Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Art of Food and Pleasure

In Àlit’s last article, Olivia pointed out the sharp divergences between Italian and American lifestyles, offering a few food-related examples to illustrate this remarkable contrast. Let me point out a few other interesting disparities between our gastronomic culture and that of our friends in Europe.

- French and Italian restaurants open at eight at the earliest (and by open, I mean start taking reservations at that time – no earlier). In France at the least, most diners arrive at nine; in Spain, adults often don’t arrive at the restaurant until ten or eleven. After arriving, you take your time to satisfy your hunger, and leave late enough that there's no extra stops for last-minute ice cream on the way home. The rush to get to dinner, the hurried waiters asking for orders five minutes after you’ve sat down, that extra midnight snack when you get home? Nonexistent.

- The French go shopping everyday at the fresh produce marché, and purchase exactly what they’ll need - and no more – for the next twenty-four hours. They don’t gorge on the food in the cabinets, because they need to make what they have last. There is no rushed bi-monthly grocery shopping spree at the nearest supermarket, but a half an hour each day to take time and decide on the best quality food.

- Nearly all Europeans, rather than snack, enjoy three long multiple-course meals a day, with little in between. While “grazing” (snacking very lightly) throughout the day, eating every three hours, is ideal for the metabolism, let’s be honest: most of us Americans take it too far, and eat much more than we need to feel satisfied. Europeans, on the other hand, hardly know the meaning of snack – and are thinner for it.

- French meals – dinner in particular – call for many courses and several hours, as do those in Italy. Le dîner is a four–course, sit-down event (l’entrée, le plat principlal, le fromage, and dessert) Wine or champagne is enjoyed at lunch. Everything is enjoyed – but enjoyed slowly.

As Olivia told us, the discrepancies of course reach farther than just food – overall, our European counterparts lead much more leisurely lives, if a tad less “ambitious” (and I use that word reluctantly). The French, for instance, are famous for their strictly enforced limits on citizens’ working hours, and relish long vacations during the summer. I focus on food in particular only because the drastically different European outlook seems to affect the practice of eating and dining more than any other aspect of daily life.

Food is huge to European countries, much more so than in America. Gastronomy is acknowledged as such an integral aspect of French culture that it is one of the first things an American student studies in French class. Food vocabulary, eating habits, even what French students eat at their school cafeteria – it’s all taught, because it’s that important to French culture.

Europeans in general place enormous value on food, and thus treat it with respect. A piece of chocolate is enjoyed, but in moderation, and the eater takes the time to appreciate its taste. Does this sound anything remotely like a New Yorker dumping a bag of M&M’s into his mouth while sitting in the subway with his laptop open, and simultaneously talking on the phone? No. Good food is appreciated, and Europeans give it the focus and attention they feel it deserves.

Take note: Europeans fully dedicate themselves to their food, and science backs them up on this habit. Studies have shown that those who eat more slowly feel more satisfied, and ultimately weigh less. Those who scarf down meals are prone to obesity and shortened life spans. We all know the Mediterranean diet (the eating habits of Greeks) lengthens lives and slims waists – but what we often forget is that following such an eating plan goes beyond replacing butter with olive oil or meat with fish. It requires taking time to savor our meals, with friends and family by our side. It is not a diet – it’s a lifestyle. And it happens to be a lifestyle that the Europeans have mastered.

Now is when I point out that America is an extremely fat country – whereas Italy, France, and Spain are not (see the book French Women Don’t Get Fat, by Mireille Guiliano). Could this have some relation to our grab-and-go eating culture, our weakness for all things fast and easy? After all, our tendency to munch down this and that at our desks or on the train could hardly be beneficial to our health.

Perhaps if we slowed down for a second and took the time to fully savor and enjoy our food, we would be all the more aware of what exactly is entering our bodies – and consequently won’t feel the need to eat as much for the same feeling of satisfaction? I certainly think so, but let me know how you feel.

- Meredith

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Comparing Two Cultures

I recently returned to California after spending a few weeks vacationing in Italy. Although each Italian city I traveled to had its own, unique flavor, they were all quite different from the United States. At first it was hard for me to put my finger on what exactly made Italy “feel” so unlike my country. Finally, I realized that it was because the entire mindset of the country was different.

The United States is a “fast” country. We pride ourselves on being efficient, hardworking, and always focus on getting things done. Quickly. Businesses churn out as much as they can for the cheapest price and people devote their lives to work. This directly contrasts with Italy. The Italian culture is much more laid back, relaxed and “slower”. People take their time and do not like to rush. They would prefer to take things one at a time and completely enjoy what they’re doing. Time and time again my travels in Italy proved this. For example, one morning I went to an Italian bakery to purchase some pastries for breakfast. Upon walking in, I found the baker sitting down, sipping coffee. “Come back in a few minutes,” she told me, “I’m having caffé right now.”

Nowhere in America would that have happened. A storekeeper would never have risked losing a customer just so she could sit for a few more minutes drinking coffee, while she was supposed to be working! The Italians are not as focused on making money and being productive. This is evidenced by the month of August. In Italy, the entire country shuts down in August as everyone goes on vacation and takes a month off work. Most shops and restaurants are closed for the whole thirty-one days. Imagine that happening in the U.S! The entire country closing down for over four and a half weeks?! Inconceivable.

The relaxed Italian culture is apparent from daily life. Just watch the restaurants. Ristorantes do not open until 8:00 PM and people often come much later. Eating out in Italy is not just a quick meal. People spend two and a half or three hours digesting their various courses, sipping wine and of course, conversing with friends and family. You are not rushed when eating out, but are in fact encouraged to take as long as you would like. The dessert menu will not be handed to you as soon as you finish the main course, as it is in the United States, and people sit at the table talking for hours after finishing.

How do the two contrasting cultures and ways of life measure up against each other? As one could predict, the American economy is much stronger and more powerful than the Italian economy. We work more and harder than them. Our philosophy towards life is simply different. Americans focus on results and production. But, is this worth it? Or is it better to just relax and enjoy life, doing exactly what you want to do at the moment, even if you won’t achieve as much or be as “successful” over time. That can lead to a different debate, what defines success? What is it that is important to achieve in a life? One thing is for sure: the two attitudes towards life are utterly different. However, which one is “better”, is not something that can be declared so easily.

~ Olivia