Food Culture and Tradition

Food, People and Culture Resources

Italian Foods Commonly Used


The consideration of foods, facilities, and food customs of ancient times is not for historic interest alone: many parts of Italy and many Italian families still live in much the same way. In ancient times, the majority ate mostly wholewheat in many forms and vegetables, while the wealthy ate the kinds of meals that have promulgated the legends of Roman banquets where “the wealthy ate till they vomited and often vomited in order to eat more.” The wealthy have long moved to an elegantly conservative pattern of eating and drinking, but many of Italy’s poor still live in earthen huts with dirt floors and open fireplaces for warmth and for cooking. Their staple foods may well be plain bread and chicory, not pasta or a sandwich of bread and olive oil with tomatoes and garlic. Pasta may even be considered a luxury food reserved for special occasions, while a thick vegetable soup-stew prepared when fresh greens are available may constitute a special meal. The poor seldom eat eggs because their sparsely fed chickens do not produce very many. Some areas have no milk or cheese as cows are too expensive to keep. Yet even in areas where a sparse diet is familiar, the Italian spirit finds sustenance in an enjoyment of life, music, and wine. Those who cannot find such sustenance emigrate.

Despite innumerable provincial variations and specialties, Italian cookery can be roughly divided into a dominance of milk, butter, rice, and polenta (cornmeal) in the North; olive oil, wine, pasta in the South; and a meeting place for both areas in central Italy, particularly in Tuscany. Aside from these generalities, it is difficult to discuss details of foods and food customs without specifying an area. This is more true of Italy than almost any other country. Interaction and exchanges between regions are recent; previously, lack of transportation and self-imposed pride and isolationism prevented communication. The familiar Italian “pasta image” is well founded, for most emigrants hail from Southern Italy, and most Italian restaurants in Canada and the United States are Neapolitan (from Naples, in Southern Italy), although this has changed. In most large European and North American cities, fine Italian restaurants provide a variety of Italian regional food specialties. In North America, pizza has become as familiar as hamburgers.

The staple foods of Italy revolve around cereals, vegetables, and cheeses. Breads and pasta made from wheat, innumerable rice dishes and, in some areas, polenta made from corn is served at least once a day. Great varieties of vegetables are plentiful: staple root vegetables, fresh beans and peas, greens of many kinds, all types of squash, eggplant and zucchini, artichokes and asparagus. Each area produces cheese specialties and traditional ways of nibbling cheese, as appetizers or snacks, topping dishes, fillings, savory fried foods, sauces and even sprinkled into soups. Fresh-dried bunches of herbs – parsley, borage, myrtle, rosemary, sage, oregano, and basil – are familiar in every kitchen, as are onions and garlic in varying proportions. Olive oil and butter are the favored fats and the best olive oil is said to come from Lucca in Tuscany. Rice (Italy is Europe’s largest producer), vegetables, and all types of pasta are enjoyed al dente, that is, chewy and not overcooked. Meats and products of the sea are enjoyed and cooked with imagination but are served in smaller amounts than is customary in other countries because they are both more expensive and less available. Fruits and cheese are a usual dessert when dessert is served. Elaborate desserts are reserved for special occasions or restaurant dining.

Many regional wines of Italy are world-famous. Others that are equally as good are not known simply because they do not travel well. Italy’s high rate of alcohol consumption and low rate of alcoholism can be explained by many factors. Wine is considered a food and all children grow up accustomed to wine as part of a meal. The strong moral influence of the close-knit family structure and the national distaste for drunkenness are powerful factors as well. While daily wine is commonplace, it should be stressed that wine always accompanies food, and the cosmopolitan sipping of the pre-dinner cocktail is practiced only by very sophisticated Italians.

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