Tags

, , , , , ,

On this first day of July we are warned that records are being set as temperatures soar. Having just stepped into my 1920s fourth-floor walk-up apartment from what seems like a deserted film set of the Eternal City, I would say I have to agree. A friend of mine reports having seen prairie grass along the via Parioli and heard the ominous notes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly while walking her dog this afternoon. I, too, could have sworn I saw some tumbleweed rolling about an empty Metro station just now as I mosied on back from my exploratory mission to check out Rome’s newest urban cathedral, Eataly. It is confirmed, then: today’s heat, known as Caronte for the Greek mythological figure who would ferry souls along the Acheron, reaches beyond sultry to hallucinatory.

Visiting Eataly has stirred in me a series of reflections on one of the most prominent and present aspects of my life since I can remember: food and what we currently call with more pretense than recommended, food culture. If all the days and hours of my life were a pie, all but one slice will have been devoted in some way to food (even my metaphors). My food culture is indelibly linked to Italy in more ways than one. My food culture crosses oceans and centuries and generations and then comes back again to its roots.

When I was a young girl, nearly everything in my grandmother’s Rhode Island pantry was labeled Progresso. While very little in her kitchen came from a can, some of her amazing cooking got a helping hand from Progresso. So, we had chicken cutlets made with “romano” (read: pecorino romanocheese, parsley, salt and pepper mixed with Progresso bread crumbs; Pasta e Fagioli with Progresso Cannellini Beans and sometimes, just on occasion, I do remember we’d fix ourselves a bowl or two of Progesso’s “Chickarina” or “Authentic Italian Wedding Soup“. My grandmother would not appreciate my mentioning the soups. When it came to tomatoes, there were three kinds: paste, ground peeled and whole. Each of the three had a specific purpose and each either came from Progresso or, more often, from Pastene. Both companies were started in the US by Italian immigrants: Pastene in the 1870s by Luigi Pastene in Boston’s North End and Progresso in the beginning of the 20th Century in New York City by Sicily-born Vincent Taormina. The Pastene Company is still run

There was never a lack of tomatoes and tomato paste in my grandmother’s pantry.

by descendants of the founding family while Progresso was sold to industry in the 70s and is now run by General Mills. I find it interesting that Progresso began with bread crumbs. Having been married to a Sicilian, I quickly learned that breadcrumbs were so much more than that in the poorest reaches of the island: muddicata replaced grated cheese on pasta, provided stuffing for eggplant, sardines and other ‘poor fish’ and actually replaced the meat in the Italian American meatball and, most importantly, found something to do with leftover bread which was – and still is – a sin to throw out. I cannot be sure but I’m willing to bet that Mr. Taormina likely thought canning his childhood memories and selling them was, indeed, progresso.

Stocking these two brands in each Italian home in pre-globalized America was as authentically Italian as one could get. They were considered as Italian as the fresh ingredients found at the markets around town. The fresh bread came from Borelli’s bakery; meat and sausage came from Vito’s, the neighborhood butcher who would provide the Italian cut of any meat for any occasion; pasta was either homemade or American made. Barilla had not yet made an appearance although De Cecco could be found. But mostly it was Prince gracing the tables of Italians in America.

Then I went to Italy and became, in my Maine-born Italian grandmother’s words, ‘more Italian than the Italians’. One might have likened me to the protagonist of that epic classic, “Breaking Away” had it not been for the fact that I was not a man, my father did not sell used cars nor did he expect me to, I did not come from Indiana and I was not athletic. I did watch Italian television- serial dramas, soccer games and inane variety shows I would come to despise much later. I even watched the stations of the cross around the Coliseum every Good Friday while my grandmother and I rolled out the dough for the Easter pies.

My grandmother’s recipes, soon-to-be-compiled in a family book, stand testimony to human geography as defined by food.

And I pretended to understand everything they were saying to the delight of my elders and the sheer frustration of my brother whose TV rights were given up for my higher objective of learning language and culture in a most unorthodox way; I listened to Italian music and I pretended to cook Italian food all the way through high school and college.

Once happily ingrained in Italian life to the point where I may not have been more Italian than the Italians but certainly more Italian than I was American, my then husband and I did everything our neighbors and our neighbors’ neighbors did: we bought seasonal, local vegetables and fruits at our local markets. We made a practice of going near to closing time (lunchtime) and often carted off a full crate of whatever the seasonal abundance was that week at half the price. This lead to sun-drying tomatoes, canning artichokes or eggplant, freezing asparagus, etc., etc.

When October came around, we’d fill the car with five and ten-liter jugs known as damigiane and we would head off to Chianti Puto, above Vinci (of Leonardo Da – fame). There we’d find our farmer-of-the-year (we’d switch, every few years, depending on chance, whim and differing tastes but it was always a question of excellent or slightly more so, never a question of hints of rose and cinnamon or terroir and shifts in wind or precipitation that season). He might be working on the olive trees, getting ready to harvest, or sitting in a wicker-bottomed chair seemingly made for a leprechaun with a hand-sewn cushion dozing or cleaning his thick nails with a whittling knife while listening to the Sunday soccer on the transistor radio. Either way, his wife would call to him, the dogs would rouse and bark and he’d have us back up to the cantina where he’d begin to fill the damigiane.

Damigiane are just larger versions of those liter bottles of Chianti in your favorite restaurants. Most Italians keep them in their garages or cantinas. These are wine damigiane, while oil damigiane also exist. Wine and oil are then bottled over time at home.

The same process would lead us to our year’s supply of olive oil in a month’s time at yet a different Tuscan farm. We’d also order wine and olive oil from friends and colleagues, many of whom had family members who made their own, adding to the variety in cold storage on our veranda. It was a variety born out of affection and ties to one part of the countryside as opposed to another; the quality still varied from excellent to slightly more

Grapes hang in the early morning summer sun on the Tuscan island of Giglio

so and the memories of a day spent with someone we loved or the laughs we’d had would be the motivator behind the choice.

The distinguishing fact between now and then is that this is what one did to spend a day, to save loads of money and, well, it is just what one did. The alternatives were cropping up in the shape of supermarkets but these were for toilet paper and cleaning supplies, rarely for anything else. No one in our circle of friends in Italy would ever contemplate forfeiting a morning at the local market or a Saturday out in the countryside to look for oil or fresh eggs, cheeses and vegetables for a stroll down an air-conditioned aisle.

Where we lived, we all came from various backgrounds: a Southern Italian faction of a North-Central Italian city. I often thought I’d chosen the “Brooklyn” of Italy, so varied were the dialects and accents in my neighborhood. One local friend had some Emiliano worked into her background and therefore in came the lasagne, the tortellino, la zucca. Others were Pugliesi from Foggia enter, therefore, thick, rich meat sauces and cima di rape. We were Sicilian and Italo-American: he brought capers; anchovies; baked, stuffed, fresh sardines; snails; aged cheeses with whole black peppercorns; wild fennel and wild anything, really. I brought Thanksgiving complete with stuffed turkey and pumpkin pies, Christmas cookies and thick, heavy tomato sauces made with canned tomatoes and meatballs which, like most Italian emigrants, had abandoned their peasant roots in favor of rich embellishment (in this case, in the form of three kinds of meat, cheese AND eggs and only a bit of bread) only to come back to the Old Country and boast. Much of what we ate, we picked (including the snails, ugh!). Again, making the foraging a precious part of the process.

We were responsible consumers without today’s hoopla around consuming responsibly. We enjoyed the table and its fruits, both edible and intangible. We proudly bought local (before we knew about chilometro zero). We shopped at the Tuscan-born chain, COOP and were (still are) card-holding members. We supported Arcigola, Circoli Arci, Feste dell’Unita’and I, for one, would have followed Dario Fo anywhere he suggested I go.

The Slow Food movement met with consensus and enthusiasm from a wide base of Italians initially. Then came the ambivalence: was this a heralding of solid, healthy, local customs or the beginning of a food elite?

When Slow Food became a movement born out of Arcigola, we were enthused. We began appreciating our wine and all of its hues and undertones beyond just “excellent”; we paid closer attention, maybe, to the origin of our traditions. We continued to go to festivals and sagre and bought Terra Madre magazine and our customs, though already thoroughly formed, were explained and validated. A movement was born.

The pie chart I refer to above, reflects not only a personal connection. Much of what I have done in my professional life in Italy has been to highlight, describe, explain and bring to experience the connections between land and table, city-dwellers and countryside, wine and olive oil production and the economic and social fabric of Italy. To experience Italy without any of this is not to experience it at all.

Take last night as one of so many fortunate examples: after a long, hot day at the beach, some friends and I gathered at one of our homes for dinner. Fresh goat’s cheese, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, wild mint and Sardinian bread were mixed in a bowl with olive oil and lemon; spelt was cooked in boiling, salted water, drained and served with zucchini and spices; peppers were steamed with onions; ice cold, paper thin carpaccio of sea bream was served on a bed of local greens. All was accompanied by local wines and finished off with homemade myrtle liquer. It was a fabulous dinner server by candlelight on a terrace in a working class neighborhood in Italy like so many others going on at that same moment in similar neighborhoods, each with its own local favorites. None of this was done with pretention or imitation. None of the people present, I suspect, will have ever heard of Chef Ramsay, The Barefoot Contessa or Nigella. Most will believe Slow Food and Gambero Rosso have made food pretentious and something it’s not. They, like many, will maintain correctly that it is not trendy in Italy to eat this way: it is just how people eat.

In 1989 Slow Food announced its objectives to the world and introduced its unmistakeable symbol: the snail, a local, recognizable symbol of slow and steady. It was a movement to herald customs such as these I’ve described and, in singing their praises, warn against their potential extinction in the face of a trend more marketable at the time: fast food. Slow Food was against the industrialization and dehumanization of the table. In the process, it highlighted the economic realities tied to food and even to food security and food scarcity. Food Culture has become a veritable academic field which delves into questions of development, hunger, human geography, anthropology and economics all through the availability, scarcity, trade, tradition and evolution of food around the world.

The movement since its inception can count numerous worldwide effects. Most pertinent to this article is that individuals around the [Western, wealthy, ‘developed’, outside of Italy] World have either changed their attitudes towards food or made a conscious effort not to. Either way, they most certainly have witnessed the debate between fresh, local, seasonal, healthy (and, in some places, expensive and elitist) and fast, easy, industrial and readily available. And cheap and populist.

This is when the conversation on local, seasonal food inevitably turns to money and economics. Good, local, healthy, seasonal food is costly and time-consuming, some maintain. Having witnessed the origin of the movement and what it stood for, I can attest that much of the reason one would buy from the farmer or coop in Italy is not so much the responsible investment in local economies, although this is certainly a knock-off effect, but mostly because what is seasonal, local and fresh has always been what costs less (and please note I am purposely staying away from the “organic” conversation). Basically, the seeking out and picking or purchasing of local foods provides both entertainment and nutrition: two budget lines in one. There is nothing so satisfying as foraging for your dinner and then making and enjoying it, all the while supporting your family budget and the local economy. This was the premise, I believe, of Slow Food. The meal with friends I describe above would be a costly meal in many trendy new eateries around the world while, in fact, it is the economical alternative in ours.

Just two weeks ago, three major openings took place in one very restricted area of Rome in a crescendo of economic development, forward-looking investment and partnership of public and private interest so dissonant with the status quo:

– a major engineering project which has been underway for over a year and locally dubbed “the bridge to nowhere” finally opened, taking traffic from the end of Circonvallazione Ostiense across the train tracks to via Ostiense. The jury is still out on the utility of such a massive structure but most agree it’s a welcome addition to the ever-gentrifying, post-industrial skyline.

– Italo, Italy’s first privately-owned train founded by Ferrari, fashion and football magnates, Luca Cordero de Montezemolo and Diego della Valle, began running fast train service from none other than Stazione Ostiense to Milan, Florence and Naples.

– And, thirdly, Eataly, the massive Ikea-like supermarket of all things deemed worthy of the consumer’s attention by its creators opened on- surprise, surprise- Italo’s reserved platform at Stazione Ostiense.

Is EATALY going to change more than the landscape of the neighborhood?

If only Italy could always pull off with such precision and aplomb endeavors of this sort! It was, in my mind, such a beautifully choreographed grand slam that the local consumers in the neighborhood hardly noticed the coincidence or, if they did, they really believed it was, in fact, coincidental. The neighborhood in question, Garbatella, has seen gentrifying efforts over the past 10-20 years beginning with the removal of the central wholesale markets and the founding of Rome’s third university which initiated the systematic re-generation of various industrial buildings which had long been in disuse. This past month’s events will hopefully contribute to the growth and charm of Rome’s new trendy neighborhood.

The world’s largest Eataly has opened in what was an empty shell of a building known as the Air Terminal. I say “known as” because it never was inhabited at all and turned out to be just one of many projects heavily funded in honor of the Jubilee year of the the Catholic Church which never materialized. Much more than Air Terminal, therefore, it became home to several hundred Afghan migrants over the years. And an eyesore. And an unfriendly reminder to everyone who walked or drove by that Rome is not as welcoming and progressive as one would hope.

While we are left with the question of where all of its former inhabitants went and why some of them weren’t employed by the massive enterprise, most are pleased to see the almost entirely glass building lit up and put to good use every night. Many are hopeful that such an investment in this area of Rome will lead to rising property values, more attention to roads and sidewalks from the local authorities, more visitors to the area on the part of other Romans, Italians and tourists, the demise of the horrific toy store next to it which looks more like a giant crack-house.

But let’s go back to the original theme to this reflection: food, its accessibility and our contribution to local economy by way of foraging for it. All of this attention to food and where it comes from stems from the premise of that handful of enlightened men and women who banded together initially with their snail to protest against the building of a McDonald’s in Piazza di Spagna, the Spanish Steps. I was here that year; I remember that battle. Alas, with that first McDonald’s, locally dubbed McSteps, flood gates opened and there were McDonald’s everywhere.

Their concerns were well placed. Waistlines have expanded, as have derrieres, and nutrition-related health has deteriorated since the global influences on food consumption hit this country: fast food from the US has been met with its domestic counterpart: one can now purchase ready-made frozen meals in the supermarkets. Much like our US children have been known to think french fries come from the freezer, so, too, do our Italian children lack a knowledge of the origins of their foods. Thanks to

A graph illustrating the onslaught of overweight and obese children by region by the National Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

these globalised cultural shifts, Italy’s first ever generation of child obesity is nearing child-rearing age. Eating and meal-taking is still much more a part of every Italian’s social and familial day than it is in that of your average American but things are changing quickly. More meals are skipped or taken on the run, more businesses stay open during the once widespread “pausa pranzo” or siesta. On the other hand, dinner is still generally at home and most still shop in local outdoor markets or at their neighborhood butcher, grocer, baker and fruit stand but supermarkets swell on weekends and during the holidays.

When I speak to students and visitors about adjusting to life in Italy, much of that has to do with timing and schedule. There still is a definite breakfast, lunch and dinner time here. Dictated by the season, they start earlier in winter but get pretty late in summer; this time of year, people have a light breakfast, lunch at 1 or 2 pm (depending on how far south you are) and dinner at about 9 or 10 (again, depending on how far south you are).

Now, with the arrival of Eataly to our neighborhood, much of this could be eradicated: it is open from 10 am – 12 am, seven days a week. This, in and of itself is a revolution. My heart did a little thump when I realized that I could finally, if I had to, shop after hours! If I need a liter of milk and the shops are closed, will I still go beg at the cafe’ in the square or will I be prompted to head over to the shiny, impersonal, Crate & Barrel of Italian food? Will Italians, bound to their eating schedule for centuries, now begin to ‘graze’ like Americans do? And, if so, how will their family and social lives be affected? What about their waistlines and overall health?

I struggle with Eataly, for with its glass elevators, designer chandeliers, open escalators and exquisitely designed selling space, it is a veritable temple to Italian design, ingenuity, taste and flavor. Yet, something has been lost: what Slow Food heralded so many years ago was the natural, unwitting backbone of this society. It put a name and a face to the habits of most Italians and their innate skill in the kitchen both as creators and consumers. The discerning palates of Italians cannot be certified by a course at the top of a glass temple to good taste; they are the product of generations of home-cooked goodness. And if the connoisseur of Italian goodness needs no certificate, even less so do its creators. Taking any Italian homemaker I know into Eataly smacks of presumption and commercialism. Presuming to tell those people who, by virtue of who they are and where they have spent their whole lives, what their local traditions are, how to prepare them and, while you’re at it, what very expensive bottle of wine to serve with them just rings phony. My own grandmother, while never even stepping foot in Italy held the torch to her long food tradition with her magical, innate ability to replicate flavors and aromas she had only seen re-created by her own mother who, in turn, had seen them imported and sacredly protected by hers. I once stopped for directions in a small cafe’ on a tiny country road near my great-grandfather’s hometown in Abruzzo. The family’s kitchen was to the rear of the cafe’, the door slightly ajar. The unmistakeable aroma of escarole soup when I walked in literally brought tears to my eyes. What a miracle that those smells and flavors had been protected along a narrow corridor from there to New England, across language and culture barriers and centuries when one cannot even find them in nearby Rome!

I struggle with Eataly because what was once affordable and a direct connection to the social and economic fabric of each town and city in Italy has gone around the world, been introduced to marketing strategies, packaging and design, outsmarted and intellectualized, analyzed, put in magazines and on tv, poshed up only to come back shiny, expensive and certainly not local. Of course, many of the products are certified Slow Food presidii; the others are chosen from local or regional suppliers. The presumption that quality is guaranteed is a fairly safe one. But the purse is a that of a large, international chain, not the local supplier. And the art and pastime of foraging such as that described above amounts to a paid parking lot and one massive, loud and frenetic indoor, air-conditioned space as opposed to a day out in the country with loved ones and friends. Some of my fondest, most love-filled memories are tied to those days and not, so much, those spent, in the words of Lucio Battisti, “in un grande magazzino una volta al mese“, “arm and arm in a supermarket once a month.”

In my struggle, I wandered and explored Eataly with this article in mind. I went from restaurant to restaurant, smells of fried fish (undoubtedly exquisitely so) mingled with the finest chianina steaks being grilled; noise reverberated throughout the open space and I was suddenly wheeling my double-tiered, plastic cart through the most delicious and expensive food court in the world. It was, nonetheless, a food court.

I spoke to a young woman who worked at the original Eataly in Turin and is now excited to be working at the Italian brewery within Rome’s Eataly where Balladin meets Birreria del Borgo and somehow intertwines with Dogfish Head (I cannot complain about this global matrimony but can only admit that most days it makes me very happy). Francesca recounted how she, too, struggles with the pretention of it all and the not-so-affordable prices. She thinks, though, that the good outweighs the bad; that young people are being educated about good food choices and, of no minor account, employed by Eataly. Regularly. With contracts. Not under the table. This, in Italy’s 2012, cannot meet enough praise. She, too, had heard of the building’s former inhabitants and wondered where they went and why they weren’t offered jobs even in the warehouses or parking lots but continues, “then, again, there are so many Italians out of work.”

I looked at the myriad of spices (exotic and not Italian) and thought longingly of my

Spices, rice, grain, fish, kosher and halal meats, fish and vegetables are available at the center of Rome’s only multi-cultural square’s marketplace: Piazza Vittorio

Saturday mornings at the market in Rome’s only, truly international neighborhood, Piazza Vittorio where I could buy cumin from a Bangladeshi stand and West African spices and plantains from a family from Cote d’Ivoire. Does having Eataly down the road mean I will no longer bask in those sounds, flavors, colors and voices around me in Piazza Vittorio?

I look at all the goodies I generally

Photos of market displays. Fish in Sicily, left. Figs in Rome, above.

pick up at the farmer’s market near Circo Massimo, Circus Maximus, where farmers from all over Lazio come to set up their stands every Saturday and Sunday. The Farmer’s Market, a veritable highpoint of my week, is less than 5 minutes away by car or Metro from Eataly. Europe’s only Solidarity Economy “City” complete with organic supermarkets and

other equo-solidali purchasing opportunities interwoven with viable, responsible enterprise is even closer. I wonder what will come of each come Fall.

My eye is drawn to the beautiful displays of fish and Sicilian delicacies and yet another favorite market comes to mind: the open market on the tiny island of Ortigia in the city of Siracusa, Sicily. Here is where I have relished in recent years when in Ortigia for work in purchasing tiny, salted capers or sun-dried, Pachino cherry tomatoes and other favorites for myself and my Sicilian family and friends who emigrated over 40 years ago to Tuscany. Now, that giddy pleasure of foraging so far away for such sun-packed flavors at such tiny prices is somehow supplanted by the realization that they soon will be able to go to their local Eataly (soon to hit Florence) and find everything they need. Minus the musical hawking in dialect.

I note with some pleasure and some regret that the same juices, yogurts, milk and cheeses I purchase at our local health food store do, in fact, cost less here. Well, there is a conundrum.

I end up leaving Eataly a product of the same consumeristic world I question having spent 98.00 euro! Twelve went to the very smart, lined and heavyweight shopper in navy blue with white piping and lettering, “Italy is Eataly”. Yes, I have paid for the privilege to advertise for them. I did end up buying milk (but only half a liter, the other half I’ll buy from my local place in honor of the conundrum) and yogurt. I also waived my “local only” rule for some raspberries and blueberries arrived fresh from the Italian Alps (by train, I hope). A Vermonter without her berries in summer is not a very happy Vermonter.

I bought gadgets for a friend’s birthday: a nifty milk frother, a silicone cylinder to peel garlic without getting stinky fingers and something I just couldn’t resist: a plastic egg which when boiled with eggs, sings three different tunes, indicating three different stages for the egg. The soft-boiled, my favorite and a personal challenge of mine, rings off a fitting “Killing Me Softly”. Ach! I’ve fallen for the shiny, colorful, “you-cannot-possibly-do-without-this” section!

Onto cosmetics, I find the exact same rassoul clay which was used on me in Istanbul when visiting the hammam. Surely, the exercise of whipping it up and applying it myself  in my porcelain tub will pale in comparison to the ancient ceramic halls of the women’s hammam and the full-breasted woman who sang beautiful whispers of Turkish prayers to me while she not-so-delicately saw to the proper treatment of my hair and skin. Surely, I’d never washed properly until then nor have I since. Maybe with my store-bought clay from my neighborhood Eataly, I can aspire to replicate that one beautiful, unforgettable morning.

There is much to be studied with the onslaught of this new addition to an ever-changing environment. As Italy strives with its ‘technical’ government to stay above the curve and leaders of local, municipal and regional organizations, universities and businesses attempt to innovate and re-generate with little or no funding, one can only hope that events such as the one culminating in the simultaneous opening of three major, innovative and modern enterprises actually do indicate stimulus and are as much or more of a symbol of progresso than those cans that lined my grandmother’s pantry.