Some Notes on Food and Culture

Last week, a close friend sent out an email asking for her friends’ thoughts about food:  Do we eat with purpose or whatever crosses our paths? Do we plan menus or pull together what’s in the fridge? What role does food play in our lives? I’ve decided to post my reply to her question here, since it interacts with our lives in Trentino on a daily basis, from cappuccino and brioche for breakfast to fruit and gelato after dinner.

 

Dear E,

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.

Dinners:

  • Baked Chicken Chimichangas
  • Enchiladas
  • Spicy Chicken Enchilada Casserole
  • Fajitas
  • 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, Jenn

Again, 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.
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About JGR

I'm a writer and college instructor traveling the world with my husband and two young daughters. After eight moves in eleven years, in 2014 we decided to plant new roots in Fort Collins, Colorado. Time to buy bicycles and teach the girls how to ride!
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4 Responses to Some Notes on Food and Culture

  1. Dana says:

    Hi Jenn,
    “This sounds exciting and exotic, but it isn’t.” — Thanks for the laugh this morning on the disclaimer here.

    All I can say is I can absolutely relate to the experience of wanting anything, but Italian. We can get pretty decent sushi in the nearby city and have even found a Indian place in Padova that has proven to have quite tasty offerings…otherwise, it’s all Italian, all the time, which gets pretty boring in these parts. Veneto is not exactly known for its cuisine. The only respite is offered in the better (= expensive) restaurants that we’ve found, but even in those places it’s usually a variation on the same theme.

    I’ll be on the lookout for that Chicken Karma in a jar. . . hmmmm.

    Bon apetito!
    Dana

    PS. I have to disagree about the cheese. It’s good. There’s lots of variety! What do you mean it tastes the same? (Admittedly, though, my favorite is French, and not Italian.)

  2. Jenn says:

    Ah, Dana, I LOVE cheese but, as you said, FRENCH! Most of the cheeses available at my local market are “la nostra” — local Trentino/Alto-Adige fare. I ordered a cheese plate for dinner shortly after we arrived in Trento, excited to try out 7 local cheeses. The only differences I could discern were the shapes on my plate — a triangle here, a rectangle there. It’s bland in flavor and texture. Bries and blue cheeses and some chevres can be found, but they’re pricey and not great. So sad.

    Now French cuisine–the wine, the bread, the cheese, the sauces–wow, those guys know how to cook and eat! Though perhaps for every meal and every day even French food could wear me down?

  3. Audra says:

    Hello! I just happened upon your blog from Expats. I’m ricciolina there, by the way.

    Anyway, I laughed at this post. I totally agree with you! Italian food is great but after a while, it’s like “oh nooooooo! I want chicken vindaloo. :(”

    When I lived in Reggio I dragged my boyfriend at the time with me one night to Modena to try out his favorite pizzeria. The pizza place turned out to be closed that night but on the other corner of the block there was… sushi! A great site for sore New York eyes like mine. So I took his hand and made him go. He’s American too but had never eaten it. It turned out he loved it, and then we actively searched out more sushi in Reggio and found a great place called Shibuya. If there is one by you, go to it!

    All this was basically to say: I love Italian food, but I need more variety once in a while!

  4. Jess says:

    Love this post!!! It’s so hard to explain to people why you just want to eat some Asian food when you live in *Italy!!*.
    Anyways, agree whole-heartedly with everything you say!

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