My experiences in Italy thus far can be distilled to this: Italians take their regional food traditions very seriously and there is a rhythm to the food culture. I have seen no greater pride on the face of a person than when they describe the skill and quality of their nonna’s hand rolled, tiny tortellini, or their particular way to make a bolognese ragu from scratch. Every person I’ve talked with has specific, shared beliefs about their regional food traditions, and seem as well versed in this type of conversation than as that of breathing. We’ve discussed the type of chicken (male, castrated) that makes the best broth, the best type of egg (red yolk) that is used to make their fresh pasta, and the specific type of cheese to pair with a specific local pasta dish (pasticelli). Nothing is by chance, and everything seems to have quite an old reason to why these traditions exist.
And it’s not just the traditional recipes, made the same way for generations, which entice so much passion and pride. It’s also the quality of the specific, regional products made by regional artisan producers that also receive such attention and honor. I’ve seen inspiration in the eyes of a baker so taken with his wild yeast that they celebrate it’s birthday every year by passing out jars to locals who wish to make their own beautiful bread, like his.
In some ways, this appreciation of the “local producer” is not unlike the food scene in Portland where I live. We have amazing farmers and regional producers that surround the city, which bursts with a rich assortment of high quality produce, nuts, cheese, honey and well-raised animals. And while Portland receives much national attention for these agricultural and artisanal industries, there is one big difference: no regional recipes.
When I was asked to offer a Northwest inspired cooking class featuring regional dishes and desserts here in Italy, it was the first time that I realized that here in the Northwest, the gorgeous foods themselves are the hallmarks of the region. We, as chefs, pull from all over the country and the world to create dishes that become Northwest-like because of the seasonal ingredients we use at the right times. But, if your really wanted the best fried chicken or pizza, the Northwest would not be your go-to place.
Similarly, we have no collective pattern to why or how we eat, as a region (or for that matter, as a country). No one at Stumptown will ever bat an eye if you order a latte at 5pm. Nor will anyone look at you sideways if you walk with that cup of coffee, or jump in your car to eat a late lunch or early dinner on the way back to work. As Americans, we are presented each day with the greatest flexibility around one thing: how we eat. Aka – our food culture.
On any given day, I could eat every meal by myself at home, at anytime of day. Or instead, I could eat every meal out with friends. I could not eat anything at all and no one would notice (ok maybe my husband Eric would notice because I would be cranky). Or I could eat constantly, without stopping, and yet never sit down once to eat an actual meal.
I am struck and impressed by what I have thus far encountered as a very regulated food culture during my time in the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy. Of course there are exceptions and of course this is a generalized statement, but I feel I can safely say that there is more rhythm to the daily patterns around food here than anything I’ve experienced before in all the cities I’ve lived in the USA.
And this is a beautiful thing.
Of course, if you know me, it comes as no surprise that I am pleasantly struck by the healthy rhythm to eating in Italy. It is something I deeply admire. Food culture, which is defined by how we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat and why we choose to eat at any given time, is a passion of mine. In my work I attempt to bring this topic to light so people can start to make choices about what food culture they wish to participate in, and most importantly how those choices are passed onto future generations of Americans no matter if you have kids or not. Are you sitting down to eat? Are you celebrating the local foods and producers?
While I don’t imagine that anyone in the States will every give you grief for ordering a cappuccino or latte after 12pm (due to too much milk impeding digestion after meals) I do think it’s possible to put some attention to the quality of the choices we make around what, when, with whom and why we eat.
Wouldn’t it be lovely to take more time to eat your lunch at a table, even if it’s just 10 more minutes to chew and breath, or share conversation with a friend? I realize the number one excuse for this is that you simply don’t have the time. But. Maybe it’s more of a problem of time allocation than having the time itself. Do you spend 10 minutes a day on social media? Though I’m not suggesting one is better than the other, I suspect you will feel well fed, both physically and emotionally, if more minutes were given to lunch with a friend or dinner with your family.
That’s my thought for you this week, thanks for reading it all the way through!
I am looking forward to returning in a week with lots of inspiring food ideas and a new commitment to my work. In the meantime, check out what I’ve been up to in Italy here on facebook and get ready for some great pop up dinners when I return! Onto Sicily!