It’s hard to summarize the ways in which the Food Artisan Immersion Program influenced me. I can certainly say my perspective was broadened. For a kid who grew up just outside Chicago, a multitude of the experiences we had were almost foreign to me. Early on in the program, we went morel mushroom hunting on the estate grounds with Mike Degen, Taliesin’s Natural Landscapes Coordinator. Mike may be more at home in those woods than any other human alive. He could told us about every plant and tree; I don’t think there was a single question he didn’t have an answer for. It didn’t take long for us to find not one, but two patches of morels. As we walked out of the woods and back towards Hillside, Mike said we should have the morels (looking around for someone to hand them off to). I happened to be standing in his orbit, so he carefully placed the morels in my hands. Holding these precious mushrooms, I felt like I had left the modern world—just for a minute—entering into a primordial cycle of gifts and gratitude.The forest nourishes the morels, the morels nourish us, so we are naturally inclined to take care of the forest. It’s too easy to forget that inclination if we don’t spend time in the forest.
But that’s not to say that the experience was all sunshine and morels. Being a part of the very first year of the program came with a unique set of challenges. We struggled to find balance between curriculum activities and long hours working in the restaurant. We forged the type of friendships that are unique to a tight-knit team who feels collectively daunted—whether it was because we were short-staffed, facing a tidal wave of hungry brunch customers, or hashing out why we came to the program in the first place (and exactly what we each wanted to get out of it). Through it all, we continued to work hard and never gave up on the fledgling program. We felt inspired by Odessa Piper’s vision of multi-faceted, open-ended experiential learning—anchored and made more accessible—by paid work in the cafe. This full immersion was the leap I needed to set out on a path towards work that feels meaningful to me, and hopefully has a positive effect on the world to some degree.
Another skill I received was a deeper mastery of farm-to-table cooking. A true culinary sustainability involves a “do what you can with what you have” mentality. Meals are made using whatever the land gifts to you season. And when you work with ingredients that grew together and ripened right at the same moment, they compliment each other on the plate in a way that brings joy to your taste buds. Odessa offered this as a sort of thesis statement for the program: “Respect for nature and all that grows is the beginning of understanding of good food.” She coaxed us to focus on the connection that our food has on both micro and macro levels; how it was specific to this place, and only this place, yet also a part of the larger story of the natural world.
Above all, I learned what a treasure we have in the Driftless Region of Wisconsin. The beautiful topography alone sets it apart from the plains surrounding it. The terrain’s story—and the culture it has fostered—is worth getting to know. We are so lucky to live near an incredible community of organic farmers, small-batch producers, and farm-to-table restaurants. It’s clear that Odessa fell in love with the Driftless a long time ago, and she knew she could inspire the same feelings in our cohort by introducing us to passionate local food producers, plus bucolic farms and wild protected areas. I glimpsed a “sense of place” here that I’ve never felt anywhere else. I’m very grateful for that, and I’ll always look back at my time at Taliesin as a very interesting turning point in my life.—Written by Lauren Langtim, FAIP Student (Year 1)