Introductory Comments

Introductory Comments

Welcome to my WordPress! My name is Adriana Santomero, and I am a rising senior and Italian major at Duke University.  This blog was created to catalog my work during a 6-week summer abroad experience in Bologna, Italy. All work was assigned for an Italian class called “Food For Thought,” which explored the intersections of food, culture, identity, and more, especially as it pertained to the Italian and American people.

My assignments are categorized into journals, field assignments, and blogs, as well as a final essay which details my main academic takeaway from my time abroad. The first post you will find is “Journal 1: Pre-Departure” which is an excellent starting point as you browse my work. This pre-departure essay explains my family’s background and my early socialization to food. As you will quickly learn, my preferences and attitudes concerning food and food culture have been heavily influenced by my Italian-American identity.

The next post you will find is “Journal 2: In-Country Week 1.” Five other posts are similarly named, one for each week in which I was abroad. This “in-country” journal was kept throughout my stay in Bologna, with each entry serving as a window to my thoughts as I was continually exposed to new Italian foodstuffs and foodways. I tried to write a new entry about every other day, making for about three entries per week. In total, there are 19 different entries spanning my time abroad.

Reading my thoughts week by week in Journal 2 is probably the quickest window into how my mindset changed and adapted over the six weeks, because each entry is a little peek into my thoughts and feelings from that day. Oftentimes, I would use my ideas from this journal as a starting point for my more thorough assignments. Just as a disclaimer, through this food diary of sorts, it will become easily apparent that another important factor in my food-related identity is that of vegetarianism. Three years ago, I became a vegetarian for mostly moral reasons, although while in Italy I did eat some seafood in order to maintain a balanced diet.

Next, you will find my first field assignment “To the Market” along with four other field assignments. The field assignments were given in order to expose study abroad students to food and culture in an immersive way. For instance, the “To the Market” assignment entailed visiting an Italian market and documenting as much as possible about what was seen, heard, tasted, etc. Later, I would collect the information gathered from my senses and ruminate on the significance of what I had experienced. Oftentimes, this involved answering questions such as “who, what, where, when, why, and how?”, drawing comparisons between Italy and the US, and speculating about what my observations meant in the larger context of Italian culture and my own ideas about food.

The field assignments are my most detailed examples of what I did while abroad. In some of these entries, I went as far as to describe everything I ate for an entire weekend (see Field Assignment 3). If the In-Country Journal functions as a snapshot in time of how I felt about food in a particular moment, then the field assignment serves as an entire photo album of these snapshots, taking the reader play-by-play through my gastronomic journey.

Along with every field assignment post, there is also a blog of the same title. These blogs serve as a greater elaboration on what struck me while completing the field assignment. One could think of the blogs as deeper, concluding thoughts once finished flicking through the entire field assignment “photo album.” Usually, my Field Assignments were so detailed that my blog would only elaborate on one or two ideas that I had yet to flesh out completely. Ultimately, though, it is always clear to see the strong link between the Field Assignment and the blog, as well as the way that what I was exposed to during the Field Assignment influenced the trajectory of my critical thinking.

A third journal, “Post-Study Abroad” is a final look into my personal growth and revelations that occurred while in Italy. This piece was written about a week after returning to the United States, so that I had time to think about how Bologna had influenced me. In my writing, you will learn about how my identity as an Italian-American became more informed and nuanced during the Food For Thought class, how I feel about this, and what it means for me in terms of reconciling views I had as a child.

Lastly, my final essay on Food and Identity is my own exploration into Italian-American food values and food socialization, as based both on my personal experiences and the readings I read and discussed with classmates during Food For Thought. I attempt to describe how Italian immigrants to America resisted changes to their food and food culture, which solidified an Italian identity in America that has since been carried on across generations. I argue that the significance of food and food culture in the Italian-American’s life is fairly parallel to that of a native Italian’s (at least in my own experience), and that the Italian-American and Italian socialization of children to food has led these groups of people to be more gastronomically skilled, both mechanically and communicatively, than the average American.

I hope you enjoy my blog and find my work insightful! I would also like to offer infinite thanks to Duke University and my amazing professors for allowing me the opportunity to visit Italy after a lifetime of wishing. My trip means more to me than I could ever describe, and has been so exceedingly formative in my further construction of an Italian-American identity.

Bologna, an incredible city which will always hold a special place in my heart

Final Essay: Food and Identity

Final Essay: Food and Identity

While many different intersections of food and culture were brought to my attention and fascinated me during my time abroad, what has struck me the most is the story of the Italian-Americans and their attempted preservation of Italian culture in Italian-American communities across America. Speaking from the perspective of an Italian-American who grew up in a heavily Italianized area of South Jersey/Philadelphia, as well as drawing upon readings from class, I will describe my perspective that Italian-Americans’ refusal to Americanize their food as extensively as did other immigrant groups is a reflection of the deep importance of food to the Italian people. I will also argue that this importance of food has led Italians and Italian-Americans to better expose their children to food and cooking, and better equip them with both mechanical and communicative gastronomic skills–in comparison to children who grow up in families and communities that do not emphasize food and food culture as a significant part of life.  To help explain and strengthen my views, I will incorporate the works of Levenstein (“The American Respone to Italian Food”), Steele (“Hungry City”), and Ochs (“Socializing Taste”).

Through Levenstein, the class learned of the plight of the Italian immigrants to America. These people resisted assimilating more than did other immigrant groups, and went to extensive lengths to preserve their food and food culture; Levenstein refers to the Italian immigrants as “the exception” to the rule of cuisine assimilation (2). What makes the Italian-Americans’ unique preservation of their homeland’s food culture even more impressive is that they did this with great sacrifice. Italian immigrants were often snubbed in the larger community for their foreign foodways, causing prejudice and alienation of their community. While it would have been easy to just relinquish to the American way of life, however, Italians persisted on and went to great lengths to acquire the ingredients they wanted. For instance, the Italians would grow fruits and vegetables “wherever possible,” whether on gardens, or rooftops, and raise livestock in their basements (3).

Although these habits further distinguished the Italians from other American populations, and “pressure to change their eating habits” was “tremendous,” the Italian immigrants found community among themselves (2). This formation of an Italian community in pockets of American cities is yet another testament to the persistence of these immigrants, because a homogenous Italian identity was yet to exist at this time. As Levenstein explains, “there was no such thing as ‘Italian food.’ Italy itself had only recently been unified politically, and the country was marked by profound regional and local differences” (2). So although the Italian immigrants were fragmented by “regional and class hostilities,” they were able to put differences aside and unify in the shared loved and interest in food; “‘Italian’ food was one of the few sources of pride that the entire community could share” (3). Levenstein indicates this phenomenon as a driving factor for the reason that Italians were able to keep their “ethnic consciousness alive” and maintain some semblance of Italian authenticity despite a new environment (2).

This hodge-podge of Italian-American immigrant families, all co-existing under a singular Italian-American identity, is where my particular story starts. My great grandmother and grandfather were among the first generation of my family to grow up in America, in a heavily Italian district of South Philadelphia. I was lucky enough to know my great grandmother (Mum-Mum) and her daughter (Mimi, my grandmother) growing up, and from an early age absorbed their stories about the immigrant community in Philly. My relationship with Mimi was especially significant to my upbringing and socialization to food because she was a chef and even operated her own Italian food truck in the city. She knew firsthand the power of good food in her community, and did her utmost to pass on a love of cooking (as well as a skill and taste for Italian food) to me. As much as I would love to think my story is unique, however, I know that this isn’t necessarily true—many of my Italian-American friends also share in the memory of relatives who taught them Italian words, Italian recipes, and Italian behaviors. For example, two other families, the Gallina’s and the Scotto’s, own Italian restaurants in my hometown and sent their children to my high school. My Italian-American story is very special to me, but I recognize that especially in the Italianized area in which I grew up, many other people have essentially the same story and the same close relationship with food and family.

This upbringing, surrounded by other Italian-Americans, has meant that I have not fallen into the trap of thinking that “spaghetti grows on trees,” which is one of the issues that Steele comments on in her work “Hungry City.” Steele describes a BBC episode that, in jest but delivered with “complete seriousness,” described the bountiful spaghetti harvest and “included footage of Swiss farm-workers in a mountain orchard picking spaghetti off trees” (166). Many viewers, having never made spaghetti themselves, actually believed this incredible prank! Steele mentions still others who seem to have had no exposure whatsoever to produce and cooking; schoolchildren, for example, who “stared in puzzlement at the leeks, onions and potatoes” shown to them “as if they were creatures from another planet” (166). Furthermore, the idea seems to be scarily pervasive that all cooking entails is “chopping up a few vegetables and throwing them in a pan, or putting a ready-made pizza in the microwave” (164).

I am not completely immune to this inadequacy in the kitchen—I cannot pretend that my cooking is supreme or that I could prepare meatballs blindfolded. However, I have noticed that my Italian-American identity has shielded me from the gastronomic ignorance that many Americans seem to be awash in. Simple tasks such as being able to feel the ripeness of a tomato, eyeball measurements for a recipe, create a meal out of what’s in the cabinets rather than using a recipe, etc, are all skills I have acquired simply by observing my family and living an Italian-American lifestyle surrounded by Italian-American cooking. Many of my peers, on the other hand, are at quite a loss when it comes to any kitchen-related intuition. My best friend is a great example of this—she had never cracked an egg until she was 18 years old (and she only did so because I placed an egg in her hand and told her it was about time to learn). Although this friend attends Harvard and is well on her way to success in the world, cooking was an absent part of her childhood and she remains, to this day, supremely clueless about it. So while many of the Duke students in our class could hardly believe Steele’s conclusion that young people would be so gullible as to believe that spaghetti grows on trees, I know firsthand that many of my peers are indeed this uninformed. I do not pass judgment on them at all—I know that cooking must be taught, and no one can be blamed for what their parents and mentors did not teach them. However, I do find it apt to point out that none of the Italian-American children I grew up with struggled with this same problem. Cooking was and is a central part of growing up for the Italian-Americans I know.

While this observation is certainly interesting, and can hint at the importance of cooking in Italian culture (and the preservation of cooking in Italian-American culture), I believe it is also useful to compare the communicative capabilities of American children without strong cultural backgrounds with those of Italian and Italian-American children. My hypothesis is that children who grow up with rich cultural backgrounds, especially those deeply rooted in the significance of food and cooking, are better able to discern and advocate for their tastes than children who did not have similar upbringings. Certainly if mechanical skills such as feeling a tomato, peeling a potato, and chopping garlic are more developed in Italian and Italian-American children, it is possible that communication skills surrounding food may also be more fine-tuned.

A helpful start to analyzing this hypothesis is the work of Elinor Ochs, “Socializing Taste,” which contains transcriptions of conversations of many dinners held by different Italian families and American families. Ochs’ transcriptions reveal that American children were often cajoled into eating food they didn’t enjoy, and were usually incentivized to eat this food by the promise of unhealthy dessert. Italian children, on the other hand, were more encouraged to describe their food preferences, even if they differed from the rest of the family’s. The Italian children’s tastes were then taken into consideration when their families prepared foods, which seemed to make dinner a more enjoyable experience for all—the Italian parents did not as frequently have to remind their children to eat, and the children did not as frequently complain about their food. Because the ritual of parents commanding their children to eat and children resisting these commands was largely absent from the Italian dinner tables, the conversation during dinner time was better able to center around other subjects. On the other hand, some American dinners became focused around the unenjoyable “plate inspection” and bargaining between parents and children over how many pieces of veggies had to be eaten, or if eating veggies could be exchanged for taking more vitamins. For one American family, all this tension between parents and children eventually came to a head in a father “explod[ing] in frustration” with the exclamation “these kids deserve dog food” (35). At many points, it was truly uncomfortable to read these American interactions, which often made dinner seem like a stressful event that only pitted the children against the adults in a battle of what and how much to eat.

The Italian interactions, on the other hand, seemed to be far more easy-going and the Italian parents seemed to better demonstrate good behavior and family-centered values for the children. The Italian children were also more likely and more able to communicate their likes and dislikes, as well as what they wanted to eat and how much. This stark contrast between the Italian and American dinners is not something that only I noticed, or something I was more likely to pick up on perhaps due to a bias—our entire class commented on how the Italians in the transcriptions seemed like they were socializing their children to food in a more constructive, patient, and even-tempered way. While certainly Ochs’ study cannot be taken as law for all Italian families or all American families, the transcriptions do still shed light on the differences in food-related behavior between the two cultures.

Although I speak only from my own experience and the experiences I have heard of from Italian-American friends, I believe that the Italian food socialization described in Ochs’ work is far more representative of Italian-American food socialization than is the American version. I can pinpoint a much greater number of similarities between my own family and the Italian families in Ochs’ text, in terms of the ways that children were exposed to food and its importance—being encouraged to develop my own food preferences, advocating for my tastes at the dinner table, not needing dessert as an incentive to finish food, and not knowing a separation between child and adult food, just to name a few. I strongly believe that because I was raised with parental strategies and attitudes that positively encouraged my socialization to food, I have amassed greater mechanical and communicative gastronomic skills than my average American peers who did not grow up in a household with a strong, positive culture surrounding food and cooking.

However, it is important to emphasize once again that this cannot necessarily be extended to apply to all Italian-American families. I mainly mean to express that my time in Italy, coupled with my background as an Italian-American who was raised in a very Italian area of the United States, has helped me to develop the idea that Italian and Italian-American food socialization is more productive and healthy for children than American food socialization. These ideas, while strengthened by the works of Levenstein, Steele, and Ochs, as well as by the reactions of our class to these readings and my personal anecdotes, still require more investigation. My main conclusion, given all of this information and my own insights, is simply that different cultures provide backdrops for families to socialize their children to food in different ways–ways which are not all created equal, and will have lasting impacts upon how children operate in the gastronomic world.

Journal 3: Post-Study Abroad

Journal 3: Post-Study Abroad

About 7 weeks ago, I wrote my first journal entry about the importance of food to me and my Italian-American family. I explained the significance of food in bringing together my family around the dinner table, as well as connecting us back to our roots in Italy. Even deeper than that, though, is the relationship my family feels with our now passed grandmother, Mimi, when we eat the Italian food she brought to us with her amazing cooking skills. While all of this still rings true, my ideas about food and what food means to me has certainly grown and evolved since writing that journal. First and foremost, I have come to find an even greater appreciation for my Italian-American heritage.

My great-grandmother and her immigrant mother with family, around 1914

My grandmother (standing, right) and her mother next to her, sometime in the 1940s

A family gathering, post WWII

In terms of my realizations about my heritage, an important piece of background information is that growing up, I sometimes struggled with the idea of just how “Italian” my family really is. “We’re fake Italians!” I would say, embarrassed by the Philadelphia-ization of our pronunciation of Italian words and the fact that my parents can’t speak Italian. This was probably one of my main motivations for beginning to learn Italian at Duke—I wanted to set the record straight and make my mark as a “real” Italian who knew about the culture and language of Italy, unlike those “fake” Italian-Americans. Ironically, though, in this pursuit I learned about the unique plight of Italian-Americans and began to empathize with my immigrant ancestors.  Generations back, my family originally came to the States prior to unification of the Italian language and therefore could not pass down a standardized version to their children, which caused the language to become more and more muddled with slang and intersecting dialects until finally, the entire pursuit was given up. For instance, when I speak to my grandfather in his version of “Italian,” I can hardly understand a word he is saying, because it is so thick in dialect and street slang he picked up on as a child in the city. In my studies at Duke, I also learned about the lack of availability and American acceptance of Italian ingredients, which caused Italian-Americans to adapt their recipes and cooking to their new setting. Therefore, over time, Italian-American truly became a distinct and separate identity from the Italian identity. It’s not that my family and I were ever “fake Italians,” just that generations of our relatives had slowly created for themselves a new identity that could balance both their American-ness and Italian-ness. With this knowledge from our Food For Thought class, I feel that I can finally embrace being Italian-American instead of trying to judge whether or not it is really fair or accurate to call myself Italian.

At the same time as I discovered this, though, and learned to satisfy myself with the label of Italian-American, I also learned that my family really doesn’t behave so differently than the Italian families I have observed or read about. For instance, in our class’s readings and discussions about socializing children to foods, I identified far more with the Italian families’ ways. Just to name a few examples that resonated with me, my parents never made a separation between child food and adult food, they asked for and catered to the tastes of my sister and I (having favorite foods, sampling new foods, requesting specific foods for dinners and for special occasions, etc was encouraged), and dessert was never a daily part of the meal but rather left for special occasions. I can even remember my grandmother cooking dishes “especially for me.” Furthermore, my family agrees with the Italian mentality of not having cultural separation between children and adults. Whereas many of my classmates found it odd that Italians would bring their children to the piazza at night, or to fancy restaurants, this is exactly how I was brought up. My family didn’t believe that there was anything my sister and I shouldn’t be exposed to (short of sex, violence, cursing, and other inappropriate behaviors) simply because we were children—they wanted us to experience Broadway shows, good food, and other “adult” environments and tastes. Also, when learning in Mattia’s class about Italian hand gestures, I noticed that my family uses many of these.

As small and seemingly minor as these similarities may be, they are very meaningful to me because while I recognize that the Italian-American identity is distinct and separate from the Italian identity, it is still heartening and validating to learn of the many ways my upbringing may not have been so entirely different than a native Italian’s. Although language and food can change and adapt, as they did for the Italians who came to America, it seems that behaviors, gestures, attitudes, and values tend to be more everlasting. My time in Italy definitely fortified this idea for me, and showed me even more deeply how food customs and food ways affect culture, upbringing, and the ultimate way that people come to view the world. Because, though I may have grown up in America and eaten American and Italian-American food, it seems that my world view and the way my parents raised me is actually much more congruous with the Italian way of life.

Personally, I really appreciate this fact of my childhood because I tend to agree strongly with the Italian upbringing of children that I referenced above. I definitely intend to raise my own children the same way, without using desserts as an incentive to finish food, or wanting my kids to eat chicken fingers while I eat “adult food,” or leaving them behind with a sitter while I do “adult” activities. I love that Italians embrace having all generations present and active in their culture, and probably more than anything this is what I now feel connects me to my Italian heritage.

Although I do not mean to sound snotty or superior at all to other Americans with a more classical American upbringing, I do think it is very beneficial and validating to a child’s psyche to include them with adults in conversation, food, and activity (and can be damaging to leave them out!). Also, the “Italian way” exposes children to experiences that they will one day need to navigate themselves, whereas American children seem to be expected to, overnight, graduate from child to adult. It seems to me that there is a crisis nowadays in America concerning young adults who don’t know how to “adult,” perhaps because the American upbringing does not emphasize learning how to perform life as a mature manner in a gradual process of positive, experiential experiences. My time in Italy has definitely demonstrated to me that this is not such a great strategy, and I am very grateful to have tagged along with my parents while cooking, dining and going out, etc so that I have a bit of a leg up in terms of “adulting.” I hope that my own generation takes a good look at the shortcomings of traditional American parenting, especially in terms of food socialization, and learns to raise our own children in a healthier way.

Journal 2: In-Country Week 6

In-Country Journal: Week 6

June 18: A Long Breakfast and Great Conversation

This morning was my last day staying in Rimini with Ashley and Jasmine. We had breakfast (included in the hotel package) on top of a balcony with a gorgeous overlook of the surrounding area. Breakfast was buffet style, which suited my preference since Italian breakfast is typically so light. I had an espresso, grape fruit juice, a fruit tart, some cream filled croissant, and a few other sweet cakes here and there. The food was good (I especially loved the juice), but more than anything, the food and the ability to sit and talk for a few hours was just a launching pad to a great and deep conversation I ended up having with Ashley and Jasmine.

We talked about coming from less financially able families, and what it was like to come to Italy knowing we can’t afford as much as the average Duke student. It was really meaningful to me for us to open up to each other like that. Duke students are typically private about their struggles, especially if being open about said struggles will “other them.” This creates a climate in which less financially well-off students tend to be closed about the difficulties of affording things that are just a given to others. For instance, it’s very important to me that I budget my food points accordingly so that I don’t run out too quickly and have to ask my parents for more money. While other students can easily do this, and don’t need to exercise daily caution, I am constantly checking up on my account and figuring out what I can and can’t spend at West Union. Things like this are an extra mental burden that the average Duke student doesn’t have to worry about. Essentially, this is the sort of thing that comprised my conversation with Ashley and Jasmine. I think we all found it cathartic to just sit, eat, and vent.

This morning and the act of opening up to each other reaffirmed to me the power that food can have over people. Having breakfast together was the only way that we were all going to sit around a table for a long time and actually talk—food is really what facilitated that happening. And thinking back to my childhood, food and family dinners was the center of all the bonding I did with my family. Food in and of itself is great, but it also opens doors to human interaction.

Our beautiful view during breakfast

June 21: Sushi in Bologna

After the opera, Jasmine and I stopped at a sushi place just outside of De Marchi to order food.  Although this ended up being a pretty uneventful experience, I wanted to include it because it was my first experience with “ethnic” food in Italy.  Just like we were reading in class about the Italianization of these ethnic foods, I saw things like “shrimp ravioli” on the menu, which I’m assuming must be similar to shrimp dumpling filling inside a ravioli shell. There were also pastas on the menu and a very eclectic mix of English and Italian words. The waitstaff was able to speak in English and Italian with us, as well as in Chinese with each other.  It definitely seemed like a hub of cultural fusion, and I felt gratitude toward the restaurant owners because they had opened up their culture in an area not exactly welcoming to foreign foods, and were willing to experiment with their food to make it more appealing to locals.  That takes a lot of spirit.

As for the actual food, the sushi was pretty standard.  I wouldn’t have thought it were out of place if I had eaten it back in the US.  One thing I did notice though was that the menu was completely saturated with sushi dishes with “Philadelphia,” meaning cream cheese.  Personally, I am not a fan of this–I’ll stick to cream cheese on my bagels.  But, I was ultimately able to find a few things to order without the Philadelphia and I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the food.  If I weren’t leaving Italy this weekend, I would definitely come back when that sushi craving hits me again.

The three of us at the opera, pre-sushi

My fortune cookie at the end of the meal: Esperienze particolari arricchiscono la tua vita.

June 23: Thoughts on Saying Goodbye

Wow, it’s hard to believe that this is my last journal entry! To be honest, I’m writing this on Sunday, June 25 because I didn’t have time to collect my thoughts on the 23rd.  But, essentially, this journal entry is about the last dinner we had together as a class on Friday.  It felt so strange to be saying goodbye ALREADY.  Looking around at everyone gave me a sense of deja vu, probably because it was a very similar set up to the first night we were all together at Pizzeria Toro (and everyone looked similarly tired!).  It truly felt like we had only just gotten to Italy, and I really didn’t want to leave.  As much as I have been looking forward to home and telling my family about my travels, at the time of the dinner I probably would have agreed to an extra month or more in Bologna and signed on the dotted line right there.

The actual dinner was really great.  I particularly loved the fried chickpea flour bread.  It was so flavorful and not too greasy.  This would probably be a fairly easy dish to replicate at home, if I can find somewhere to get the chickpea flour, and I love that it is higher in protein content than other breads.  Also, passing the food around and having everyone try the same dishes was a great experience.  It was nice that everyone could comment on what they were tasting and have conversations with each other about what they liked, what they wanted to taste more of, what the food reminded them of, etc.  For the millionth time this summer, I was reminded of how food unites people and gives them an automatic commonality.  Something as simple as sharing the same meal is a unifying experience that I feel was really fitting for everyone’s last night together.

Field Assignment 5 and Blog 5: Cooking//Cooking and Back Home

Field Assignment 5: Cooking

For this field assignment, my apartment invited over Jasmine and Tara for dinner. Sarah and I did most of the cooking and food preparation while Ashley cleared off and set the table, helped to wash dirty cutlery, and talked with our guests while the food cooked. Our kitchen is small so it was difficult for everyone to take an active role at once, but we managed.

Our main dish was a cheesy rosemary risotto. Sarah found the recipe and procured the ingredients, although there were some bumps in the road there—the recipe called for four cheeses, of which the market only had one. We improvised and used a mix of Parmigiano-Reggiano and Grana Padano. Aside from occasional stirring and keeping my eye for the pot boiling over, I mostly let Sarah take on the risotto-making. Again, with the size of our kitchen, it just wasn’t feasible for multiple people to be attending to the stove at once.

Sarah’s cheesy rosemary risotto

In the meantime, I made a ginger-lemon juice garnished with rosemary. Ashley kindly went out to the store and bought lemons, which I sliced and juiced. She also showed me how to skin and chop ginger so that it could be boiled as a tea. I combined the lemon juice with the ginger tea and ice water, then added rosemary. I sweetened it with acacia honey. My inspiration for this came from the ginger citrus juice we had at the vegan restaurant several weeks back.

Ginger-rosemary-honey lemonade

Also, Sarah prepared a bed of arugula with chopped tomatoes in a salad bowl, and I made vinaigrette. I used extra virgin olive oil, red wine vinegar (it’s too bad we hadn’t yet procured our genuine balsamic from Modena!), lemon juice, salt, three kinds of crushed pepper (black, white, pink), and red pepper flakes. I set this aside in a bowl so that everyone could add the dressing to their own tastes. I also recommended to everyone to try adding Parmigiano to the top of the salad. All of these ingredients were already in the kitchen, bought separately for different purposes, so I was just working with what we had. This tends to be my style of cooking—raiding the cabinets to see what I can pull together (either that, or painstakingly finding every ingredient of dozens at hour-long trips to the grocery store. I don’t seem to have an in-between.).

Salad and salad dressing

Finally, everyone sat down to eat together with our glasses of white wine. In order to squeeze five people around the table, we arranged one side of it to face the couch. Despite the awkwardness of the setup, the table looked beautiful with the sunset pouring in from the window.

Our dining table set-up

It felt very natural and relaxed to enjoy a meal with others. This is something I did often growing up, whether with neighbors, relatives, or friends. My family was always inviting others to come eat with us, or going to others’ homes to eat with them. Since coming to college, my ability to do this has really dwindled. I do not have the tools, resources, or space to cook for my friends and invite them over. As I said in class recently, this is one of the primary reasons I am looking forward to moving off campus next year! Something about sitting down to a meal with company takes me right back to memories made in my kitchen back in Jersey.

Cooking as a group was interesting, because I seem to have the most experience with and passion for cooking out of most of the students on our trip (at least with Italian food). I have an intuition for when pasta is ready to come off the burner, how much seasoning will taste good, what flavors to combine, etcetera. This makes sense because I have been cooking or observing cooking for my entire life. I almost never use recipes anymore except for when preparing dishes I am unfamiliar with or have never made before, and even then I like to embellish, substitute, and otherwise put my own spin on my creations.

However, I recognize that not everyone is comfortable with this level of improvisation. For instance, Sarah seems a bit more eager to stick to the books—and yet, she is much more happy-go-lucky when her food doesn’t turn out as planned. Perhaps this is because it can be chalked up to the fault of the recipe rather than the fault of the chef, whereas when I invent my own recipes, I think of the final product as a personal reflection of my skills. I tend to get a bit put out when my food doesn’t taste as good I had envisioned it. In any case, since Sarah and I were working on separate dishes, our different styles were not in conflict.

In terms of the actual food, everything came together nicely. The risotto didn’t have a very strong taste, but the texture was creamy and the grains were fluffy. The rosemary in the risotto added a good complement to the cheese, and worked well with the hints of rosemary in the ginger lemonade. Since I was only working with about five lemons, the taste had to be a bit watered down in order to fill a whole pitcher, so “lemonade” is a bit of a stretch of the term—it was more of a flavored water with lots of lemon pulp. The ginger taste was fairly subtle, despite having used quite a bit of ginger root. I didn’t realize how much would have to be added to really bring out the flavor. Also, the salad dressing turned out great! It wasn’t too acidic, and the lemons added a nice sweetness. And, I thought adding cheese balanced out the bitterness of the arugula. Overall, I would say that this meal was successful and cooking together was really fun. When the meal was over, we all sat, digested, and talked for over an hour and I felt very at home. I would be happy to do it all over again.

Another shot of the dining table

Blog 5: Cooking and Back Home

I have now been home in New Jersey for 6 days, although this past week surely seemed to fly by quicker than that! My food habits in the United States are much different than they were in Italy. For starters, the time change and jet lag have me waking up feeling well rested at about 5AM, so I’m ravenous by the time the rest of my family is awake. Whereas in Italy I usually skipped breakfast, that just wouldn’t be possible here given my wacky body clock. Maybe as I readjust further to the time, I will go back to my usual ways, but for now I am enjoying the feeling of waking up early and get my day started.

However, waking up early comes with the caveat of going to sleep early. Nowadays I’ve been conking out at about 9PM, which means no sneaking to the gelateria downstairs from De Marchi at 11PM! My dinners are now much earlier (more like 6PM rather than 8:30) and I don’t have dessert much anymore—gone are the days of cioccolata con arancia every afternoon. My family usually only has dessert for holidays and special occasions, so that element of my diet has been missing.

As for cooking, I realize now how much more I defer to my parents when it comes to my meals. They offer to make me something or already have a meal planned out before I can even think to prepare one. Because of this, I have far less control over my diet than I did in Italy—what my mom or dad puts in front of me is what I will have. I don’t think this has much to do with the Italian setting versus the American setting; it’s more so that in Italy, I was independent and on my own when it came to cooking. If I didn’t get myself groceries or prepare myself food, who would? But now at home, my parents are enjoying coddling me a bit with my favorite meals (after all, I’m only home for one more week before returning to Duke!) and making sure everything is handled. I defer to their expertise and authority and, to be honest, it’s much easier for me to sit back and enjoy home cooking from them!

This is basically the opposite of my situation in Italy. As I wrote in my field assignment, I seemed to have a greater amount of experience in the kitchen than did the other girls I was cooking with, especially with Italian food. So, they were often watching me prepare the food or asking my opinion on what was prepared. It definitely felt good to have these skills and be able to pass them on—as the Sutton article I read for my independent study (“Cooking Skills the Senses, and Memory: The Fate of Practical Knowledge”) explained, it takes both a willing learner and a willing teacher to produce new cooks, and for me it was fun to be in the role of teacher. All my life I have been an apprentice to my grandmothers and parents in the kitchen, and although I am nowhere near as skilled as they are, it still feels good to be able to pass some techniques and information down to the next person. But as I mentioned though, this role was short-lived since back at home I am once again the apprentice.

There are a few things, though, that I am looking forward to teaching/showing my family. Tiramisu, for instance, is a dish we have never in my memory made at home, and I’d like to try it out for my parents. I also prepared many dishes with eggplant while in Bologna, which I’d like to replicate at home—see to the left the eggplant/tomato/ricotta/mozzarella tower I made in a basil cream sauce, and below Ashley with the dish I ordered in Rome that inspired me to make it. I think it would be a worthwhile dish to give my parents because it is more creative and restaurant-like than our typical breaded eggplant, eggplant parmiggiano, or eggplant slices in pasta.

Ashley sitting with the original appetizer in Rome

 

 

 

 

 

 

My (very tall) version of the appetizer made in De Marchi, prior to going in the oven

One other thing that was different about returning home was that now I am the one with travel stories! I grew up hearing about Italy and all the amazing places I must see and food I must try, but now it is my turn to educate my family about how the “homeland” has grown and changed in 2017. Back in Italy while cooking and hanging out with the program, everyone was experiencing the novelty of Italy together, so no one really had a leg up on anyone else in terms of knowledge of the city or culture. Now at home, I am the authority on modern day Italy, and my relatives are combing me for details. Whereas in Italy my friends and I mostly talked about our lives at Duke and at home while cooking, now in the US I am always talking about Italy. Over every meal, my family wants to know how the food compares to what I had in Bologna, and wants to pick my brain for all the pieces of my trip, as well as examine the copious amount of pictures that now crowd my phone’s storage.

Don’t get me wrong—I can’t complain! I’m happy to recount the many adventures of my trip. It is definitely interesting though how in Italy the dinner topic was usually life in Durham but at home the dinner topic is life in Italy! In so many ways, life has been turned on its head in these past few days. Although I know that eventually things will settle down and my family’s thirst for Italy stories will die down, for the meantime I’m glad that I can cling to the memories I made just for a moment longer.

As for when I return to Duke, I’m excited to step back into the role of chef. It will be awesome to have my own kitchen next year in my off-campus house and cook with and/or for my 5 roommates (they are all male so I will probably be doing a lot of thinking about how gender plays into our kitchen next year!). As it is at Duke, I am usually cooking at least one meal per day and just about every meal on weekends, barring the few times I will go out to a restaurant. But, I think with my new culinary amenities, I can extend my cooking habits to an even greater frequency.

Also, with the new confidence I gained in Italy in the kitchen, I feel really excited to bring my cooking to others. Thinking back on my field assignment, it was so relaxing and feel-goody to cook with my friends and sit around a table together with everyone knowing exactly what comprises their meal. As I wrote in my previous blog, this feeling of control—being able to plan the dish ahead of time, gather ingredients, and literally watch, taste, smell, and feel them transform into a meal—is so satisfying. Regardless of whether I am in the US or Italy, I think that satisfaction will be present when I can enjoy cooking and socializing with friends. Ashley, Jasmine, and I already have big plans for dinner and movie nights, and I very much hope we go through with that! I always loved cooking with friends back home, and it would be wonderful to integrate that into Duke life.

 

Journal 2: In-Country Week 5

In-Country Journal: Week 5

June 10 and 11: The Food of Rome

This weekend, I went to Rome with Ashley and we ate so much great food! As someone whose Italian-American family hails from the central/southern region of Italy, I simply have a preference and nostalgia for the kind of food we ate here. The most amazing experience we had was at a restaurant nearby the Trevi Fountain. It was called Assaggi d’Autore. It was so good and the staff was so friendly that we actually went back again the following night! On the first night, I ordered gnocchi in pomodoro sauce with shaved mozzarella. Ashley tried some of mine and liked it so much that she ordered that the second night, while I ordered sesame-encrusted salmon. We also split an appetizer of eggplant, tomato, and mozzarella layered on top of each other and sampled tastes from a 40 Euro bottle of wine that Ashley ended up purchasing! Also, on the first night, Ashley and I split a tiramisu, and on the second night we ordered both a frozen chocolate dessert and a slice of cake with balls of chocolate in the batter. It was honestly wild how much we enjoyed this restaurant and were willing to splurge on it.

The other funny thing was that on the second night when we revisited the restaurant, the same host and waitress greeted us. We all started laughing as soon as Ashley and I walked in, and the host gestured to the same spot we had occupied the previous night and told us, “there’s your table!” Once we sat down, we also started chatting with a couple sitting next to us, who gave us tips about world travel and loved hearing about our experiences at Duke. By the end of the second visit, the couple was hugging us and wishing us the best on the rest of our journey, and the host was hugging us and kissing us on the cheeks, asking us to return, and thanking us for our business. It really felt like we had made friends in Rome, as big of a city as it may be. I think this ultimately speaks to the power of food and its ability to unite even strangers.

Night 1: Gnocchi

Night 2: Salmon

Night 2: Cake

Night 2: Sampling the 40 Euro wine (look how happy I am!)

June 13: Parma and a Vegetarian Crisis

Today the class visited Parma and watched the process of making Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. This was an awesome experience and I was really grateful to see the behind-the-scenes of cheese making. However, one thing I couldn’t get off my mind was the use of rennet, an enzyme from the stomach of a baby cow, to make the cheese. Rennet is important in cheese making because it allows the liquid to separate off from the rest of the mixture. However, this is obviously not a vegetarian product, since it requires the death of an animal to be procured. This really confuses and upsets me, because I love cheese and honestly do not want to give it completely up (I have been trying to limit my consumption, but cutting it entirely out seems horrible) but I also can’t morally agree with the practice of using rennet.

I talked to a few classmates and my boyfriend about this conundrum during and after the cheese tour, and no one really seemed concerned. I guess that for someone who isn’t vegetarian, it doesn’t seem particularly earth-shattering to learn that a food has animal product in it, because that new knowledge isn’t a factor in continuing to eat the food. Also, my boyfriend argued that cheese is still vegetarian, but I can’t really agree with him. I still haven’t figured out where I stand on continuing to eat cheese, and I feel pretty confused. More and more I am realizing that the most ethical diet is probably veganism, but I’m held back by my own love of cheese and eggs to make the switch. I hope I can reconcile my thoughts about all this soon!

A wheel of the cheese in question

June 14: Recreating an Appetizer

Tonight I attempted to recreate the eggplant, tomato, and mozzarella appetizer that Ashley and I ordered in Rome. Because I was cooking for four people (me, Sarah, Ashley, and Jasmine) I made the eggplant tower much larger. I also added ricotta cheese as a fourth layer in addition to the eggplant, tomato, and mozzarella. I cooked the dish in a bath of tomato basil cream sauce. It turned out awesome and the tower actually held its integrity even after melting in the oven. I cut it into a bunch of more manageable pieces and we all enjoyed scooping it onto pieces of oil-dipped, toasted bread. It was like an extra-chunky dip. This is definitely a dish I want to make more of back home! Although the eggplant was time consuming because I had to let it soak in salt to release the bitterness, it wasn’t actually a very difficult thing to execute and the ingredients are easily available in the US.

Also, this experience has made me feel more brave to try to cook “restaurant food” at home when I get inspired by what I see and eat while out. Interestingly, with Italian food though, there doesn’t seem to be much of a separation between food made in the home and food one would order in a restaurant. Unlike in America when restaurants seem to give access to fancier foods that most people would shy away from preparing at home, or that are intensely complicated and better left up to the chefs, in Italy there isn’t as much of a distinction. Good food just seems to be good food, at least in so far as I have seen.

Ashley with the appetizer

My version, prior to going in the oven

Aerial view of the appetizer after cooking

Journal 2: In-Country Week 4

In-Country Journal: Week 4

June 6: Eataly

To be honest, this journal entry is not particularly exciting. Since coming back from Israel I’ve been pretty busy unpacking, catching up on work, and trying to make up for lost time in terms of the LSAT practice I couldn’t do while I was away. So, my thoughts have not been particularly oriented toward my food and the gastronomic environment. But, I do have the exciting news that tonight I visited Eataly for the first time with Sarah and Ashley. The food was really good! I don’t know why I waited so long to come here, but I think that now that I know what it is like, I will try to come more often. It is especially nice to be able to use my food vouchers for dinner.

I ordered clams and spaghetti and had spuma di ricotta for dessert. The clams were yummy, but they are much tinier than they are in the states. It was kind of difficult to dig them out of their shells, which left me wondering if the taste of the food was worth the labor of extracting the clams. I think it was, but my favorite part had to have been the pasta. It was cooked to just the texture I like. The spuma, on the other hand, wasn’t exactly bad but wasn’t my favorite either. It was heavier and cheesier than I would have preferred, and didn’t have the sweet flavor I associate with dessert. It was swimming in a thin brown sauce that tasted like raisins. Ashley was looking at me like I had three heads while I ate it! She said she doesn’t believe in dessert-cheese, which I thought was pretty funny. All in all, I’m glad that I tried something new even though I didn’t know exactly what I was getting myself into. This is kind of ironic since my last journal entry was about having more control over my consumption while in Italy, but it some ways, being a foreigner here means actually relinquishing control because I don’t always know what’s in my food or how it was prepared before I order it. If I can’t look up a word, I usually just take a chance and order something. Especially if it’s on the vouchers, what harm could come? I like to be adventurous when I can afford to do so.

Spaghetti and clams

 

 

 

 

 

Spuma di ricotta

June 7: Cooking Class

Tonight the class visited a chef’s house and learned how to make pizza dough, pasta dough, lasagna, and Bolognese sauce. We were also served a delicious salad, quiche-type appetizer, and tiramisu for dessert. This was a really fun activity that I felt greatly facilitated class bonding. It would have been nice to do this perhaps earlier in the program so that we could use what we learned all summer long and get to know each other over the course of the evening.

In terms of what we actually all learned, I think many people in the class benefitted from the demonstration of culinary skill. Although pasta making, dough making, and lasagna assembly are all familiar processes to me, the Bolognese sauce was new to me (aside from what I have seen on Italian cooking shows—but as far as I can remember, I never saw a family member prepare this) and besides, I can always afford to learn something new or observe a different technique than what I am used to. I loved watching the chef roll the dough so expertly, moving her whole body as she did so almost as if doing a dance. In general, her attitude seemed to be really fun-loving, like cooking isn’t or doesn’t have to be the chore that many people view it as. When I cook with my friends or boyfriend, I tend to feel this sense of fun as well. Cooking becomes an activity for movement and rapidity but also waiting and carefully timing, socialization but also the feeling of having to be in touch with one’s own self and inner instruction, experimentation but also routine. It is an interesting mix of skill and improvisation, and can be really a fun activity when approached with the right attitude. I think that more than anything or any recipe, it is the image of dancing and laughing while cooking that will stick with me about tonight.

Me feeling the pizza dough

My vegetarian dish: tagliatelle with mixed veggies

 

 

 

 

Tiramisu dessert

June 8: Cooking with Sarah, Tara, Ashley, and Jasmine

I will talk a lot more about this event in my Field Assignment 5, but for now I just want to write that this was a really fun night! All my sentiments about eating with others and the good feeling that gives me, I could repeat. Once again, I just am really hoping that I will have the freedom, ability, and friends to cook with others and make an event out of food more often in the coming year and as I grow older.

The dining table set up to serve everyone

June 9: Tuscan Dinner with Riccardo

Tonight I was wandering around Florence with Ashley and Jasmine and we so happened to stumble upon a little hole in the wall that advertised itself as Tuscan style farm to table cooking. Of course, we were intrigued and got a table inside. We were greeted by an older man, who told us we were “entering the farm.” It really did feel like we had been transported to Tuscany; the restaurant was set up to reflect a farmhouse, with even a loft set up as if a farmer might live upstairs. It was so quaint and a very relaxing atmosphere. The older man turned out to be very interested in talking with the three of us and making sure we were enjoying our meal. He learned our names and what we studied, and told the other staff in the restaurant about us. We learned in return that his name was Riccardo.

Riccardo served us a bottle of IGP wine, a cheese plate with honey, a thick twisted pasta with red sauce and parmigiano, alcohol-soaked cherries (as a free gift!), and some sort of pudding-like dessert made of chestnut flour and with a shot of limoncello poured on top. Everything was delicious, especially the pasta. I had really been craving a pasta like this (although I don’t know what it’s called, it was like multiple strands of spaghetti wrapped around each other) after being surrounded by tagliatelle all summer. It was also really fun to spoon and smear the cheese with honey, a combination I love to recreate at home with my own antipasto dishes. The dessert was odd, but I’m glad I had the bravery and adventure in me to try it, because once the limoncello started soaking into the pudding, it was pretty tasty.

But even more than the food, what I loved about the experience was meeting and getting to know Riccardo. He has a true passion for bringing the cooking of the south to the north. We also all felt like we were very customers. All of Riccardo’s attention was on us and making sure we were having an enjoyable time. As they say, you may not remember what someone said or did, but you will remember how they made you feel. Well, years from now I may not remember exactly what I ate or what we talked about, but I will hold onto the way the Riccardo treated us and made us feel like his guests for those few hours.

The cheese and honey plate

IGP Wine

 

 

 

 

 

 

Liqueur soaked cherries

Pasta with parmigiano, basil, and tomato sauce

Chestnut flour cream topped with a shot of limoncello

Ashley, Jasmine, Riccardo, and me

Field Assignment 3 and Blog 3: Food From My Travels

Field Assignment 3: Food From My Travels

During the long weekend, I travelled to Israel. I was able to see—whether by bus, car, train, or on foot—a fairly substantial portion of the country! This included Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Be’er Sheva, and much of the south and Jordan border during an expedition to the Dead Sea.

Food is very prized in Israel, just as it is in Italy. Luckily, my tour guide and best friend, Eitan, has lived in Israel for about a year now and was very well able to advise me on what to eat, and from where. The very first thing I ate in Israel was a pita pocket sandwich with scrambled eggs, tomato sauce, onions, and tabouli. It was just like a vegetarian sloppy joe. According to Eitan, scrambled eggs and tomato sauce is a very typical combination.

Next, I tried Israeli gelato. Eitan and I split two flavors: cookie crunch and strawberry mascarpone. They were both amazing—certainly better than the US and neck-in-neck with some gelato I have tried in Italy so far.

The beautiful array of gelato!

The next day, Eitan introduced me to carrot juice. It was incredibly sweet and creamy—not at all like what I would have expected.

Carrot juice!

In Israel, juicing is a very popular trend. They juice everything, and dozens of juicing stands litter the streets.

A pretty typical juicing stand along the side of an Israeli market

I haven’t noticed this in Italy, and in fact, I haven’t noticed many cold drinks at all aside from some refrigerated Coca Cola. Perhaps because Israel is in the desert, cold drinks are much more available. Iced coffee, especially, was widely accessible, whereas I have only seen it on one menu in Italy. The coffee in Israel is also extremely watered down with copious amounts of milk. I prefer my coffee black, and have really been enjoying the strong Italian espressos, so this was a bit disappointing.

Very milk iced coffee, or “cafe cal,” as said in Hebrew

On Friday, I also ate two sandwiches (one eggplant and one smoked salmon), which Eitan and I picked up on-the-go in the morning and carried with us for when we got hungry later in Jerusalem. The sandwiches were probably at least 8 inches long but only cost the equivalent of $3 USD. I was amazed at the affordability, just as I have been in Italy as well.

Very cheap–and very delicious!–sandwiches

While in Jerusalem, we also visited an unbelievably huge market. It was similar in some ways to the Italian outdoor markets—hosts of fresh fruit and veggies displayed in all their colorful wonder, accessible prices, and tons of people. However, there were also restaurants and grab-and-go food stands interspersed with the produce, as well as juicing stations, clothing shops, and cafes. People aggressively haggled and were very boisterous. In Italy, I think the market experience is less hectic and much more relaxing, but I thoroughly enjoy both.

The outdoor market in Jerusalem

Another outdoor market, but this one is covered by beautiful tunnels swathed in string lights.  This was right outside of the Western Wall, where Christians, Jews, and Muslims come together not only to pray, but also to buy food.

At the market, Eitan would come up to me with samples of food and tell me to I try them despite not telling me what I would be eating. So, unfortunately, I do not have the clearest picture of everything I ate. However, I do know that I had dried mango, dried kiwi, a cheesy pastry, and some sort of sugary, nutty dessert. I also tried what looked like French macarons, but Eitan informed me were actually Argentinian cookies called alfajores. Just look at the picture—it was an easy mistake to make. They were delicious nonetheless, with a somewhat similar taste to a plain macaron but with a chalkier texture.

Alfajores!

My last meal of the day was a pita pocket covered in sesame seeds and filled with tomato paste, cheese, olives, and basil. I ordered this only after being talked out of a za’atar-covered pita. The worker at the restaurant thought the za’atar pita had been sitting out, and I would like the other better. I took him at his recommendation, and also thought about how nice it was for him to want to serve us a good dish, especially considering he was Arab making this recommendation to one American girl and my three male Israeli companions (Eitan, his brother, and his roommate). It can get tense between the Israelis and the Arabs at the market, so I appreciated my small window into seeing the other side of things—when people can really want to take care of each other with something as simple as fresher pita.

In any case, I also wondered whether the same sort of interaction would happen in Italy. Italians are so very serious about their food and its quality, that I am not sure if a vendor would want to admit that his or her product had been sitting out in the display all day. Especially because of limited air conditioning, I have found myself sometimes hesitant to order from shops as I watch the sun pour in through the windows and bake the sandwiches behind the counter. I would hope that an Italian shopkeeper could be as upfront as those I experienced in Israel—who seemed always willing to lower prices, make their recommendations, and alter the food with substitutions and additions (whereas in Italy I have gotten some very strange reactions to asking for a waiter’s recommendation).

The next day, Saturday, I went with Eitan and his brother to visit their cousin. She prepared an amazing spread for us—an omelette with sautéed onions, two different kinds of pita bread, guacamole, egg salad, tomato salad, tahini, olives, cookies, nutella, apricots, grapes, and surely some other items I must now be forgetting. It was incredibly generous of her to have me over for this meal that must have taken her hours to prepare. The spread she put out seems to be fairly standard for Israeli house-parties, as I have also seen similar items prepared by Eitan’s mother back in the US. According to Eitan, tahini is “the national goop of Israel” and makes its way to most luncheon tables. Also, of course pita is the bread of the Middle East and is a staple in or accompanying many meals. To top off the outing with Eitan’s cousin, we also went to a market and had roasted chestnuts and knafeh.

Knafeh!

We then visited a different relative’s house and had a wonderful spread of small snacks: dried apricots, raisins both golden and regular, and walnuts. We also drank ginger-infused water, red wine, and lemongrass tea. For dinner, there was a mushroom quiche and for dessert, both cheesecake and banana bread. Again, I was so thankful for the hospitality of Eitan’s relatives. I found it wonderful that in my short time in Israel, I was able to observe how not one, but two families entertain and feed their guests.

Sunday was my last full day in Israel. In the morning, we stopped for a quick breakfast before heading to the Dead Sea. I ordered a falafel-in-pita sandwich with hummus, onions, pickled veggies, and tabouli. This is probably the most iconic dish one could have in Israel. Falafel can be ordered at any time, for any meal. It is the center of the dish, with many different options for garnish on a pita sandwich. It is also possible to just eat falafel without the bread. Falafel is a great meat substitute, with a somewhat hazy origin. Many people believe they originated as meat substitute for those observing Lent in Egypt, but of course now they have grown into a widespread street food.

My falafel sandwich–yum!

My particular sandwich was fantastic! I don’t really care for falafel in the United States—it tends to be dry and crumbly without much flavor. In Tel Aviv, it was an entirely different ball game. The falafel was prepared right in front of me. The vendor reached into a bucket of ground chickpea and onion, scallion, and spices, pulled out a small handful, rolled it into a ball, and put it right into the fryer. Within a few minutes, they were ready and went right into my sandwich. Its simple and cheap ingredients made this amazing sandwich less than $4 USD.

While at the Dead Sea, I tried some hazelnut gelato that was of somewhat better quality than what one would expect from a tourist trap ice cream vendor. After that, I didn’t eat again until in a train station on the way home. I tried a vegan chicken sandwich wrapped in a gigantic pita round and accompanied by numerous dipping sauces. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the fake meat, but it was one the best I’ve ever ordered.

Eitan and I at the Dead Sea

In the airport the next day, I tried a Pizza Hut personal pizza with eggplant and za’atar (the fact that they have those toppings at a Pizza Hut is mindblowing), and that about concluded my experience with Israeli food. Overall, it was an amazing experience that made me think so much about comparisons between Italy and the rest of the world (more to come in my blog). So many things are similar—the emphasis on food as the center of social interaction, the rich cultural history of many dishes, the vibrancy of the markets, and accessibility of great food—and yet so many things are unique between the two countries. Something as simply as bread is drastically different in pita form when compared to that of Italy. It just goes to show that my travels aren’t anywhere near over yet. I have so much more to see, experience, and eat!

Airport pizza with eggplant?  Mind-blowing!

Blog 3: Food From My Travels

For my travels, I visited Tel Aviv, Israel and some surrounding cities such as Jerusalem and Masada. In my Field Assignment, I extensively detailed my experiences in the market, the use of pita in replacement of regular bread, the history and significance behind falafel, the difference between eating in a restaurant and eating at a local’s home, and several other concepts that I picked up on while traveling including many comparisons to what I have observed so far in Italy.

What I didn’t get as much of a chance to elaborate on in my Field Assignment was the element of control over one’s food that I feel people in Italy and Israel have, disproportionately to the people in America. In both Italy and Israel, it is possible to just step outside of one’s house and be footsteps away from amazing, fresh, vibrant outdoor food markets. The ability to buy this produce and interact with vendors is such a common phenomenon that locals do not seem to even bat an eye at the idea. On the other hand, I am totally awestruck by this because in America, it is rare to have access to food in this way. Aside from Farmer’s Markets, which may only set up shop once a week, and do not visit every town or city, Americans are hard-pressed to find fruit and veggie stands, and to ever make a real, lasting connection with a food vendor. Furthermore, Farmer’s Markets in America have elitist undertones, because they tend to be very expensive and only attract people who have the time and money to leisurely stroll and experiment with goods on a Saturday morning. In Italy and Israel though, the outdoor markets are completely normal ways to obtain food, and there are very low prices which are accessible to people from all walks of life.

Aside from the outdoor markets, people in Italy and Israel also have traditional grocery stores as well as an array of different specialty food shops—dessert places, delis, wine shops, cheese shops, butchers, etc. While these specialty shops do exist in the States, they are few and far between, and are only becoming more and more rare as consumers push to be able to obtain all of their grocery needs in one convenient location. I feel that this is really a shame, and ultimately does a disservice to the consumer, because it causes us to have less control over what we are able to buy. In shoving out the “little guys” who operate smaller, more specialized shops, we are eliminating their goods from the market and turning our backs to the extensive craftsmanship that goes into a skill like cheese-making or artisanal gelato. People who have these skills and operate these businesses rely on consumer demand to continue their operations, so their goods will truly be wiped from the market if consumers do not purchase. When this happens, consumers feel that their options are expanding because they are able to buy more and more from one grocery store, but actually their options are becoming more limited because many, possibly more excellent, goods are being placed on the chopping block.

Furthermore, eliminating the experience of the mom-and-pop shop is another limitation that has caused the American experience of grocery shopping to become highly standardized. Whereas in Israel and Italy, people have their favorite shops and often know the people from whom they are buying food so that their grocery experience is customized, people in America will all cluster around the same large shop in which they are often anonymous and cannot find knowledgeable staff to help out. Also, when shopping in a smaller, more intimate market, consumers are able to have better control over what foods are available and at what prices. Haggling is able to take place, or someone can request that more of a certain vegetable or a different variety of one fruit be brought back to the market at its next availability. Vendors will actually listen to their consumers and allow the consumer to, to an extent, control their market. This is largely absent in the US, with perhaps again the exception of Farmer’s Markets.

Personally, I really dislike that the choices of American consumers (choices with which I disagree) are causing this epidemic of large and impersonal groceries, as well as the collapse of smaller vendors. Of course, this is how an economy works, and I am at the mercy of everyone else’s decisions. However, I wish that Americans could begin to value smaller grocery experiences and see the beauty in these little shops and corner fruit stands. The people of Italy and Israel alike are so lucky to have these elements at their fingertips, and to be able to control their consumption in such a personalized and meaningful way. It truly makes me sad that I will have to trade this experience in at the end of my six weeks in Italy and return to the lonely aisles of Whole Foods. Out of everything I saw in Israel, this realization was probably the most eye-opening…that for all the grandeur of the huge American grocery stores, Americans are actually more limited in the food choices available for them to make, than are people in other countries with their smaller markets. I wonder if that trend will ever turn around for America, and I surely hope that it stays the same in Italy and Israel.

Journal 2: In-Country Week 3

In-Country Journal: Week 3

May 30: Vegetarian Lunch

Wow, I’m really starting to feel like I’m on a soapbox in my journal with vegetarianism! But yet again I have something to say about vegetarianism, because today the class went to a vegetarian restaurant and I sort of butted heads with a few people over it. Some classmates in particular were complaining about the lack of meat options, and wondering why we had gone to a vegetarian restaurant. I am a pretty sensitive person, so I couldn’t help but to wonder if this was some thinly veiled jab at me, and my lifestyle. I also thought it was just insensitive for these people to be so close-minded about trying a new variety of food, especially when that variety is helpful to animals and the planet. Also, I just wanted these girls to understand that their frustration at the limitations of the menu is what I feel every time I go into a restaurant and my options are extremely restricted.

Sitting there listening to their complaints just made me feel frustrated, sad, and somewhat attacked. I finally spoke up and asked for them to keep an open mind, to which I was told the girls were only joking. I didn’t know what to feel at that point, but it just wasn’t good. As much as I can, I try to avoid being “that vegetarian” who tries to convince other people to give up meat, so since I try to be respectful toward other diets, it really bothered me to be so disrespected about my own. I’m pretty sure that just for ONE meal, it is possible for even meat-lovers to put down the carving knife and just enjoy—or at least try, without the insults—a vegetarian dish.

Vegetarian pasta dish

“Pasta” with noodles made of shaved beets

 

 

 

 

 

Vegetarian nutty cheesecake

June 1-5: Israel

I will talk extensively about this trip and its food in my Field Assignment 3 and Blog 3. Here is a preliminary list of some things I want to address in further detail:

-Israeli Gelato

-Juices

-Low food prices

-Comparison of the Italian and Israeli markets

-Eating food with people who actually live in Israel, in their homes

-Tensions in the food market

-Control over consumption

This last bullet point is what I find most intriguing. In the past few days, I have really noticed how much more control the Italians and Israelis both seem to have over their consumption in comparison to Americans. For example, if I wanted to get fresh fruit from a fruit stand somewhere in Durham, I would honestly be at a lost. I can’t just walk out of my dorm at Duke and know exactly where to go for fresh produce, unless it’s on a Saturday when the Farmer’s Market sets up shop. It must just be really nice for the people of other countries to have such highly available produce and so many different options for what to eat. They can really control and tailor their diets and participate in a market that is small and local enough to hear their voices and listen to the power of their dollars.

Journal 2: In-Country Week 2

In-Country Journal: Week 2

May 22: First Experience Cooking at the Apartment

Today I had my first experience making dinner at home! From the grocery store to the dining table, I was involved and thinking through every step of my meal. While this isn’t unusual for me (I cook all the time at Duke), it still feels especially satisfying to have done this in a foreign landscape—navigating the grocery store and cashier, packaging instructions in Italian, etc. At the store, I purchased tagliatelle, olive oil, canned whole tomatoes, dried garlic scales, salt, pepper, and a frutti di mare package. The first thing I noticed while cooking was the fragrance of the olive oil! Wow, that was really something to write home about—I actually texted my family’s group chat telling them I couldn’t believe how much more vibrant the oil smells here.

Everything else about the cooking was pretty standard. I boiled water, cooked the pasta al dente, heated the seafood, and drizzled it all in seasoned oil with the garlic scales. The pasta and oil-sauce tasted amazing, but I was disappointed in the seafood. I actually worried that it might be expired or have gone bad, so I just ate the pasta around the seafood. It’s not that it had a fishy taste—I can handle that. It actually just tasted “off.” So, that was a bust, but I would definitely make the pasta for myself again.

Before cooking…

 

 

 

 

 

 

…After cooking

May 25: Cooking Again

Tonight I had my first try making an Italian-American dish from home, in Italy with Italian ingredients. I was really excited to try this out because I assumed the dish would taste much better using fresher, more “authentic” Italian ingredients. In some ways that was true, but in other ways not so much. Just to give some background info, this dish is called a “tomato basil pie” and basically involves the ingredients of a pizza inside a pie crust along with egg and oil emulsion. In the US, I usually let the tomatoes sit out and “drain” on a paper towel before adding them to the pie, because otherwise the pie shell becomes too wet and loses its integrity. Here at the apartment, though, we don’t have any paper towels, so I just shook the tomatoes out over the sink to release some of their juice. However, this was hardly effective and this caused the pie to be really wet. The wetness of the mozzarella didn’t help either, so the bottom of the pie crust was unfortunately pretty soggy. However, the flavor of the basil, tomatoes, and mozzarella was out of this world! I shared the dish with Ashley and Sarah along with strawberries and whipped mascarpone and a simple arugula salad. Although I doubt Ashley and Sarah would tell me if they didn’t enjoy the pie, it seems like they really did because it was all gone by the end of our dinner. It made me feel happy to share with them a recipe I love to make back home, using the flavors and ingredients that many people associate with Italy.

Tomato basil pie!

Arugula salad by Sarah

 

 

 

 

 

 

Strawberries with whipped mascarpone dip

The entire spread on our dining table

May 27: Something Odd in the Supermarket

Today I saw the strangest thing in the supermarket—canned baby food with meat ingredients, advertised with pictures of the animals from which the meat came! For instance, there was a “coniglio” flavor with a picture of a cute bunny on the package. It’s really unthinkable to me how anyone could pick this package up and see that face staring back at them, and decide to put it in their cart. How out of touch could you be?

Most people seem to have a mental disconnect between their food and where it comes from, which allows them to continue to consume meat. People don’t realize how horrible the meat industry is, or if they do realize, they turn a blind eye to it and are able to consume in ignorance because the suffering animals aren’t right in front of them. But, given the opportunity to slaughter their own animals, many people would balk. I truly think that most people have the disposition to be vegetarians, because it is a very human impulse to be kind to other creatures—but because meat is so heavily socialized to us in a manner that removes us from the truth of animal slaughter, we see vegetarianism at lower rates.

So, what really gets my goat is when people are complacent with animal mistreatment and can look the animal they’re eating essentially in the eyes and feel nothing. For instance, “pig pickins” in the South really disgust me. It seems so monstrous to just pick over a pig’s corpse like barbarians. Just a few hours beforehand, that pig was a living, feeling, intelligent creature—I mean, pigs have intellectual capabilities that surpass young children in some areas! They are certainly smarter than dogs, and yet people are so horrified by the idea of eating dogs. The image of the rabbit on the baby food hit me in a similar way. It’s one thing to live in ignorance of what one is eating—to have a mental disconnect between “coniglio” and the creature that died to give that food. But it is a whole different, and, in my opinion, cruel, thing to see the animal on the packaging, stare it in its innocent face, and still choose to eat.

The packaging in question