Culture quirks

Italians on digestion, cappuccino, and the ?cold breeze’

Julie Butterfield
January 19, 2012

The TF staff must often come to terms with the most common truisms about Italy, Tuscany and Florence. After six years in print, we've pretty much heard and said it all. However, there are a few things about Italy and Tuscany that never seem to get old. And that started us thinking: what's behind these truisms? We did a little digging and found some fun facts behind the following three FMO's (frequently made observations). Write us at inbox@theflorentine.net with your favorite truisms about the Boot, and we will investigate them in upcoming articles.

 

 

1. Italians obsess over digestion.

 

Yes, they definitely do. And it may be for good reason. Scoff all you want at the Italian obsession with digestion and their tested and true culinary customs (for example, the apéritif before dinner to get the stomach juices flowing or the digestive liqueur following meals). It is important to note that Italians are among the slimmest people in Europe and enjoy long lives. Despite the fact that Weight Watchers has continued to snowball into an empire since the 1990s, the Italians' secret can't only be in Mediterranean foods. An explanation may be found in digestive history. In Medieval Europe, Gelenic cooking was the dominant method used by Italian chefs, and it emphasized an order of eating. Easily digestible foods were to be eaten first, followed by heavier foods. Consider this from the fascinating book Italian Cuisine: A Cultural History: ‘After the choice of appropriate cooking methods and the assessment of the proper food combinations, the third important stratagem for healthy eating was the organization of the dishes served at a meal into the sequence considered most important to their absorption and digestion.' Furthermore, the cook did not determine the meal; the person being served did, by tuning into and requesting what he craved. The suggestion to give into your cravings is anathema to typical diet advice. But if your craving is for minestrone, not Doritos, it's probably safe to toss your Weight Watcher's meal and go for it.

 

 

2. Cappuccino in the afternoon? Never!

 

Of course not. It's your welcome to the world in the morning, and in Italy, it is not to be repeated later in the day. It's the thick, frothy and delicious cappuccino non-Italians enjoy drinking at all hours. But here in the Boot, it's taboo to ask for a cappuccino after lunch. If the tour-bus sticker on your shirt or your request for ketchup to top your spaghetti aren't enough to identify you as a tourist, then go ahead, do it: order a cappuccino in the afternoon. However, what many don't know is that there's a plausible reason for this cultural no-no, too. Aside from being bad form, there are sound dietary reasons for swapping the thick frothy latte with an afternoon espresso. ‘Italians cook and eat with purpose and intent,' says dietitian Kimberly Crocker Scardicchio. She adds, ‘If they have already had it in one of their meals, why repeat it?' Scardicchio explains that, with the exception of eating fruits and vegetables, which can be repeated all day, Italians recognize that milk contains fat, which is hard to digest, so if you tack that onto a big lunch, the unused calories get stored as fat, not nutrients (and thus, it's a waste that goes to your waist). This information may make Starbucks seem nihilistic and anarchical: just loosen your belt and order a Caffè Latte Grande at a naughty 3pm. And at Starbucks, they even thank you for it.

 

 

3. Italians disdain air conditioning and fear ‘cold breezes.'

 

That's right. They look at a scarf like others might look at vitamin C. Italians can't stand air conditioning and are frightened of cold breezes. Yes, I'm talking about the infamous colpo d'aria. To defend against unwanted gusts of air, I believe, they wear fashionable neck scarves, which has the added perk of making them look great. So, is cold air a threat to health? And do the scarves help? An investigation into the oh-so-attractive subject of mucous gives us a very plausible scientific explanation. Mucous' main function is to protect against bacteria and viruses, but when we're exposed to cold air, mucous thickens. (Try not to think of that the next time you bite into the filling in your brioche.) Viruses, hunting for naked necks, will have an easier time making it to the lungs if the cold mucous isn't working efficiently and effectively trapping the virus. Dr. Alan Greene, a clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University, explains that if a virus is present in the air, ‘it is more likely that an individual will become sick if he or she has been breathing cold air.' Next time you pass one of the thousands of scarf shops in Florence, maybe you should think about your hard-working mucous and get yourself one. But make it pretty. Second only to colpo d'aria is the Italian fear of bad fashion sense.

 

 

 

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