If Ellie Markovitch of Troy is involved in something, it most likely has some connection with food in a fun and artful way.
She describes herself as a “multimedia storyteller, food artist and chef” and uses food, family stories and photography as ways to build community. An educator and photojournalist, she often leads classes, workshops and events designed to expose people to new experiences of food, experiences that involve memories and sharing.
Markovitch’s first memories of cooking were at age 7, tending a cast-iron pot full of rice over an open fire pit with her grandmother on a small family farm about 100 miles from Brasilia, the capital of Brazil.
“My mother pretty much made everything that went into your mouth from scratch,” she said. “The only canned things we ever bought were an occasional can of sardines or tuna fish. It was just a way of life.”
As a child, Markovitch might spend a whole weekend processing a crop from the family’s or a nearby farm. One weekend she might be chopping tomatoes and making sauce, another roasting and grinding coffee beans. Little did she know that decades later she would be helping others create their own memories around food, weaving it with storytelling, video, music and art.
Storyharvest, Second Annual Celebration of Art
WHERE: The Sanctuary for Independent Media, 3361 Sixth Ave., Troy
WHEN: 11 a.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
HOW MUCH: Free
MORE INFO: 272-2390 or www.mediasanctuary.org/storyharvest2012
Markovitch likes to build what she describes as “social sculptures,” bringing people together and creating a place where they can build community and create memories, using food as a tool. It’s around food that people start to have a conversation. “I feel that making time and creating opportunities to share meals not only nourishes our bodies and our physical being, but it creates opportunities for conversation and growth.”
Amy Halloran of Troy, who met Markovitch through their mutual interest in food and storytelling, has experienced this firsthand. The two run a blog together, Story Cooking (storycooking.com), which combines recipes and memoir.
Last week, Halloran and six others joined Markovitch at an event she was doing with the Agricultural Stewardship Association and Denison Farm, an organic family farm in Schaghticoke. “She shares her own story, and then creates a space where people can share theirs,” explained Halloran, who described the group cutting up cabbage on a picnic table under two maple trees as the sun was setting.
“There’s this new level of connection because we’ve just eaten this snack Ellie has made and now we’re making something together,” said Halloran, who made a new friend at the event, and has plans to get together and cook pierogi with her.
“These are exactly the kind of tangential events that Ellie hopes to spur — the stories and connections, and food ties it all together. I left there completely recharged about people and food. Ellie’s take on food always inspires me to try completely new things.” Halloran said.
Phyllis Capparelli, who met Markovitch at church, was inspired to start making new dishes from scratch, including yogurt, sour cream cheese and granola. She sees the connection that Markovitch creates in different settings. “Food connects people — everybody’s got to eat,” Capparelli said.
Sharing food helps people make those connections, Markovitch believes. “It’s a sensory experience, so people are already open,” she said. “You are open to share a meal, so at that moment I feel people are open to share ideas as well.”
That’s why she can bring total strangers together. For example, she designed the “Heat Up Dinner” at the Collar Works Gallery, a nonprofit art gallery on River Street in Troy. “It was an eating experience where a group of random people who e-mailed in time were able to join in this Heat Up Dinner,” said Anna Lindemann of Boston, a multidisciplinary artist who was Markovitch’s classmate in the Electronic Arts master’s degree program at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“You come to this cold gallery where there’s no heat in the wintertime, but you get warm through this chili pepper experience,” she said, remembering dishes like red pepper beet sorbet and a chili pepper chocolate torte. The seven-course meal featured increasing heat levels of chili peppers.
“Ellie is always doing these inventive ways of fostering community through food,” Lindemann said.
Following the premiere performance of Lindemann’s work “Theory of Flight” at RPI last year, Markovitch created a “Flying Feast” to complement the performance, which combined music, animation and video. The feast offered people the experience of eating like birds by gathering berries and nuts from garlands, enjoying Parmesan “nests” and tasting “fossil” cookies, all inspired by the avian world.
Much of Markovitch’s work is with children; in which she seeks to lay the groundwork for nutrition and being connected to their food. “I am quite surprised, still, when I work with children,” she said. “They don’t know what a cucumber looks like, or a red pepper.”
This summer she worked as an artist-educator for “Uptown Summer,” a collaborative program of the Troy Bike Rescue, Collard City Growers, Missing Link Street Ministry and Youth Media Sanctuary. She designed the “DIY SnackShop,” where she cooked with kids aged 10 to 15. She took them into the garden at Collard City Growers, introduced them to the vegetables and then cooked with them. She documented the whole process with videos on YouTube.
She also produces the “Neighborhood Chef” program with the Youth Media Sanctuary, combining food with multimedia storytelling. “They learn the basic skills of videography, and they also gain culinary skills,” Markovitch said. The weekly video stories feature a local cook — not a professional chef, but someone who cooks at home, with an emphasis on cooking on a budget and from scratch.
Andrew Lynn of the Sanctuary for Independent Media is the video editor for this series. He went through the same MFA program as Markovitch before she did.
“It was hard to understand how food and cooking could be an electronic art form,” he said. As he worked with her on different projects and events, he got it, he said.
“I eventually began to realize what her artwork was more about in terms of using food and storytelling as a medium,” Lynn said. “It’s this idea of art practice through storytelling, and the storytelling comes in the form of sharing food.”
Markovitch’s cooking always comes with stories, and she documents the cooking through video, photography, oral histories, scrapbooking and by creating cookbooks.
Susan Fowler, a second-grade teacher and garden coordinator at the Delaware Community School in Albany, was impressed with the way Markovitch involved children in every step of the process of cooking a watermelon gazpacho at the school’s end-of-the-year event.
“She engaged them in talking about some of the ingredients and foods and some of the experiences they had had,” Fowler said, recalling how one little girl talked about how she and her grandfather used to cut mint. “She really engaged them in thinking about their food and food memories and making it much more important than the act of the preparation, but more about putting their heart and soul into it.”
Fowler also noted how Markovitch’s style of cooking pulls in people of all cultures. “It didn’t matter where you came from — it was universal,” she said. “Everybody has food memories from where they lived.”
It is through the connection with food and with others that Markovitch seeks to help others enrich their lives.
“My work is really about bringing awareness to the moment,” she said. “I’m hoping that people are more aware of the moment that they have, if it’s cooking a sauce with a friend, or biting into a big red tomato — really being in that moment and creating a better life for themselves.”