For another two weeks, on the outskirts of Milan, the world will come to feast.
Expo Milano is a global festival—think of it as a world’s fair—that has run since May, celebrating edibles, agriculture and culture and convening representatives from around the planet to plan out how to eliminate hunger and introduce sustainable practices.
At the heart of Expo Milano is a gigantic Tree of Life, not Jewish at all, but a showstopper. It doesn’t dispense pizza or Parmesan, doesn’t spout Barolo or Pellegrino, but does emit light and sound and a sense of awe. At its fullest, the towering stalk boasted gigantic cloth fans and LEDs and a hot-air-balloon-sized growth at its base that mushroomed into the Expo’s red, green and white logo. What really got me, though, was the song medley, which went from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to the English-language lyrics of “Mambo Italiano.”
A boy went back to Napoli
Because he missed the scenery
The native dances and the charming songs
But wait a minute, something’s wrong…
Hey, mambo! Mambo Italiano (x2)
Go, go, go you mixed up Siciliano
All you Calabrase do the mambo like-a crazy
Hey mambo, don’t wanna tarantella
Hey mambo, no more a mozzarella! …
Try an enchilada with a fish baccala
Indeed, mozzarella and enchiladas and their many permutations were out in full force at Expo Milano when I visited in July. I opted for a simple lovely meal at the Tunisian Pavilion: a bric, a triangular flaky pie filled with hard-boiled eggs and tuna, with a Mediterranean salad and a pistachio-almond ring cookie that looked like a life preserver and disappeared quickly. The lovingly prepared and especially tasty courses reminded me of Cohava, a beloved relative, may she rest in peace, who, on my first visit, single-handedly shuttled a processional of homemade delicacies to me on the balcony of her modest home on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Expo Milano is a series of succulent and alluring dishes, impossible to consume in their entirety, if at all. It’s a global fiesta, where rich countries occupy the best real estate, poor ones are relegated to booths on the outskirts and references to Semitic customs are nearly nonexistent, Diaspora be damned. At the Lithuanian Pavilion I was directed to a book with a chapter on Jewish life, but nothing of substance on the food of my ancestors.
The Israeli Pavilion sold hummus and falafel and boasted a vertical farm and a mega-screen that featured beaches, wilderness, religious sites and breathtaking vistas-cum-tourist-bait. Inside, an Italian-language movie, narrated by Israeli actress Moran Atias, known for her work in Italian films, invited visitors to compare Israeli and Italian food cultures: connections to family, farming and the land. “Did you know the cherry tomato is an Israeli invention?” At the exit, staff handed out a card with the lyrics to HaTikvah and newspapers from Milan’s Jewish community.
The USA Pavilion, known for its in-depth, interactive displays on food equity, a food truck plaza and rooftop talks by dignitaries, featured a photo of a young woman at Brooklyn’s Shelsky’s appetizing store. But more important, for me, was the building’s simple welcome mat, planks from the Coney Island boardwalk, which smacked (for those in the know, at least) of hot dogs, knishes and the beach-day vacations of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the early to mid-1900s.
At Rosh Hashanah, traveling as part of the State Department’s American Chefs Corps, Washington’s Equinox Restaurant’s (and JFE Advisory Council members) chef Todd Gray and sous chef Ellen Kassoff Gray served up a festive holiday meal at the James Beard American Restaurant, a sort of mobile James Beard Foundation for American chefs passing through, in Milan Square, designed to spark conversations between people of different continents and diverse faiths.
But most meaningful for the pair was cooking dinner one night at famed Italian chef Massimo Bottura’s soup kitchen, Refettorio Ambrosiano (Ambrosian Refectory), which uses waste from the expo to feed Milan’s poor and homeless in a renovated theater once connected with a church and decorated with artwork donated by artists.
“Waste created from expos like that is mind-boggling,” shared Kassoff Gray. “It was great to see them recycle everything from the expo…That was the highlight of the trip for me.” Arriving at 10 that morning, the Grays had a challenge of putting together a complete dinner for 80 people without having planned before—the menu at Refettorio Ambrosiano changes daily based on what comes in from the expo.
Kassoff Gray added that the diners that night were “the most appreciative group of diners I’ve ever served,” and “You wouldn’t believe the face of homelessness,” recalling one clean and well-dressed 80-year-old lady whose husband of 57 years had died and who urged the Grays to value and hold on to each other tightly.
Top photo: The Albero della Vita (Tree of Life) at Expo Milano. (Photo courtesy of flickr user Simone Bosotti.)