Superficial Food

28.September 2021

I excused myself from breakfast in hope of helping Valentina make tomato sauce. Not that she showed any sign of needing help. She had already moved a wheelbarrow full of tomatoes into her kitchen. She had moved the massive cast iron burner to the floor. She had settled a 50 liter pot on the burner. She had collected and cleaned 25 empty 1l glass jars. She told me to watch.

I stood, paring knife in hand, for the remaining 30 minutes during which she trimmed the bad spots and white core from the tomatoes. I was not invited to participate. I was allowed to carry the trimmings to the chickenyard. Later I was also allowed, after vigilant instruction, to screw the lids onto the jars.

After a month in the kitchen, I am still restricted to setting the table. Once I was allowed to stir something, but apparently that was a special situation. Foreigners are seen as culinary toddlers. If we knew what to do with tomatoes we wouldn't be taking expensive holidays to Italy, now would we? Clearly they have no idea what people eat in New York and London.

While the landscape is an idyllic postcard, and the farm is appropriately abundant, the kitchen is a shocker. There is not a single good knife and the cutting boards are not used for that. Everything that is cut is cut in the hand, with a cheap plastic-handled steak knife.

But the real shock is that the farm's tomatoes, olive oil, and peaches are served in preparations with the lowest priced pantry goods available, instant panna cotta, industrial mille feuille, UHT bechamel, and the supermarket's generic ricotta.

After the jars are full, I secure my status as culinary lunatic by scraping the caramelized skins from the bottom of the pan. She hears me, and presumptively gestures to the bin; her eyes widen when she realizes I've placed my treasure in a bowl. Later I will mix it 1:1 with butter and a few handfuls of Benedetto Cavalieri from the supply in the trunk of my car – the only pasta for which I'll cheat keto. But I make the mistake of reading the butter.

I don't get it. How is it that Italians who cannot trust people outside the family to trim a tomato, trust supermarket conglomerates to produce their butter?

In fact, every Italian I know shops in corporate supermarkets. They all know that the quality is not what it should be. None of them uses price as the reason (and I'm not sure prices are actually lower in supermarkets). It seems they find it too much trouble to buy from quality sources. (This is probably rooted in the same mysterious urgency as why they feel the need to drive impatiently at 2x the speed limit always.)

For most people, even most Italians, the appearance of the food seems to be enough. They presume the taste, and don't bother to actually taste. Italians persist to laboriously produce a proud image of Italian cuisine, but which simply doesn't taste as [good as] it should because they presume that industrial ingredients are good enough. Certainly good enough for tourists, who are presumed easy to impress with appearance, but even good enough for the family, who, apparently eat pride in Italian gastronomy rather than attending to flavor.

Chef Massimo Bottura is infamous for insulting his diners by serving a meagre 6 tortellini. Explaining and extrapolating his reasons has become an anthropological crusade. Only one aspect of his message is that people need to pay more attention to what they are eating. To taste it again, this time, now, with an open mind. Instead of eating an idea of what it should or should not be.

It seems that Italians, in all their reverence and wisdom about food, need to slow down to make sure it still tastes good.

Do you taste the thing you are eating or do you, like Massimo, taste a memory?