Thoughts on Food

Food sustains life. If you don’t eat, you die. It’s pretty simple. And no, I didn’t have to go all the way to Italy to figure that out!  But food and food culture in Italy succeed in being both less complicated and more sophisticated than in North America. Please, allow me to explain.

Thoughts on Eating

Many North Americans view food as the enemy. What? Think about popular North American refrains: I don’t have time to make dinner every night! I can’t try this, what if I’m allergic?! I need to eat less, I’m getting fat! I’ll just zap something! I’ll just grab something quick on my way to _____!  I’ll have this [insert junk food here] to tide me over! Please nod your head if you’ve ever heard any of those. Yes, you’re all nodding.

We’re told to cut calories, curb cravings and cut out carbs. We live in a fad diet culture. Think the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Mediterranean Diet, no-carb diets, high-carb diets, the Peanut Butter Diet. Slimfast – a diet that doesn’t require food, just drinks! Jenny Craig – a diet that requires mostly prepackaged food! Our thinking has become Man (or Woman) vs. food. It’s terrible.

Unfortunately for we North Americans, food is not often enjoyed and celebrated. Busy, stressful lives often don’t allow for the preparation of fresh, wholesome food, but breed the habit of relying on fast food, frozen food, and preservative-laden, pre-packaged imitations of food.

Many Italians, however, view food as an old friend, a lover even. To them, everything is acceptable in moderation- except for maybe peanut butter, but I’m working on that. You eat too much pasta one day, non ti preoccupare, you eat more fruit the next. You had dessert at Sunday lunch, so Monday you can go without. You want to lose a little weight, so you eat more salad and take a longer evening passeggiata. See how simple it is?

This isn’t to say that Italians aren’t worried about what they eat and how it causes their body to look. I’ve met many an Italian who is conscious of what they eat, but not to the point of depriving themselves or throwing them self into an extreme fad diet. One big difference I noticed while living, working and socializing amongst Italians is that they don’t snack. North Americans are told that grazing (snacking throughout the day, constantly munching something) can even be good for your health and aid in your weight loss attempts. In Italia though? No way! Non ci credo proprio. 

It was while I was at work that I really got a good look at the eating habits of Italians. Working in a busy tour operator in Tuscany in high season did not leave room for lunch breaks, so I chose to snack between phone calls on my 6.5 hour shift. I’d eat mostly fruit, the odd square slice of pizza or sometimes some yogurt, just to mix it up. So it’s not like I was mowing down on chocolate cake, bags of chips, burgers, fries and supersize-me amounts of Coca Cola.

However, one day as I pulled out a snack my coworker exclaimed, “ma, tu sei mangiona!” Now, I was not familiar with the word mangiona at that time, but I pieced it together pretty quick. Mangiare = to eat. The ending –ona = something big of the female gender. In  my coworker’s eyes, I was a big eater. A mangiona.

Another time I went to pull out a snack my boss exclaimed to the whole office (in his usual, really tactful way), “Sarah, come te mangi… è una cosa strepitosa, davvero..” Sarah, the way you eat is astonishing, really. 

Really? Was I a big eater? Was the amount and the frequency that I ate astonishing? Hmm. A glance in the mirror confirmed that I wasn’t fat, so I had to be doing something right. But then I thought about it some more. In North Americans’ eyes, aren’t Italians always the ones eating  five-course meals and drinking litres of wine at one sitting? Maybe. Forse. Puo darsi. But they sure as heck weren’t snacking before they did it, and since they saw me snacking they must have figured I ate all my snacks in addition to some really big meals. Which wasn’t true. (Most of the time).

Thoughts on Food

To an Italian, food is sacred. Dishes placed upon a table don’t just present food, but also tradition, culture and identity. How strongly Italians feel about food is often surprising to the average North American. We just don’t seem to have all sorts of rules about how certain dishes are supposed to be prepared, what you can eat when, and in which order things need to be presented and consumed. For most of us, we don’t see food as a link to our past, our country and our culture. But Italians, they sure do.

Understand this: Italians feel stronger ties to their region than to their country as a whole, due to the fact that for hundreds of years the Italian peninsula wasn’t Italy at all, but a cluster of regions, kingdoms, dukedoms, etc.  Someone from the heel of the boot is Pugliese first, then Italian even still today. The same goes for all of Italy’s regions. Heck, Sicilians barely even consider themselves Italian! And many Italian dishes are regional specialties. Try getting a plate of Tuscan pici in Calabria. Go ahead. I can tell you that you probably won’t be very successful. Or maybe some eggplant parmigiana in Tuscany? Nope, gotta go down south for that one. Food is synonymous with identity for Italians.

I’ve met different people who feel that Italians’ strong opinions on food and eating rules are silly and provincial. I mean who cares if you want to eat your salad before your meal instead of afterwards? What does it matter if you want to put butter on your bread instead of dipping it in olive oil? In the eyes of many North Americans, the Italian waiter who refuses to make substitutions to our spaghetti carbonara is seen as rude, not the protector of a longstanding tradition. The barista who tells you that you’re sure as heck not ordering a cappuccio after 10:30 am, but just a caffelatte, is considered anal-retentive. You don’t consider him a helpful teacher in your quest to abide by Italian cultural norms. If that is your quest at all.

At first, I too was a little put-off by these things. I remember asking a waiter in Rome to make some changes to the veal dish I ordered.

“No, signorina, I’m sorry, I cannot do that. Just trust me. Fidati. You will like what I bring to you,” was his response.

I had never had a waiter say anything to me except “of course we can make that substitution”, so I thought it was weird. But, when in Rome… trust the Roman waiters. (Isn’t that the old saying?) And I ended up eating some of the most delicious veal I’ve ever consumed in my life. Over time, I have come to accept and even embrace Italian opinions surrounding food. I’ll be the first person to tell you that cream doesn’t belong in Carbonara sauce and that butter on your bread is not an option – when I’m in Italy.

12 thoughts on “Thoughts on Food

  1. If you listen to many conversations on the bus, or anywhere really, you may be surprised that they are often about food….what they are having for lunch, what they had for dinner, serious stuff.
    Unfortunately I do see some fast food in supermarket trolleys these days. I hope Italy doesn’t change too much.
    Life is too short to eat bad food.

  2. I love this post, and for the most part I think it holds true. But…I was very surprised this past Spring in Bologna how weight “grasso” obsessed many people seemed to be – we spent two entire days in class at my Italian school learning the imperative through diet advice (you should eat less, don’t eat dolce, etc.). I also noticed for the first time “diet” foods at the grocery stores. I am so looking forward to living in a place (Florence) that I feel does not have the same eating-disorcer issues as we do, but it seems that Western influence may be creeping in there as well.

    • Ciao! You certainly raise some good points. I think that in a sense, Italians are fairly concerned with how they look…You don’t see as many overweight people roaming Italy as you do roaming North America though, so they must be doing something right! Thanks for the comment.

  3. After 7 years in Italia, I must say that the habit of not making changes to dishes in restaurants drives me BONKERS! I think I’m adult enough to know what I like and don’t like, thank you very much! For example, I hate rucola. Once I was at a café to get a sandwich (one of the many where they don’t even permit you to chose your own fillings, but rather have sandwiches that are already planned out for you, even if they need to be made at the moment). The sandwich came with rucola. I asked for it without rucola. When I went to pay they asked me for a surcharge of €1 because I asked for the sandwich without rucola. And remember, the sandwich was not already made. It’s not like they had to take the rucola off and throw it away. They simply had to not add the rucola (actually saving them both time and money). Well, I got in an argument with the lady at the cash register and stormed out without paying anything. So I guess I won that time, though I’ll have to add that café to the long list of places that I can never return back to because I made a scene. :-/

    Actually, writing this comment just gave me an idea for my blog … THANKS!

    Piesse: Love your blog!

    • Ciao Garrett! Thanks for reading and commenting. I can totally understand your frustration…In the case that you described it makes absolutely no sense to charge more money or to put rucola on your sandwich!!! I hope that list of places you can’t return to isn’t too long!!! Again, grazie for your comments! It’s always great to get into contact with other Italy bloggers. 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment! I used to be such a picky eater and would never order something unless I knew I would like it… Now I often ask restaurant staff for a suggestion, or leave my dinner in the hands of the chef!

  4. Great post. Good point about Italians not snacking. When I was au pairing, we had pasta as a starter for every meal, followed by meat/fish which usually wasn’t accompanied by carbs. The family didn’t approve of snacking either and I was the slimmest I’ve ever been! Agree also that in Italy the waiter and chef are ‘always right’! I’ve stayed with Italian families who ate meals of 5 courses plus on occasions-some of it the best food I’ve tasted.

  5. Having just returned from almost 3 weeks visiting friends in Italy, (I lived there for 4 years) I can say that food is a major focus of life. When I asked how to get the pasta as silky, they described the process, and I said I do that, they said it was the eggs, and I said I did that, after continued discussion they said it was the chickens that laid the egg, the water, soil and air that grew the food that nourished the chicken. There was such reverence for each aspect of the food chain that makes us who we are! Italy may not have Oil, precious minerals or other things to export but they have a fundamental awareness of the most basic elements of life and the ability to transform it to an art form. That is their gift to the world.!!

    • Ciao Dawn! Your comment hits the nail exactly on the head. I’ve often heard similar “discorsi” from friends and acquaintances around the dinner table. And it is a gift to the world. Thanks for reading and commenting! Grazie!

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