Charlotte's Web

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Italy Unplugged

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(Written sometime in August …)

I’m writing this post on paper with the plan to transcribe it when I get home in – oh – a few days’ time. I’m not missing my computer or being permanently plugged in to the information tsunami, but I do miss the regular writing.

We are staying in a lovely campsite on the Italian coast, above Rome and below Pisa. The weather is mild – warm enough for beach and pool but not hot enough to require the air conditioning in our mobile home. It’s dry and dusty here – testament to the heatwave we have missed – but the campsite is situated in a lovely forest of parasol pines with tall trunks and gracious canopies that provide shade.

One of the many joys of being in Italy is the food. Why does everything taste better here? A salad of beautiful Tuscan tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella anointed in olive oil tastes like heaven, whereas in Germany it tastes like it’s trying too hard. We’ve enjoyed fine slices of Parma ham, chilled sweet melon, olives with a bite of chilli, olive paste on grissini, baby yellow tomatoes, succulent grapes the size of plums, spicy Tuscan sausages, calamari and daily doses of creamy icecream. Make mine a pistachio.

This part of Italy – Livorno – is supposed to be one of the centres of the Slow Food movement. I don’t have Google so I can’t check that for you, but it certainly feels that way. Aptly enough, while enjoying very slow food, I am also reading Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful book detailing her family’s attempt to spend a year eating both seasonally and locally. She defines local as within a 70 mile radius, but in the end the family grow and harvest most of their own food – even chickens and turkeys.

In the West, we have grown so distant from the source of our food, that just to witness Kingsolver’s attempt feels like watching a miracle. Not that I imagine for a second that I could “harvest” my own chicken or remember to water the vegetables that would feed my family for a year, but the work they do in conscious eating is inspiring.

Kingsolver is knowledgeable about the state of the protein production line and it does not make for easy reading, but it does make me want to never buy any factory farmed meat again. She is voiciferous on how farming corporations have undermined American farmers, forcing them to grow single crops in order to stay solvent. She decries non-seasonal eating, saying that food flown from China or other far-off lands merely to satisfy appetites costs not only the environment in terms of fossil fuels but also our bodies, because by the time it reaches our plates it is no longer nutrient-dense. She talks openly about how obesity is a function of capitalism:

No cashier ever held a gun to our heads and made us supersize it, true enough. But humans have an inbuilt weakness for fats and sugar. We evolved in lean environments where it was a big plus for survival to gorge on calorie-dense foods whenever we found them. Whether or not they understand the biology, food marketers know the weakness and have exploited it without mercy. Obesity is generally viewed as a failure of personal resolve, with no acknowledgment of the genuine conspiracy in this historical scheme. People actually did sit in strategy meetings discussing ways to get all those surplus calories into people who neither needed nor wished to consume them.

She makes an interesting point about the gap left in kitchens when women went out to work, and how corporations happily filled that gap with non-nutritious, calorific ready-meals. These full-time jobs that women now gladly have are:

… organized around the presumption that some wifely person is at home picking up the slack – filling the gap between school and workday’s end, doing errands only possible during business hours, meeting the expectation that we are hungry when we get home – but in fact June Cleaver has left the premises. Her income was needed to cover the mortgage and health insurance … Eating preprocessed or fast food can look like salvation in the short run, until we start losing what real mealtimes give to a family: civility, economy, and health.

Kingsolver says cooking is the great divide between good eating and bad. But the pressure to find the time to select (or as she does, grow) ingredients, plan a meal, cook it with joy and not under stress, and then eat it in a civilised and peaceable way with your family is great. I feel that pressure on a daily basis, and I do malign myself when I slap down another meal of fish fingers and peas in front of my sweetly uncomplaining children. However, what her book is doing for me is making me feel more committed to making better food choices for my family when I get home and continuing the journey of more conscious eating. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in doing either or both, or who would like to witness one family’s bold attempt to go against the grain. There are also some great recipes, which I am going to try out. I may not actually make my own cheese, though.

Now where’s the buffalo mozzarella? I’m feeling peckish.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

12 thoughts on “Italy Unplugged

  1. I will definitely have to look this one up…I’ve still got The Omnivore’s Dilemma up on my shelf waiting to be finished.

    A few things: fats are not all bad. We try (when we can afford it) to follow the Nourishing Traditions diet, which is full of quality animal fats (and very like much of what you listed as yummy Tuscan food). Not factory-farmed, pasteurized, chemicalized animal products — those are the ones that have no nutrients and actually cause illness.

    Also, I think making all the effort to create your own food perhaps makes you savor it more…my husband happened to make bread and chicken stock today, and that was one of the best dinners we’ve had in a long time! I could probably deal with “harvesting” animals for food, and even make cheese if I had the kitchen space, but in real time I simply try to use fresh ingredients (and I’m realizing I can consider frozen vegetables as “fresh” when necessary!) and whole, unprocessed foods. That’s a big step right there.

  2. Sounds heavenly — truly does. I’m searching your blog for your post on Eat Pray Love, as I finally find the space to finish it. Did you run to Naples for one of those Pizzas?

  3. I have been slowly going down that path for close to ten years now. And I plan a little revolution for next year with the introduction of hens. There will be some serious food and gardening blogging Chez Mandarine quite soon.

  4. Oh, I can taste it all right now! Except of course, it’s in my imagination, as I’m not in Italy.🙂

  5. She’s back! Dear Charl! Oh you are back! Glad to have you back! I have missed you🙂 I love B.K’s fiction, so now you have given me the nudge to get back to her. She seems to have some pointy things to say on ecology and its politics. Thanks also, for making me feel a smug vegetarian of a dreary wednesday morning! And in that smug vein, I remember an earlier post of yours listing the foodstuffs you could not do without, how fortunate it was meatless!😉 E xx

  6. I have been working on the eating local thing for quite some time. We aren’t perfect yet, we are still buying chicken that is factory raised. And I can’t seem to wean my husband away from the need for fresh lemons at all times of the year. The pork, lamb and beef we eat all were raised organically by people we know. Most of the vegetables we eat we grow ourselves. Most of the fruit we eat was grown locally and processed on site. It is hard work, and it requires a lot of time.

    But I wonder if we have given up much, when I consider how we very rarely are sick.

  7. I’d love to read this book. Wanna swap for Tractors in Ukrainian?

  8. Welcome back – your holiday sounds great and I’m very envious of all that fresh Italian food.

    I’d like to read this book too. I’m sure I’d end up feeling guilty for not growing more of our own stuff, when we have the space. We do grow quite a bit, but it takes a lot of organisation and dedication to have enough vegetables year round.

  9. Ciao from southern Italy! I’m not sure how I came across your blog, but now I see that you’re a fellow member of The Sisterhood of Traveling Books, and the one you discuss here sounds fabulous!

    I suppose I’ve been conducting my own similar (unintentional) experiment of eating locally here for the past few years, and I can’t imagine ever going back to fast food and pre-packaged all the time; once in a while, hey, we’re all pressed for time sometimes, but when it becomes the main staple of one’s diet, health trouble begins.

    I look forward to reading more here🙂

  10. Welcome back! I’ve been wanting to read this book for sometime. Now I REALLY want to read it. I’ll wait for paperback, though, which should be coming soon, I hope. We don’t eat any factory-farmed animals or produce, except, I guess, when we’re at other peoples’ houses, nor do we eat fruits and vegetables when they’re out of season. And I’ve come to agree with Henitsirk that fat, even saturated, isn’t what’s bad for us. It’s processed, overfed, over-medicated animal fat that’s the problem. I’ve gone back to whole milk, whole yogurt, whole cheese (all organic, of course), have suffered no weight gain, because I find I get hungry much less quickly, and am enjoying my food so much more.

  11. Henitserk, I agree that not all fats are bad. I need to start avoid the chemical fats that come off a factory line. And I think it’s wonderful that you bake your own bread and make your own stock. All these things make for slowness and for savouring and enjoying.

    Hi Susie. Glad to hear you enjoyed the book. I didn’t need to go to Naples, because every little town we stopped in had a fabulous pizzeria. However one day I will have to sample the Naples pizzas!

    Hi there Mr Mandarine. I look forward to hearing more about how your food revolution evolves. One of the things Kingsolver recommends is not to name any of your animals – makes it easier on “harvest” day. Actually her harvest chapter was one of the best in the book. As an animal lover you might find it worth reading just for that.

    But Jade you’ve just been having crusty croissants in Paris, have you not? A taste sensation all of its own.

    Hello dear Emma. You will love this book! She is describing what you already do.

    Ms Magic Hands, isn’t that just it? You make the choice to eat consciously and are rewarded with gleaming good health. You are a committed gardener whose husband even makes wine, so you are being modest here, I know that.

    Ash, arghh! I read Tractors while on holiday too. I would love to book swap though, any other suggestions?

    Kit, I’m sure you are doing wonderfully with your growing but I do agree that it takes dedication. I don’t have that extra energy available yet, so I’m trying to eat locally and seasonally for now. Also have to fix the meat problem.

    Sognatrice, welcome! I was amazed that virtually every product I found in the local supermarket was Italian, and most of it was from Tuscany. Having that kind of national pride in local produce certainly helps one on the journey, doesn’t it?

    Hi Emily. It’s out in paperback in England, funnily enough. I’m sure you would love this book. I am sure that whole foods are better than low fat ones which I am sure have been meddled with. The less meddling with food the better I reckon. And glad to hear of the no weight gain thing – I lost a kilogram while on holiday, eating everything in sight!

  12. The tomatoes in Italy were magnificent! The cheeses and the wine! I had never eated mozarella fresh on bread before, it usually goes on top of a pizza for us. We ate magnificently and did not put on weight!

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