“No, Samantha, no.”
“How can you eat all that?
“You’ll never be able to digest it!”
“I could never eat that.”
“Dio mio, what.is.that?”
After nearly eight years of Italian living, according to my colleagues I remain immune to a crucial cultural element: I do not know how to eat. At least, that’s what I have come to understand during lunch at the office table. In the lion’s den of food-themed gossip, I have become the butt of every battuta and a shock factor for my coworkers.
Food is no laughing matter in Italy. Even while they are eating, Italians talk about food. They talk about what they are eating in that moment, how they would make it differently, what they will eat later, and what they will most certainly not eat later. Life sometimes seems like an endless conversation about meals, ingredients and pairings. Some may argue that this is the beauty of the Bel paese, but I would claim no, not always.
Being a long-termer is not a guarantee that the country’s food culture has permeated the lives of us transplants. Indeed, bossman Giovanni recently labelled me impermeabile after witnessing two years’ worth of “questionable” lunch choices. My crimes? Shrimp étouffée, Greek-style quesadillas, lentil curry with cashews and yogurt and, perhaps most egregious of them all, a “pizza” with baked pears, ricotta and zucchini. The list goes on, but suffice it to say, my American ways have not earned me any friends at the lunch table.
These recipes aren’t my inventions; I inform them that website research is involved, but they remain unconvinced. My culture just isn’t popular a tavola, but the US isn’t the only problem. British expat and TF editor-in-chief Helen has spent many a year living and working alongside Tuscans, but it has not always been an easy ride in the food department. A few years after arriving, she tells me, she cooked a cottage pie and apple crumble for a large group of locals, and they proved to be a hit. But when she tried out the same combo on her in-laws, she received an entirely different reaction.
“My mother-in-law took a mouthful of the heavy meat and potato pie, turned to me and said, ‘You have to eat this with bread.’” Then there’s fellow Brit Kate, who recounted how her “very traditional Italian flatmates are both intrigued and repulsed by my morning ritual of porridge making”.
This cultural divide has as much to do with traditions as it does with the perception of what is healthy, and what does and does not qualify as healthy eating in Italy has long interested me. As someone who has never taken to dieting or minding what she eats, I have given little thought as to what effect each ingredient might have upon my body. I thus found myself staring down my shocked colleagues’ faces when I pulled out my (delicious) fish stew. It wasn’t the 500 grams of coconut milk that was the problem, it was the peppers. “They’re impossible to digest,” said someone. “You’re bound to have a stomach ache later,” said another.
Even when we think we are doing things Italian-style, we don’t always get it right. My American colleague Mary explained her misguided understanding of Nutella’s place in her host country’s food culture when she arrived in Florence as a young student, gorging on the hazelnut paste like there was no tomorrow, as she assumed every Italian does. The turning point came when her host mother walked in on her licking some off her fingers. “I rarely, if ever, have touched Nutella since.”
Such judgement is not uncommon at the lunch table. Mary and I have been known to exchange concerned glances before slinking off to eat dire (read: delectable) food in hand. Unveiling my offending meal of the day has become something of a routine. I wait with bated breath to hear what they’ll have to say. Some days I get off scot-free, but I’ve come to understand that the best way to face this impermeable cultural divide is to simply own it, to make a show of my choices and push the boundaries of international living, even in the food-sacred land of Italy.