Tag Archives: food traditions

It’s In the System

I’ve been reading some of the latest weight loss tips and diabetes prevention tactics from diet gurus and nutrition experts. It’s all based on recent studies, the most up to the minute research. It never fails to surprise me how much these great scientific revelations mirror the food knowledge already contained in traditional food cultures. Since I live in Italy, I’ll compare what I learned this week from science with what Italians have been doing for centuries.

The experts have found that starches and refined sugars enter our bloodstreams very quickly and cause our sugar levels to spike and our insulin levels to rise. All of this causes us to put on weight and puts us at risk for diabetes. A few years ago the experts were telling us not to eat starches and sugars. Now they’re telling us it’s how we consume starches and sugars that cause our problems. The advice they’re now giving is to have a small fatty snack maybe just 20 or 30 minutes before your meal because the fat triggers something in the pyloric valve that slows the rate of digestion and this slows the glucose absorption into the bloodstream. Then whatever you eat afterwards has to wait to make its way from your stomach on down through your intestines.

The Italians call this antipasto. In a restaurant while you are thinking about what to order for dinner, or even at home while waiting for dinner to cook, you and your fellow diners share a plate of salami, prosciutto, cheese, some olives, some beans in olive oil, etc. Just a little to whet the appetite. One of the diet experts actually suggested that you make “antipasto bags” as snack bags to eat in the car or when you’re on the go. While I’m glad he acknowledged the antipasto aspect, I think putting it in a bag sounds disgusting. Sit at a table and eat from a plate, for Heaven’s sake. We’re human beings not horses.

Many of the other suggestions were to eat some protein with the meal. Well, there is some protein in the antipasto, the pasta sauce in the first course sometimes contains a little bit of meat or legumes, and the second course is usually a small piece of meat or fish and lots of vegetables. Another suggestion is to include vinegar, though I’ve heard brined vegetables are good too, for slowing the conversion of starch into sugar in your bloodstream. Olives with the antipasto should do the trick or other brined, mixed vegetables that are commonly served in Italy.

A glass of wine, we are all relieved to know, causes the liver to produce less glucose while we eat. Italians have always had wine with a meal – traditionally, it was just a little wine sometimes with water added to it – and they don’t drink wine without food. I don’t imagine anyone before thought much about the glucose produced in the liver. They likely noticed that warm happy feeling that comes over you as you eat, take a sip and chat.

The Italian system of eating is about pleasure, it’s about prolonging our time over the table so that we can be with our friends and family longer, enjoying our food, talking, arguing, living. It’s not about fuelling ourselves to get on with the next task, the next chore, or raising the country’s GDP. The American model is all about intellectualizing food and digestive processes and creating a scientific mystique about food that makes us think we need expert advice and specially designed food products.

North Americans don’t need to eat an Italian, a French or a Mediterranean diet to be healthy. We don’t have to eat prosciutto and olives specifically. But, we need to build up local traditions and foods and create healthy structures that might share certain elements with the traditional food cultures. We need rules about when to eat (at meal time), where to eat (at a table), what to eat (real food, not food products) and why to eat (to enjoy life).

More than anything, we need to stop looking to scientific experts for help, and we really need to stop talking about our digestive processes while we’re eating.



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An Ersatz Epiphany

La Befana

The Befana is an old lady who rides around Italy on a broom bringing gifts to children on the eve of Epiphany. One theory is that the three Kings on their way to see the baby Jesus asked an old woman to help them. She offered them shelter. The next day they invited her to join them, but she declined because she was busy sweeping and cleaning. The she regretted her decision so much, she ran around with her broom handing presents to children while she searched for the baby Jesus. Another theory links her to the Sabine goddess known as Strina.

Whatever her origins, children all over Italy this morning woke up to stockings stuffed full of candy. Traditionally, she brought dried figs, dates and honey for the good children and lumps of coal, onions and garlic for the bad ones. More recently she’s started bringing candy for all of them.

It’s a lovely old Italian tradition and a nice way to finish off the holidays. But like so many food traditions in Europe, the Befana has been hijacked by the big food companies. Nestle has manufactured nylon stockings with their Kit Kat logo on it. The supermarkets had little corners set up with packaged snacks and candy from the multinationals for Befana gifts.

Even Piazza Navona, the home of Rome’s biggest Christmas market, has traded in its traditional hand-made wooden presepe pieces for the nativity scenes for mass produced, made in China sets. And the traditional foods have all but disappeared in favour of processed foods and industrial candy. It’s a kind of parody of tradition.

Figs and Dates?

Good thing the Befana is scheduled to show up at Piazza Navona this afternoon to sweep the whole thing away – until next year.

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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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