Founder & History

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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."

Oldways' Story by K. Dun Gifford as told in The Oldways Table

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.” 

chopsticks_siena.jpgI 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.

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