“For K. Dun Gifford: 1938 To May 10, 2010, With Love & Thanks”

Eating Well Is The Best Revenge

by Diana Farr Louis

Diana Farr LouisATHENS, Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—5/31/10—The shocking news of Dun Gifford’s massive heart attack three weeks ago plunged much of the international Food World into mourning.

As founder and president of Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust (www.oldwayspt.org), Dun led the crusade that made the Mediterranean Diet a familiar concept in butter-loving countries. He mustered campaigns to change the way Americans eat, organized scientific conferences that proved the benefits of grains over meat and of wine over milk, encouraged chefs to buy from local farmers, and ceaselessly promoted healthy but delicious “old ways” of eating and drinking.

What made Dun’s achievements so exceptional was not just his intelligence, his vision, or his zeal, but his contagious enthusiasm, which transformed work into sheer pleasure.  From 1991, the year after he set up Oldways in Boston, one of Dun’s most successful ways of advancing Mediterranean traditions was to hold week-long symposiums on the food, wines and products of a particular region on the shores of that great inland sea.

Gathering sponsorship from local authorities, olive oil councils, trade organizations, and corporations, he then invited well-known food writers, cookbook authors, chefs, importers, nutritionists, and physicians . . . from the US and Canada, the UK, Italy, Turkey, France, Spain and Greece to attend. And then spread the word of the products back to their countries of origin.

This was not a question of nodding off in a hotel conference room, networking at the coffee break, and dressing up for a mundane banquet. Instead, an Oldways symposium held to a flexible recipe. Of course, learned talks and discussions were a key ingredient, but they were seasoned with visits to notable landmarks, cheese makers, ouzo factories, agritourismi, phyllo and pizza experts, water buffalo farms, fisheries, olive presses, and more, all over the region. Local cooks revealed some of their secrets in demonstrations and some days seemed filled with more meals than prudent or even feasible. (A key factor of the Mediterranean way of life—“Everything in moderation.”—was suspended for the duration of each symposium.

Each meeting embodied a very special alchemy. And being admitted to this select group was as thrilling as getting into Harvard. To the point that some people refer to members as “Oldways alums.” Close relationships were formed, bonding took place—especially on the tour buses that carried us round to our moveable feasts. There, hilarity seemed to erupt constantly from the back of the bus where the hard core Cambridge/California crew used to joke and tease like school kids.

Surprisingly, the very first symposium took place in Greece, at the Porto Carras Hotel in Halkidiki. People still talk about it but I didn’t learn about it in time to wheedle an invitation. Next came Barcelona, Tunisia, Morocco and Puglia (Italy), before Oldways returned to Greece with a meeting on Crete in April 1997.

This time, having published one cookbook and starting another on Crete, I managed to get myself invited through the great kindness of a friend of a friend, Paula Wolfert, an Oldways regular. That week catapulted me onto a new planet.

Those were the days when the Mediterranean Diet pyramid had been constructed as a rather more healthy alternative to the one designed by the US Department of Agriculture, which lumped meat, eggs, beans and nuts together near the top, and aimed at zero fat, making little distinction between the benefits of olive oil and the dangers of animal and saturated fats. Oldways had developed it, working closely with Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health. I listened raptly to talks by him, Antonia Trichopoulou, who proselytizes the cause of healthy eating round the world, and Marion Nestle, the noted nutritionist, who made us sit up by saying more diet books are printed yearly than cookbooks.

We trooped around Knossos and Phaistos, watched women roll paper-thin pastry with “broomsticks” on tables just inches above the floor, and stood back as snails sizzled in a pan of vinegar. But the culminating moment was a dinner prepared for us by village women in a Cretan schoolhouse: chickpea soup, lamb pilaf, artichokes with broad beans, greens, cheese pies, followed, improbably, when we were about to burst, by pork broth with trahana. Then came lyras, fiddles and spirited dancing. And the true magic of the Mediterranean—hospitality, generosity and kefi (joie de vivre)—had us in thrall.

I was to witness this combination again and again: in the hamlet of Badalucco in the mountains above San Remo, where we ate salt cod and beans, serenaded by a village choir; in a bleak wine-bottling factory in Puglia, where the women had cooked a feast for us and an accordion combo played contadini and kept cosmopolitans dancing reels all afternoon; at an ouzo plant in Lesvos . . . . These were the ultimate examples of what Dun meant when he talked about “excellence in simplicity” and “enjoying mealtimes as a celebration of life.”

But we also mingled with aristocrats, at a gala dinner in Andrea Doria’s palazzo in Genoa or at an oil-tasting at a masseria (grand estate) in Puglia, where the owner’s family tree covered a whole wall (and one thousand years). Wherever we went, we encountered the same warmth—that I believe evolved from Dun’s magnanimous personality and his skill at choosing just the right people to represent each region and the right ones to introduce them to.

One evening which particularly touched me occurred on the island of Chios in 1999. We were dining and listening to music in a taverna so close to the Turkish coast that we could see the headlights of cars driving along it. Our table included both Greeks and Turks. One Turkish food writer said, “When I close my eyes, I could be at home. The music’s the same; the food so similar. And Ihsan Gurdal, owner of Formaggio Kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a former star volleyball player, added, “When the Turkish team played Greece, our coaches always told us to go out and ‘murder’ each other, but we never did. How could we? We were brothers; we ate the same food.”

Dun Gifford has left many legacies. As head of Oldways, he also developed food pyramids for the Asian, Latin American and Vegetarian diets; he initiated the Chefs Collaborative aimed at supporting local sustainable agriculture; with the Harvard School of Public Health he set up seminars in Italy for American health professionals that were crash courses in nutrition; and he instituted programs in schools to encourage families to make healthy eating choices. “Never forget that we are looking at food, not vitamins!” and “Wine is not alcohol: it’s culture!” were two of his favorite sayings.

But, to me, his greatest accomplishment was to use good, genuine food to inspire and unite so many, many people all over the globe. We will all miss him terribly: yet, every time we cook and eat a wonderful meal that respects our bodies, the earth, and living traditions, we’ll be furthering his goals.

Thank you, Dun, for setting us all on the right track.

About Diana Farr Louis

Diana Farr Louis was born in the Big Apple but has lived in the Big Olive (Athens, Greece) far longer than she ever lived in the US. She was a member of the first Radcliffe class to receive a degree (in English) from Harvard . . . and went to Greece right after graduation, where she lost her heart to the people and the landscape. She spent the next year in Paris, where she learned to eat and cook at Cordon Bleu, and earned her first $15. for writing—a travel piece for The International Herald Tribune. Ever since, travel and food have been among her favorite occupations and preoccupations. She moved to Greece in 1972, found just the right man, and has since contributed to almost every English-language publication in Athens, particularly The Athens News. That ten-year collaboration resulted in two books, Athens and Beyond, 30 Day Trips and Weekends, and Travels in Northern Greece. Wearing her food hat, by no means a toque, she has written for Greek Gourmet Traveler, The Art of Eating, Sabor, and such websites as
Elizabeth Boleman-Herring’s www.greecetraveler.com. She is the author of two cookbooks, Prospero’s Kitchen, Mediterranean Cooking of the Ionian Islands from Corfu to Kythera (with June Marinos), and Feasting and Fasting in Crete. Most recently she co-edited A Taste of Greece, a collection of recipes, memories, and photographs from well-known personalities united by their love of Greece, in aid of the anti-food waste charity, Boroume. (See Louis’ amazon.com Author Page for links to her her titles.)

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8 Responses to “For K. Dun Gifford: 1938 To May 10, 2010, With Love & Thanks”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Diana, how beautiful. I’m crying again. I can’t believe how luck I was to be on so many of these trips.

  2. Alice Feiring says:

    Diana, Thank you. Dun, as well as Dun and Sara, gave us all so much.

  3. Francie says:

    Diana,

    What a splendid piece of writing, and a fine tribute to Dun. The trip to Crete that you describe was my first Oldways trip, first exposure to the stars who populated the many other trips that followed, AND my first time in Greece. A fabulous introduction to Oldways and everything that Dun and Sara built. And, as for you, its highlight was indeed that dinner in the school house. I will never forget it — and you have captured the details wonderfully. Thank you so much for this …..

    Francie

  4. Thank you, Diana, this is a lovely, lovely tribute.

    Susan

  5. Rosie Schwartz says:

    Diana,

    Thank you for such a wonderful piece. After I read it, I thought of each and every trip and all the amazing moments and people that were part of them. We had so many opportunities to see things, places and meet people that we would never have experienced without Dun and Sara. I still cannot believe that Dun is no longer with us.

    Rosie

  6. rossana muolo says:

    dear Diana, I’m so sorry for Dun. Thank you for your words. baci Rossana

  7. eboleman-herring says:

    Oldways should morph and expand to encompass so, so many of our fast-disappearing old, golden ways. Dean’s and my home here in Teaneck is furnished with pieces crafted by an oldways-woodworker, Walter Haney, who never uses a nail or a chemical varnish or a “Western” saw: his Japanese saws, light as peacock feathers, are an art form in themselves. (There are even things I learned in my own early childhood–paper-folding, Greek cross-stitch, sugar-waxing of legs :-), calligraphy, sand-castling, and bookbinding–that I must needs now pass on. We are, all of us, becoming Lost in the Drive-Thru, poisoned at the self-tainted well, immune to the flavor of the utterly, utterly fresh. All of us. But we have now had Dun, directly or at second hand, and now must DO! Thank you, Diana. Write a regular Oldways column every few months or so, for all of us. L, e

  8. diana farr louis says:

    Thanks so much to all of you, Elizabeth, Rosie, Alice, Francie, Susan, Rossana — old friends from Oldways. We were so privileged to be with Dun and Sara and each other, learning and having fun in the best way in the most wonderful places.

    And thanks to you, dear editor, for giving me a place to remember Dun and share some of those Oldways days with so many people. Much love, D

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