Slices of Life: Lessons Learned While Eating My Way through Italy

Back when I was an undergrad, I took a course called Mediterranean Food and Culture. The course turned out to be one of my favorite courses at Syracuse University. We read about the research linking the Mediterranean Diet to lower risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and neurodegenerative diseases. We also learned about the food culture and agriculture of Mediterranean countries. The best part about the course: everything studied was in preparation for our class trip to Italy, where we stayed at a Food Co-Op (La Ginestra) in Tuscany exploring the Mediterranean food and culture firsthand.

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In 13 days, Italy changed my perspective on food forever. That sounds dramatic, but it’s the truth! It was refreshing to see Italian food traditions still deeply engrained in their culture, where food was valued and eating was always a special event. Although I experienced an inevitable shift back into the American culture when I returned home to the States, my Italian food adventures (now over three years ago) remain near and dear to my heart. I do not make pasta from scratch or spend hours eating my lunch everyday, but I do continue practice and preach some of my favorite Italian food beliefs. Here are a few:

Appreciate Where Your Food Comes From

At the Food Co-Op, our meals were prepared mostly with ingredients grown on their own land. The honey was created from their honey farms, the wine was produced from the grapes in their vineyards, and the bread was made from the spelt grown in the fields. Learning about how these foods were made and being able to help on the farms made me appreciate the final products so much more.

I’m not saying everyone needs to work on a farm to appreciate where our food comes from. Just by becoming more curious about the story behind our food, we can feel more invested and connected to the food we eat.

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A Few Fresh, High Quality Ingredients Can Go a Long Way

At different points during our trip, we worked alongside chefs to make traditional Italian foods like brick-oven pizza, bruschetta, and homemade tomato sauce. We used freshly ground spelt flour for pizza dough, high quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil for bruschetta, and a blend of fresh herbs and spices for the tomato sauce. The secret to flavorful and delicious Italian food is not about using a long list of ingredients or complex cooking methods, but instead it’s about cooking with fresh, high quality foods.

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Trust Your Taste Buds, Not the Recipe

Before going to Italy, I followed recipes to a tee, rarely deviating from the trusty list of ingredients and instructions. Italian cooking, on the other hand, is much more flexible. There were many times when Jiacamo, one of the Italian chefs, would tell us to add more olive oil, more salt, or more rosemary while cooking. Although we always started with a recipe, it was nothing more than a guideline altered after a few taste tests along the way. I learned to trust my taste buds and add a personal touch of my favorite spices and herbs to make recipes work for me.

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Take Meals Seriously

As a someone who snacks on bites of food all day long, I wasn’t sure how I would manage the three meals-no snacks eating schedule in Italy. Breakfasts were small, while lunches and dinners were usually multiple courses lasting a few hours long. There were no TVs, computers, phones or any other distractions in site when we were eating. The formality of meals forced me to enjoy the whole eating experience—the atmosphere, the good company around me, and the presentation of meals—not just the food itself.

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Cultural and Family Traditions > Convenience

The day we helped prepare a three-course meal consisting of crostini (first course), raviolis (second course), and tiramisu (third course) was the day I learned what the food culture in Italy was all about. Starting our day with a trip to the market, we visited many vendors to select the very best ingredients for our recipes, from bread and herbs to zucchini and tomatoes. Then, we worked in the kitchen preparing everything from scratch. The entire process probably took four or five hours; I’m not exaggerating. With my belly grumbling, I found myself wondering, is it really worth making everything from scratch? Wouldn’t it be much easier to buy tomato sauce or boil a bag of frozen raviolis?

But, my impatience subsided when we were at the table eating our first course. Yes, it was time consuming, but being able to share our final products with everyone (and have it actually taste good) made it worth it. Plus, it boosted confidence in my cooking skills, inspiring me to make a similar homemade meal for my family when I got home! Though I’m still a big fan of convenience, when I take the time to dig out a few of my favorite Italian recipes I always feel reconnected to my Italian roots.

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Slow Down and Savor Every Bite

One obvious difference between American and Italian eating habits is the portion sizes. Believe it or not, Italians don’t seem to be missing out by eating smaller portions of appetizers, pasta, desserts, and sweets. Instead of inhaling a huge bowl of pasta in five minutes, they savor. every. bite. Like the formality of meal times, the smaller portions in Italy forced me to slow down and really appreciate the flavor of each bite, or scoop, or sip. Eating slowly made me recognize when I was getting full before getting to the point of overly full. Usually, I was completely satisfied with smaller portions. Let’s be real though, sometimes a big bowl of pasta primavera was just what I needed to fill me up (no shame).

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That is all! Am I missing anything? What food traditions or eating habits have you picked up during your travels?

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