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Release date: August 20, 2019
By Ivan Watson

The intriguing title of Camosun Anthropology Instructor Nicole Kilburn’s debut book reflects the exciting and far-reaching nature of her research interests. Equal part cookbook, anthropological exploration, and celebration of all things Southern Italy, The Future has an Ancient Heart guides readers on a journey into the heart and soul of the region’s history, culture and cuisine.

“The first part of the title is a quote by political activist Carlo Levi who wrote about Southern Italy during a time of extreme poverty,” explains Kilburn. “It resonated with me because it is the idea that to move forward we need to know where we’ve come from.”

An important theme she explores is connection—and reconnection. “In our modern world, there is a forward focus and a disconnect with the environment, with our communities and one another,” she notes. “Our food comes from the earth and we need to understand how everything is connected and the consequences of our actions for our fellow human beings.”

The book has been five years in the making. In 2014, Camosun’s Faculty Association supported Kilburn with professional development funding to participate in a culinary workshop in Puglia. There, she discovered a passion for Southern Italian food, language and culture, returning to the region twice in subsequent summers on an educational journey that culminated in the book’s publication this spring.

“Tonio Creanza led the first workshop and I really appreciated his teachings and insights,” she says. “The next year, I co-facilitated the culinary workshop with him. For generations his family has grown olives, grapes, fava beans and wheat. He has incredible expertise in art restoration, archaeology and tourism and there’s an authenticity that comes from him talking about the landscape he knows and loves and has worked on his entire life. I learned so much from him.”

Based in the town of Altamura, Kilburn could bear witness to economic and cultural changes in progress in the region. “They’re seeing now the loss of local foods, globalization, industrialization and the decline of local dialects through the process of modernization,” she says. “There are some very determined people that want to maintain their traditions especially around food—because everything comes back to what we eat.”

Kilburn brought her academic and teaching expertise, collaborating with the locals in learning and teaching. ”I brought my anthropological lens, and I remember when we made cheese in this ancient shepherd’s house that had been abandoned for 150 years,” she says. “We had lunch, and we were all sprawling out in the sun in the pasture, and there were sheep on the horizon. That became my classroom where I gave informal lectures and shared some of the insights that I had.” Kilburn’s research is expansive and the books explores diverse themes such as the linkages between tourism and rural development, the trulli architectural traditions of Puglia, Christianity and shepherding, and an ode to the vibrant diversity of regional olive oil and pasta-making traditions.

Kilburn lived in a centuries-old farmhouse where the workshops were staged. “It was a chance for me to learn about food traditions and to work with a variety of different producers,” she says. “Tonio created the opportunity for me to meet lifelong shepherd Giovanni Maino, which was an amazing participant observation experience, shadowing him and his flock for his 14-hour day in the pastures of the Murgia Plateau.”

Tonio’s sister-in-law Rosanna Denora gifted Kilburn local recipes – a measure of the affection and respect she had earned from her hosts. “It was an amazing experience to receive these recipes. We communicated with my limited Italian and charades because she didn’t speak English,” she says. “We made this connection that transcended language.”

Back in Canada, these magical experiences shaped the lessons she imparted to her students. “I brought my research back into my classroom,” she says. “I started with a couple of dedicated lectures, and I had all this material that I was writing, and photographs and notes. The students loved the stories and kept telling me how it helped them to bring the theory alive, making their learning more real.”

The Camosun College community was instrumental in helping her move her book from idea to publication, including layout and editing assistance and the support of the Camosun bookstore, to her students who helped organise an official book launch. Her husband contributed photos to visually document the region’s dramatic landscapes and food traditions.

Kilburn wrote for a popular audience. “I want this book to be accessible to people who are interested in food and history and Italian culture,” she says. “A lot of these themes are just as relevant locally right here in Victoria. The challenges of local food producers and the passion that is required to make good food, in a world that is often prioritizing the merits of quantity over quality, is something we all need to care about. We could tell the same story pretty much anywhere—because the lessons are universal.”

Her favourite among the book’s many delicious recipes? “Do I have to choose only one,” she asks. “I just made the limoncello. It’s great for the summer and really easy—give it a try!”

The Future has an Ancient Heart: Southern Italian Food Traditions in a Modern World” is available at the Camosun Bookstore, Russell Books and online through Amazon.

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(click to enlarge) Image from The Future Has an Acient Heart by Nicole Kilburn
Traditional Sourthern Italian cusine, including fresh tomatoes and basil, cured meat and cheese, and rustic bread. (Photo submitted by Nicole Kilburn)

"Our food comes from the earth and we need to understand how everything is connected and the consequences of our actions for our fellow human beings."

~Nicole Kilburn

Last updated: August 20, 2019 12:06 pm

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