If you missed part 1, check it out here. Let’s keep going, shall we?
3. Going to Italy transformed the way that I think about cooking and eating.
As I mentioned earlier, marrying into an Italian family has taught me many things. One of the first things that I learned is that it is definitely not acceptable to eat store-bought sauce for pasta. When I told my then boyfriend that my family and I would share a pasta dinner on Sundays with Prego sauce on top, he had a near emotional breakdown. I defended it at the time, telling him that the sauce was actually pretty good, that he was just prissy about his food. That all changed when I tried his grandmother’s authentic homemade sauce. It had been simmering for a day and a half, the juices from sausage, meatballs, onions and garlic all blending into a perfect medley of flavor. I wanted to eat a bowl of it all by itself, like soup.
On our trip to Italy, I discovered why Derek’s (my husband) family is so passionate about food. Italians do not cook as a means to an end. It’s not about getting food on the table as quickly as possible. Cooking is an art form, an expression of love to others through the ingredients and the hard work of preparing it. We took a wonderful cooking class in Tuscany, where our family made a beautiful four course meal. It took four hours to complete everything. We made a duck ragu for the main course. All of the vegetables were freshly picked from the garden, vibrant and hearty. I had volunteered to pull the meat off of a large duck, which took me nearly the whole time to do. Others were chopping vegetables, stirring the ingredients on the stove, hand rolling fresh pasta, and making preparations for dessert. We were all drinking a glass of wine while we worked, sharing light hearted conversation and laughing at and with each other. By the end, we were all happy but tired, and a bit nervous to see how everything came out.
We came out to the table to eat, and saw that our chef’s Italian wife had pulled flowers out from a nearby garden and decorated the table with them. Our dishes were brought out one by one. As we began eating, we were amazed by how flavorful and delicious everything was. The ingredients were simple, but they were fresh, and were handled slowly and lovingly in their preparation. The satisfaction and pride of having created this food was invigorating.
We went to one restaurant in Panicale, a small town in Umbria, where the owner and his wife doted on us the entire time. Their menu changes constantly, incorporating fresh seasonal ingredients and innovative new dishes. They brought out dish after dish, and you could see the look of pride and joy in their eyes as we tasted everything. There were flavors I had never tasted before, bites that were so delicious I couldn’t help but talk about it. I had a realization that I saw food through a very narrow lens. I typically used many of the same ingredients week to week, buying fruits and vegetables that were frozen or out of season and not very flavorful. There was very little excitement, creativity, or joy in cooking meals for my family. The reality is, we can’t all spend hours cooking homemade meals for our family every night.
There are a few things, however, that we can take from the Italians and apply to our lives. We can start using fresh ingredients. It takes a little more preparation, but it makes a huge difference in overall flavor and nutrition. We can look up new recipes that will be exciting to share and wake up our tastebuds, making our mealtimes more interesting.
Thirdly, we can change our motives behind cooking. Italy opened my eyes to see that we can enjoy the things that can be viewed as chores in American culture. Play some music, drink a glass of wine, or get your spouse or kids involved in making meals whenever possible. Treat the ingredients with love, and remember that these things are bringing joy and nourishment to you and your family. Over time, I believe your perspective towards meals and food in general will change, becoming a source of satisfaction and an outlet of sharing something special with your loved ones.
4. Going to Italy showed me the importance of hospitality and building relationships.
When was the last time you had friends or family over and enjoyed each other’s company for more than a couple of hours? For many of us, relationships and quality time have taken a backseat in our list of priorities. There are so many pressing needs, it can seem as though time is too valuable of a thing to give away. I think we have forgotten one of our most basic needs as humans- to spend time face to face time engaging with others in a meaningful way. Time after time throughout our trip to Italy, we witnessed people enjoying extended periods of time together.
We were walking back to our apartment from a restaurant in Florence one night around 11:00 one evening. As we strolled around, we saw people of all ages spending the evening hours together. We went up the stairs to settle in for the night, and decided to step out onto the porch to finish the night with a glass of wine. There were groups of teenagers outside of the apartment. They weren’t drunk or obnoxious, which can often be expected from people of their age group. They were talking happily, playing music, and some of them were kicking a soccer ball around. Younger kids were running around with the older ones. This scene is not something you typically find in American cities.
Nowadays in our culture, fun can often be viewed as something that is only induced by drinking or having some form of entertainment, like a phone or television. It seems as though Italians have mastered the skill of being comfortable with people. My husband had the opportunity of going to an Italian family’s home and having a meal with them there. The sweet older couple had my husband and father-in-law there for hours, and delighted in feeding them and having as much conversation as possible with their limited English. They have since maintained a long distance relationship with my father-in-law, and are always requesting him to come back to visit.
In Italy, relationships are highly valued, more so than any other aspect of life. This viewpoint inspired me to seek out opportunities to have people in my home, and to set a standard in our family to have as much quality time together and with others as possible.
5. Going to Italy taught me that traditions and culture create unity and security.
The word tradition can have a negative connotation. One of the first things the word tradition makes me think of is the scene from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation where the dad in the movie miserably drags his kids out in the snow to chop down an insanely large Christmas Tree. It’s true that forced family rituals can be boring and sometimes seem outdated. However, with the right motives, the consistency of traditions can produce a sense of safety and security for everyone involved.
Since Italians are so close-knit in their family units, there are many things that are taught and passed down from generation to generation. Most of these things are actions that are performed day after day; making recipes so often that it becomes second nature, gathering together for meals, taking care of the older adults in the family. As we were people watching in various cities throughout Italy, it was easy to see that families were close knit and felt at ease with each other.
There is a strong religious background in Italian culture, which has shaped the way of life for many Italians. Kids are taught to respect their elders, and this is something that follows them into adulthood, as they often take care of their elderly parents. It’s amazing to see that these strong familial bonds and cultural ideologies have remained present in American-Italians after many years. Seeing the way Italians take care of each other made me think about what I will be passing down to my own children. We do not need to reproduce everything Italians do into our own homes, but we can decide what is most important to us- the things that we want the generations after us to value. Whether that is a set of beliefs, or skills, or morals, we have the power to teach a way of life that will go on for many years.
After our return from Italy, my husband and I determined that I would be leaving my full time job to be home with my son and future kids. For us, we knew this was the right path, even though I enjoyed my job. We also started having a group of people over our house every Sunday to come together for a meal, because it consistently reminds us about the importance of relationships. Our family does our best to gather once a week to spend time together and catch up, and have established annual events for the holidays. We feel secure and at peace in our relationships, and it has become the culture of our home to find joy in being together. I will always be thankful to Italy for showing me that there is beauty and power in creating structure for our families.
You may have always wanted to travel to Italy because of the cuisine, the history, or the beautiful sights. These are all valid reasons, and you will not leave disappointed. However, do not expect to leave Italy unchanged. It will leave an imprint on your heart, and you will see things through a fresh new perspective. I dream of going back again, but until then, in true Italian fashion, I will spend my days savoring the simple joys in life with those I love.
~Laura, Bella Owner’s daughter-in-law