One of the things I admire most about Italians is how connected they are to their land. It’s a benefit of living in the same area for thousands of years. They’ve become intimately familiar with of the flora and fauna of their area and reap the benefits, which is what makes Italian food so special. Every area has its own signature piatti (dishes) and they’re very prudent about eating products that are connected to the area they find themselves (and the fact that my father-in-law has been preaching about this to me ever since I set foot here has had it’s impact). For example, in the mountains you’d expect to eat mushrooms and wild game while along the seaside it’s unthinkable to eat anything but seafood. I can still remember when, in Las Vegas, Fabio and two of his Italian friends were honestly horrified by seeing a plate of seafood advertized on a poster for an Italian restaurant (to add insult to their injury, it was a Tuscan restaurant). Si manga pesce qui?! (They eat fish out here?!) Until that moment I had never even thought about the fact that eating seafood in the middle of the desert was kinda weird. I know, especially with Las Vegas, there are planes full of fresh products arriving in that arid land every day to feed the demand of the five-star restaurants etc, but it did make me pause and think.
I believe The United States has reached the maximum-limit on it’s convient/packaged/processed food culture, and the pendulum, even if ever-so-slightly, is slowly starting to swing the other way. I know I’ve been living over here for roughly the past 6 years, but just reading this article, titled “Childhood Obesity Leveling Off? New Study Suggest Kids Engaging in Healthier Behavior, ” (link below) published yesterday, gives me hope. Hearing about the crazy/obsessive foodies is actually encouraging. The way I see it, a food snob is the best kind of snob, because what better thing to be picky about than what goes into your body? (for a laugh…check out this Portlandia clip… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErRHJlE4PGI)
When you think about it, it makes sense that as Americans, we’d be more apt to stray from what people in Italy would call ‘normal food’ (aka simple, local, fresh). We’re a nation that expanded so rapidly and moves around so often we often have little/no connection to the tradition and agriculture of the area we live. Obviously there are exceptions, the Creole cuisine of the south really stands out, and local bar-be-que recipes (including my hometown’s Santa Maria Style Tri-Tip) are always popular. But as a whole, we seem to be a bit homogenized in terms of our diet.
This is a stark contrast to Italy, where the recipe for ragu changes every 50 miles and often eating in another region is like eating in another country. You rarely find the same things on the menu in Tuscany that you would in, say, Lazio (the region of Rome). Italy also has a huge advantage on the US: Italy, is about the size of California (although a little smaller) and is blessed with a climate that allows for a bounty of fruits and vegetables to be grown all year. It’s also pretty much completely surrounded by the Mediterranean, so a beach, in general, is never more than 2 hours away which means a lot of fresh fish. And there’s the one, shining star of the Mediterranean diet that we’re slowly catching on to but don’t have a lot of people producing locally: olive oil. In Italy this stuff is liquid gold. It’s life! It’s the most important element in their diet. In fact, since I’ve step up shop here, I’ve only used butter for baked goods and I haven’t missed it a bit. It’s a direct substitution here, and the benefits of consuming raw olive oil are endless.
The reason I’ve been so taken by this culinary practice is, along with the health of our citizens, it also has a link to the health of our planet. The carbon impact of shipping food from one part of the country (or world) to the other is astounding. And while there is generally more carbon output associated with the production of the produce, I think, with awareness and correct labeling, the US can easily help reduce this impact and help take that carbon impact down. When we’re in a moment in time where every bit helps, and no act is too small.
I do realize that, growing up in California, this is much easier than, say, growing up in Wisconsin, when in the winter, there aren’t may fresh-food options. Obviously there are acceptions to be made. But investing and promoting local products helps your community and gives everyone a sense of pride to where they come from. When I was a kid I always went to the local Strawberry festivals, both in Arroyo Grande and Santa Maria. These are similar in style to the Italian sagra (food festival) that highlight local specialities. Events in both countries rely and are made up of community participation and pride, which you can never have enough of.
In Italy, there’s also the rule of mangiare con le stagioni (eating with the seasons) that is strictly adhered to, as I mention in my Ricette Italiane: Panzanella post. The idea of eating fresh tomatoes in January is considered absurd for most, because tomatoes don’t grow here in January, so they’re exported and therefore not acceptable (to be honest Italians think their tomatoes are the best, so it’s also a pride thing). Of course, in these days, there is always food available out of season, but where everything comes from is clearly labeled so, as a consumer, you can make an informed choice.
For me it’s all connected. When you eat something grown locally, you not only get the benefit of knowing where it came from, you also feel more connected to where you live, and you’re also doing mother nature a solid. It’s a win-win-win!