MY DOLCE VITA, Week 12
As I mentioned last week, this edition of La Dolce Vita was delayed due to travel (I was in Sicily with a friend.). Received more than one query from interested readers querying the whereabouts of issue 12, so that's very encouraging and flattering. Grazie!
Wow. What a week, huh? Martha Stewart, the doyenne of taste, elegance and cuisine, has been convicted of a felony and is going to prison. Upon hearing the, I had an immediate visceral reaction: Good God, in Martha's absence who's going to teach America how to eat?
You see, these kinds of questions become extremely important when you're living in a place like Italy. Food is a religion. I am the Mel Gibson of la cucina italiana. I believe I was put on this earth to spread the gospel. Perhaps even make a film about it. In the Sardinian dialect&Mac183;
Anyway, against that backdrop, consider the following story.
This morning, I met two British friends for breakfast at the extremely posh Hotel de Russie. We were happily drinking coffee and eating all kinds of Italian delicacies, when I became aware of something unfolding to my left, A woman was standing before an enormous silver bowl full of glass jars of Italian yoghurt, systematically lifting one jar from the bowl, studying the ingredients with concentration worthy of a UN weapons inspector, and then replacing each jar with what a mounting sense of panic.
Aware that there was some problem, the maitre d' made his way over to the table.
Ees zere somezink I can help you vith, Signora? he asked.
The woman's head snapped to attention. Do you have any fat-free yoghurt? she barked. Hers were the dulcet tones of a community within striking distance of a major New Jersey mall.
Light n' Lively? she tried again.
The maitre d' brightened. Ah, Coca Cola Light? he asked.
No! said the woman, her voice rising and a red splotch appearing on her face. NO. NOT COCA COLA LIGHT. FAT-FREE YOGHURT. By now, fearful of the calories within her proximity, the woman was speaking in UPPER CASE.
I'm sorry, Signora&Mac183;.
I CAN'T EAT FOOD WITH FAT IN IT! I MUST HAVE FAT-FREE
I'm sorry, Signora, but vat ees zis sing called Fat Free?
Near tears, our American tourist replies, FAT FREE FOOD, FOR HEAVEN'S SAKE! FOOD WITHOUT FAT. I'M AMERICAN, I CAN'T EAT THIS KIND OF FOOD. IT'LL KILL ME.
(Ah. I should have explained. You're already probably imagining a profoundly rotund American with a Bayonne Girls' Basketball Bake Sale 2002 t-shirt stretched over mountainous breasts. No. This is the OTHER kind of American: the uber-pinched, starved-to-death variety with an encyclopedic knowledge of the fat gram count of every food on the planet. Approving of cigarettes as an alternative to high carbohydrate fruits and vegetables. Believes aspartame is one of the key food groups. THAT type.)
I am sorry, signora, said the maitre d'. Eet ees not possible&Mac183;
The American woman stomped off, but not before muttering something about how you just can't get decent food in this God forsaken country.
I was mortified, natch. My friends were very kind, saying, Hey, you're not really American, anyway, so don't worry about it. I haven't lived in America (and even then it was New York and New York isn't America, not really) in over six years. My friends, both here and at home, are not the types to ask for Sweet & Low in a Parisian café, if you know what I mean. Still, the episode made me think about my native land, especially now that we're entering the Post-Martha Era. My God, whatever are we going to do?
Not surprisingly, I have some thoughts on the subject. They will help Americans begin to adapt to the new world village that is this watery little planet.
FOOD SAFETY AND EUROPEAN TRAVEL IN THE POST-MARTHA ERA
One: When you find yourself in a NATO-member country, it is safe to eat the local food. You do not need pharmaceutical protection before ingesting solids.
Some people actually believe European food of ANY sort causes gastric inflammation (if you're lucky) and/or permanent intestinal trauma (if you're less so). I met a man who had traveled to London from Roanoke, Virginia. Worried about the diarrhea that was CERTAIN to strike the moment the plane landed, this man had taken precautionary measures.
UNPROMPTED (and that is the operative word here), he shared the following: I've already taken two of them Lomotils for diarrhea (which, unfortunately, came out sounding like Die-A-Rear) and I'm gonna take 3 of them babies every day for the whole time I'm here. I ain't goin' home with any weirdo Euro-pee-in diseases. No sir. You just can't be too careful.
For those unfamiliar with the joys of Lomotil, a rather potent form of intestinal cement, the recommended daily dose is 1 per day, not to exceed 2 within any 24-hour period. Okay. So, let's do the math together. The Virginian will have had 5 doses before the day was done. Better, I suppose, to risk colon impaction than take a chance on a British apple, right?
Two: Do not attempt to engage locals in discussions about various eating regimes. Europeans do not share our national preoccupation with weight loss programmes.
Europeans are born without hips or breasts. They are blissfully unaware of food substitutes. They have never encountered, for example, the Weight Watcher dessert square: that dark brown miracle of molecular science that enables lab chemists to take the formula for anti-freeze, add some food coloring and call it German Chocolate Cake.
When visiting a European nation, brace yourself for food found in nature. Likewise, prepare to be met with blank stares when you ask if something is Atkins-safe or if that torta di carciofi (artichoke tart) represents three vegetables and one bread for your Diet Centre Food Diary.
And finally: There is a decided lack of interest in a blow-by-blow description of just how a dish is prepared back home and, perhaps more to the point, just how much better a dish is prepared back home.
You've seen it happen. I certainly have. I was in a café just about a week ago, innocently nibbling on my pate of wild boar and sipping a nice Montalcino when an American duo at a nearby table launched into a protracted and loud (natch) discussion of how BACK HOME they go to some restaurant THAT'S REALLY GOOD and we ALWAYS order the spaghetti car-bone-air-uh and, MAN, you get a plate THIS BIG and there's LITTLE BITTY BACON BITS ON THE TOP and, well, YOU JUST NEVER TASTED ANYTHING SO GOOD.
Is it any wonder the rest of the world wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to join the Alliance of the Willing&Mac183;.
In a temporarily Martha-less universe, we might lose our way. I mean, some poor fool might actually put the pickle fork on the wrong side of the aspic knife or use store-bought aluminium foil when they could just as easily make their own, but at least some basic ground rules have been covered. Right?
A final note, as my friends and I were leaving the dining room, I noticed that American woman giving extremely detailed instructions to a waiter holding a coffee pot, I can imagine that she probably wanted a Grande skinny decaf latte with strained soy milk. And half a milimetre's worth of foam.
I roll my eyes. And my rrrr's. Then I say thank God I'm living in a country where coffee requires no caveats whatsoever. Until Martha returns, that's probably as good as it's ever going to get.
Ciao from Roma.
© Copyright Amy Selwyn 2004