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This distinction, between red and white, is an important and ubiquitous one in Roman society.  Well, at least when it comes to snacks and drinks and—if you’re talking to children—dinner.  There’s, of course, red or white wine.  (But these are just the most basic distinctions.  In addition to the great array of differences based on geography and terroir, there’s also the difference of fizz. But fizz, we’ve found, covers the spectra of bianco through rosato to rosso, and of seca to dolce.  In other words, it’s possible, and a pleasure, to find a dry fizzy pink wine and a sweet fizzy red wine.)

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I thought moving to Italy would expand my son’s diet into the far reaches of foreign flavors and textures.  He already liked olives and peppers.  We seemed to be on the right track.  But for some reason, living in Rome has contracted his taste.  His favorite choice, when it comes to dinner, is pasta bianca or pasta rossa.  And usually, he’ll choose the bianca: pasta with olive oil and grated parmesan.  He seems to have given up green things, which drives me nuts, because there are so many more wonderful green things here than there have been anywhere else he’s lived—except Berkeley, where he lived when he was just cutting teeth.  Green leaves with cheese, green leaves with nuts, green leaves with sweet onions, green leaves with grains, gazillions of great greens!  He won’t have any of it.

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The third important category of the rossa/bianca divide is pizza.

Pizza rossa is a thin, tasty crust spread with savory tomato sauce; each good forno will have its own sauce, some more salty or herbaceous than others.  Pizza bianca is a bubbly pizza crust topped simply with olive oil and salt.  Again, each forno’s dough has its own taste and consistency, and is topped with more or less salt.  You can also order pizza bianca morbida (soft) or dura (hard-crunchy). My favorite place to buy both is Panificio Beti, in our neighborhood.  The lines are always long, and the family behind the counter always bustling and full of banter.

These Roman basics serve as snacks or sides at any time of the day.  Italian life is riddled with rules, but, as far as I can tell, pizza rossa and bianca exist in a looser realm.  As a rule, Italians don’t eat on the run the way Americans do.  Even to-go coffee is a very rare sight.  But pizza rossa can be eaten with dignity while one is walking along the sidewalk.  The pizzeria guy will cut a piece in half, slap the parts together sauce-side-in, and wrap the bottom half in a piece of paper—a process that takes about a second and a half—so the snack is ready to eat as soon as it passes from his hand to yours.  I’ve seen people eat it for breakfast, for elevenses with beer,  for a late afternoon snack, and for dinner.

Last night, still satiated from the big Saturday Academy lunch, we had salad, pizza rossa, and vino rosso, for dinner.  Jack had the white ribs of the lettuce, pizza bianca, and milk.  I wish he’d broaden his taste at least to complete the color combo of the Italian flag.

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It’s rainy, school’s out, and everything’s closed for the feast of the Immaculate Conception.  We made pizza for lunch, and now Jack is busy with various projects involving wooden trains, plastic tractors, blocks, legos, paint, and books.  I’m drinking espresso, listening to Let It Be, and reading various things on the Slow Food website.

This week, Slow Food’s Terra Madre project will have a worldwide celebration of eating locally and sustainably.  Here’s their description of the Terra Madre network:

In 1999, Slow Food launched the Presidia project which has since involved thousands of small producers across the world, strengthening local economies and saving cheeses, breads, vegetable varieties and breeds from extinction. The worldwide Terra Madre network was launched in 2004 to give a voice and visibility to these farmers, breeders, fishers and artisan producers, and to bring them together with cooks, academics, youth and consumers to discuss how to improve the food system and strengthen local economies. Today the Terra Made network is made up of more than 2,000 food communities.

Here at the American Academy, we’re going to celebrate by making the family dinner, on Friday night, a Terra Madre feast.  Mona has done an amazing job over the past few years of connecting with farmers and food producers in the area, and this meal will also mark the birthday of the American Academy’s Rome Sustainable Food Project as a Slow Food Community.  I like how the Terra Madre poster explains the impetus behind this event: “Animati dall’entusiasmo di Mona Talbott….”  Yes! Many great things that happen here have been animated by the enthusiasm of Mona Talbott.  I’m excited for this meal, as is Jack, because he gets to help, with the other kids, to make orecchiette and harvest lettuce from the garden.

A bunch of lucky school kids in Rome will get to go to the Italian School of Film Animation to watch Ratatouille and Totò Sapore e la magica storia della pizza. (Sounds fun. I’d like to see it.)  There are also compost and juice-making workshops for ragazzi e bambini.  Ooohh, fun!  Dirt and fruit, sticky hands, making messes!

I highly recommend reading Slow Food International’s Seven Pillars.  This is where it’s at.

For other Slow Food items of interest, you can check out their website.  And here’s a description of the Terra Madre celebrations.

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In my last post, I attempted both to recommend Food Inc., and to criticize what I saw as the overly facile closing message (“vote with your fork”).  There was more to the event, here at the American Academy in Rome, and there is a positive alternative to the dark suggestion of the film that Monsanto may well take over the world.  Briefly, these follow-ups/upsides have to do with braised pork and grass-roots.

Let’s start with grass-roots.  Since the screening, I’ve talked with a lot of people about how depressing the film is.  It seems to offer only the meager solutions of “voting with your fork” and waiting for policy change to adjust the prices of food.  Obviously, more needs to be done and can be done.  One of the people I’ve talked with a lot about these issues is Mona Talbott, the executive chef here.  She is passionate not only about great cooking but also about reforming American food culture through cooking education.  An over-reliance on convenient but unhealthy fast-food is in part a consequence of a general lack of cooking skills and knowledge.  Another part of the problem is the misconception that fast food is cheaper than home-cooked food.  This doesn’t have to be the case.  The Rome Sustainable Food Project works on a tight budget to provide nutritious, delicious, and sufficient food for all of us.  Mona points out that the world’s oldest traditional diets, like that in Italy, have had such long histories of sustaining people in part because they can sustain—with complete nutrition—the most people.  In other words, traditional diets are complete, and they are poor people’s diets.  The basis of the Italian diet is the lowly triumvirate of beans, grains, and greens.  These are affordable. Pasta is cheap.  The cheapest cuts of meat are delicious when cooked slowly.

But cooking, which often isn’t learned in the family anymore, needs to be learned if families are to be fed on these inexpensive foods rather than on fast food.  Actually, many people don’t know anything about food anymore, much less cooking!  If you take a look at my friend Sharyn’s comment on my last post, you’ll see what I’m talking about. She teaches in a university, and her students don’t know about the seasonality of any foods.

Several things need to, and can, happen, with a grass-roots effort. More communities can take on the reform of school lunch on their own, and even put in edible schoolyards (playground gardens) and teaching kitchens.  Children, then, can teach their parents about seasonality and cooking.  Or they can learn about food and cooking by asking their grandparents, as their doing with the help of Bioversity’s campaign Diversity for Life.  Cooking schools can teach home cooking.  Institutional kitchens—like the one here, with its unpaid interns—can double as educational kitchens.   Old routines, like canning parties, can be revived.  (Mona mentioned this today, and you might recall one of my recent posts about the biodiversity scientist I met recently, Stephan, who has fond memories of tomato-canning parties in a neighbor’s garage.)  Children can be taught the basics of cooking, and along with those, the comforts and thrills of cooking, by being included in the process of growing and making food.  With the encouragement of children and community-based campaigns, working parents can be convinced to plan ahead and find the time to put together a healthy meal—even if it’s just rice, beans, and something green.

Mona, who has cooked for the best restaurants and wealthiest people, wants to devote herself to this grass-roots cooking re-education effort when her tenure as the head of the Rome Sustainable Food Project ends.  She’s a real inspiration.

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Immediately after the film screening on Saturday, we participated in a panel discussion with two of the farmers who sell their organic foods to the Rome Sustainable Food Project: Enzo Foi, who came with Filippo da Sole, from the farm and agriturismo destination Lo Spicchio; and Giuseppe Brandizzi, from the organic dairy Biola.  The audience had many questions about organic agriculture (agricoltura biologica) in Italy, food politics in Italy, and the differences between the U.S. and Italy on these matters. Enzo told us, without the wish to romanticize Italy for the mostly American audience, that the main difference between the U.S. and Italy, in terms of industrial agriculture, is scale.  Here, as in the U.S., there is a large industrial-farm lobby that shapes the politics; synthetic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers are used (although the European Union has outlawed GMOs and rBST); small-scale farmers are going out of business.  But, also as in the U.S., there is a movement to expand sustainable agriculture, and to encourage buying locally produced food, and some politicians are helping to promote these causes.  (There are, of course, differences.  Italians know how to eat and have a culture of food, for one!)

More important than the help of politicians, though, is the grass-roots movement exemplified by these men and their families, who are educators and cooks as much as they are farmers.  They farm and cook and eat the way they do because they want to preserve the land, foods, and traditions that have sustained people for centuries and that could—if not cared for—be lost to oblivion.  If you’ve seen Food Inc., consider the proud strut of this rooster compared to the falling-down factory chickens:

Lo Spicchio gallo

After the film and discussion—and in spite of the revolting images of factory farming we’d just seen—we all eagerly went upstairs to the dining room to eat a meal prepared with the ingredients from Enzo’s and Giuseppe’s (and a few others’) farms.  We ate Lo Spicchio pork braised in Biola’s whole raw milk; cardoons roasted with lemon and buttery breadcrumbs; polenta; local red wine; and the most flavorful “blondies” I can imagine. (We eat a lot of braised meat here, in part because Mona and Chris like to cook the whole, traditional, foods of everyday Italians.  The braising cuts are the cheapest cuts.  The other night, Chris and the interns cooked up an amazing meal of braised lamb with harissa, chickpeas with greens, and cous cous.  Simple. Complete. Delicious.)

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Images are powerful—especially moving ones.

I’ve done so much reading about the industrial food system, about big organics, about sustainable agriculture.  None of the content of Food Inc., which I saw yesterday at the American Academy screening, came as a surprise to me, but it still made a powerful impression because of the combination of music, images, sounds and words that only film can do.  The timing involved in these combinations—as in the moment when a voice (Eric Schlosser’s, I think) says that one hamburger may contain meat from thousands of cattle, while we watch a huge turd-like tube of ground beef ooze out of a stainless steel hole—induces a visceral response in a way that a book or an article in the New York Times can’t do.  I hope lots of people see the film.

Other strong impressions:  the scenes depicting the terrible treatment of workers were very moving—especially the night-scene of the illegal immigrant arrests, when the workers who are part of the system that ensure cheap food for Americans are rounded up and shoved like animals—in fact, much like the chickens, pigs, and cows we also saw being rounded up for slaughter.

Another: almost everyone is overweight—the farmers, the families, the politicians.  The only ones who are thin are the heroes of the film, and some of the male illegal immigrant workers.

And another: the scene of the family stopping at a fast food restaurant for their dinner, because a dinner for four only costs $11.98 and because their commute will not get them home until 9 at night.  This scene is followed by a trip to the grocery store: the youngest (overweight) daughter wants fresh fruit, so they look at the price of pears.  Too expensive.  They move on to the processed food aisle.

The major flaw in the film is the treatment of this family’s situation, however.  The issues of economic class are presented, and then left hanging.  Yes, Michael Pollan speaks and has written about the need for policy change that will make healthy food cheaper than processed corn-based food.  But this hugely important idea  is only given a few seconds in the film, whereas the hammer-it-home message at the end of the movie is given many minutes and many flashy images.  This message—that you vote with your fork “three times a day”—is deeply flawed.  On the one hand, it would have us all following Samuel Kayman’s implicit advice to shop at Wal-mart for our food.  But more importantly, this message blatantly ignores that family who eats fast food for dinner.  Not only does it ignore them, it disenfranchises them.  They are too poor to vote with their fork.

There was much more attention to the issue of food safety, and some optimism about effecting policy change in the direction of greater food safety.

In the end, though, even though there were gestures of hope—like the inclusion of Joel Salatin’s paradigmatic farm—the overall effect was bleak.  I hope we can achieve major policy changes, of course I do.  But Food Inc.’s most lasting impression is that big business controls the government, and that without millions of dollars to use as weapons against it, Monsanto will take over the world.

The colorful gleams of text at the end—“you vote with your fork”—were pretty pathetic talismans held up against that dark overlord.

For some follow-up thoughts on a more positive note, please check out the next post.

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IMG_2239 Italy’s Parliament voted unanimously this summer to recommend that UNESCO list the Mediterranean diet as endangered, so that it might be protected and preserved as a part of cultural heritage.IMG_2499

I’m interested in this public declaration, in part, for its semantic implications.  Can a diet be treated as an aesthetic or religious object, or as a plant or animal species?  In fact, the Mediterranean diet is all of these things.  Italians are rightly proud of their food, and of their heritage. Diet here is interwoven with cultural practice, with religious ritual, with craft and design, and with plant and animal species that have an intimate connection with both the geography and the history of Italy’s distinct regions.

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Of course, the natives of this boot-shaped land could describe the complex set of cultural practices that is the Mediterranean diet better than I, an outsider, and a barbarian American, could.  But I’ll offer a few arguments, anyway, in favor of designating this diet an endangered piece of cultural heritage.

The Mediterranean diet is interwoven with national and regional identity.  This goes deeper than the kind of identity declared by small towns with billboards at their borders declaring them the pistachio capital of the world.  It’s an identity that has less to do with marketing, and more to do with the deep emotional ties of childhood memories, in which food and family are tightly woven together.  Particular foods and foodways are tied to family traditions, religious rituals, and to regionally specific cooking styles.

When I was at the Bioversity offices yesterday, I met one of the senior scientists there, a man named Stefano, whose work as a scientist and educator about agricultural biodiversity perfectly aligns with his passion for food and food memories.  In our brief conversation, he gave me many examples of the Mediterranean diet as cultural heritage and as endangered.  When he was a child, he said, the whole neighborhood would get together in someone’s garage to peel, cook, and bottle tomatoes for use as sauce.  While he was living in Africa, his homesickness took the form of a craving for the comforts of pasta. His mother and sister write down the recipes and menus of family meals; these recipes are their family scrapbooks and triggers to memory.  One of these recipes is for a stew containing 57 varieties of wild leafy green.  (Surely this recipe and the knowledge of how to find, much less cook, 57 varieties of wild green are endangered!)  Another recipe is for quince jelly.  How many quince orchards have you seen lately?

These foods and practices—this cultural heritage—is endangered for several related reasons: the globalization of simplified diets based on cheap, and less nutritious, commodity crops; the lure, or necessity, of convenience foods for working mothers who don’t have the time or inclination to hunt out 57 varieties of wild green; the encroachment of fast food into the diets of children; the loss of food and cooking knowledge through the generations.  One of the terrible consequences of the loss of food practices is that the actual foods can be lost as well.  Many of the crops that have sustained peoples all over the world for millenia fall under the new designation of “neglected and underutilized species.”   This is how food as a cultural and aesthetic practice shades into an endangered species.

Another, no less important, reason to preserve the Mediterranean diet is that it works.  People have thrived, and not been prone to cardiovascular disease or obesity and its consequences, on this diet for many generations.  This is because of the intrinsic nutritional value of the foods themselves, and it is also because of the set of cultural rules that guide eating.  The people here eat small portions, a variety of vegetables, whole grains, fish, and cheese, meat, and wine in moderation.  No cappuccino after lunch, no hard liquor before dinner or gelato in the morning… the list goes on.  And dessert is often fresh fruit.

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As we rode the train north-east, from Rome to Venice, we passed through Italian regions famous for their food and wine.  And really, which ones aren’t?  One sight that struck me again and again was the smallness and odd shapedness of, and variety of growth on the fields.  They reminded me of Vermont.

Why is this interesting?  There is a correlation between the size and shape of the agricultural fields, the omnipresence of them over all kinds of landscape, and the presence of produce like this in the markets:

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treviso

I’ve been interested in the fact that there’s so much great variety at these street markets which are all over the city.  Why are people in many different economic situations able to buy a variety of leafy greens or tomatoes, for example, when in the U.S. the less well-off are stuck with processed food at their local markets?  One explanation is that Italy has a culture that values food, and that the rituals and culture based on food are stronger than the modern urge for convenience.  Another explanation is that lots of agricultural land has been owned by the church for a very long time, and is leased to people who farm relatively small plots.  This means they don’t pay a premium for land, and therefore don’t have big profits as their only care; the small scale also encourages crop diversity.  And I guess there’s the geography of the place—no great plains to cover with corn; mountains; and a strong sense of regional identity. Wine culture has something to do with it too; food and wine are seen as something special and are historically connected to national and regional identity.

The economics of food in the U.S. is a real problem.  Because of the perversity of the farm subsidies, which go toward commodity crops and wealthy farmers, non-nutritious processed food ends up being a lot cheaper than good, whole food.  Because organic food and “unusual” produce is more expensive and less available, it is seen as elitist food.  There are changes that could be made: government support for small farms growing diverse crops, and for the creation of farmers’ markets in many more places; revamping the farm subsidy programs to provide more help for small food producers and less help for the factory farms.  I really think there’s hope, if the government can ever break the power of the strongest lobbies.  But the other problem, which relates to the comparison with Italy, is that the U.S. doesn’t have a food culture.  Food isn’t really valued for itself, doesn’t have a lot of history or ritual attached to it (except on holidays, when the tradition is to overeat), and isn’t passed down through the generations as a set of rules, knowledge, and values.

Convenience encroaches here, too, though.  I see people in the park where I run gathering wild edible greens and mushrooms.  They are all over 70, as is, I think, the farmer-couple I like to buy from at the market.

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Tomorrow morning, transit workers are striking across Italy, but we have 9:50 tickets to Venice.  Word on the street is that we’ll be fine.  Eight of us from the Academy are renting an apartment for the weekend.  I won’t be bringing my computer, and will probably not be blogging.  But not to worry!  I’ll be keeping a food diary—and not one in the style of a dieter.

Other tidbits of interest?  I just cooked a simple dinner for myself and Jack made of mostly local things purchased around the neighborhood.  I sauteed peppers, onion, rosemary, and proscuitto.  I scrambled local organic eggs.  We ate warm pizza bianca from Panificio Beti.  I like that they put coarse salt on top. I opened some Lazio wine, but it was corked.

For dessert, Jack ate Greek yogurt with honey, and I ate a ciambellina vino rosso.

ciamb

I also started working on a new project today, as a volunteer for the Diversity for Life campaign.  In order to promote knowledge of the importance of agricultural biodiversity for the health of people, cultures, and the planet, they are launching an oral history project in Kenya and Italy this year.  (Other places will follow.)  For these oral history archives, school children will record interviews with their grandparents about what foods they used to grow, cook, and eat.  The aims are to foster an interest in old food traditions and in the foods themselves, to help the kind of agricultural biodiversity that’s been almost lost to monocultures and convenience food continue to thrive, and to encourage a reliance on varied diets which are more nutritious and can be grown in ways that are healthier for the planet.  I’ll be writing the pamphlet that will be distributed to school children in rural and urban Kenya, and which explains the project and the value of maintaining both agricultural biodiversity and continuity in the regional culture as it relates to food.  A lot of American school children could benefit from a similar campaign!

This weekend, though, I’ll be walking around beautiful Venice, taking notes about a very different kind of food culture.

Ciao!

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