Traveling through Italy for almost 2 months was a revelation on too many levels to enumerate. I’m still processing my time there and can’t wait to go back. Obviously the biggest lessons and experiences there centered around food as I was sent as a delegate to the 2014 Slow Food Terra Madre conference. But the beauty of Italy was that my food education started weeks before we even got to Turin for the conference.
Italy reminded me exactly why I have sought for and loved conscious food for so long. Not only has it been about the fact that I loved Slow Food and it’s philosophy since before I ever knew it existed, but it’s a mirroring of the longing I’ve held so deeply in my heart. Food is connection that nourishes us in the most profound way to all of creation. It is not just about nourishing our bodies, it is about land, belonging, community, and the very nature we are a part of, but have spent so much time in modern times to separate from. Food and the way we interact with it, from seed to plate has the power to return us to wholeness in relation to all that exists in the natural world. It is this reconnection that our souls long for and try to remedy by stuffing ourselves with all manner of things that seem to miss the mark.
The Italians seem to really get this. Really, it’s just an ingrained part of their culture that has been true for centuries. Regional cuisine is something to be valued, protected and perfected. And while eating in different parts of the country and paying attention to who people spoke of food and ingredients and dishes belonging to certain localities, I intuitively picked up on some valuable lessons I’ve brought back home with me:
1. Real Food. This is actually an entire blog post in and of it self which will come later. But really ask yourself what REAL food is. I did. And none of the answers I got back from myself mentioned once, anything that was boxed, processed or more than one step removed from it’s original form. My grocery buying is pretty whole, but upon returning from Italy, I stopped buying non dairy creamer. If it’s not actual milk… why drink it?
2. Slow is the way to savor. A meal can last a couple of hours. As well it should. Food isn’t just fuel, it’s an experience to be enjoyed, shared, talked over and savored utterly. Pleasure is just as nourishing as wholesome food and an integral part of a good meal. See #5.
3. Have land, will plant. It doesn’t matter how small the strip of dirt is. If there is soil, something has to be growing in it, and usually it’s edible. Growing your own food, even if it’s just one plant is important, natural and I dare say, instinctual. Urban dwellers that live in places where the soil is sealed with stone and concrete? Planters, many many planters – on stoops, in window sills, on balconies and rooftops. Why wouldn’t we all be growing the things we love to eat?
4. Foods kept whole and simple in the cooking have the most flavor and pleasure to offer. Good food isn’t processed, packaged and denatured. The thing is… it seems that EVERYONE knows this in Italy, even in the urban centers. There is even a sense of fierce pride over this bit of wisdom. Good whole food is serious business.
5. Pleasure is a celebration of life and it’s a duty. To not savor and revel in pleasure is a sin against the very life we hold. This is serious business and I believe our country’s puritanical roots has done much to harm us today. Our conflictual relationship to pleasure has lead to imbalances of binges and famines, addictions and endless inner conflicts over it, on all levels, not just food.
Pleasure is not a bad thing. It is in fact, integral to a good life and a healthy soul. See #2.
6. Locality, regionality and terroir are fiercely loved and celebrated. This comes from a connection to the land people live on. What grows in a region seasonally is known by all. The local cuisine is shaped by what actually grows in that region and people are loyal to this cuisine because they are deeply connected to the land they live on. There is an awareness and love for the earth, what it provides and how it lends identity to people, culture and location. I know in my bones that this level of awareness and connection enriches our experience of life.
7. Frozen food is reason to apologize. As in… it’s not fresh. On menus you’ll literally have an asterisk here and there next to a dish. When you look down at the bottom to see what it means, you’ll read that it’s telling you some items in that dish may have been previously frozen. It’s almost an apology. This is how important fresh food is. Imagine a world in which frozen food is cause for an apology, or a disclaimer. Each time I saw this on a menu, I got a bit misty because I actually felt cared for. I felt a level of value placed in what was given to me in these restaurants that I’d never felt before. It humbled me. Another topic for a future post!