"Indecision is a decision" Jason Evert
I meandered to this post from a starting point which was going to lead elsewhere. However, as I meandered by 'researching' my original intended path, I saw other paths leading elsewhere. Which to choose? Would it be the original 'lucky dip' of Claudia Roden on Sicily, Sicilian food - caponata? Just caponata and variations - there are always variations? Or maybe all those other Italian cookbooks I own and their different approaches, which of course led to another whole range of options, not all related to the food of Italy - too many cookbooks, too much choice, why don't I cook more from recipes - no I've done that - although there could be a progress report in there somewhere? Why I like Jamie Oliver, why I love Italy, Australian Italian ... Then there was the comment I received a week or so ago from someone I did not know on a very old post of mine - The Italian tradition myth which I looked up only to reveal how much I am repeating myself these days. I guess when you write a blog on a specific subject - in my case food - however broad that subject is, inevitably you start to repeat. So apologies for that. Although what I wrote in that long ago post is perhaps relevant to at least one of those above ideas.
As I perused my Italian cookbooks - brought out to support Claudia Roden - I came across an interesting paragraph in the introduction to a very old cookbook of mine. It comes from a series produced by Time/Life - remember them - long taken over by somebody else. The series was called Foods of the World and you subscribed to it, so that every month or so you got a delivery of a new and glossy cookbook, written by notable authors. Some of them have become classics. This one - The Cooking of Italy (1968) - was written by Waverley Root, a distinguished American journalist, but the Introduction from which my paragraph comes was written by an Italian - Luigi Barzini - who wrote a notable book called Gli Italiani (The Italians). So in the end I made my decision - having meandered through my own indecisive introduction - and decided to 'unpack' some of what he said in that introduction.
Here is the first paragraph - the one that really caught my attention. (And how Italian he looks. The very image of a certain kind of Italian man I think.)
"All people are, in a sense, what they eat. Food therefore could be one of the more revealing indexes to personal and national proclivities, provided one could draw stable conclusions from an index so subject to individual and collective preference. The food of one's own country is too familiar to evoke anything but shadowy sensations; other peoples' cuisine may be too startlingly different to be anything but confusing. Perhaps the best way to make a judgement about the matter is to taste one's own cuisine after a long abstention, in order to rediscover its real nature, much as jaded husbands, sometimes are advised to do to rediscover their wives' charms."
I will ignore the somewhat misogynistic (perhaps not quite the right word), nature of that last comment. Other than to note that it is perhaps of its age. All those who talk about the swinging 60s as a time of liberation and 'anything goes' don't quite have it right. I suspect, that, as always, it was only the extroverts who created that image. The rest of us hadn't quite got there yet, though we were drawn to the notion and learning gradually to be less inhibited and more adventurous.
There are two ideas in that paragraph worth thinking about though. The first being - does the food you eat tell you anything about individuals and/or nations?
Individuals first. Well I guess if you don't know the individual concerned, you can at least judge whether this person eats healthily or not simply by their physical appearance. Mind you it's not foolproof. As a young person I could eat more or less anything - healthy and unhealthy - and not put on weight. I think it's something to do with metabolism. So you might have thought that I had a healthy diet. Well I suppose I sort of did, but not that healthy - fish and chips anyone! You can also tell by looking at what they are buying in the supermarket. The contents of people's supermarket trolleys can tell you a great deal. And I guess that would also tell you the type of food they like - there might be some indication of favourite cuisines for example.
However, if you know them and you know, for example that they love Italian food, I'm not sure that tells you anything about them. It doesn't make them Italian with all the stereotypical qualities of an Italian. Qualities that advertisers use over and over again in their ads for pasta, and tinned tomatoes and so on. My younger son adores Italian food, but he is not very Italian like, much as he does love his family.
So what about the national stereotypes? Are they valid? My long ago article talked about this and how the stereotype which may once have been true no longer applies - at least in the cities. And yet small parts of it do. On my travels in Italy I have snapped the occasional Italian who was looking - to me - particularly Italian. Which, of course, does not account for the other millions of Italians that I did not photograph. They were just like you or me. The other thing I truly believe is that those national stereotypes are so very much related to the climate and the geography of their homelands. To climate and geography are owed the foods that can be grown, and therefore the foods that can be eaten. Whether that food then determines a national personality or not is quite another thing. There are many other factors at play. If it was the case that the food makes the nation, then what were the Italians like before pasta and tomatoes? What were the Asians like before chillies? What were the Irish and the British like before potatoes? No - like everything - it's a nice idea but a simplification. Life is so much more complex than that - and so is food.
Further on in the article Barzini says of Italian food:
"In contrast with the French food, which was always tenuously tinted in vague pastel or pearly shades, the Italian food was brightly coloured, each thing unmistakably separate. The spinach was gaily green, the prosciutto delicately shell pink, the peppers shiningly yellow, green or red like polished marble, the roast meat dark red, and so forth, each colour as clear as if made by children's crayons.
The distinct hues corresponded to distinct tastes. Each little ingredient harmonised with but was not confused with the others."
And there is indeed a certain truth to this, but there are lots of exceptions in both Italian and French food. Nevertheless it's an image that we all have do we not? Italy - bright, sunny and full of excitable Italians, all talking loud and fast with lots of gestures, huge families gathering together over pizza and pasta and celebrations every day. A concept that is encouraged by our beautiful cookbooks, Italian cooking and travel programs and touristy cafés both here and in Italy that emphasise that image. Whether that's the reality is another question. What's it like in winter for a start?
But back to that opening paragraph and the other concept expressed therein, that we don't really have a deep understanding of our 'native' cuisine because it's too close to us, and so perhaps we need to immerse ourselves for a while in a different cuisine, before revisiting our own to 'discover its real nature'. I do remember many years ago having a short break in Thailand, whose food is divine and which we consumed with great pleasure. However, it is very spicy, and when we got back to Australia it was a relief almost to return to 'ordinary' Australian food - whatever that is.
Last Sunday we entertained my son and his two sons at home with a dinner of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, which I have not made for a very, very long time. And it did indeed give me an appreciation of this dish, but that appreciation was so bound up with memories of childhood, and also memories of my sons younger years, when I would cook this dish regularly. Did it make me feel English and explain what it is to be English? Questionable. The associations were personal I think, rather than national, although it did make me think that those who pour scorn on English food don't know what they are missing.
My Time/Life book was written back in 1968 when we were only just beginning to learn about the food of other nations. These days globalisation has made sure that you can go to Thailand for a holiday - as my son and family just did - and still find somewhere where you could eat pizza. An international food if ever there was one - and ditto for hamburgers, pasta, steak and chips and on and on. Australia indeed is an interesting case. I am sure that nobody - including the vast majority of the Aborigines, eats what the Aborigines would have been eating when the British arrived back in the eighteenth century. Of course there is now a renewed interest in 'native' foods but they will be incorporated into the food that we now eat. And the food that Australians eat is a kalaidescope of foods from just about everywhere in the world. Some are commonplace - Italian and Greek - of course - Middle-Eastern; Asian of all kinds; American fast food chains and British as well as the less common African, Latin American, Oceanic ....
Remember the TikTok custard toast? When I checked out the latest Coles Magazine online (I've missed it in the shop), there I found this - Custard toast. Photographed and styled by professionals, so that it looks very gourmet, rather than just a weird millennial craze. It was also an opportunity for them to promote their stone baked bread. TikTok - or at least this particular TikTok sensation has now infiltrated into the ordinary world of the supermarket magazine.