Monthly Archives: December 2011

Easy Snacks for Growing Boys

A bite to eat after school

Here’s what I love about food in Italy. It’s simple. Everything depends on the quality of the ingredients, but the food itself is often quite uncomplicated. The best fish I’ve ever eaten was just fish, olive oil and salt, the best tomato sauce is just tomatoes, olive oil and salt. You could add fresh lemon to the fish or basil to the tomato sauce but then you’re up to four ingredients, which means you’re getting fancy.

When Nico came home from school today I asked him if he wanted a snack. He said yes and if I would cut him a slice of Lariano bread, he would make it himself. This is it: bread, olive oil (from our trees in Umbria, I should add – it’s still bright green and incredibly fruity and I want to drizzle it on everything I eat … but, I digress) and a Sicilian clementine.

It reminds me of the simple snacks of my own childhood. My mother used to bake bread when I was very young and so I remember that fresh, yeasty smell of the bread and the aged Canadian cheddar she served with it. Other days she gave me apples and cheddar, or sometimes carrot sticks, raw green beans, peas in the pod. It was always something simple and never something from a package.

Sometimes I think everything in my son’s life here in Italy is so completely different from my own childhood experiences in Canada. And then I realize it’s just the ingredients – he’s got olive oil and I had cheddar. The tradition of eating something fresh and homemade is reassuringly the same.

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Please – No Children’s Menus

Tartufo sauce

That’s a picture of Nico’s lunch from Saturday, or what was Nico’s lunch. He ate it so quickly it was gone before I realized it. It’s his favourite pasta – homemade with black truffle sauce – at his favourite restaurant in Calvi dell’Umbria.

Nico, who is not quite 7 yet, is really tired of driving to Calvi every weekend to check on the progress of the renovations at our house. And so we’ve been bribing him by promising to take him to lunch every Saturday at La Locanda del Francescano after we visit the workmen.

As we settled in to eat – Nico with his maltagliati al tartufo and James and I each with our plates of polenta con salsicce – James said we’re really lucky to be raising our son in Italy. If we were in Toronto, our son’s favourite restaurant could easily be McDonald’s or Kentucky Fried Chicken. Even if it wasn’t a chain restaurant, his favourite meal would likely come with french fries.

Here in Italy, since you rarely ever see a children’s menu in a restaurant, the children have to try new things on the menu. They don’t expect special, fun food. Here, the chef is so thrilled with Nico’s enthusiasm, he shaves extra truffles on his plate, giving him even more than he gives to the adults who order the dish. It’s wonderful to be able to go to a really nice restaurant where we can all eat well and James and I can have a glass of wine with our Saturday lunch.

My only fear is that truffle season will be over well before the work is finished on the house. I’m not sure quite how we’ll bribe him to keep hopping in the car every Saturday morning once he’s eaten every black tuber in Umbria. Though, he did say he’s interested in trying the stuffed pigeon next time.

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Careless Gluttony and Mindless Eating

Antonio's Arugula

Yesterday, I was walking our dog, Lilla, along a patch of unkempt grassy area over top of an underground rail line in one of the less picturesque parts of Rome. I take the dog there often because she can run for long stretches without encountering many people. (She’s still young and loves to jump on people with her muddy paws – she especially likes to do this to old people and children!) I also like going because there is a community garden in this space as well – though the only member of the community I ever see tending it is Antonio, a man in his middle 70s who describes himself as “un amico della terra” – a friend of the Earth.

Antonio believes that we’re all too well-fed and too obsessed with food. He complained that people don’t know how to appreciate simple, well-cooked, good quality, fresh food. We talked about children and he said that children today (he actually said that – “i bambini oggi …”) are too interested in junk food and they’re not learning about quality food. He said that maybe you have to have been poor once to really appreciate something as simple as a salad.

Though he’s a bit curmudgeonly and pessimistic about the current generation of young Italians, I think he has a point about appreciating simple food. Antonio came from Pescara in the Abruzzo from a family of shoe makers, but after the War there was no work in his own city. He came to Rome in the 1950s, lived with relatives and eventually managed to make enough money to survive. But those, he says, were happy times. The whole area where we were standing and talking, now an overgrown and mostly abandoned lot, was once completely cultivated by city farmers. People grew the food they couldn’t afford to buy and they shared. He said they would anticipate the sheep herders who walked through Rome in the fall offering wheels of fresh pecorino to anyone with a patch of grass where the sheep could graze. He would go hunting in the countryside as well for wild hare and wild boar. He told me how they would cut down long stalks of rosemary growing by the roadside and lay it on the bed of the truck, where they would later rest the body of the animal. He’s experienced in the art of making sausage from boar, which is something I really didn’t want to hear about, though I respect the skill and the tradition.

While we talked, we walked through the rows of his garden where he’s growing broccoli, cabbage, fennel, swiss chard, various kinds of lettuce and a beautiful large and flat-leafed variety of arugula. I thought about how it is really these food values that I’ve come to love in Rome and in Italy generally. I am distressed by the proliferation of junk food and by the way that processed foods are passed off in restaurants without so much as an acknowledgement on the menu. I’m also distressed by the other extreme, the host of trendy new restaurants that are all balsamic foam and chocolate onions. He didn’t complain about those things in particular, it was more what he saw as a kind of careless gluttony – if I understood his Italian correctly – that has weakened the continuation of Italy’s great food traditions.

He picked a stalk of arugula and told me that this was once a staple, fall vegetable in the region, but that now all you can find in the markets is the thin, reedy and to me, too spicy, version that the British call “rocket.” With a heaving of shoulders and eye-rolling head toss that Italians of his generation must learn from birth, he began to complain about the industrially grown food and the lack of variety. If you want good food, he said, you don’t just have to cook it yourself, you also have to grow it yourself.

Then he picked a big handful of the arugula and gave it to me with explicit instructions on what I was to do with it – boil spaghetti in a pot of salted water, toss in the arugula a few minutes before the spaghetti is finished. Drain the spaghetti and arugula and then toss them into a warm pan with olive oil, chopped garlic and a pinch of chopped chillies.

I did as I was told. I also tried it cooked directly in olive oil with the garlic and chillies to put on bruschetta that I ate for lunch. For dinner I made a fresh salad of it tossing it with olive oil from our own olive trees in Umbria and a pinch of salt. I shaved an aged pecorino cheese on top. My son, Nico, who doesn’t really love salad, ate it because of the story that came along with it about Antonio and his life, his appreciation of something as simple as a leaf of arugula. Nico really enjoyed the buttery, peppery flavour of the greens, he noticed the food, and he gave it his full attention.

I told Antonio this morning about how much we enjoyed the arugula and he said he would give me more salad greens when they’re ready. In fact he said, he’ll make a garden salad for us to share one day because eating with other people is another one of his favourite things to do. If I promise to bring some of that olive oil from our trees in Umbria, he said he’ll be sure to bring a little wine made by one of his friends from the old days.

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School Lunch and Civilization

At his school in Rome today, my son will be eating pasta with tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies and garlic for his first course. Then he will eat little bite-sized pieces of pork cooked till tender and falling apart in a flavourful sauce – alla cacciatora. After the meat, he’ll eat a crunchy, fresh fennel salad and finish off the meal with an orange. If he’s thirsty, he’ll drink water. The food is all organic and it’s freshly prepared every morning.

The food itself – the ingredients, the recipes, the quality – is all important. I’m happy that he eats such a nutritious and substantial lunch every day. But there’s another component to this school lunch that is as important as the food itself. The school meal is helping to teach these children to be civilized, respectful, thoughtful members of society.

“The table is an important place to learn the art of conversation, especially across generations. It provides an opportunity to feel connected and to develop trust in others. Civility at the table is a cornerstone of civil society and democratic processes,” writes Janet A. Flammang in her excellent book “The Taste for Civilization.” She emphasizes the importance of finding your voice at the table by learning the intricacies of manners and social expectations. She draws on the work of the social anthropologist Margaret Visser who said that humans sharing food likely shaped many elements of their societies. We often think of food as reflecting different cultures, but perhaps it’s the food and the particular rituals of sharing it that creates the culture.

The Roman school lunch carries on this tradition. There is one menu for the whole school. There is no accommodating picky eaters, so this means that the whole school shares the same food. The teachers sit with their classes and remind the children to place their napkins on their laps, to hold their forks with their fingers rather than their fists, to use their forks and not their pudgy little hands. She encourages them to work together to pass the bread basket or the olive oil, and she asks them to wait until everyone is ready before they begin to eat. The teacher also facilitates the children’s attempts at conversation. They eat together and they talk. The teacher lets the children decide what to talk about, but she participates and moderates, she nudges and encourages. She makes sure everyone stays in their seats and she keeps them eating while they converse. They have already learned to wait until the last person is finished before leaving the table. My son is in the first grade. Teachers do this with the nursery school children right through to the eighth grade.

I love that lunch is treated so reverently at this school. This is a private school, but the public school system in Rome, in spite of recent cutbacks, manages to pull off a version of this, too. The children eat in courses, which is traditional in Italy, they eat a variety of foods and they take their time. They also learn to share in the food and in the pleasure and they learn to share ideas, to talk and to learn something about each other.

Today, they will also learn not to put parmigiano on pasta with anchovies.

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As I was saying …

I’ve spent the last few years researching and writing a book about the importance of growing up within a culture of food. When the society you live within collectively creates rituals and rules about consuming food, people tend to be healthier and tend to enjoy their food. Look at Italy, where I’ve been living for the past ten years, where generations of families have created delicious recipes, where there are rules about eating, where snacking is minimal.

Or, perhaps I should say was because all of this is changing rather rapidly as children in Italy – in countries all over the world, really – are eating more like American children. They’re eating sugar-loaded breakfast cereals in the morning and packaged cakes at snack time. They’re eating fast food hamburgers and hot dogs with french fries, frozen pasta and pizzas, and they’re washing it all down with soft drinks and sweetened juice. The obesity rate among children in Italy has reached one in three – just like American children.

Rather than look to their own traditions for answers, Italians are paying more attention to nutrition science and seeking out “healthy” products, as North Americans have been doing, hoping to tweak things here and there to find the balance. My bet is that this strategy will work about as well as it has for Canadians, Americans and the British – all of us with climbing obesity rates and food anxiety. Our prodigious and intricate knowledge of food health, as the food activist and writer Michael Pollan has written about so thoroughly, has left us worse off.

It breaks my heart to see the collective wisdom of generations – a system of knowledge that stretches far back into the past well beyond the people any of us can actually remember, a system that has incorporated food knowledge, health knowledge and pleasure – shoved aside in favour of the latest research from the food scientists and the latest scientifically formulated food products from the food industry.

In this space, I intend to continue to write about the importance of culture to health. I’ll continue to discuss the great things that food cultures have to offer, particularly to children, and also look at where, I think, they’re going wrong. I’ll talk about my own life and the challenges I face raising a young child here in Italy, and I’ll talk about the people I encounter along the way.

I’ll update often and I’ll include pictures. I hope readers will use the comments section to carry on the discussion. Check back tomorrow and we can talk about lunch …

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