Sharp Monica

An honest voice in Italian paradise.

Firenze: A Different Life, Part 2

I always hated the produce at the Norman Super Target, and yet that was, for years, our regular grocery destination. Nothing tasted like anything. Purchasing tomatoes or strawberries or plums felt more like a semiotic exercise than a reliably positive tastebud experience. You bit into things, no matter what they were, and they were, in a word, awful. No taste at all. Styrofoam and sawdust. Horrible texture. And so, so expensive. Why did we buy it? The word was on the list, and it matched the word on the tiny produce tag in the tables. But conceptual fidelity ended there.

The bakery section. I’d like to stop here for a moment too. A decent (by local standards) but small loaf of bread would easily set you back five dollars. And it wasn’t even good. And it was stale within a day. I am a baker by genotype, and early in the game after my return to Oklahoma in 2004 decided I would have to tackle the Yeast Question. Typically I trafficked in eggs, flour, butter, and sugar, but in this baker’s wasteland, it was time to figure out yeast. I became expert in turning out a boule two to three times per week, thanks to the NYT recipe that was all the rage in 2006. I had a Le Creuset dutch oven, and the round loaves I routinely turned out were better than any bread that could be bought in town. Even if I upped my game and went for Fancy Flour (Bob’s Red Mill; King Arthur) my loaves were still pennies on the dollar, and made mad good panini, eggs in a window, bread pudding, and sandwiches. And lasted four to five days.

Meat. Ugh. I hated meat in the US, pink in plastic. It tasted like nothing. No bones in, all wrapped on light blue styrofoam trays. Cut who knows how many days ago by a machine in a factory. At one point I told Jason, don’t buy any chicken, ever. Just stick to steaks and pork please. I could not take any more of that injected MSG flavor and liquid, the weird dryness of chicken breast meat. (As any Italian will tell you, chicken breast meat is “cat food”; people eat dark meat, which tastes better.)

Jason and I love food, fresh food, and we both came to food culture as adults, through travel. As children of the seventies, we ate our share of dinners that featured Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup, Durkee fried onions, Potato Buds. Casting no aspersions here – it was very much the standard of the time. (To be fair, our mothers made plenty of tasty things too from scratch, but to purchase the fresh ingredients on a regular basis for every meal was, I imagine, prohibitively expensive on one salary.)

I had a long list of food phobias when I was 19. Nothing too spicy. No bones in. No blood. No marrow. No blood sausage. I had never really eaten broccoli, or eggplant. I hated eggs. I liked starch, and a bland palate. I was a case example of advocacy for Garrison Keillor’s “whitening agent”: mashed potatoes with white gravy and a chicken fried steak with more white gravy, with a side of buttered corn. The semester before I went to Spain for my first study abroad program, this was my favorite thing to eat, and it was doing my heart and weight no favors.

In Spain, I went all in, determined to break my food phobias. For what is a fear, of anything, but an invitation to mastery? Forty million people can’t be wrong, I told myself, and they’re not at all dying from the menu, as I ate plates of liver, pigs’ ears, anything and everything those gallegos pulled from the Atlantic and served on a platter: mejillones, langostinas, pulpo, merluza. I ate it all. I tried everything. I had a rule for myself that, if I did not like it, I need not eat it again. Cocidos. Tripas. Tortilla espanola a la espinaca. Everything. And less brave food too: medialunas that shattered when tapped with a small silver fork. Fresh-squeezed orange juice. Chocolate con churros. Gofres. I returned home with a completely changed culinary reference.

An aspect of Seattle I always valued was its food culture. Fresh food, Pike Place Market, people from everywhere. It is hard to get a bad meal in Seattle. (It is possible to pay far too much for said meal.) (Also, the Mexican options were never good.)

But Italy. Italy and food.

In Italy, food is a right, and good food is the only kind of food there is. Americans tend to regard food as a class indicator: eating well means you’re doing well. If you’re not doing well, well, then you won’t eat well. To eat well and organic with taste and flavor in the US means you will pay dearly for it, as this is a type of brand marker and market position that Americans have bought into. We have lost our food culture. If you fly in the US over infinite huge circles and squares of agribusiness, if you drive through Dodge City or Garden City and smell the stockyards for ten miles before and after, you see where we get our food from. How can good food possibly come out of this ADM/Monsanto world we live in, in North America? Answer: it doesn’t.

Americans on the whole do not know what food tastes like, or is supposed to taste like. This is part of the reason American tourists (and many other nationalities) flip out when they come to Italy and eat: it is akin to getting into a time machine and returning to 1900 or 1880 and tasting what food must have tasted like for my great-grandparents. (Granted they probably had less of it, but what they had tasted like something.) In Italy I never cease exclaiming over the tomatoes, potatoes, porcini mushrooms, the eggplant, the tiny zucchini and the little zucchini squash balls. The eggs, the dairy. One of my favorite Italian food moments of the past year was Victor’s joyful exclamations over the fishmonger’s supply at Mercato Sant’Ambrogio. He just wanted to look at all the types of fish because he was blown away!

The schools take lunch very seriously too: the food education does not end at the kids’ front door. Two courses plus a side, fresh bread, water, at a table with a plate and cutlery, and a glass glass. The menus are varied, and fresh, despite what the Italian mamme might say in a 148-message midyear WhatsApp tirade.

Eleanor receiving Italian lunch instruction.

Italy has never entered into the black pact of agribusiness because – well, look at a map. A narrow peninsula spined from north to south with mountains. Good luck getting mass irrigation profitably moving on that. Italy gave the world the Slow Food movement, to try to remind everyone to consider their culinary patrimony before plowing enormous monocrop fields, shutting down every family farm or garden, and heading to Burger King or Flunch or Golden Corral for a meal.

Our grocery bills in Italy reflect their value of Good Food for Everyone. A huge take at IperCoop, an Italian chain, will set us back just 90 euros. Groceries easily a third to a half less what they cost in the US. Produce even cheaper. A few examples: frozen pizza (special treat for kids at home), two euros. Brick of coffee (half a kilo), less than three euros. UHP milk brick, seventy-five cents. Cold cuts? a couple of euros for a handsome packet of prosciutto wrapped in paper. Fresh mozzarella balls? Sixty cents. A whole Italian chicken? Four euros. And on and on. It all adds up. We eat so much better here for so much less. When our friends come to cook, I keep an eye on all their tricks, and have learned a few
things here and there: a bit of butter in the red sauce. Salt your eggplant. How to dice zucchini for a frittata. And more.

The prepared food that is sold in Italy is more honestly made – in the sense that Italy does not add sugar to every single thing. We always say here, you know when you’re eating sugar, because you have either put it in your coffee, or you are eating a sensibly-sized pastry. The amount of prepared food in Italian supermarkets is a fraction of what you find in the US. I remember being so frustrated by all the colorful packaging, the huge freezer sections. What if I just want to make some food? I despaired. Rows and rows of frozen freezer bags of things Americans can’t or won’t make, or don’t have the time to make.

Italians always remark on it. Our friend Flavia was floored this summer in the US. Your food costs so much here! And it does. And it doesn’t even taste that good.

Italy wants you to eat, and eat well, no matter how much you make. You could eat well here as a single person on sixty euros a week, if you planned your meals and cooked at home like 99% of Italians. And they would be good meals.

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4 Responses

  1. We (me and Alan) love your writing! This was especially a great topic. I remember discussing this with you in OK. Is it okay to share? Philly is a “foodie city” and I have found some reasonable prices compared to Boston, NY an DC, but you're right. Even shopping directly from the farmer at the farmer's market is pretty pricey. Sigh. I'd love to hear in more detail how you figured out the yeast situation. Also have you watched Pollan's “Cooked” or read the book? I'm curious to find some of this older wheat and agree that part of the gluten sensitivity epidemic must be linked to rapid rise breads that don't ferment long enough. Miss you!!

  2. Git on over here. And remember, always buy leeks over onions if you're planning on using them in a sauce! They're much milder with a deeper flavor. Can't wait to cook with you all. Also I need another training on making espresso cream sugar foam.

  3. I feel like I have read The Omnivore's Dilemma, but not Cooked. You know, I bet Italian wheat contains no RoundUp at all. And yet Italians are very gluten sensitive – it is on their collective radar as A Thing. And seriously? Farmers' markets are elite shopping grounds. Casting no aspersions, it is just what is happening in the US. So glad you're enjoying the blog! I love writing it.

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