Your question about how one approaches food is of special relevance to me right now as I find myself in the midst of a second year away from the foods and the groceries and the restaurants I was raised on: in other words, away from my food culture.
One of the longer-lasting struggles in our move, it seems, was also the most basic: how to shop. I have finally learned how to ask the butcher, in Italian, for macinata di bovino e suino (a mix of ground beef and pork), lucanica (the local, salty pork sausage) and, recently, nodini (a 1-inch think pork cutlet). I haven’t bothered much with cheeses, which are all white and taste essentially the same. However, I have learned that un-smoked Gouda is a decent substitute for cheddar and recently found, through a friend, Toniolo—an aged slab with nutty flavor and crystallized bits that is gorgeous to munch on and G can’t get enough of—but these I only buy when pre-cut and marked because the furious display of mothers and wives at the cheese counter have me scared off lest I order wrong and interfere in their seamless system.
There are weekly markets, too, where a local farmer sets her produce stand in the small town square (there’s a similar, portable cheese truck that comes around but, as I said, to order cheese mystifies me). Italians don’t queue and yet taking turns is necessary in these situations, so one draws a numbered ticket from a wheel, then pays close attention to the numbers as they’re called so as not to be skipped over. In fact, it’s more common that those waiting firmly present themselves and their number in turn to the produce seller rather than the seller having to keep track of numbers herself. Then, the produce must be asked for by name and not touched; the seller will select the clementine or lettuce on your behalf. My pronunciation of due and tre is, apparently, quite off: I think it’s how I stress the “e” or perhaps an incorrect rolling of the “r,” but I often receive two bananas and three finocchi when I had wanted three and two instead.
J will eat it in moderation, but I have come to love and seek out finocchi—fresh white fennel bulbs. They cook similar to onions but smell of anise and add a sweet flavor to fish or salty foods. I found a lucanica made with finocchi that lent just a slight sense of difference to a pasta sauce and, later, an omelette. It would have been amazing with polenta, which I have not yet learned to make.
And then there are chestnuts, which deserve and will get their own full blog entry with pictures soon for the way they fully overtook my approach to food over the fall and winter. During the harvest, three or more varieties of chestnuts could be bought in bulk at the grocery store or in the squares, labeled by the local forest they came from. And I’d hear, “Oh, Sardagna had their harvest and festival this week” and so on. Chestnut trees shade the local parks, and when the nuts began to fall the children would gather the castagne and present them to their parents (well, the older kids would mostly throw them). When the trees were bare, the nuts abruptly disappeared from the park grounds as well, and I imagine they were taken home to roast because why buy chestnuts in the store across the street when a full harvest was here and free beneath the swings and slide? On the bus into town, a young man dressed very much like a NY hipster/artist took a chestnut from his pocket, drew a face in pink and blue ballpoint pen on the nut’s white belly and presented it to G, who kept the present with her for weeks and weeks.
But all this doesn’t directly address your question. How do we eat? How do we cook? How do we plan meals and approach food? The ingredients have changed and even the recipes, but my approach to meals, I think, has been little affected by our move abroad.
A year into dating J, I chose to leave a job that paid the bills but was unhealthy in other ways. My new job covered rent but was not enough to live on, and J began to pay my grocery bill so that I wouldn’t have to move back home. We went shopping once a week and planned what our meals would be (we had apartments across the street from each other and would cook together after work). At the time, we ate lots of pasta with bell peppers and large breakfasts (bagels, scrambled eggs, sausage) on the weekends.
Eight years later, we still begin our weekend with a shopping trip, during which we plan the week’s dinner menu. Lunch is sometimes sandwiches or packaged soups or risotto and not as fully planned. One or both of us will end up at the store nearly every day to pick up fresh bread or a forgotten ingredient, but the bulk of the work is done on Saturday. I’ve seen families who write their weekly menu on a white or chalk board hanging in the kitchen. I would hate to get obsessive about it, but there’s something familial about this that I love and want for myself.
I remember shortly after we moved to Italy, you told me you looked forward to hearing about the new Italian recipes I would learn. I wondered then how any changes in our eating habits would play out, and I questioned whether our choices would get more or less Italian. As it turns out, I spent much of last year learning to cook American food or, if not American, anything not Italian so that we could surround ourselves, at home at least, with part of our home culture.
Yes, America has culture, and from a foodie perspective I’d say that our culture is not the fried or fats or additive-laden diets that are frequently thought of as “American” but, rather, an adventurous spirit and appreciation for diversity. While often criticized for our narrow worldview (we are, decidedly, not European), Americans are settlers and explorers. We love to try new things and look for diversity in our friendships, our pursuits and our dinners.
After a while—let’s say a year—Italian food began to taste a bit like “Oh no, not more Italian food.” While there is diversity in cuisine among the regions of Italy—risotto and polenta are the favorites of Trentino-Alto Adige—within any one region the flavors and ingredients can become a bit monochromatic. Yes, the lucanica is great, but can I please please please have some andouille from time to time? No? Bummer.
Casseroles are my family’s post-Great Depression heritage, and J’s upbringing in Arizona led to a love of Mexican recipes. Together in Alabama, we picked up a taste for Southern Comfort Food. It took a bit of exploring through Trento’s markets and groceries, and I’ve had to be creative in making from scratch what used to be a single ingredient (it adds an hour to any meal prep, but I can make cream of ____ soup with butter, flour, broth and herbs), but J and I now proudly cycle through the following not-strictly-Italian meals on a regular basis.
- Baked Chicken Chimichangas
- Spicy Chicken Enchilada Casserole
- Chicken Divan
- Chicken Korma (Thanks Uncle Ben’s jarred sauces from Eurospar!)
- Stir-Fry with Shitake Mushrooms and Bamboo
- Thai Spring Rolls with Peanut Satay Sauce
- Pork Chops in Chestnut Onion Gravy (an Italian-Southern US hybrid)
- Kentucky-style Beans n’ Rice (recipe from E & C, who assure me this is a Louisiana, not Kentucky, recipe)
- New Orleans-style Beans n’ Rice (from Emeril’s cookbook)
- Whole Roasted Chicken with White Wine and Garlic Sauce
Breakfast, which we sometimes eat for dinner:
- Homemade Bagels (takes about 2 hours, recipe makes 6-8)
- Southern Buttermilk Biscuits (Alton Brown’s recipe)
- Chocolate Chip Buttermilk Pancakes (secret ingredient: chestnut flour)
- Eggs Benedict (J makes the Hollandaise from scratch)
all best, JennAgain, I plan to write about chestnuts, and chestnut flour in particular, soon. And if anyone reading wants a recipe or a link to a recipe or a hint on where to find ingredients in Trentino, just let me know.