October 27, 2007

Food fears

The ethnic menu has arrived in the Roman elementary school lunchroom. The first day had mixed results -- with a few adventurous children trying the Bangladesh vegetable Biriani, fishballs, yellow lentils and rice and milk pudding while the majority turned up their noses and ate only bread. Mothers are already petitioning for an Italian alternative on the menu for ethnic-lunch days because their children, "can't be expected to fast until 4:30 pm."

A teacher called it, "An interesting test in which we could clearly see the children's' fear of new things and stereotypes coming from the family." Another teacher acknowledged that the experiment was useful, "but that it needed to be better explain in advance not only to the students, but also the parents."

One student talked of "strange fish" and said that he didn't like the yellow rice. Another student echoed the first, "the pudding wasn't good at all, it was strange to find rice in it, not like I am used to at all." Another even tried all the dishes, but the flavors were "too sweet" and therefore he didn't eat much. He then conceded that he was sorry to see so much food thrown away because there are lots of children in the world who don't have anything to eat. In any case, he is game for trying another ethnic-lunch day.

I have so many stories about Italian children's' diffidence to foreign cooking (foreign often being defined as, "not prepared by my mother."). I have been put to test many times by a tableful of children as they very, very cautiously dig into a pasta with tomato sauce prepared by an American (come sarĂ  mai?). They had been warned by their mothers about pasta scotta prepared by the infidels.

Food rules are taught very young and by the time an Italian reaches elementary school they are well ingrained. To soften the chaos created by the Bangladesh menu, it was presented as a first course, second course, side dish and dessert so that, at least, it adhered to the Italian food-order rules.

Next on the list are meals from: Romania, Albania, Poland, Peru, China, Morocco and the Philippines. Will the children survive seven bread-based lunches or will they break down and have a taste?

Important lessons for becoming Italian: Change is hard. Having choice (or innovation) is not necessarily desirable. New things are rarely better and often worse, so it is best to stick with your usual plate of pasta.

a domani,


Anonymous said...

I am studying the many meals in the gospel of Luke with a group of women and one man in my parish. Basically, they all are about table fellowship and its consequences, with Jesus of Nazareth, his followers and absolutely anyone else interested. Sitting down at a meal together means solidarity and sharing on a very deep level, or at least a great longing for such. Certainly it is about far more than just food. I hope the schools insist along these lines. It ain't about food and experimenting with tourist menus only, but table fellowship, somthing we all are in dire need of.

Time for dinner. I'm starving! Perhaps this is the problem with many children today, and not only here in Italy: they aren't truly hungry when they sit at table, and therefore never bother to offer a prayer of thanksgiving!

Ethnic food (Italian in my case) is delicious; I've been eating it for more than half my life with the "natives", and cherishing the experience.

Judith in Umbria said...

I'm stunned to hear an Italian came up with the idea! A travel agent told me the second question is "Do they have Italian food there?"

I had to cook same old same old for two years before they trusted me enough to try some of the tamest of my foreign dishes, and I am often introduced as "The cook that makes all those foreign cuisines." Nowadays they also say they like them, but the first time I served a salad already dressed with a special dressing, one poor woman blanched and seemed to be losing consciousness. I guess she assumed the salad would at least be edible, no matter how terrible the rest of the meal might be. (PS: I hadn't invited her, she just tagged along to see what all the fuss was about.)

Kataroma said...

I was going to blog about this too after reading about it in the paper yesterday but you beat me to it!

I agree that's it's amazing that an Italian came up with the idea but unfortunately I saw it in a much darker way - it was a combination of the Italian fear of food which does not fit the "food rules", obsession with what children eat and a bit of racism/xenophobia. I read that parents were going to protest the ethnic meals program. My reaction was - in a country with an economy going down the drain, no future for younger people, rampant corruption, nepotism etc - you're putting your energy into protesting your kid being forced to eat dal or borsht once a month?

MollyB, Bloggerin said...

Thank you so much for this fascinating insight into Italian children ... and thus into human nature.

When in a "strange land," I try local food. Yet sometimes one wants to retreat to something familiar ... and a little Italian restaurants is just the thing.

Elizabeth said...

Pat, how true that Italians don't realize that their culinery tradition is not a universal one and that outside of Italy, it is considered to be ethnic!

Judith, Great story. The diffidence to anything slightly different to their way of cooking is still strong indeed.

Kataroma, go ahead an do another post and then we can cross reference! Couldn't agree more, there are certainly more pressing problems than Bangladesh rice and milk pudding on the menu.

mollyb, very managed to stay away from Italian restaurants in the US this summer, but were all relieved to get home to pasta, pesto and mozzarella!

Anonymous said...

Larc, on second thought: As a child I too was a very conservative and picky eater. My elders barely managed to get past my lips anything beyond the most basic American food of the fifties. But then, as an adult I shocked my sister when I ate with relish a dish of her chitlins. And would you believe my trippa is considered the best in my Italian family. There is always hope.

Now what was that about racism and xenofobia? This is cause, not to worry too much, YET, but certainly to be alert. What a "cross-cultural moment" we are living within immediate vicinity.

Thanks, Larc.

Anonymous said...

kataroma, ma che visione apocalittica!

Su, non esageriamo...


Anonymous said...

I'm going to come from a different point of view than the comments because I do understand the children in your post. Growing up in an Italian home, no one told me, as a child, to not eat foods from other cultures, but we just knew they were inferior haha. Ok, I'm joking there, in part. I guess anything not Italian was indeed suspect and strange.Even as I sit here and try not to be close minded, I feel the Italian way of eating is the best, so why improve or suggest otherwise. As I got older I tried lots of cooking from all over the world and I will eat wherever I am..but I still think the way we ate at home was the most delicious and healthy.
You have to understand..who we are as Italians is what we eat.

Rob said...

I have seen grownups here behave in much the same way as those Italian schoolkids.

When I first moved to Ireland and started in my present job I did bring in the odd savoury and sweet food item from my home country for them to try. Even bog standard dishes such as apple tart, cheesecake and milktart (a type of custard tart) were met with deep suspicion and were often left untouched until I binned them or forced someone to try a piece. They have improved somewhat over the years (I have worked there for 6 years now) but I have found that they won't touch savoury dishes at all - even the bbq spices I use are too strange for them...

It is a good effort to try and broaden the horizons of these Italian kids. It iwll be interesting to see how far they get before the parents revolt...

Elizabeth said...

Maryanne -- anyone who has lived in Italy for any length of time KNOWS that the Italian way of eating is (or at least was...) the most delicious and healthy! It drives us crazy that people back in our home culture can't understand this, although we do try to explain what a proper, well prepared Italian meal can mean.

Italians are what they eat in the sense that food plays a much more important role in Italian culture than it does it our Anglo-saxon ones. This also means that we have a hard time really understanding the Italian resistance to foreign food, because we do not value food, our food, so highly and therefore have less trouble in trying new cuisines.

The interesting part is how this is already so clear in children at a young age.

Anonymous said...

Very well said. Food is much more than food for us. Hard for me to explain, but you do it well.

Judith in Umbria said...

I have been dedicated to la cucina vera d'Italia for decades, and yet if I had to choose one cuisine to eat ever after I think it would be Chinese, because since it is such an enormous country, the variety is wider.

It's probably not right for people from countries made up almost entirely of immigrants to judge Italians too harshly on this item. We grew up with many cuisines, they didn't. Plus, the ethnic restaurateurs were only too ready to alter the dishes to be more Italian and therefore wreck a lot of them. The local Mexican restaurant made me sick all night, the Chinese one is so Italianized I rarely bother.

Italians do love American desserts!