“They discovered feelings they didn’t think they were supposed to have.” This line was delivered by Tom Hanks in the recent film Elvis, in which his character refers to the reaction of teenage girls to first hearing and seeing the famous performer live. They could not help but squeal with unrestrained delight.
We often have this same reaction when we first bite into an item of food purchased from a local merchant or truck vendor in Italy, where my wife and I have lived for the past six years. Whether it’s peaches, nectarines, peppers, fish, or meat, the sudden sensation in the mouth triggers a loud, unrestrained exclamation. In the case of fruit, there is an explosion of juiciness and flavor that starts on the tongue but ends up often covering the face and part of one’s torso. It is quite extraordinary. I dare say I have some of those same sensations as the girls experiencing Elvis in the flesh.
The owner of one of our small local food markets sends me a text whenever a fresh delivery of a certain type is made. She knows it will go fast and that I would likely want it. So, I drop what I’m doing and walk quickly to her shop. She is almost always right in her assessment. I snatch my prized whatever and slip back home, clutching the bag like I just pulled off a jewel heist.
It has taken us years to shed an attitude acquired over decades of living in the United States: that you can buy fresh fruit and let it sit for a week. Here, by contrast, after the second day, it’s starting to mold. So, you buy just enough to eat for two days and then go out again for more. It’s the absence of preservatives and chemicals in the growing process that gives the produce a short shelf life.
What a difference in the flavor! I suspect this is part of the reason that visitors to Italy remark on the food. It is unadulterated; you taste the real thing. We grew up with the notion of supermarket food – packaged and preserved in perfect condition like from a photogenic bowl. We were actually eating a pale facsimile of the real thing. Hence, the increasing popularity of weekly farmers markets; many people are tired of the ersatz products of corporate agribusiness.
There are other elements of the American food supply chain that effectively block the path between the source and the taste buds. Produce often arrives at the point of sale before it is ripe, or it sits in the display counter too long. Not enough to be dangerous but just enough to prevent or degrade the flavor. Now, we look at the sea which supplies the biweekly fish truck. We watch the wheat and greens grow on the hilly slopes surrounding our village, Santa Vittoria in Matenano, in east-central Italy. There is a flour mill a few minutes’ drive from here that still grinds fine flours with an ancient stone wheel – albeit powered by solar panels. There is a winery that produces wines so fresh and robust they go by a specific name, Vini Freschi. They are dispensed by pumps with hoses – not unlike a roadside gas station.
But perhaps worse is the American obsession with fruit and vegetables that are visually perfect. I have no idea where this came from – perhaps a centuries-old distrust of street vendors. Many fruits only acquire full rich taste when they are ripe enough to show bruises, scuffs, and discoloration. It’s simply part of the process that does not lessen the flavor. Indeed, it enhances it.
With apologies to my wife, and my vegetarian and vegan friends, meats exhibit a similar attribute. Consistently, the various cuts we have bought at the market in our village have greatly exceeded in quality anything we have purchased in the US. And that includes the Midwest and Texas. (Sorry, folks.) Ironically, the best hamburgers I’ve ever tasted, I have had in Italy.
All this points to the tragedy of corporations taking over the American food production system, sometimes with dire consequences as has happened with salmonella turning up in chicken processing plants in recent years. Thankfully, Italy has also rapidly embraced “best practices” such as offering customers pizza made without gluten.
Consumers’ expectation of perfection seems to be a peculiarly American trait. Kurt Andersen, in his 2017 book Fantasy Land, suggests that this fetishistic obsession with an idealized state has origins stretching back to the Puritans. Any departure from the ideal is not just unacceptable, but malevolent. Whatever its cause, the rest of the world is grateful to have things to eat that are healthy, safe, and unencumbered by advertisers’ requirements for photogenic food at the cost of quality.
Sadly, this collective zeal for perfectly beautiful comestibles stands in the way of both nutrition and pleasure deriving from true taste. It seems that a century of advancements in agricultural technology and food supply – however innovative they might be – has led to a denial of basic sensory pleasure.
And that is a truly unfortunate byproduct of American commerce.
To my mind, this fruit consumption comparison is an apt metaphor for the two cultures. A hallmark of North American culture is banking on the future and thinking of consumer goods as a utilitarian means to an end. By contrast, Italian culture is about enjoying each moment to its fullest, with all its associated sensations, and not wasting food (or anything else).
Perhaps the Italian attitude originated in various periods of famine over the long history of the peninsula. Whatever the origins, this cultural viewpoint has been an adjustment for us. We have learned to savor experiences as they randomly occur rather than try to plan everything in advance. Living like an Italian has infinite challenges, but enjoying great fruit is one I’m happy to embrace.