Respecting the Italian way of life.

Rob and I this summer spent 10 days in Italy. Ten glorious days. We started in Lucca, a charming town in Tuscany, then spent a full week in Bologna, the spiritual center of Italian food and the capital of its breadbasket, Emilia-Romagna. I simply can’t rave enough about Bologna, with its lovely architecture, its narrow cobbled streets and its food shops.

Oh, its food shops! The Quadrilatero, a maze of tiny streets lined with produce vendors, butchers and salumerias, fresh pasta shops, cheese emporia … you can’t even imagine. It was bliss. Even the neighborhood just outside the Centro Storico (the city center), where we stayed for the week, had lovely food shops that met our every daily need: the latteria with its dairy goods and other essentials, the pasticceria with homemade breads and pastries, the salumeria with meats and charcuterie, the produce stall with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. All right around the corner from our apartment.
We rented an apartment specifically so we could cook. Going into all those lovely shops and not purchasing yummy things to make would have broken my heart. I would say that we cooked a ton while we were in Bologna (we ate dinner at “home” every night), but we didn’t do more than boil water for pasta and slice tomatoes and mozzarella for caprese salads. We cooked—and ate—simply and well.

Weeks after we returned, Italy is still in my heart. I have no claim to it, but I miss it dearly. While they are fresh, I wanted to journal a few impressions of Italian food and culture, impressions that I intend to incorporate into my daily life here in the U.S.

Traveling outside the States is so richly informative, because it opens your eyes to how other people and cultures exist in the world. No country is perfect, certainly not ours. I observed so many practices and norms and ways of doing things in Italy that inspired me to live differently here.

Take food. Food in Italy is ridiculously inexpensive. Like half of what it costs here. A great bottle of wine was 10 euros. A 2-pack of yogurt was 1 euro. A liter of water was about 19 cents. I don’t know why that is. But it was noteworthy.

At the same time, food is very high quality. Fresh. Local. Yes, we were living for the week in Italy’s breadbasket; the peaches and apricots the apartment owner left for us on the kitchen table were from their own fruit farm outside the city. While we didn’t venture into a large grocery, everything we saw, even in the tiniest shops, was of the highest quality.

Perhaps because food is so high quality, Italians don’t overconsume it. There’s a respect for food—and the people who grow, prepare and sell it. Portion and package sizes are sensible; waste is minimal. For Italians, the hunger and deprivation of war are not-too-distant memories. Food is valued. Maribel, who taught the cooking class I loved in Bologna, spoke with great seriousness about not wasting the scraps of our homemade pasta, because the previous generation knew what starvation felt like. We owed it to them to not waste food.

Home life is designed for a small footprint. Refrigerators are half the size of what they are here. You shop for just a few days at a time. (Which isn’t at all an inconvenience, because the shops are literally down the block.) There’s practically no mass-produced, prepared, boxed-and-frozen food. Because ingredients are so fresh and dishes are so simple, it’s not a hassle to cook every day. And if you’re exhausted and can’t turn on the stove, there are fresh house-made salads, meats and cheeses in the market right beyond your doorstep. Or the neighborhood trattoria.

Everything gets recycled. In our apartment’s kitchen, there were separate, sturdy totes for paper, glass/metal and plastic. And a bin by the sink for food scraps. Each household is responsible for sorting and managing their trash and carrying it out to big bins on the street. With homes, streets and cars packed in so tightly, there’s no room for every home to leave a bulky trashcan on the sidewalk, and no room for trash trucks to trundle along once a week picking up bins one by one. Trash, like so much of life in Italy, is a communal effort, and it fosters a small footprint.

It was all so different … so small, so self-contained, so minimal … compared to life in the States. Americans think it’s our birthright to have endless choices in the grocery, to expect huge portion sizes when we dine out, to drive a XXXXL-sized vehicle, to live in a house that’s twice what we need, to buy as much cheaply made clothing as we want. And where does all this multiplicity of choice leave us? With food-induced health and environmental crises, sprawl, long commutes, disconnect from community, and a closet full of regrettable purchases. Heck, you can pay money to hire a company to haul away all that stuff you bought that you never needed (or wanted) in the first place. Bigger, bigger, bigger, more, more.

Immersing myself in Italian life, for just a brief week, made me feel sad about many aspects of American life. I’m not sure there’s a solution … or that most folks even see this as a problem. As for me, I’ll keep working toward the motto that Rob and I have set for ourselves:

Live analog. Live slow. Live small. Live local.

Healthy fast food: how much of a pipe dream is it?

I’ve always liked Mark Bittman’s recipes, but I’m glad he’s moved over to the Opinion pages at The New York Times. He’s joining the voices of Marion Nestle (whom I heard speak recently, a real thrill) and Michael Pollan and others (and why aren’t there more of those others??) in advocating for serious change to our agroindustrial food system. Amen.

There are two fronts for this effort toward change: at home and in restaurants. Bittman’s latest story for The New York Times Magazine addresses restaurant food—particularly fast food.

What I’d like is a place that serves only good options, where you don’t have to resist the junk food to order well, and where the food is real — by which I mean dishes that generally contain few ingredients and are recognizable to everyone, not just food technologists. It’s a place where something like a black-bean burger piled with vegetables and baked sweet potato fries — and, hell, maybe even a vegan shake — is less than 10 bucks and 800 calories (and way fewer without the shake). If I could order and eat that in 15 minutes, I’d be happy, and I think a lot of others would be, too.

His conclusion: Yes, healthful fast food is possible—and it’s gaining traction. Healthful fast food won’t be as cheap as the Dollar Menu (of the three—fast, cheap, healthful—it seems we can have two). Small fast-casual restaurants in California (natch) are leading the way. But there’s hope: Chipotle started out with just one outlet, and look at where they’ve come.

Read more of Bittman’s article: Yes, Healthful Fast Food is Possible. But Edible?

Fast food: Why we need to slow down

We eat in our cars, at our desks, on the go, in front of the TV. We eat drive-through, take-out, delivered, packaged and prepared meals.

We need to slow … down.

Consumer trends around the globe show that over the past three decades people are purchasing more prepared foods at the grocery and eating out more. It’s projected that we’ll spend a record amount at restaurants in 2011. We’re consuming an increasing number of calories and bigger portions. Simultaneously, we’re getting less healthy.

While debates rage over the food industry’s contribution to our growing waistlines and our resulting health problems, the bottom line is this: What we eat, where we eat and how we eat are all 100% under our control. We can choose to eat a fast-food lunch on the go (spending that extra $6 and adding 150 calories to our day). We can throw a frozen meal in the microwave and call it dinner.

Or, we can dedicate an hour of the day to cook and enjoy a meal with our families. We can spend a few minutes in the morning to eat a healthy breakfast. Eating sensibly doesn’t take much time or money, but it does require you to make a conscious decision to do so. Here are some steps you can take:

Respect food. Prepare it with love, enjoy it with mindfulness, use it to your healthy benefit.

Shop your local farmers’ markets. Studies on both coasts have shown that farmers’ market produce is comparably priced to grocery produce—and it’s much fresher, it’s better for the local economy and it’s more sustainable.

Be mindful of what you put in the shopping cart. Why buy salad dressing that’s full of high-fructose corn syrup and preservatives, when you can make your own salad dressing for much less money and better health?

Be careful about coupons. Buy-one-get-one on PopTarts seems like a good deal. But is it? Is that coupon prompting you to buy something you don’t want or need?

Read more about these and other steps you can take toward your own slow-food movement and eating healthier today in my article for SparkPeople.com: Why a Fast-Food Nation Needs a Slow-Food Movement.