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Thursday, Sep 28, 2023

Memorable Dishes’ series at Bundle connects community with food and story

<span class="photocreditinline">COURTESY PHOTO</span><br />Lisa Mitchell addresses the crowd gathered in Bundle at Midd Underground’s new storytelling series.
Lisa Mitchell addresses the crowd gathered in Bundle at Midd Underground’s new storytelling series.

Students, professors, and local residents gathered in ​Bundle — a pop-up event space in downtown Middlebury — to kick off a new storytelling series hosted by Middlebury Underground last Friday, Nov. 1. This storytelling series, aptly titled “Memorable Dishes,” offered hours of stories and free “local bites” sourced from nearby farms and organizations. “[Midd Underground] has long wanted to host a moth-style storytelling event of this kind,” said Lisa Mitchell, fine dining chef, culinary event producer and one of the program’s organizers. She had been envisioning the appeal of a storytelling evening about the various lives of people in Middlebury.

The goal of these events, according to Mitchell, is bringing the community together around storytelling, which is “an intimate kind of connection.” 

A brainstorming group, consisting of Bundle manager and creator Kelly Hickey, community member Matt Laux, and Mitchell herself, chose food as the topic of the stories. The challenge? Participants were tasked with sharing their “best five-minute tale” about food. In a note to the storytellers, Midd Underground described food as “fuel, culture, religion and customs.” Food was chosen as the topic because it can forge connections among people, the ultimate purpose of the storytelling series. 

“[Food] connects us all and evokes so many sense memories, traditions, and stories of origin,” Mitchell said.

Community member Drew Blistein told a story.

Becky Strum and her husband, parents of a Middlebury graduate, heard about the event both in a local newspaper and through word of mouth in the nearby community. According to Strum, the idea of food and stories seemed “extremely appealing” to both of them. This sentiment was shared by over 100 other guests, whose energetic conversations filled the room as they swarmed the table filled with organic vegetables, cheese and even a selection of homemade breads and sauces.

Nearby residents weren’t the only attendees. Natalie Figueroa ’18 currently works in Middlebury’s admissions office and enjoys interacting with this close-knit community in which she lives. She arrived at the event in order to hear her co-worker speak, but stayed for the food and conversation. Students of the college, families, and even professors attended this storytelling series emphasizing the importance of community at Middlebury and how the connections that exist between these people can be strengthened by food —both of the physical and the written variety.

The stories shared were “evocative and powerful,” Mitchell said. Themes of forging connections with others through cooking, embarking on culinary adventures and embracing the comfort of a familiar dish emerged throughout the night.

Storyteller Laura Thomas spoke of the day she worked with an elderly alzheimer’s patient to make pickles — and how, although the finished product was nearly inedible, the experience cheered and motivated the patient. Annette Franklin revealed that she learned to cook Ethiopian cuisine to welcome an adopted member of her family who hailed from the country. Doug Engell recalled a “lobster feast to remember,” the final, beautiful meal he shared with his family following his wife’s diagnosis with liver cancer.

Other speakers shared tales of adventure and risk. Gretchen Ayer talked about a coworker’s comical battle with a seemingly-unswallowable piece of octopus sashimi. Becky Kincaid spoke of a delicious meal she shared with members of a friendly Kurdish village, which incidentally landed her, gravely ill, in a Turkish hospital. Andy Mitchell gave detailed accounts of the outlandish foods he has consumed from chipmunks to insects. He also described a particularly memorable banquet of excess research specimens in Greenland that included priceless caviar and narwhal steaks.

Over 100 guests attended the event, which included sharing stories in relation to food.

Some storytellers spoke fondly of a favorite food. Jesse Gilette praised the special “doner kebab” that can only be found in Berlin and whose flavors are unreplicatable in any other location — even the esteemed Great Bazaar. Anna Sun spoke of her love-hate relationship with her father’s special salt-duck recipe that required the dead animal to dry, hanging, for three months alongside the family’s laundry. And Jess Danyow gushed about popcorn, the perfect bitesize snack that she enjoys as she reads novels and escapes from reality.

Mitchell’s story was a particularly special one. As a young woman living in Boston, she decided to seize an opportunity to pursue her dreams of becoming a professional chef. Soon, the excruciating training and “hazing” from other chefs began to take their toll, but she refused to give up. With the unexpected help of a seasoned, tough-as-nails ex-con, she improved her knife skills and cooking techniques. She even threw “dinner parties” with her new friend. Mitchell noted that this man used cooking as an escape from his difficult past. Although she doesn’t keep in contact with him today, she wishes him well and will always be grateful for his aid and support. Mitchell’s story was the perfect culmination to the night, including elements of connection, risk-taking and true love for food.

Midd Underground is looking forward to offering this series on a quarterly basis. They have many ideas “in the works,” according to Mitchell. News regarding the theme of the winter installment is expected soon.