it’s all about being a more conscious eater and being more connected to our roots and where we come from in the cycle of life.
And what about the meat industry specifically?
I think what’s so sad about how we’ve started to eat as Americans is we go to the grocery store and buy a boneless, skinless chicken breast that’s wrapped in styrofoam and plastic and we expect it to taste exactly the same every single time and be the same size and the same price. It’s almost like we’ve neutered our palates. We don’t have any interest or inspiration to step outside of the paradigm. Then when you see the process that has to occur for those boneless, skinless, huge, massive chicken breasts to end up on your plate? The chickens are bred to have breasts that are so big, they can’t walk! They just drag their breasts on the ground. Pigs are stuffed into pens so tightly that they eat each other’s tails, so they have cut the tails off. Cows are force-fed corn, which they’re not meant to eat, so their stomachs turn into fermentation vats the way you’d brew beer, and their eyes become bloodshot and they’re in these feed lots in the Panhandle that are dust bowls of cow manure and chemicals.
And we’re all eating that stuff and participating in that, and we think it’s a safer place to be because we don’t have to face it. But, the truth is — the health implications, the karmic implications — not to get too hippie dippy, but I’d rather look my food in the eyes and know that it had a good life and it was treated with respect all the way to the plate, and be really honest about what has to happen for food to get to your plate. So many people don’t even know what to do with a chicken. They don’t know how to take it apart. And the thought that you don’t know what to do with something that has bones in it is very, very, very sad! It’s like this massive disconnect that’s happened and it’s causing us to be very unhealthy in our relationship to food.
“I’d rather look my food in the eyes and know that it had a good life and it was treated with respect all the way to the plate.”
Would you say the root of the problem is systemic?
I think the way our government food system is operating is really dysfunctional. I think that USDA has these inspectors that don’t understand food. They have these rules that are totally irrational, they’re obsessed with food-borne illnesses and disease — when the truth is that the food-borne illnesses are happening in these feed lots because there are a million cows being stuffed in one place, not at these mom and pop operations where the farmers are literally hand-birthing their own sheep. I feel like everything is microwaved and sterilized… you can’t even buy a sausage that’s cured with bacteria anymore. You can’t slaughter your own animals anymore on a local level. The red tape associated with all that is so intense.
What can we do on a small level to begin to make simple changes?
I think that there are ways to step outside that system. For example, this week I walked around my neighborhood and I pulled up dandelion greens and I made a salad with pancetta and raw pistachios and red onion and dandelions and the fat from the pancetta and it was delicious! “Hood lunch” — neighborhood lunch! I think there’s ways to realize that there’s dinner right outside in your yard. There’s purslane in the sidewalk paths, there are ways to empower yourself with knowledge — the kind of knowledge that our grandparents had.
What do you hope to accomplish by teaching women hunting and fishing skills and leading adventure trips?
I think, for me, it’s about teaching people to live more fearlessly and what a fulfilling way of life that is. The trips happened by accident, actually, but it’s been a really amazing thing to see these women unravel. It’s just a chance for them to feel a little bit taller and surprise themselves and step outside their comfort zones and laugh until it hurts. They become really good friends and bond with women they’ve never met and suddenly have lifelong friends. I lead three or four a year and they always sell out.
After traveling all around the country and living in California, Brooklyn, France, and Nashville, what attracted you to move to Austin 2.5 years ago?
I was traveling a lot for my books, and I was just looking for a new place to live. I looked at all kinds of crazy spots, but the spot that really spoke to me was Austin, so I spent a few months here. It’s got the culture of a larger city, but it’s still got that small town feel to it. And I really just love that aspect.
I’d also been watching a lot of Friday Night Lights and I liked the energy that was a little more laid back. And, as a New Yorker, that was a little hard for me to do, but it has force balance, which I like.
“I think the way our government food system is operating is really dysfunctional… everything is microwaved and sterilized.”
What’s your favorite way to find peace when life gets hectic?
I turn off my phone and turn off my computer and literally go on a technology fast, which is hard to do, but it’s also amazing. You just notice things you didn’t notice before. The days feel two times longer…I did one for three days recently, which was a lot. I took a screen shot of what my phone looked like when I turned it back on. It took a while actually to even catch up to itself, it had so many noises coming out of it. I think it’s important to disconnect though, humanity has grown too attached to technology.
Photography: Chris Perez
Georgia’s Local Picks:
“This great home store on 2nd St. is one of my favorite spots.”
“Great for ladies who lunch – it has great atmosphere and they use really simple ingredients.”
Austin, TX 78703
“We needed a good butcher shop. This place is it.”
“This place on the east side is fun for drinks.”
Download a FREE issue of Citygram Austin magazine designed for your smartphone or tablet. Search “Citygram” in your App Store.