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My Italian mother cannot cook. Italians will tell you that this is not possible, absurd at the very least. When the fact is confirmed, they are appalled.

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The night that I arrived at my host family’s home, I was introduced to the Italian way of eating dinner, la cena. Dinner is late, served between 7 and 9 pm. The first course, il primo piatto, is pasta. The second is meat, sometimes with other side dishes, i contorni. That night, we had a basic penne pomodoro to start, then salami and cheese were passed around on a wooden cutting board, to be eaten with the white Tuscan bread that was scattered like lumpy rocks on the tabletop. When I noticed that we were eating a variation of the same bland, mediocre pasta every night, I began to realize that my preconceived notion of Italian cooking as always gourmet, fresh, and nearly sacred were very wrong—at least in my Italian family. One day I looked in the refrigerator and discovered packages upon packages of supermarket pasta and the jars of sauce that were poured over the pasta every night. That night we ate frozen pizza for dinner. I tried to be optimistic: I had never had tuna on my pizza before, so I presumed I was eating a Florentine specialty.

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In learning to make do with these often unappetizing dinners, I took to observing carefully the eating habits of Federica, the 7-year old daughter in my Italian family. One of the first places my host family took me to was the supermercato, where Federica showed me how to weigh and print labels for the produce. I tried to make conversation with her in a very unintelligible Italian-Spanish hybrid language, aided by miming and gesturing, of course. When I asked her what her favorite food was, she ran to the meats aisle and came back with a pack of hot dogs. At least twice a week, while the rest of the family eats pasta, Federica eats a hot dog, slathered with ketchup and mayonnaise. Sometimes she eats the Swedish meatballs that are sold in frozen packs at IKEA. Paola, my host mother, once complained to me, “la mia figlia non e italiana!”—“My daughter is not Italian!” Once Federica broke apart a hard-boiled egg and filled the two egg-white halves with mayonnaise before eating them. All I could do was stare. I thought to myself—a bit mockingly, but mostly seriously—“Perhaps Federica does not like Italian food because her mother cannot cook Italian food.” For a while, I could only guess that Paola did not know how to cook; giving her the benefit of the doubt, I presumed she did not have the time or energy. But on a random morning, as we were standing in the kitchen with the espresso brewing on the stovetop, Leonardo, my host father, whispered to me, “Paola cannot cook.” I wasn’t surprised. Following this admission, he took out a package of sliced beets from the refrigerator and said to me in a thick Italian accent, “You can eat this if you are ever hungry.”

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My relationship with food is as aesthetic as it is gastronomic, sometimes romantic, and I’d like to think that I eat for pleasure, rather than for health. I find myself in a strange food situation here in Italy, in which the aesthetic and gastronomic travesty with which I am faced every night at dinner is so opposed to the romantic notions I had previously associated with Italian food that I can hardly do anything but laugh at the extreme irony of it all. One night, I asked for vegetables and was served an entire zucchini that had been microwaved on a platter. I look forward to the nights when we eat a canned Mexican salad mix of kidney beans, corns and tuna so that I do not have to pretend that lettuce with olive oil and balsamic vinegar has any nutritional value, and I have learned that freshly grated, aged Parmesan cheese—always the redeeming element of these nightly dinners—can make anything taste better. At the same time, all of this canned, packaged, frozen food in Italy has an element of the grotesque to it. In a city famous for its food markets, this pre-prepared food is made all the more horrible and tragic in contrast with the fresh fruits and vegetables that are glorified by both locals and tourists. Each night, at 7:30 pm, I sit down at the dinner table, still optimistic that I may be served a delicious, homemade melanzane alla parmigiana or even a plate of simple, roasted vegetables. Instead, when my hopes are crushed by the array of stale-looking, peculiar dishes laid out on the table, the best I can do is to assure myself that I am having the most unique Italian experience of all.

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