There are a lot of reasons people study abroad in Italy, but the biggest one is for the food. People assume (pretty much rightly so) that if they opt to live with a family, a plump, loving Italian mamma will serve them up five-course meals of homemade, homegrown, homecrafted Italian comfort food and provide them with an unlimited supply to delicious house wines. Or was it just me. No! It was practically printed in the study abroad pamphlet.
My Italian mamma, Caterina, was the size of a mouse and kind of looked like one, and lived with her boyfriend in an apartment on Via Masaccio. She was a self-proclaimed fascist who hardly spoke a word of English, other than, oddly enough, “bomb all the Iraqi babies!”, which she said with vigor. When I misspoke Italian, she smacked me on my wrists. She never slept and had cigarattes for dinner instead of food. I think Caterina requested hosting two vegetarian students because she thought vegetarians ate less, so she was probably surprised to get Desira and me, who are big eaters with a crippling weakness for lots of wine.
The first day in Florence I spent the whole day wondering what kind of glorious meal we would eat together at our first family dinner. Dinner ended up being: a small pot of over-cooked pasta with about a tablespoon of spaghetti sauce. She stirred the sauce in with the same hand she held her cigarette. We scarfed down our tiny pasta portions and hungrily looked at her, wondering what cigarette ash-flavored course was next. Cos’altro vuoi? She asked, squinting her eyes and jerking her nose up at us like she was informing us she was about to slit our throats. What else do you want? Intimidated, and noticing there wasn’t any food left in the apartment, we just went to bed.
The first weekend there, the students were encouraged to stay in Florence and spend some quality time getting to know their new families. Desira went to a concert in Bologna, but I’m a rule follower so I stayed home. My friends’ families took them to the beach or had family come in from out of town. They went shopping or sight seeing or took the bus up to the country side in Fiesole. Caterina sunned in the back yard smoking and reading trashy magazines. (Which, actually in Italy means “normal” magazines.) We sat together the whole day, except for the times I escaped to the kitchen in search of wine. All I found was bottles of Yellowtail Shiraz, which seemed offensive to me but I drank it anyway. I drank a lot of it, actually, since there wasn’t a lot of food in the house. (It’s lucky I didn’t become an alcoholic living there.) We didn’t talk much that “get to you you” day, but I went to bed realizing I had actually learned quite a bit about her.
As the weeks went on, the menu varied slightly. She noticed how starving we were so started buying frozen garden burger patties. After our pasta dish, she would fry one and serve it to us on a blank white plate. Cos’altro vuoi? She’d ask gruffly. I never thought she was asking in earnest. My reaction was always, “nothing just please don’t kill me.” Once, Caterina somehow observed that Desira enjoyed yogurt of all things, and bought a 50 pack which replaced the veggie burgers as our second course until we finished every disgusting, watery, oddly-flavored yogurt cup. Yogurt, you see, is the only kind of food Italians have not mastered. They’re not a people of breakfast foods and I don’t think they understand it, which makes sense to me because it is horrible.
Caterina was being paid to house and feed us, but she was not feeding us, so we started to suspect she was just pocketing the extra money. I had even started losing weight, something I hadn’t anticipated. So we had a small intervention with her, explaining if she didn’t want to shop and cook, then we would do it for her. We would do the shopping and cooking. Do you remember that plump Italian mamma I talked about before? She never would have let us do this. She never would have allowed us to pick out the tomatoes, man the risotto, or even be in the kitchen. But Caterina didn’t give a fuck and handed over the money. From then on we shopped, and man did we cook, making up for all the calories we had missed out on before. We cooked elaborate, un-Italian breakfasts like eggs and oatmeal, came home for long, drawn-out lunches of pasta and cheese courses. For dinner, we loaded homemade pizzas with Italian cheeses and vegetables, fried vegetarian croque monsieur sandwiches, baked pesto-y, cheesy egg souffles and heavy lasagnes, and cooked globs of polenta and beans and huge pots of ribollita. Once I got my hands on some salsa and made huevos rancheros. Caterina stuck up her nose, revolted at the idea of salsa, cheddar cheese and eggs. She didn’t eat that dinner, either. Just sat back, rolling her eyes, dragging on her cigarette.
You probably hate her right now. But don’t worry—I didn’t. Once we got the food thing figured out, we realized Caterina was loveable, we loved her. And she loved us too, in her weird, fascist, abusive, fucked up way. She let me (encouraged me to) bring boys over, let us have parties, drank with us, and her mother washed our underwear and cleaned our rooms. She softened up to me, tucking me in at night and making my stuffed animal speak to me in Italian. She threw Desira an elaborate birthday party for all her friends, where she ordered her boyfriend to travel by train to another city to get the best pizza in Tuscany. She’d hide under the dining room table and try to scare the shit out of me before dinner, she’d listen to me go on for hours about my day in my faulty Italian, and she danced in her living room to all her favorite Bruce Springsteen albums. (She still smacked me around when my Italian homework wasn’t perfect, but because she was masochistic, I took it as a compliment.) When we said goodbye at the end of the semester, she hugged me tight and whispered in my ear, in English, “Blondie, you are my proud”, and I cried, and she cried, and it was a huge mess and I thought, how did I end up loving this horrible woman? She’s not an abusive bitch, after all! She just needs us. So I kept in touch with her.
A few years later I moved to Rome and visited her in Florence a few times. She even let me sleep in my old bed. The first time, she served dinner, and nothing had changed. A little pasta stirred with her cigarette-cradling hands, an economic use of sauce, and a fried garden burger patty. The second time I visited, when Caterina asked what I wanted to do, I told her I wanted to sit on her terrace and smoke. “You smoke now?” She asked. I didn’t, but I knew it was what she was most comfortable doing. So instead of eating we smoked and talked about how much better I was than the current students living with her. They popped in for a moment, and I wanted to take them aside and ask if she was feeding them, if they liked her or hated her or if she hit them. I wanted to tell them how lucky they were to live with Caterina, because even though she didn’t show her love with food, like other Italian mammas, she still showed her love. With ashes, angry rants, and light abuse and starvation.
Food is Love
by Brian Passell
Anyone over 50 years of age can remember a time when people ate their meals at home and actually dined with their family. Even stranger, most of the food was real, not frozen and generally, very tasty. Now that may be because I grew up with immigrants, and food equaled success. Being able to eat well was very important to the people around me. We would trade off cars, clothes and probably even medicine and education for a good meal. It was about being able to provide. I can remember when the first McDonalds opened in our town. Even to an eight year old, it was an underwhelming experience.
The first meal that I remember outside of the household was when a kindergarten friend invited me to lunch. That was unusual because we just didn’t do that. We didn’t have sleepovers, and we weren’t in the habit of dining out, but the most shocking element of this lunch to me was that my family, from great grandmother to young aunt had to grill me about the quality of the lunch when I returned. I had to relive the meal for them. We had Campbell’s tomato soup (very salty), Saltine crackers (very good), and sandwiches. “What kind of sandwiches?” everyone wanted to know. I said that they were bologna sandwiches, only distinctive because the bread was wet. “What!” They were outraged. “They served you wet bread!” I had to explain that the bread was the same bread I saw on Captain Kangaroo, a very popular children’s show, the bread with the colorful balloons on the bag. “How did it get wet?” the family demanded. I said it was just doughy and damp, so I thought it got wet on the counter.
To everyone’s amusement, they pointed out that the bread was supposed to be exactly that shitty, just like wet drywall, because it was bread not made at home or at a bakery. It was made at a bread factory where they didn’t give a fuck about me. They wanted me to understand that we buy the best food, we slave for hours over a stove, we spend more than we have, because we love you.
My grandmother was the main driver of this radical approach to love. Today, foodies revel in the science of food, but my grandmother was always a true scientist of food. The precision that she brought to cooking was art and science rolled into one. She was 100% Polish, married to a man who was 100% Italian, and she worked in Brooklyn for a time for a Jewish family where she learned to cook their food. I was with her all the way. From Czernina (duck blood soup), beef brisket from Ashkenazi Jews, perfectly formed tender ravioli to the most perfect cakes (she made the five story wedding cake for all family weddings), cookies and pies you would ever taste, all pretty much lost when she left the planet, I was there. There were rules. Children had to have a hot breakfast to start the day, don’t pick the lettuce and tomatoes from the garden until a minute before the meal. Combine these rules with grandma’s complex matrices of bread matches to specific food types and even mathematicians would be baffled. Imagine what life would be like for you today if every meal you consumed was a well thought out plan made just for you.
When I found my grandmother dead one Labor Day morning, the whole family was out of sorts. I made the arrangements for the funeral because her children didn’t want to believe that she was gone. I had to talk to the funeral director, pick out a casket, talk to the priest who gave her last rites even though she was already dead, meet with the priest at her church for the funeral, re-introduce myself to the old church ladies to make the after funeral meal arrangements, and finally meet with the attorney for the will. It is complicated to die. When I got back to her house where everyone was gathered, dinner was ready. Imagine the worst take out Chinese food you have ever eaten, as far from real Chinese cuisine as you can get. The real Western, PA version—acrid, cheap and cold. Imagine people sitting around your grandmother’s living room, not at the dining room table, the only place she had ever allowed people to eat. Imagine us all wolfing down cardboard containers of the worst food ever. That… is not love.
All You Can Eat
by Kathy Lee
I started working at my favorite food magazine last September. At the time, the test kitchen was trying out recipes for the Thanksgiving issue. The office smelled of roasting turkey, savory gravy, caramelizing mirepoix with reduced white wine, and buttery pie crusts—none of which are available for lunchtime purchase in midtown Manhattan. I was too new and too shy to beg for samples. The aromas made me so high that I stumbled into the copy chief’s office, delirious with hunger, and demanded to know: “HOW CAN YOU WORK LIKE THIS?”
I got used to the smells. And as the test kitchen folks got to know me, they began to offer me some of the food they were testing. Would you like a freshly fried doughnut covered in nutmeg sugar? Why, yes, I would! And how about a glazed oreille de cochon showered with chopped pecans? Don’t mind if I do! But surely you’ve got room for a bit of coconut rice with chicken curry? Well, I can certainly make room!
So imagine my dismay—and utter shock!— when I stepped onto the scale six months in and realized I had gained about 15 pounds. “Don’t worry,” said another editor, “you’ll lose it. It takes two years, but it’ll come off.”
But I did not have two years to spare. I am a single, thirtysomething-old lady and though I harbor no pangs of ovarian hunger, I do know that my most taut and firm years are behind me. In an effort to nip the plumping in the bud, I decided it was time to join Weight Watchers. I just felt I was reaching a point in my life in which I could choose vanity over satiety just this once or I could dive off the cliff and never allow myself to give a shit about my sausage casing proportions ever again.
For those of you who have never had the humbling pleasure, the Weight Watchers program is based on keeping a food diary. The program assigns mnemonically suitable points values to every food. Fruit, for example, has zero points, while a nutmeg sugar doughnut has 7. Depending on your sex and weight loss goals, you get a set number of points for each day plus extra points that you can either distribute throughout the week or binge on in a single day. You can also earn extra points through exercise—an hour of cycling, for example, equals a paltry 4 points. The goal is to not go over your allotted weekly points (mine = 29/day + 49 extra/week; the counter resets on Mondays).
But here’s the thing—dieting is well and good when you rely on frozen Lean Cuisines or you can weigh out your daily ration of 4 oz. salmon fillets. When you are a food writer, the calories come at you relentlessly, like delicious Tetris pieces on level 29 falling into your mouth at breakneck speed. A breakfast provided by a visiting chef could cost 20 points and consist of cheese grits, sausage biscuits, and sticky buns—all of which must be tried. A visit to the snack closet might easily result in 10 points of pickle-flavored chips or ganache-filled chocolate truffles. And an evening of cocktails and hors d’oeuvres can ring up wickedly empty alcohol points, but then how do you calculate the points value of five risotto balls with takoyaki sauce and foie gras mousse which were absolutely disgusting but necessary for soaking up the booze?
At first, 29 points seemed an absolutely impossible parameter to stay within. I have actually racked up more than 100 points in a single day. (Those days often involved heavy dinners to prepare for binge drinking followed by late night snacks to prevent the binge drinking from getting expelled. Bread and circuses, I know.)
The other thing to know is that part (the most important part, probably) of the weekly meetings is that I have to actually get weighed by another human being who will monitor my shame. What follows that embarrassment is a sort of group therapy in which fellow Weight Watchers (mostly women) talk about their feelings about food. It’s a kind of Stockholm syndrome where food is both the captor and the lover, and it causes them to say wacky things, like how fat free half and half is a viable substitute when you’re making macaroni and cheese, or how much guilt they felt when they ate that bacon cheeseburger with fries the other night, or how they brought lowfat-grilled chicken breast to a potluck party and it tasted even better than a big pan of bechamel-covered pastitsio would have.
I attend the meetings because I need to reinforce my shame, but I often don’t share the sentiments of my comrades. Because of my work, food can never be the adversary. When faced with the enviable task of sampling Memphis-style dry-rubbed ribs with cheesy corn casserole, it is my job to ingest them, to love them, to write about them with joy; and for the time being, my duty to myself is to eat salad and fresh fruit at every opportunity, to skip the worst-looking passed appetizers at work-related functions, and to exercise whenever possible.
Slowly but surely, I’m learning to say no. I am teaching myself that, no, this is not the last time you will ever see those iced cinnamon buns. This is not the only time you will have a chance to taste the deep-fried spam fries (though perhaps it should be). If spaghetti and meatballs are being served for lunch, you don’t have to also eat the garlic bread just because it’s being offered. (Believe me, it is not easy for a person who grew up in an immigrant household to turn food down. As my friend Sher says, the famine mentality infiltrates the mind of an immigrant’s child and is difficult to expunge, despite lifelong, tangible evidence of American wealth and supply.)
And now that I’m back to my normal weight, I’ll probably quit the program soon. After all, both the glutton and the dieter in me need to remember that it’s just food.
I Am Not Hungry
Today I ate a slice of leftover cake for breakfast. I made the buttercream frosting myself and it alone required three sticks and two tablespoons of butter. Suffice it to say, I am not hungry, nor will I be for at least five more hours at which point I’ll just eat some more cake.
I can’t remember all the times I’ve eaten dessert in bed, I do it so frequently, and that makes me both very lucky and very self-indulgent. But what I will remember long after the memory of last night’s drive-thru hamburger and tonight’s piping hot naan and curried sweet potatoes is the few times I haven’t had enough food, the times I felt really hungry.
It didn’t take much time in London for me to start feeling hunger. It probably began on the plane ride, and rarely let up for the three months I went to school there. My first stop during my study abroad was a house in the suburbs, where I would live with a little old lady for a few days to absorb the experience of authentic English living. She was nice enough, but she put plastic sheets on my bed and worse than that, barely fed me. For two meals a day I received a lettuce sandwich, just white bread, mayonnaise and slack Iceberg lettuce. Once there was a slice of tomato. I remember lying on my crackling bed at night, staring up at the ceiling with a gnawing in my belly and wondering why I’d gone to so much trouble to be away from the warmth of a real kitchen, populated by my family and a fridge full of food. Authentic English living was apparently not being able to afford enough to eat, which was a lesson I continued to learn even once I moved to the school dorm.
My parents wrote the big, fat check for my tuition but it turns out that food in England is very expensive and I was on my own there. I was working with modest savings and I didn’t want to spend them on the pots and pans necessary to cook because I would just have to get rid of them when it was time to move back home. I ate a lot of peanut butter. Once a flatmate made me beans and toast and another time I saved up for fish and chips in Covent Garden, which I ate sitting on the curb outside the shop.
I was also incredibly lonely and missed the comforts of home—Diet Coke with ice in it, my mom’s spaghetti, hugs. When the isolation just became too much to bear for me and my one American friend, we would indulge in a carton of OJ to share. Orange juice costs more than beer in London, probably only a little less than liquid gold. We would walk the mile or so from the grocery store, the weight of the plastic bag digging into our hands, switching off every few blocks. By the time we were back to school, nothing in the world could have tasted better.
The situation was pretty similar when I moved to New York after graduating. There I was, in one of the greatest restaurant cities in the world and every night I went home and ate toast with a slice of cheese on it, or a head of broccoli I would split between two days. I would walk past restaurant windows, smoldering with romantic candlelight, and feel
like a smudged-nose orphan. I hated making only $10 an hour, I hated not knowing what to do about it and I was starting to hate the decisions I had made to get me there.
It wasn’t long before I’d had enough with hunger. And I’ve tried to let hunger know exactly how I feel about it each day since, one slice of cake at a time.