Just kidding! This is a lecturehop, but it did involve mountains of Mario’s creations. Bwog’s favorite foodie, Brian Donahoe, was there.

The man of the hour

Thursday evening, Bwog passed through the ever-enticing yet forbidding door of Casa Italiana, and after making it past security and up an imposing marble staircase took a seat in the Italian Academy’s fabled ballroom along side a packed house of approximately 300 other excited guests. As they waited for the man of the hour himself, chef and television celebrity Mario Batali, the crowd leafed through their programs, containing half a dozen recipes (and accompanying photos) from his latest book, Simple Family Meals from My Home to Yours.

And then he appeared! Camera phones were aloft as Mr. Batali and Dr. Sharon Akabas, Director of Columbia’s Institute of Human Nutrition, took the stage for their Conversation on Culture and Cuisine, presented by the Kraft Family Fund. Mr. Batali played to type, wearing baggy cargo shorts, an untucked collared shirt with vest, and signature orange crocs that would be familiar to viewers of his show. Interrupting his introductions by University Chaplain, Jewelnel Davis, Batali showed himself ever the man of people by jokingly taking pictures of the crowd as though to say, “yes, I am one of you.”

The evening began with a discussion of Batali’s personal background: A Seattle native of Italian and French Canadian ancestry, he told the audience that his love of cooking began at home, where his family regularly pickled and preserved foods “before,” he noted, “that was hip.” Batali went on to stress that nightly family dinners, which always began with the question, “what was the funniest thing that happened today, the least funny thing that happened, and who’d you sit with at lunch?,” instilled in him an appreciation for a meal’s power to bring people together.

After spending his high school years in Spain, lamentably “when burnt garlic and overcooked steak were still hip” there, Batali went to Rutgers, where, he laughed, he majored in “Spanish Theater of the Golden Age.” After working in restaurants in California and New Jersey, Batali studied cooking in a small village near Bologna for 3 years before returning to New York to begin his inevitable ascent to the highest heights of American cuisine.

What followed was an insightful though at times patronizing talk on American food culture and food policy. “Only in America is eating viewed as an act of heorism,” he mused before conceding that the national food habits “are becoming more sophisticated.” Topics of discussion ranged widely from Batali’s admirable charity work, most notably on the Board of the Food Bank of New York, to his frustration with the “fast food myth” that has convinced Americans that buying fast food is cheaper than preparing a meal at home, to belief in the importance of giving farmers a greater incentive to grow food in this country to stimulate the economy.

While the thoroughly likeable Mr. Batali proved himself very knowledgable and surprisingly insightful, at times he seemed more than a bit out of touch with the common man, as when he stressed the importance of making time for family meals, before praising the Mexican food his children’s babysitter regularly prepares for the family. Similarly, his advice to graduating students to “work somewhere for 6 months for free,” and his dismissive comment during the Q&A that “sitting down in Zucotti Park is not very affective,” and that advocates instead need a vague “grass roots movement,” reminded the audience that Mr. Batali is, in fact, one of those who eat at Mario Batali restaurants on a regular basis.

And then we were off! As Dr. Akabas thanked Batali for coming, those of us in the audience began a frantic rush, nay race, downstairs to the reception room, where, we were told, we would get food.

And what food! Tables sat piled with ample portions of each of each of the 6 recipes included in the program (served on actual plates!) and waiters circulated with glasses of sparkling apple cider. This was the Casa Italiana of our fantasies – a land of utter excess, no expense spared. Needless to say, Bwog gladly indulged.

Unexpectedly, as guests exited the dreamland of Casa Italiana they were greated by a man handing out fliers who purported to represent a group of more than 40 workers from Batali’s Del Posto restaurant currently suing him for labor abuses. Man of the people indeed.

Guest of honor via Wikimedia