K. Dun Gifford founded non-profit Oldways in 1990 to promote healthy eating and drinking, with programs that help consumers improve their food and drink choices, encourage traditional sustainable food choices, and promote enjoyment of the pleasures of the table. As Oldways’ original president, Dun guided the organization through its initial two decades with creativity, enthusiasm, and political vision, until his untimely death in May, 2010

Dun graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, served in the U.S. Navy, was Legislative Assistant to Senator Edward M. Kennedy, and a national campaign coordinator for Robert F. Kennedy. He served as national chair of the American Institute of Wine & Food, owned and managed a number of restaurants in Boston and Cambridge, and founded a food business (Kilvert & Forbes) with John F. Kerry, later a U.S. Senator and Secretary of State. With his business partner at Oldways, Sara Baer-Sinnott, Gifford was co-author of The Oldways Table, described by one reviewer as a “comprehensible and extensive food reference packed with alluring recipes, helpful instructions, nutritional information and exceptionally amusing stories and essays about food and life.”

The information below tells Oldways’ story in Dun’s own words, as as told in The Oldways Table.

The inspiration for Oldways, in China

The idea for Oldways came to me in Qufu, the birthplace of Confucius, during a 1987 visit to China.  We’d had a three-hour traditional banquet in the replica of the Confucius family home, during which an astonishing parade of 36 dazzling dishes and drinks expressed the Confucian ideal of harmony among earth, body and spirit.  Luckily, each dish was only the size of a half-dollar, and each drink (some alcoholic, some not) was only a thimbleful, so the entire feast wasn’t much more than 36 tastes. During the banquet Nina Simonds, the China food expert I’d asked to put this trip together, and Dr. Wan You Kui, a noted Confucian scholar, explained how each of these surprising spoonfuls—some spicy and some mild, some smooth and some crunchy, all of them wondrous—played its individual harmonic role “in the whole, which is beyond words.” 

I woke up the next morning surprised to see that the banquet had painted in my mind’s eye a clear image of what would become Oldways—a new nonprofit advocacy organization to research and promote a harmony of traditional food patterns, sustainable agriculture, and healthy eating and drinking. It would combine “the best of “the old ways” with “the best of the new ways,” and stand in strong contrast to what I like to call “techno foods” that, oxymoronically, remain “fresh” for months on grocery store and kitchen shelves. 

In 1987 China was still shuddering from the Cultural Revolution, and in Shanghai and Chengdu we’d listened as survivors of the Cultural Revolution haltingly told us about the thousands of chefs (among many other thousands of its educated population) who were dispatched for “re-education” to far-distant collective farms from which many never returned.  The Revolution’s Red Guards had shuttered culinary schools during this grim convulsion, and hauled entire libraries of books and scrolls detailing China’s vast and glorious culinary history into the streets and burned them in bonfires. The survivors’ vivid and compelling stories struck me hard—from childhood I had a passion for books, and in college I had fallen in love with illuminated manuscripts in Harvard’s rare book collections. This destruction of China’s culinary treasures appalled me.

But in some ineffable way the harmonies of our Confucian banquet were yin for the destruction’s yang—they marked the power of food traditions to survive even the worst kinds of police-state brutalities.  Food memories are among our most indelible, whether they’re the intense smells of foods cooking, the evocative tastes of familiar favorites, the warmth of a memorable family meal, or a romantic candlelight dinner.  Some rituals are so associated with food—marriage, religion, birth and death are among them—that they seem fixed in our genes, and not easily erased.

The images in that Qufu morning after the banquet knotted together many of my life’s threads, and I returned to Boston determined to organize a new organization to promote the values (if not the literal specifics) of the “foodways of the old ways.”  Oldways would, like Janus, look back and forward simultaneously for a harmonious balance among good nutrition, pleasurable traditional foods, and respect for the earth, all to help modern humans live healthier and happier lives.

Italy: The Next Piece of the Puzzle…

Later in 1987, in the autumn, my close friend Nancy Harmon Jenkins helped me organize an extensive culinary trip to northern Italy, which turned out to be a well-matched bookend to the China trip in the spring.  Nancy writes prodigiously and beautifully about food, and she had just finished a long stint as a New York Times food writer.  She is as fluent in Italian as Nina Simonds is in Chinese, essential ingredients since I spoke neither.

We organized this Italian trip as a kind of triangle, beginning in the top left-hand side of Italy’s boot, the Piedmont region; then heading northeast across its top to the border with Austria and what was then Yugoslavia; and then finally turning southwest to finish in Tuscany.

The others in our merry band were themselves highly-accomplished food authorities: Marian Morash, chef of the Straight Wharf Restaurant on Nantucket and soon to be the PBS-TV Victory Garden Chef and a best-selling cookbook author; Thekla Sanford, who grew up in a Milwaukee brewing family and is the co-owner with her wine-maker husband Richard of the prize-winning Almarosa Winery in Santa Barbara; and Sheryl Julian, a food writer for the Boston Globe and a cookbook author with an impeccable instinct for recipe authenticity.

Our triangular trail across northern Italy took us into the heart of great old ways of Italian gastronomy. At its very outset we had a lifetime experience: the Mayor of La Morra, a truffle capital of northwest Italy, invited us to celebrate the start of the white truffle harvest with him at an elaborate lunch in the Belvedere restaurant, where his sister was the chef. We sailed majestically, and thankfully slowly, through six courses featuring truffles, each with its paired wine. Our favorite dish was the simplest—a heaping plate of steaming bright canary-yellow egg noodles, with a drizzle of sweet butter topped with a scattering of sage leaves and a foothill of white truffle shavings.  The English language is not rich enough in food words to convey the sensory power of that dish; its intensity remains still vivid for each one of us.

By the time of the last course (melted Fontina cheese topped with another heap of shaved truffles with grilled bread on the side), mid-day had eased into late afternoon, with the autumn sun slanting its dappled golden rays through the plaza’s chestnut trees and the restaurant’s tall windows, glistening on our cups of espresso and glasses of grappa. It was time to acknowledge the truth of tales of the eroticism of fresh white truffles.

From La Morra we found our way to the Barolo and Barbaresco wines of Piedmont, and at the Ceretto winery we drank a 1983 Barolo Bricco with a 1983 Parmagiano Reggiano, an unlikely match but a delicious combination, and the fact that they were both were born in the same year was strangely moving.  We visited with the artisan makers of beautiful Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano of Parma, and the sleek, hand-made classic Balsamico vinegars of Modena. We spent a couple of days with the Nonino family and its fiery-but-smooth Ua made from whole grapes and their fiery grappa made from the skins of pressed grapes.

We visited and ate with Silvio Jermann, Livio Felluga and Walter Filipotti in Friuli in their vineyards and wineries looking out over Yugoslavia; had dinner with Piero Antinori’s wife in their tres chic new cantina in Florence to taste some of their super-red “New Tuscan” wines; were dazzled by the indoor market in Florence with its vast hangings of fresh wild game; lunched and supped memorably in little-known trattorias and Mama-mia kitchens in Sienna and San Gimignano; lunched and tasted wines in the grand castle of Castello Banfi; and spent the day at Badia a Coltibuono, with a splendid leisurely lunch and afternoon with Lorenza di Medici and her husband Piero Stucchi-Prunetti.  After we retired to the den to sit in front of a roaring fire in the huge fireplace, Piero told us stories about the Italian resistance in World War II, and later, taught us that it was the coffee that killed the lunch wine, but the grappa that killed the coffee. 

After two and half weeks we reached Nancy’s farmhouse in the mountains of eastern Tuscany, outside Cortona, where we cooked birds and beef and vegetables and woodsy Porcini mushrooms over oak embers in her great stone fireplace with her farm’s fresh olive oil and Sicilian sea salt and drank dark, powerful Tuscan country wines. 

We agreed we had eaten like the Medicis, and loved every traditional mouthful.

This Italian culinary adventure was an exhilarating immersion into a second of the world’s great traditional “oldways” cultures, where the sensory elements of the foods and wines are inseparable from a joyous way of living. It was a sensual Italian ying to the intense Chinese yang in Qufu, and strong validation of my image and purposes for Oldways.  

So, when I got back to Boston from this extraordinary Italian pilgrimage, I called my lawyer and we set the paperwork in motion to establish Oldways as a nonprofit educational organization.


Dun’s Background

I am extraordinarily lucky; I grew up and have lived my life immersed in good food and wine, political activism, environmental campaigns, strong traditions, and nutrition awareness. The lessons of this life are central both to Oldways and to The Oldways Table.

My mother was raised in a Rhode Island family that cared very much about its food, and she brought forward to her own children the steady determination that every day we eat oatmeal, fresh vegetables, whole wheat bread, chicken, fruit, and drink three glasses of milk.  Although this did make her something of a retrograde, my mom wore a coat of many colors—we were the first family in our neighborhood to have a pressure cooker and a Waring blender, so she was certainly no Luddite.

My father grew up on a farm in Kentucky, and brought this experience with him to his marriage, career, and child-rearing in Providence. He was deeply into foraging in the wholesale food markets of Providence, which were vibrant in part because of the city’s large Italian immigrant population.  He regularly brought home for us crates of beautiful food—meat, lobsters, strawberries, mangoes, avocados, peas, parsnips, and some things we didn’t like very much, like rutabagas (but believe me, we ate them).  He was also a wine collector, and built a notable cellar.  His bon vivant approach was much more about enjoying wine than it was about labels, although he took care to have a decent inventory of spectacular wines, too.

As we grew up in the late 1940s and early 1950s, after Dad was back from the war, he taught me and my two brothers and my sister to catch small harbor fish like scup and tautog and large ocean fish like bluefish and striped bass, and to clean and filet them. We dug quahogs and soft-shelled clams, caught blue crabs and Nantucket bay scallops, and we learned how to open them for the kitchen and cook them, too. 

We were manic berry-pickers and jam-and-jelly makers. On perfect summer afternoons we went off to the moors and woodlands to pick blueberries and blackberries and beach plums, returning home to make intense, deep-dish blueberry pies and all kinds of lush jams and jellies. 

But the real point is that the intense berrying and fishing experiences of my childhood are very much part of my life today, 55 years later. I can vouch for the pleasure and power of food memories, and their pleasures. They are part of the backbone of Oldways’ emphasis on traditional foods.

I am also drawn to gardening, and during the spells in my life when I had time for it, my gardens were lush with vegetables and fruits. Like all gardeners, I fought with torturing bastards like horned tomato caterpillars; swore at the damn deer who just flew over my tall fences as if they were escapees from Santa; cursed at clouds of white flies marauding my melons and squashes; and hauled tons of horse manure for fertilizer every fall and spring.  But we grew corn eight feet tall; so many tomatoes we threw overripe ones at each other; and so much sorrel we sold it to my brother’s restaurant.

Cooking has fascinated me for as long as I can remember—something miraculous happens when smelly googly fish become delicious; gooey eggs change into luscious scrambled eggs; hard beach plums become silky sweet jelly; scary-looking quahogs settle into comforting chowders; and leftover vegetables and meats are transformed into warming stews. It’s sort of e pluribus unum: right before your eyes, a bunch of individuals are transformed into a unity.

I bless the gods of parents, jobs, friends, farms, foods and flavors for these experiences, because they are the sensory and pleasure nerves of the Oldways idea.


The Influence of Washington: Making a Difference

During summer break at law school in 1964 I worked as a legislative officer for U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell of Rhode Island, researching, writing, and—the high point—sitting with him on the Senate floor as his researcher while he argued for, and won approval for, his legislation establishing the Sea Grant program.

I returned to Washington after graduating from law school to work in the then-new Department of Housing and Urban Development, as a member of the group developing the White House proposals for the “urban crisis” of the mid-1960s. It was intense and difficult work, but it was electrifying to see actual words and phrases that I had written down on my yellow legal pad appear in presidential proposals and speeches.

A year later in early 1967, I went back up to Capitol Hill to work as Legislative Assistant to Senator Ted Kennedy. The next year his brother Senator Robert Kennedy ran for president, and I was a national campaign coordinator during his short campaign. I helped to subdue his assassin, rode in the ambulance with the mortally-wounded Senator and his wife and sister Jean to the hospital, and grieved mightily with millions of others over the murder of this courageous and charismatic man. I continued to work for Ted Kennedy until 1970, when I returned with my wife and three young sons to Cambridge. 

These Washington experiences absolutely persuaded me that an individual can make a big difference if he or she chooses to do so, and this belief is also a motivating force for Oldways. This is an obvious truth in personal matters—we can get fat or remain thin, get married or stay single, and do volunteer work or avoid it.  But not very many people decide they want to make changes on a large scale, such as by running for president or governor or mayor, or for Congress or a state or local legislature. The lesson I took away from my time in Washington was well-said by Margaret Mead:  “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” 
The Ritz

In the 1970s I worked for the astute founder of a large real estate firm that, among other things, owned the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Boston. Through him, I grew friendly with Charles Ritz, owner of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Like me, Charles was an avid fisherman, and over the years we talked fishing for days and days. More important, he lectured me endlessly about the values of tradition in food and its preparations, insistent that this was a key ingredient of the Ritz’s success. 

He took me repeatedly to a room in the Ritz lined with impeccably-bound volumes of old Ritz menus and recipes that his father, Cesar Ritz, had collected. He opened one book after another, reminiscing about meals, foods, delights, pleasures.  We also returned again and again to the Ritz’s astounding wine cellars, not so much to drink (though we tasted), but for him to instruct me about how the Boston Ritz must build and maintain a similar cellar.

The last time I visited with him he was too ill to fish, and when we said goodbye, he gave me a clutch of his beautiful French split-bamboo rods. They are my talisman for remembering what he taught me about the power of traditions.

Earth Day

The 1970s woke me to “the environment,” at least in its organizational sense.  Like most thinking people who fish, search for wild foods, and garden, I was a conservationist, a great fan of Rachel Carson, and ripe to become an environmentalist. I was a member of the Senate staff group, which helped Senator Gaylord Nelson flesh out the details for the first Earth Day in 1970. I advised Senator Kennedy when he developed legislation to extend the Cape Cod National Seashore to parts of the offshore islands on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. With other committed individuals I organized and was president of a very aggressive land conservation group, which is now 25 years old. I wrote articles for legal journals about land conservation techniques. And for many years I kept bees, watching my hives gradually diminish in strength as the increasing spread of flower-garden pesticides ate into my bees’ vitality, finally killing them all off.


Julia Child and Friends

In the 1980s I was deeply into the restaurant business, and during these years my food, wine and cookery educators were formidable.

Chief among them was Julia Child, a friend for two decades.  We both had knee replacements, for example, and visited each other in the hospital.  Another time, when she was immobilized at home from a back operation, I picked up a double order of her favorite hot french fries from her favorite fast food joint (shh: it was McDonald’s) and rushed with them to her house, stirred the cocktail-hour, on-the-rocks gin martinis all set up on a big tray she’d had her assistant lay out in her pantry, and carried all of it up to her bedroom.  We ate the french fries and drank the martinis (two for each), and caught up on “the news.” 

She joined my family for Thanksgiving dinner (my children were terrified about whether she’d like our favorite gravy, and she did), for regular dinners and dinner parties, and we went out together to restaurant dinners with friends. She loved to talk politics, and we had a wonderful time about what was happening in the White House.  We agreed on just about everything except the nutrition police (even though she ate the kind of nutritionally-balanced meals most nutritionists dream that everyone would eat), and also the Alar/apple imbroglio (she was more right than I was, but only marginally).

We lunched in her kitchen from time to time, too, where she almost always made an omelet while toasting toast in the oven broiler, tossed a green salad with vinaigrette, set out a fruit and cheese plate, while I poured two glasses of very cold white wine. This was classic Julia: a few bites of a simple but elegant lunch, a bite of business, a bite of gossip, a bite of politics. It was a regular routine for her, a way of keeping up with her friends when her knees went south and it was not easy for her to get out.  Her ease in the kitchen was of course astounding, but one thing always puzzled me: she never once missed on getting the toast just right, and she never used a timer. Julia had a strong influence on me—not only about recipes and cooking techniques, but about food, its culture, finding excellence in simplicity, and enjoying mealtimes as a celebration of life.

Julia introduced me to Bob Mondavi, with whom I have also been friends for two decades.  If there is a more gentlemanly individual who has had such spectacular success in the cutthroat wine business on his own, I have not met him. His understanding—like Julia’s—of the power of “excellence” was profoundly analogous to the similar understandings of most very successful politicians. In those years Bob’s mission was popularizing the strong scientific support for links between wine and good health, and his passion amplified my formative ideas about the relationships between food and health.

Russell Morash and Marian Morash are very talented, classy people. Russ has a forty-year string of successful public television shows: he was the producer/director of Julia Child’s first 25 years of cooking shows; the longtime producer/director of “The Victory Garden;” and the developer and producer/director of “The New Yankee Workshop” and “This Old House.” Marian was Julia’s assistant in the early years, was for 20 years the chef of the superb Straight Wharf Restaurant in Nantucket (owned by one of my brothers and his former wife), is the author of two long-time best-selling cookbooks, and was the television chef of “The Victory Garden.” Russ and Marian and I have caught, picked, bought, cooked and eaten all manner of food together over the years.  We have also eaten a vast number of meals together in great, good and some not-so-good restaurants together here and overseas, learning about good wines, the tastes of extra virgin olive oil, and lush ripe avocados. These two wonderful people are another of my life’s blessings.

I cooked wild ducks and drank wonderful wines and sat in saunas with Benjamin Thompson, the late genius architect who brought us Faneuil Hall Marketplace (and other vibrant marketplaces in New York and Baltimore) and who was obsessed with connecting people with their food through the mediums of architecture and design. Ben and I and his wife Jane were partners in Harvard Square’s Harvest Restaurant, which Ben had started, and which was an incubator for a dozen well-known chefs. Many of these chefs have subsequently won the US’s top awards for excellence in their own restaurants, and they remain friends and colleagues who have helped to shape Oldways. They are part of the reason Oldways organized the Chefs Collaborative in 1993 as a group of like-minded food professionals who were willing to use their knowledge and reputations to promote sustainable farming.


Changing Conventional Wisdom

There are many other wonderful people who helped me stitch threads into the Oldways tapestry over the years, and many of them have also graciously and generously contributed recipes, descriptions, explanations and ideas for this book. These include the “healthy food” threads from my early years; the “one man can make a difference” threads from my political years; the culinary traditions threads from my Ritz years; the emotional power and pleasure of beautifully-cooked meals threads of my “foodie” years; the sustainability thread from my environmental activities; and the nutrition science thread from my Oldways advocacy years.

Despite these many threads of the Oldways tapestry, we try hard to keep our focus on our simple triangle: nutrition, tradition and sustainability, with healthy people eating delicious, healthy and wonderful meals in its center.

It is clear that Oldways broke important new ground in the last decade in changing the conventional wisdom about what constitutes a “good, healthy diet.” Now, in its next decade, our goal is to change conventional wisdom once again, and help people around the world learn to enjoy the healthy pleasures of the traditional old ways of eating and drinking. 

K. Dun Gifford
Excerpted from The Oldways Table