If you’ve just arrived in Italy and are kicking for a little avventura italiana, you’re probably still feeling excited and optimistic. Most likely you’re convinced that if you ever decided to stay long term, you’d never get homesick enough to miss something as trivial as Jell-O. Maybe you won’t. But some of us are not that strong. Some of us get to the point where Jell-O becomes the source of a high-profile cultural crisis.
If you know people outside of Italy who love you, one of them might get the brilliant idea of sending you imported treats like Pop Rocks and Fruit Roll-ups. If someone does, be careful with whom you share them. Things like that don’t exist in Italy. Italians love food, but they simply don’t like to play with it. Non fa parte della nostra mentalità, it’s not part of our mentality. My first year in Italy, a friend sent me lime Jell-O, which at the time was the equivalent of green gold. Eager to share my edible treasure, I invited my cousin Leonardo to experience one of the true joys of American cuisine.
When he is not busy infuriating me, Leo is one of my favorite people in the world. My summer partner-in-crime growing up, he was my first and best Italian culture teacher. He was privy to all sorts of scary Italian knowledge that all children should be safely versed in. For instance, leaving an uneaten grain of rice on your plate will keep you out of paradise; rotting pomegranates in your fruit bowl will earn you wealth one day; and the smell of stinky feet can blind you. As far as I could see, Leo deserved a taste of American culture for a change.
It is not often that one gets to act like a mad scientist, unveiling a discovery that could revolutionize European culture in one’s lifetime, but that is how I felt as I pulled the top off my Jell-O container.
“You’ll love it!” I told my cousin as I set out the cups, barely able to contain my excitement.
Leo, however, didn’t share my enthusiasm. “Sorry,” he said, shaking his head, “but we don’t eat green slime food in Italy. Non fa parte della nostra mentalità. It’s not part of our mentality.”
I stared. “You mean you’ll eat donkey stew, goat brains, and cow kidneys but you will not eat lime-flavored gelatin?”
“I just don’t share your passion for edible rainbows,” he smiled wryly. “Don’t take offense.”
I should have known. Because they boast the world’s best cuisine, Italians have no reason to be adventurous eaters. Most prefer to avoid the unknown at all costs. Still, I glared at my cousin, incredulous. Leo was snubbing my Jell-O. If there were ever a reason for harboring silent lifelong resentment, this was it.
“I’m not offended,” I said, slamming down the serving spoon. The Jell-O trembled a bit in its bowl. I was not going to cry, though. Crying over dessert is definitely wimpy.