Italy changed my relationship with both food and travel. It introduced me to Italian food… real Italian food. The entire Italian food culture, in fact. It revolves around goodness. Good ingredients, good wine, good company. Now, I’m obsessed and I spend a lot of my time daydreaming about gelato and handmade pasta and fresh green olives.
But it didn’t use to be like that.
Before Italian Food…
The summer of my sophomore year of college, I spent a month in Italy, studying. Before that, I didn’t consider myself a “foodie.” The truth was, I had a love-hate relationship with food. I cooked a lot, often trying challenging recipes to impress my new boyfriend. But I tried not to eat too much of what I cooked. This was a hold-over from high school. I’d been unduly concerned with my weight, which never actually strayed that far from just this side of too skinny.
While my body image was healthier in my early college years, my apathy toward food hadn’t changed. I wasn’t even overly excited by the idea of a month’s worth of authentic Italian food. Mostly, I was looking forward to practicing my language skills. I know, what a nerd.
Literally a week in Italy was all it took for me to realize that I was a fucking idiot.
Lessons in Cooking and Eating in Italy
Included in the University of Salento’s foreign students’ program was a weekly class at Cooking Experience Lecce. Every Tuesday, we would walk together across the main piazza and down the worn stone steps to the ground floor kitchen where Gianna held court. The kitchen had an arched ceiling and was made of stone, giving it the feeling of an ancient wine cellar. Minus the industrial refrigerator and gleaming gas stove. High windows let in light from the garden where we would sometimes eat what we had cooked. But best of all was Gianna herself.
Perhaps 5’2″ at a stretch, Gianna was a vibrant, blonde fireball. Bouncing around the kitchen, she would call out instructions, platitudes, and encouragements in the same rapid Italian. Sometimes, the quick dialogue would be interrupted by long, drawn out syllables, each punctuated by her hand, pinching the air. These were the most important nuggets of truth. “Make sure to blend the custard at high speed, because raw eggs are per-i-co-lo-si-ssi-mo!” And we would remember to beat the bloody custard senseless, lest we risk the danger of raw eggs.
What Gianna Taught Me
Four cooking classes total, during which we tried our hands at several regional dishes in addition to the classic fare. I made two types of pasta by hand, gniocchi and orecchiette. Both delicious and both rather ugly compared to Gianna’s perfect sample batch. I made parmigiana, opening my eyes to the wonderful world of eggplant. We also dove into desserts and I made the Salentinian pastry pasticiotto and the classic tiramisu.
But the best thing I learned in Gianna’s stone kitchen, she taught us the very first night.
Heaping plates of orecchiette, dressed with arugula and fragrant olive oil, sat in front of us. Two bottles of wine stood open on the table. The pasta on my plate was a melange of sizes and shapes, nothing like the homogenous batch you’d find at the pastificio on the corner. But they tasted of triumph. As we began eating, Gianna spoke, swirling her wine around and around. It was as hypnotic as the Italian rolling off her tongue.
For the first time all night, she was sitting, finally still. Her words were slow and melodic. My recollection of the speech is fuzzy now, due in part to my less than stellar Italian at the time, the wine we were drinking, and the dulling of memory with the passing of years. But I do remember some of what she said.
Mostly she spoke about wine.
“Do not drink wine because you are thirsty. For that, we have water. Do not drink wine because you want to get drunk. There are better drinks for that, too. Do not drink a wine unless you love it. Do it because it makes your heart sing.”
In that moment, I realized what a beautiful country I was in.
Of course, it wasn’t just Gianna’s sage teachings that changed my relationship with food. In fact, the best instructor was Italy herself. The Italians have a culture that revolves around food. Sharing a meal together is an hours-long affair. Walking home from work, you get a heaping cone of gelato from your favorite gelateria. Ingredients are fresh and inexpensive.
This last bit I found the most surprising. In the United States, we don’t prioritize fresh ingredients. Local produce, meat, and dairy is so expensive that it almost isn’t worth it. In Italy, many things are more expensive than they would be back home, but never food. Italians simply do not stand for shitty ingredients or sky-high prices.
And finally, in Italy there is nothing wrong with eating. And I do mean EATING. Sit down for a four course meal and then leisurely chat and laugh over a bowl of fruit. Go for apperitivi which means pre-dinner drinks and also pre-dinner bar snacks like small sandwiches, olives, and crackers. Pick up a bag of freshly picked loquats from the fruttivendolo on your lunch break and eat all ten of them. No one cares.
Part of this is because Italians walk a lot. Old European cities just aren’t meant to be navigated by car, so many Italians get around using the old shank’s mare. But most of it comes from the slow, relaxed nature of the Italian culture. If you’re healthy and you’re happy, who cares how much bread you ate last night? Good food is meant to be eaten.
Food as Culture
The other thing that Italy taught me is that food is culture. Sharing food is an act of love that crosses cultural boundaries and language barriers. Cooking together means sharing so much more than just food, though. To teach me a recipe is to teach me your language, your history, your religion, your culture. If I can learn that recipe, maybe I can carry some of that language, that history, that religion, that culture with me in my hands, like muscle memory. It is an act so intimate and humbling. I want to spend my whole life discovering other cultures in people’s kitchens.
Someone once told me, “Do it because it makes your heart sing.” And oh, friends. This makes my heart soar.