“So, what should I get at the market for lunch tomorrow?”
My blood turns to ice.
This seemingly innocent question, when asked by one’s Italian mother-in-law, can shatter the peace and quiet of your Saturday morning like a drive-by shooting. Tomorrow, some friends and family are coming over for Sunday Lunch.
Trapped in this conversation by my wife and her mother, I consider gnawing off my arm to escape. But it’s no use; lunch is a mere 24 hours away (less, if you consider that they’ll probably start cooking at about 6.30 am), and we have to decide what to make. What appears to be a kind attempt to include me in the weekly ritual, though, is in reality a key front in the culture wars.
In Sunday Lunch, Italians find (or at least search for) tradition and a sense of harmony. In the social order, this is visible when friends and family come together; but harmony and tradition exist in the choice of food as well. Notice how certain main courses (steak, baked chicken) are traditionally accompanied by certain side dishes (salad, roast potatoes). So here I run the risk of saying something really stupid, like “How about some green beans with the steak?”
In fact, for this particular meal, Italians seem to have a strange aversion to green. While they generally eat a fair amount of vegetables, anything vaguely green is immediately stricken from the list of possibilities for the Sunday Lunch menu.
“What about some vegetables to go with the pasta, rice, and bread?” I timidly suggest.
“We’re having potatoes with the chicken.”
Another mysterious Sunday Lunch phenomenon is the “let’s invite more people” syndrome (an offshoot of the “farmer’s wife” syndrome—making enough food to feed the whole farm). It works like this: 1. we decide on 4 to 6 people to invite; 2. we make enough food for 50; 3. we have too much food; 4. we have to invite more people. A variation on this theme is, “About ten people are going to stop by for coffee after lunch, so we have to get more dessert.”
Now I have to actually sit at the table and eat. As I’m sure you can imagine, this is the most challenging phase. The most common problem areas for non-Italians are likely to be: a) finding something to talk about, and b) getting out of talking about something.
Finding something to talk about is a euphemism for “elbowing your way into a conversation topic that seems intentionally chosen to exclude you” (old school friends, old times, etc).
Getting out of talking about something, on the other hand, means “defending your country from mindless stereotypes.” In my case the country is America, so there’s plenty to discuss. Leaving aside the obvious remarks about presidents and wars, one of the most common is, “I bet you guys don’t eat like this in America, huh!” Argh.
Saying no to more food, as per the popular stereotype, is absolutely out of the question. After a plentiful antipasto, two first courses, baked chicken, and roast potatoes, every Sunday I have to raise my voice above the din with a firm “NO!” to a suggested further kilo of roast meat. When my wife comes to my rescue—“Mom, are you crazy?! He’s eaten enough for a buffalo!!”—we are met with plaintive mother-in-law logic: “Poor thing, let him eat, can’t you see he’s hungry?” (This applies to the cat, too, by the way; when I politely mention his ever-expanding girth, the answer is “poor thing, from the way he eats, can’t you see he’s hungry?”)
There’s a final complication. My mother-in-law always cooks me the same thing. Even if everybody else gets chicken this Sunday, she has to make me a steak. Why? Because, she’s convinced, I like steak. Liking something, for her, means liking it enough to eat it every Sunday for five years, no matter what. Where she gets these ideas, nobody knows. She went for years without even mentioning zucchini, convinced that I didn’t like them.
So, as I steel myself for tomorrow’s Sunday Lunch ritual, with its cheerful chaos of questions and answers and yelling and shouting and gesturing and people coming and going and enough food to feed a small nation, I have to face the facts: we don’t eat like this back home.
“I bet you guys don’t eat like this in America, huh!” (nudge nudge, wink wink).
Yeah, once a year. We call it Thanksgiving.