Essays about life in Italy, traveling in Italy, and more
I had an Italian grandmother. She was the youngest of nine children, and while she was born in the US, her older brothers were born in the Old Country. Her parents decided to uproot and bring their young sons to the New World in the early 1900s, toting along my great-grandmother’s entire extended family. They brought along with them their Italian habits, foods, and language. I don’t know much about their adaptation process, what they thought of this new land, or how well they assimilated (or didn’t) into life when they arrived. My grandmother surely grew up speaking the Italian language at home, but in my childhood I rarely heard her utter a word of it. She was a raven-haired beauty with classic Italian features, but she was also an all-American girl who excelled at softball and spoke perfect English.
The cuisine of her parents was not shed with the language, however. Italian fare was the norm in her home and my earliest childhood memory is of my nana putting me up on a chair next to the stove while she made a pot of sugo. One of her brothers owned a restaurant. Obviously, food played a prominent role at all family functions.
My other grandmother was of German stock and a consummate cook. She could feed an army on short notice and spent the better part of her day in her kitchen, even mounting a little TV set in there so she could watch her “program”. I had always thought that both grandmas took a similar approach to food, just with different ingredients and cultural roots. If I got into the cookie jar before a meal at my maternal grandmother’s house, she would scold me by saying “you’ll spoil your dinner”. At my Italian grandma’s, though, I can recall her telling me that eating sugar right before dinner would make my stomach constrict. I always assumed they meant the same thing: I’d be too full to eat the nutritious stuff.
Then I moved to Italy. Now I hear echoes of my nana’s voice everywhere I go. I’ve been lectured more than once on the ability of a stomach to clamp itself shut, and the proper ways to tend to it to ensure this dreadful plight never occurs. I have discovered that with the wonders of Italian cuisine comes a responsibility to know how to nurture one’s…uh, internal affairs. My fellow friends and neighbors, if not the entire populace, are thoroughly obsessed with la digestione. In fact, from every quarter- young and old, northerners and southerners, lawyer and construction worker, it doesn’t matter - the one uniting factor in Italian life is the absolute conviction that all manner of ills and woes are directly connected to your digestion.
Your stomach has the great ability to open and close like a door. The proper order of a meal with the dishes well-chosen to compliment one another gives your taste buds a sensory experience, but it also maintains an open-door policy for your digestive tract, so I’m told. It’s like a set of French doors allowing a pleasant breeze of floral air into your dining room. The wrong combinations or overly-spiced foods, on the other hand, will slam the door shut with a bang and let a tornado of digestive woe into your body. Red wine is good with a meal, but if taken before eating will close the stomach. Thus, only white wine should be considered as an aperitivo. Unless you’ve eaten a big lunch and will be having snack tidbits, in which case it’s perfectly acceptable to have red wine in the early evening.
Apparently, everything that I have ever consumed in my pre-Italy life makes me a walking miracle woman of survival. Popcorn? Fa male. Especially if eaten more often than once every three months. It is much too rough on your delicate innards. A friend informed me that I am likely perforated “in there” for having eaten so much of it so frequently in my American life. So, as not to worry her unnecessarily, I didn’t bother telling her that I still indulge in popcorn about once a week.
Milk? Only for breakfast. Or in cheese form. As any traveler has experienced on his first trip to Italy, snickering will ensue in a bar if a cappuccino is ordered after the magic hour of 11:00 a.m. After that point, milk will be too heavy and will coat your stomach, suppressing the all-important digestive enzymes. When a newly-relocated American friend started ordering two cappuccinos in the morning, the barista critiqued her caffeine consumption and milk intake; too much of each in one sitting is not good. A few days later when, in the same locale, we were lunching together and her daughter ordered a glass of milk, all hell broke loose. Giuliano the barista looked at me for translation help. Surely he had misunderstood the girl. “No, you heard right.”
I explained that in America, kids frequently drink milk with their meals. A look of horror blasted away his usual smile. “Nooo! Mi scherzi! Milk? With food?” By this time, the poor offending girl was red-faced and, while not understanding the problem, was fully aware that there was a problem and certainly was not happy that the other patrons had stopped shoveling pasta into their mouths to stare at her. “Ma! Latte fa male. She shouldn’t drink milk with a meal. She should drink white wine!” Uh, she’s fourteen years old. “So add a little water to it.” Not wanting to be offensive, the girl told him to simply bring her some water, but Giuliano had decided to suck it up and let the customer have what she had ordered. He gallantly brought out a tall, slender glass of cold milk on a silver tray. She beamed; he looked queasy with every sip she imbibed and shook his head while clutching his stomach at the mere thought of the belly-ache he knew would occur from this affair.
A few days after that, when this same unfortunate woman’s husband ordered a Coca-Cola for breakfast, it was too much for poor Giuliano to bear, and he wondered if gastronomic offense would be sufficient cause for deportation.
There must be something in the cheese-making process that makes it more digestible so as to bypass the “no milk after 11:00 a.m.” rule, however. It features heavily in “light” lunches and can be eaten legally before a meal as part of the aperitivo or antipasto, apparently without recourse or stomach blockage. It is also prescribed in small doses for the times when you are told to eat in bianco. The white diet is said to be a sure-fire help when you are ill, have overeaten the night before, or feel like you’re coming down with the flu, and is so dubbed because you are told to consume only white foods: fresh (not aged) pecorino cheese, rice, potatoes, chicken, fish, and the like. Pasta with oil or butter and grated parmiggiano is a classic bianco dish and one that my nana used to make when we were sick. But even though it is white, milk itself is a no-no unless you are drinking it warm right before bed to help you sleep.
My chile-eating habit, procured from having spent most of my adult life in New Mexico, sparks no end of controversy in this part of the country. If I lived in Calabria I would not be so harshly criticized, but here in Central Italy my friends insist that spicy foods are very likely to burn your throat and stomach linings. Any dish containing the slightest hint of peperoncino comes with a disclaimer from the serious-faced waiter, “e molto piccante.” Good! Bring it on! “Ma signora, e molto molto piccante.” I can tell you from long experience that it is never “very, very spicy” as advertised. In fact, it rarely elicits so much as a slight tingle. I have tried to explain about la cucina di Nuovo Messico and our penchant to cover all manner of meals in green chile. I tell them how, after years of consuming my weight in chile annually, I’m very used to the spicy stuff and it does me no harm at all. But at the merest mention of it being piccante, all heads quickly wag and a clicking sound emits from their mouths. Clicking is the local way to express a negative. One or two clicks means no; a series of clicks expresses discomfort and disbelief. New Mexico chile warrants a series. This without even attempting to tell them how we ate it for breakfast on our eggs. Spice is said to pizzicare, to bite. And it is just not good for your digestione. It will leave you sick, plain and simple.
Fortunately, or maybe not so fortunately, the Italians also have a sure cure for intestinal indiscretion known as the digestivo. Bottles of strongly-alcoholic herbal brews appear at the end of every heavy meal so as to aid the gastric process along and keep things working like they should. Most digestivi are distilled using various wild weeds, each specific blend supposedly formulated to help indigestion and generally taste wretched. Because the herbs are mostly amaro, bitter, these concoctions are frequently highly sugared in an attempt to make them more palatable. Grappa is another preferred digestivo and there are arguments about which is more effective, amari or grappa. Each has its proponents and critics. One friend proclaims grappa the most effective and that amari, because of the sugar, will not help a bit. Another friend insists amari are better because the herbs are the important key to opening that digestive door, and that my grappa-fan friend is just looking for an excuse to drink grappa, which should really only be consumed as a corrective agent in coffee.
Both are high-proof liquor, which is, I suspect, the part that actually does the cleaning-out operation. I consider most digestivi to be a close cousin to moonshine. The fumes alone could do you in; the liquid heat that it gives off is so intense you can track its progress throughout your entire intestinal tract. I think its burning quality is its efficacy; the little stomach blaze ignited by the liquor consumes the food you just ate. But if grappa is fire-water, then the locally-prized mistra is nothing short of jet fuel. This distillate with a slight flavoring of anise seed is the strongest thing I’ve ever put into my mouth. Swallowing initiated a slash-and-burn episode where it scorched everything in its path and left me feeling sick and sweaty. And they say green chile will make you ill? Hmph.
There are only a couple of digestivi that I can stomach (pun intended), both said to be “women’s drinks”. Bryan, on the other hand, has come to appreciate the bitter brews in small quantities and swears that they effectively serve their intended purpose. He willingly accepts the cordial glass-sized doses proffered at the end of meals and takes his medicine in brotherly camaraderie. “You’ve truly become Italian,” his friend Gianluca once beamed proudly. He also discusses the sensible balance of meals, how each component is important, if such-and-such secondo piatto will be troppo pesante and stops to consider la digestione when wondering about ordering an aperitivo. He has even been known on occasion to tell me that my gelato when eaten as a late-afternoon snack may cause my stomach to constrict. I am sure that millions of Italians would agree with him. My nana would, too.
© Valerie Schneider, 2008
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