The ultimate question in a food-first country

How one Italian conversation starter shows real care

Alexandra Korey
March 2, 2017 - 12:15

When we were first married, my mother-in-law would call promptly every night as we were washing up the dinner dishes. “Pronto?” one of us would answer. “Cosa avete mangiato?” came the question from the other end of the line.

Illustration by Barbara Gucova

At first, I took this as something of an offense. I had spent a good many months living in their home, where dinner rarely consisted of just a primo. After the main dish, my father-in-law would start serially pulling things out and offering them, like mozzarella he had driven specially to Caserta to buy that afternoon. When we moved out, a salad, pasta al sugo or leftovers was pretty much par for the course after a long day at work. So I figured calling and asking either Tommaso or me what we’d eaten was a mark of concern that this Canadian girl would starve her poor Florentine boy. The weekly invitations to come over to eat some meat were, likewise, a clear jab at my vegetarianism.

Although my husband assured me that this was not the case, he took to inventing exotic menus and appealing descriptions to play up my more banal culinary achievements. Where I might confess that we’d only had “a sandwich,” he would tell his mother about “a composition of Tuscan pecorini with a delicious locally produced cream of artichokes on freshly baked schiacciata di farro,” while my simple “salad” would become “a generously sized composition of mixed seasonal greens with avocado, crunchy walnuts and a tangy vinaigrette.” He could have easily gotten a copywriting job at Olive Garden. Most of the time, his mom was not really listening to the answer and would say “Ah, buono!” to anything, which was part of the game.

As the years have gone by, the spectacular meal descriptions have dwindled, but the question is always the same. Sometimes the variant “Hai mangiato?” replaces the question of what, specifically, was eaten, but the expectation is that you will still say what you ate or what you will eat. It has taken me a while but I have realized she’s not actually judging me; it’s just her way of relating.

It was over dinner (when else?) with our friend Steve that I learned that many Italians, not just mothers-in-law, open conversation with this question. It is apparently so common that his 10-year-old bicultural daughter Viola has taken to calling him mid-afternoon to ask about his lunch. Steve pointed out that it is actually a much smarter conversation opener than “how are you?” where the answers are much more circumscribed.

Think about it. If you ask someone what they ate and they say “a bowl of white rice,” you know there is something wrong with their stomach. If they tell you “I didn’t have time to cook anything so I just had an egg and some stuff I scraped together,” you know it has been a bad day at work. Conversely, you know they are feeling happy when they recount a sensational spread of lovingly made lasagne, vegetables, involtini, wine and homemade cake. From there, you can express concern/offer to help/find out what went so well.

To think, all these years I thought my mother-in-law literally wanted to know what we were eating, when in actual fact she was checking on our state of mind.

E tu, che hai mangiato

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