Eating like an Italian: Making moments out of mealtime

By Ginger Wodele

Ginger Wodele is a senior at Southwest High School in Minnesota and will go on to college in 2019 with interests in international development and medicine.

When presented with the prompt of “The Future of Food” for the 2017 EF Global Leadership Summit, I felt overwhelmed. There are so many issues within our current system, how can we approach all of these individual challenges in a way that completely reforms our way of thinking and, like Summit keynote speaker Raj Patel says, “change everything?” I was able to condense my hundreds of questions into one overarching thought: How can we feed our world in a healthy and sustainable way? I hoped to find my answer during my travels before the Summit in Italy, a country that certainly seems to place a high value upon food. I was not disappointed.

In Italy, food is a way of life. Food is culture, family, community, love and health. The amount of value people place upon food here is greater than I ever could have imagined. People truly love what they make, and they take pride in dishes that sometimes include the cheapest and simplest ingredients. This admirable aspect of Italian culture ultimately influences the effective ways they produce their food.

I had the opportunity to ask world-renowned chef and traveler Anthony Bourdain and food activist and author Raj Patel their thoughts on the relationship between Italian culture and food. They both unanimously confirmed my belief that yes, cultures that put more value on their cuisine model much stronger behaviors of a more effective food system. Dr. Patel spoke on the “Respect, love, and joy of eating,” an attitude that transforms the way a society deals with food. The more value and pride that a society places upon something, the more importance they will put on a system that supports and sustains it.

Italians would never think to give you something to eat that they weren't proud of, in particular anything that might make you sick. I asked Eugenio Gargiulo, an owner of a small family-run lemon grove in Sorrento called La Masseria, to explain why he didn’t use pesticides in his crops. (As it stands, pesticides are cheaper, more efficient, and could cut his labor time almost in half.) When I asked him why he doesn’t use them, he almost scoffed, and explained it to me simply, “We care about the families and the people eating our food. We would never want to harm their health with the use of these pesticides.”

Instead, in order to fight off pests, Eugenio uses a solution made of copper and lime, which is sprayed by hand on all of the products at his farm. This completely natural practice, Eugenio explained, requires much more labor than the use of pesticides, but the farm's commitment to all-natural, healthy, and safe products makes the extra effort worthwhile. Why would they want to poison their customers with harmful pesticides? The idea is ridiculous to this Italian family, who truly cares about what you think of their food, because they see it as a representation of themselves, their culture and their country.

Food brings people together in Italy. Food here is not a chore or a quick bite between activities during the day. Mealtime is for laughing and enjoying company, not for scarfing down a drive through meal in a few seconds while checking your email and running off to the next thing. Food should always be appreciated to its fullest extent, as it's the way to show respect for those who provided you with that meal. We learned from our tour guide Eleanora that many Italian cities have nearly two-hour breaks for lunch, enough time to go home and cook a proper meal that doesn’t need to be rushed.

Trying our best to practice this foreign concept, we took our time eating at meals, and instead of focusing on filling our stomachs as fast as we could, we took bites between the exchanges of stories. Through our adaption of this approach, it was clear to us that food is for family, a time where you can sit down with those you love and talk over a healthy and delicious home cooked meal.

Taking these things I learned from my tour of Italy into the Summit, I was excited to see how other students would incorporate the values and best food practices they discovered in Italian culture into their experience at the Summit. I ended up seeing a great connection between those aspects of Italian culture that value food and the innovative ideas students came up with to solve issues within the food system. Student projects incorporated and addressed issues such as the fast food industry, obesity, and pesticide use. These projects all contained solutions that embodied core values already practiced in Italy. Even winning team member Francesca Edralin attributed her team's success to some of the things they had seen within Italian culture: “Traveling to a country so rich in food and culture as well as hearing well-traveled keynote speakers like Anthony Bourdain and Raj Patel have opened my eyes to a common theme: people are proud of what they grow.”

How might we practice these ideals at home, valuing food like the Italians? Although simple changes, some of these things aren't inherently taught to us, and will require thought in execution. Here’s a good place to start:

  • Know where your food comes from. As Eugenio said, in Italy it is simply wrong to be selling people products that could potentially harm their health through the use of chemicals or toxic pesticides in the growth process. However, here we aren't so lucky to have all of our farmers, producers, and vendors looking out for us like this. This is why we must take it upon ourselves to be educated about where our food comes from and how it’s made. By doing this we can ensure that we’re eating healthy, whole foods, while at the same time supporting local farms like Eugenio’s that promote a healthier system of food.
  • Embrace mealtime. In Italy, mealtime means family and community. It means smiles and laughter and four-course meals that leave you sitting at the dinner table for hours, immersed in the company around you. Clock some hours at your local farmer's market, talk to the people selling you your food, maybe even ask for some recipes. Let yourself be immersed in meals, from start to finish, and embrace everything that comes along with it.
  • Be proud of what you make. Everywhere I went during my travels I noticed how much pride people had in the food they cooked and served for us. Restaurant owners anxiously watching our facial expressions as we cut into a Caprese salad, telling us that the tomatoes were just picked today, and eagerly asking us if we liked it. People care in Italy. Can you imagine sitting at a McDonalds and an employee watching you take a bite of your cheeseburger, anxiously asking you if you liked it? Of course not. Because when you prepare the food from scratch, using ingredients you are proud of, you find a joy in food that never would have occurred through a frozen meat patty and a slab of neon yellow processed cheese. Food is sacred in Italy, and it should be treated that way in all parts of the world.

So, again I might ask, how can we feed our world in a healthy and sustainable way? Maybe it's taking a few tips from the Italians, and really learning to value what we eat and how we grow it. Maybe the future of food is rooted in simpler, more thoughtful practices. And when I arrived home in Minneapolis, greeted by my friends and family after a long day of travel, all I wanted to do was share with them all that I had learned. I found myself applying these simple changes into my life at home, and noticing that they really did make a difference. It wasn't hard to convince my friends either: grabbing some Chipotle between activities and scarfing it down at red lights could never and will never compare to a picnic by the lake, filled with fresh fruits, sun, and good company.

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