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Archive for September 15th, 2009

I find that what I cook for dinner here in Rome is similar to what I cooked in Vermont or Alabama.  The only difference is that the ingredients are generally better or cheaper.  For example, last night I made bucatini (long, skinny tube pasta) with the ingredients I had in the fridge from previous days at the markets: chanterelles, dandelion greens, prosciutto, fresh onion, garlic, parmaggiano reggiano I’d grated with a hand-grater.

greens

It was delicious.   And made with ingredients that would have been much more expensive in the States and would have been seen with a halo, or rather a tiara, above them, which spelled out “e-l-i-t-e f-o-o-d.”  Ingredients like dandelion greens, for instance, are perversely seen as unusual, elitist, and foodie-fetishized by the general public.  This is unfortunate, because they are so delicious and easy (to grow and to cook).

Here in Rome, everyone buys and cooks huge bunches of dandelion greens, varieties of chicory, treviso, radicchio, and countless kinds of beans.  Everyone buys multiple varieties of tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes and not like paper towels injected with citric acid.  I was talking to Mona, the chef at the American Academy, about this observation a few days ago.  She had a few explanations.  One is that Italian cuisine is based on greens, grains, and beans.  To Americans, this sounds like “health food,” but think about what an amazingly varied pyramid-foundation these food groups provide.  Everyone in every socio-economic group here eats greens, grains, and beans.  Another reason has to do with land ownership.  Historically, land has been owned by the church and leased to small-scale farmers.  The “get big or die” dictum doesn’t really work here.  Agricultural land and the regional cuisines are seen as part of a national heritage, too, and so there are social, cultural, and economic motives for preserving the status quo when it comes to food.

I don’t need to rehearse for my readers the problems with the farm bills of recent history or the problematic ramifications of agricultural subsidies in the U.S.  Everyone knows that large-scale monocultures of commodity crops like corn and soybeans end up being favored over diversified smaller farms that might grow dandelion greens alongside sweet onions, tomatoes, and melons.  The consequences of this kind of agribusiness are a dumbed-down or simply wiped-out cuisine, a boring selection of cheap food that must be jazzed up with corn-derived substances and packaging to sell, diet-related diseases, a general lack of cooking skills, and a silly politicization of good, real food, whereby fresh fava beans are seen as chi chi.

I’m learning things here that could be taken home.  (OK, get out your corn-tassel pom-poms for this): C’mon, America, let’s get real!

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