An Alimentography: My Food History

I was raised by hippies. My earliest years, nomadic and communal, were followed by a period I’d describe as urban homestead-ish living. We grew our vegetables. We drank milk delivered to our house in a massive cask. We kept chickens. My memories of that time, of shooing stubborn hens from nests and the pliant warmth of a just-laid egg in my hand, live alongside images of headless bloody creatures bobbing about the yard. We shopped at funny-smelling markets, drab, randomly-stocked places where the only thing to tempt a child’s attention—I was all too aware of the difference between their dubious brown-paper-wrapped ‘treats’ at check-out and the candy bars and bubble gum a normal supermarket offered—were the impossibly long beards of those sandaled, smiling cashiers.

Home-made, natural, preservative-free. The buzzwords of today’s food movements were taken for granted in that peculiar slice of 1970s West Coast culture, as I’m sure many reading this will recall. My mom baked with carob (remember carob?), honey, and whole wheat flour, producing brick-like cookies that weighed down my lunch pail and brought the ridicule of my classmates during the lunchtime swapping ritual. Soda pop was absolutely, punishably forbidden. A Saturday night indulgence in our house was popcorn dusted with brewer’s yeast. My parents made me wear a t-shirt sporting the slogan ‘If you love me, don’t feed me junk.’ They took pictures of me in it.

The values of those who raised me combined with our economic circumstances meant two things for my childhood diet: I ate what was put in front of me, and I ate real food. Fickleness was as unacceptable as Hostess snack cakes. (I am not alone, surely, in questioning whether many of our current food issues couldn’t be resolved by a universal return to those two basic principles. For those who would cry who’s got the time? or my kids are just too picky! I invite you to read this.) The food rules of my childhood, right-seeming and well-intentioned though they were, did not, however, set me on a life-long path of healthy eating. Although my diet was comprised of real food, such a restrictive regime was antithetical to the discovery of individual taste, developing food tolerance, and fostering an appreciation of variety. This ‘flavor deprivation’ of my youth no doubt contributed to an adult obsession with food, cooking, and eating, much like the no-television rule played a part in turning me into the unrepentant TV junkie I am (the irony is not lost on me, I assure you). That those rules wreaked havoc on my teenage tastes and behaviors is certain; and with the relative freedom of high school came a complete rebellion—McDonalds fries, soda pop, frightful cafeteria fare. I indulged in every greasy, sugary, manufactured foodstuff I could get away with. Factor in the discovery of alcohol, and those years stand out as poisonous indeed.

Things balanced out. My twenty-something life was frugal, a studio-apartment and student-loan-funded existence subsidized by part-time campus jobs and the occasional windfall (invariably spent on microbrews). I was a strict vegetarian most of those years, limited means and personal taste dictating my eating habits for almost a decade. It was a good life; I was never deprived. A weekly grocery budget of circa $50 went far for a single vegetarian in the 1990s, and I was content to subsist on rice and pasta prepared in manifold ways, all kinds of beans and vegetables, and a few non-negotiable dairy products like yogurt, cheddar cheese, cream for good coffee. Regrettably, I drank soy milk and ate tofu regularly then, too. But that’s another story.

Beneath the pragmatism of that meat-free life simmered an unfocused social consciousness, a vague sense of the ‘rightness’ of abstaining from meat. Yet, if pressed to explain my eating choices, as vegetarians inevitably are, I’d say only that they felt ‘natural,’ that meat in all its forms made me ‘uneasy.’ Which was true. I’d never much liked meat as a child. I was one of those kids suspicious of any meat-like substance in a sandwich, who would furtively set aside cold-cuts or hamburger patties then proceed happily with two slices of soggy bread. Still, such an ambiguity as that which laced my vegetarian days was not unlike, say, trying on bisexuality or joining a nudist colony—just a casual lifestyle experiment to see if it would stick. Often I didn’t speak of it, evoking no small amount of consternation from the occasional dinner host whose filet mignon or barbeque ribs I rebuffed without explanation. It seems to me now that the avoidance of heated arguments, those frequent accompaniments to any serious discussion of vegetarianism and related geo-socio-political implications, was a significant factor in how I addressed (or not) my vegetarianism back then. It meant too little to me to defend. And it didn’t stick.

What stuck—you’ll forgive the hint of smugness—was an open mind about food. I came away from those meatless years with insight into the versatility of any eating style. I learned the delightful role of herbs and spices in cooking, relying heavily on them to enliven what could have otherwise been a monotonous diet indeed. Friends introduced me to the state-of-pure-bliss that is Indian vegetarian cooking, taught me recipes thanks to which I began to comprehend the infinite possibility in a non-meat diet (recipes I still cherish today). I was living, vigorous proof that vegetarianism does not equal self-denial, or famine-like protein deficiency. Frankly, I was enjoying the healthiest period of my forty-some years. So why didn’t I stick with it?

I’d come to understand how uncomfortable vegetarians make meat-eaters. The choice to not eat meat evokes reactions ranging from harsh, ignorant judgments to harmless curiosity in the form of off-putting questions. Vegetarianism is a label, a stigma-like badge reluctantly brandished come mealtime; and the ongoing ‘discussion’ that garnished nearly ever meal I ate with others, a form of social pressure I was ill-equipped to withstand, began to wear me down, and with each passing year the energy required to sustain such a defensive position slipped away. Ultimately the experience of vegetarianism benefited me far beyond physical health: it expanded my kitchen repertoire and broadened my outlook on food, fortuitous consequences indeed for a one-day food enthusiast and blogger. I simply lacked the conviction, and the plain old-fashioned will power, to keep it up.

Prawns were my gateway meat. Renouncing beef, chicken, pork, et al had been easy, but living without my favorite fish and sea foods for those years was, I admit, almost insufferable. I remember with perfect clarity the day I broke with vegetarianism, the first time in over seven years flesh of any kind passed my lips. It was my birthday. My aunt had taken me out for a fancy brunch. A prawn cocktail display, a tempting fan-work of the freshest pink beauties on ice, got my attention. As I stood there staring, gauging my resistance, wondering if I really wanted to resist, a white-gloved server behind the buffet spoke to me: “Smoked salmon omelet, miss?” He was already preparing one, delicately placing strips of rich and savory melt-in-your-mouth-ness onto the egg-ladled skillet. Then dollops of cream cheese, a sprinkling of fresh chive. I was done for. I said, ‘yes, please’ to the omelet and piled my plate with prawns.

These many years later, with vegetarianism a distant memory, I still think vegetarians are on to something. Part of me will always have misgivings about eating animals. Even as I sauté, boil, braise and bake them to my liking, dark suspicions often invade my consciousness: that future generations will regard meat-eating as a barbaric, gluttonous evil (a lot of people already believe this, of course); that we will be judged immoral, un-evolved nitwits based on our consumption and treatment of animals; and, most troubling of all for me, that one day science will reveal irrefutable evidence that many of the animals we dismiss as ‘lower’, as incapable of feeling or cognizance, do in fact experience their lives with an awareness far more sophisticated than we presume. That they know on some level we raise them for the purpose of being eaten. And they don’t like it.

Those who study animals, or who work or live closely with animals in any capacity, must entertain these or similar doubts from time to time, I’m convinced. Think of a chimpanzee nursing her baby, the humpback whale’s song and mating rituals, the way your dog looks at you when you’re packing for a trip he is not to be included on (how do they always know?). Comfortably for us, we do not eat chimpanzees; on the other hand, your culture and your world-view will dictate your use of the other animals mentioned above. If you, meat-eater, cringe at the thought of a dog being served as a meal, or believe whales merit protection from hunting, then ask yourself why? Why them, but not the lowly pig, hen, cow? Is it based on what we believe about animal intelligence? Why do we cast ourselves so selectively in the role of guardian for some few animal species? Does our historical relationship with certain animals, dogs and horses for instance, influence our judgment (and biases) about animal use and consumption? And who among us hasn’t let the ‘cuteness factor’ influence our meat-consumption choices at least once in our lives? It’s hard to hide our hypocrisies, our limited knowledge and self-serving perspective on the animal world, when these questions arise. That vegetarians have considered these thorny subjects and made their choice, accepting their carved-out niche of society, renouncing the ease of the mainstream so they might eat and live in accordance with their conscience every single day, is something I respect tremendously.

(When I was younger, though I could hardly have articulated it, the notion that humans exercise unchecked authority over as many other life forms as nature allows troubled me. I despised the argument that we are the planet’s superior life form and thus entitled to make use of animals as we wish. But how can one challenge this? The very faculties that render us capable of formulating such theories—reason, self-awareness—are those that doom us to an anthropocentric fate, in all spheres of our comings and goings on this planet. What’s more, many of humanity’s traditional cultural legacies reinforce our assumed supremacy. A major theme of the Book of Genesis, for instance, a text as influential on Western civilization as any, is man’s God-granted dominion over the animal world. I will not dismiss or conveniently overlook the complexity of this discourse; layer upon layer of cultural and historical components must be measured in and mulled, I realize, and even then no single proclamation on the nature of our relationship with the animal world can be distilled thence. I offer this aside to demonstrate, rather, how cultural forces are always with us, regardless of our individual religious beliefs, shaping how we think about and use earth’s other life forms—influences so intrinsic, in short, that our awareness of them matters little. While still considering myself ‘aware,’ I cannot deny that the idealistic sheen of my youth has all but rusted off; and with some sorrow I acknowledge that the years distancing me from that twenty-something version of myself have corrupted my thoughts on this and many other topics, coating them with a cynicism more befitting my age.)

The year I moved to Italy coincided more or less with a final farewell to vegetarianism; or, put differently, it was a milestone event that ushered in a complete return to a meat-eating life. Having occurred within a broader context of so much discovery, the countless minute experiences that would gradually cultivate an interest in Italian food and foodways were for many years mere seedlings. Only later, when a ‘real’ life in Italy began to take shape, did I start to recognize a growing passion. More to the point, my entire perspective on food, from how I perceived the social act of eating to my understanding of taste, nutrition, culinary styles and traditions, food supply, handling, preparation, and even food myths, all underwent a transformation, following a few different micro-currents. Firstly, there was meat.

I was still very connected to vegetarianism when I arrived in Italy, in my mind and, to lesser extent, my habits: I was back on fish, dabbling in chicken, looking sideways at pork and beef. When I saw how easy eating vegetarian in Italy could be, given the predominant grain- and vegetable-based diet (and cheese—I was no whacky vegan, after all. Kidding!), I realized that in terms of practicality, returning to my former ways would have presented no logistical or economic problems. But early on I also began to discern the Italian attitude towards vegetarianism generally, one probably best described as dubious. To explain: Meat is associated with abundance in Italy, a meatless diet with peasant-like poverty. Meat on the table signifies in a 20th-century historical context the end of want, economic recovery, social progress even. It is also, for many, better. Like France, Italy’s beef comes from smaller farms; while Italy’s food system is not perfect, industrial feedlots are not the norm. Pasture-fed beef is taken for granted. (Personal taste preferences aside, the differences between grass-fed and grain-fed are evident; related, corn and corn products have none of the pervading influence here, nor the inexplicable tendency to end up on every food label imaginable, as in America, but that’s yet another story.) Moreover, Italians, like other European consumers, will not tolerate hormones in their food products, and have overall successfully blocked GMOs from entering their mainstream food systems. I’ve observed, too, that Italian meat-eaters eat less meat, less frequently, than American meat-eaters. Freed from the range of evils industrial meat production begets, and believing that meat is good for us (healthy), if the meat we are eating is good (quality), most Italians look on the voluntary renunciation of meat with skepticism. Understandable.

Although this Italian perspective does not exactly reconcile with my own, the influence of the Italian way of doing things has, I admit, made it somewhat easier for me to live with my own moral and epicurean weakness. Curiously, giving up vegetarianism when I did actually facilitated a transition to life here, my cultural acclimatization if you will, as I now know the vegetarian me would have faced greater social obstacles, with great potential to ostracize, than those to which I’d already conceded defeat back home; and, had I not moved to Italy, surely a tiny part of the former vegetarian in me would have always felt like a sell-out in the U.S. Here in Italy, not at all. There is an undeniable touch of the irrational in this apologia, I realize. While siding with vegetarians on the theoretical level, I continue to eat meat ‘guilt-free’ thanks to location? To an accidental turn of my life’s events, essentially? What can I say? I know I’ll never be wholly, unquestioningly okay with meat-eating, and at times I do wonder if I’d have it in me go back—if I’ve any shred of conviction left, or the courage to take on what would certainly amount to a massive dose of domestic disruption and social awkwardness. For now, the answer is no.

I changed physically in Italy, too. I still have trouble accounting for, biologically-speaking, the changes I experienced during the first year I lived here. I suspect what happened was this: When you leave America for any significant amount of time, your body undergoes a kind of upheaval. While adjusting to the sudden, almost absolute absence of processed, pre-fabricated foods, I went through something similar to withdrawal. I cannot say if there is any physiological evidence to substantiate this. What I know is that it felt like being cut off cold-turkey-style from a daily fix. Although I was not very mindful of these things while they were happening, I do remember feelings of euphoria accompanied by sudden bouts of anxiety and irritableness, all of which could be accounted for by the stimulation and stress of adjusting to life in a foreign culture, no doubt. But I’d also started losing weight immediately, with zero effort or intention on my part and while consuming, daily, pasta, bread, gelato, cheese and wine. It didn’t make any sense. My energy output was the same, or very close to, as before; and, on the surface of things at least, since my early twenties I’d eaten pretty darn well back home. Or so I thought. I had limited junk food, spurned soda pop, ate out rarely. Looking back, I believe it came down to having my diet stripped completely of hidden evils, those ‘diet-friendly’ processed foods and high-fructose corn syrup-saturated foods, which had of course been a factor in my, like most American’s, diet, ‘healthy’ or otherwise. The sudden removal of these things led to the body-shock I described above and brought on a bizarrely effortless weight loss—about 35 pounds over the course of six months. I called it the wine and gelato diet. Those were good times.

Changes on the level of my food-culture make-up, if you will, occurred as well. Once removed from America, I developed a hitherto non-existent appreciation of, and longing for, American food—the classic, wonderful foods of our winter holidays and summer picnics. Simultaneously, for the first time in my life I was privy to outsider observations of American foodways. How unfortunate that the ugliest aspect of our food culture, the fast- and processed-food obsession, is also the most notorious throughout other parts of the world! We Americans know the greatness of our classic home-style foods, but to the rest of the world we are mindless eaters with no flair for cooking or respect for food (or our bodies). As I settled into my Italian life, with all of these factors noted above at play, I made an effort to stay connected to American cooking in my own kitchen. Pride, in part, compelled me: I wanted to show the Italians in my life the true American cuisine, to dispel their assumptions about us. And I simply couldn’t imagine a life without those foods of my childhood and young adulthood: potato salad, a really great cheeseburger, home-made onion rings, beef stew, clam chowder, apple pie, and so on. My definition of American cooking also includes Mexican food—possibly my favorite of the world’s cuisines—and although it requires focused planning, improv, and visits to several different stores to pull off a Mexican meal worthy of its name, I do so as often as I can manage, for the same reasons I always roast a bird of some sort on Thanksgiving (a work-day) and always make frosted sugar cookies at Christmas time. I enjoy keeping American food traditions, bastardized though they may be, alive in my Italian home.

It was in Italy, too, that I became something of a bold eater. That fellow on television who eats eyes and insects will scoff, yet for me trying chicken liver pâté, squid ink sauce (it turns your tongue black!), and boiled octopus salad all in the same year represented the height of culinary adventure. Even foods familiar to me, like artichokes, took on a new aspect in Italy. I’d grown up eating artichokes in the steam & dip the leaves way—and indeed nostalgia often has me cooking them this way still—but imagine my delight when I encountered tender, raw artichokes in a salad, or the meat used as the base of a pasta sauce! I was learning to reconsider all my former limited assumptions about the basic food stuffs of my California life.

That my new home should be among people whose love of eating food is matched only by their love of discussing food is something I shall forever wonder about. Would I have taken this food-focused detour in my life had I moved to a country where every single citizen is not an opinionated, very vocal food expert? To those who’ve not spent time in Italy or around Italians, this characteristic is not one easily conveyed. I like how John Dickie puts it in Delizia! as he describes how one may gain entry into an Italian conversation about food by uttering the words ‘According to (Pellegrino) Artusi’ —

Any non-Italian who has dined with a group of Italians has experienced becoming suddenly invisible and inaudible when the conversation turns to food—as it almost invariably does. The sense of isolation increases the longer the other guests continue to exchange stories, precepts and lapidary opinions: ‘There is only one way to make a castagnaccio (a flat chestnut flour cake)…’ or ‘Where have all the old osterie (cheap eateries) gone?’ Short of undressing or setting themselves alight, there is nothing that outsiders can do to attract their companions’ attention, let alone grapple a way back into full membership of the conversation. Nothing, that is, except to wait for a lull and utter the words, ‘Secondo l’Artusi…’

As I’ve been re-working these final paragraphs, surrounded by working-class Italians commuting home like myself, a group across from me has been discussing summer vegetable minestra—how their mothers and grandmothers prepared it, the best soffritto method, whether it can (or rather should) be frozen; the crucial drizzle of an impeccable, young Tuscan olive oil; and the indispensable sidekick, a slice of grilled, preferably day-old, crusty bread. They are men and women, thirty-somethings and sixty-somethings and all somethings in between, and although their conversation will touch on many diverse topics before arriving at their respective destinations, it is this discussion—of how to make a vegetable soup—that engages them longest, with more passion and violent-seeming hand gestures, than all others. They shout and jeer and gasp at each other’s ideas. One faction, the traditionalists, lambastes the heretical thinkers for their absurd suggestion of sprinkling hot pepper flakes on minestra. The heretics in turn proclaim themselves all’avanguardia, ahead of their time, which provokes more eruptions of laughter and protest. Observing them has both my head and my stomach stimulated and alert. I think I’ll make a minestra tonight. At home.

One thought on “An Alimentography: My Food History

  1. mom

    You know I loved this, when I miss you the most I re-read your work. It is so good.
    Thanks Amy for putting it all down!! I learn so much from you.

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