When you relocate, one of the first things you do is trying native food. There is a cultural association connecting WHAT you eat to WHERE you eat it. America, I have to say, is not famous for its food. However, the variety of cuisines and ethnic food you can find in here is absolutely amazing. So far, I have tried Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Mediterranean, Amish, German, Vegan, Vegetarian, French, Indonesian, American, Russian, Jewish, Polish, Vietnamese, Venezuelan and ehm, yes, Italian food.
Most of the dishes I have tried were prepared from scratch by one of our friends. Recipes, ingredients, family stories and traditions are now completely tangled up in some areas of my brain with their tastes and perfumes. Because this is the main difference when I speak about food, the Italian way: We enjoy, we do not consume.
. COOKING FROM SCRATCH
It takes less than you might think. A simple meal can be prepared in 20 minutes. Half an hour to 45 minutes if you bake. For more elaborated menus, it takes 2 hours. Just plan ahead, buy the ingredients, and enjoy doing it! And learn little tricks that make you feel a super expert, like cooking a tomato sauce with extra virgin olive oil, onion, garlic, fresh basil and salt, then put pasta on top and stir. NEVER EVER put the sauce on pasta!!
. QUALITY IS EVERYTHING
Well, yes, I am a little bit sophisticated when it comes to quality. In middle grade I learned how to read labels of the food we buy, to avoid preservatives and artificial coloring and that sugar-free sodas are like kryptonite! But the quality of the food we buy relies on the regulations a country has on food and agriculture. The strictest they are, the better the food will taste. In Italy, the origin of food is compulsory stated on labels as a guarantee of quality. For example, I would buy an Extra Virgin Olive oil if it was bottled and processed in Italy and if the olives were harvested in Italy. But I would not pick the one whose olives come from those countries with less or no regulation on pesticides and environmental sustainability. Anyway, as this operation on tracking quality is almost impossible here due to a different regulation on labelling, when I shop for food, I just follow this simple and basic rule: Buy something that your grandma (for people in their 30-40ies and older) would have bought at her times! It works!
. WHERE TO BUY?
What I miss the most of grocery shopping in Italy, is the marketplace and the little family owned businesses selling local and fresh goods. Unless you are so lucky to live in South Philly and to take advantage of the Italian market, you have to sharpen your skills to spot valuable replacements. My personal mecca? Trader Joes. The quality/price ratio is very good and you can easily find deli food like Carasau Bread, a typical flat bread from Sardinia, a region of Italy. Or balsamic vinegar, polenta, red peppers with olives preserved in olive oil, all at reasonable prices. But forget about traceability and origin! If you want to upgrade your grocery, find a farmer’s market, even if prices are definitely higher. However, it is the only place where you can find quality especially for fresh cut meat. But wherever you go shopping, buy raw and prepare your own food.
. THE PHILOSOPHY: SLOW FOOD VS. FAST FOOD
It’s all in here. Living on the go is not good for us. I have learned, that finding a slower pace does not mean losing something. It’s quite the opposite. You become more aware of what is on your plate, you enjoy doing it, and you start a virtuous process that will lead you to a better lifestyle. Little things are also important for the food experience. Use a table cloth, a nice china , drink good wine in the proper glass, light a candle. Pamper yourself and spoil your family and friends…it is so good to take it slow!
For those readers who share my philosophy, I would advise to check out what the Slow Food international movement is doing, also in Philadelphia. Educating people on organic and sustainable food, projects on urban community gardens (for a snapshot click this link from the magazine Gridphilly.com). Or fight-hunger organizations like Sunday Suppers providing a cooking/eating high quality meal for low income families in North Philly.
Enjoy the cultural side of food!