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.