Thursday, January 29, 2009

What I love most about living in Florence

Dear Readers,

Without a doubt the best thing about life in Italy is the food, and the thing that makes me happiest about my decision to make Florence my home is my kids' school lunch menu.

No kidding.

For a little over €7 (about $9) a day, both my kids (ages 7 and 4) get a tasty, nourishing three-course meal. (Parents know exactly what their children are eating because the menus arrive at home by mail). The food is delivered fresh daily and prepared on-site. They're served from large platters by the lunch staff and sit at long tables with their classmates. The tables are set with placemats, real plates and silverware--a shallow bowl for their primo and a plate underneath for the secondo. The glasses--they drink water only--are glass, even for the preschoolers. [Aside: Though they drink water at meals, Italian children are brought up with an appreciation of wine that starts early. In September around the time of the wine harvest, my kids made wine at preschool]

I saw pictures of lunchtime, taken by my son's teacher, and it brought tears to my eyes. It was a cultural epiphany. The table was set for Christmas-time, with red napkins and such. To see these sweet kids, smiling, laughing, eating together--crowded elbow-to-elbow at the communal table, looking so civilized, so convivial, was very moving. This is how the seeds are sown--the love of good food shared with friends, the early exposure to simply prepared seasonal food that forms the habits of a lifetime.

Now understand this, I don't pretend to be a culinary saint, nor am I much for culinary evangelism--elitist foodie zealots drive me crazy--but when you live in food-blessed Italy sometimes you feel you must spread the gospel. And while there are many things that Italians don't know how to do (like wait in line, drive in lanes, or govern themselves), in one aspect they are right on the mark: they know how to eat.

Barack and Michelle Obama, according to the New York Times ("Obama's New Chef Skewers School Lunches", Jan. 29, 2009), are serious about food and trying to tackle America's problems with obesity and overall bad eating habits. They promote eating fresh, eating locally, and eating according to the seasons. I say, hallelujah! I hope they make progress, but I fear the way America eats is entrenched. The main problem seems to me to be the fact that fast food--and the paradigm of the fast food meal--has permeated our culture too deeply to be removed. Why do we have to always eat stuff that doesn't require utensils?!!

To amuse myself, I pick American school districts at random and go online and look at their elementary school lunches. Here's what I found, and it ain't pretty:

In Rochester, Michigan, the daily menu might have these items on it:

-Baked Chicken Fryz [just love the cute spelling, as if it's not real food--well, maybe it isn't] with Goldfish Grahams
-Tater Tots [safe to assume these babies are frozen]
-Crispy Tacos
-Fish Nuggets with macaroni and cheese
-Sliced apples with low-fat caramel dip [apparently fruit is so boring and tasteless it needs a sugary dip]
-Crazy Cheesy Breadsticks with Pizza Dipping Sauce [I guess dips are for kids]
-Mini Corn Dogs [are we at school or an amusement park?!]
-Baby Carrots with Ranch Dip
-Dominos Pizza
-Clux Deluxe Chicken [god only knows what this is supposed to be]
-French Bread Pizza
-Sloppy Joe
-Broccoli with cheese sauce [I suppose if the veg is not fresh or seasonal, it needs the mask]
-Cheese Hot Pockets [okay, this one just makes me angry]
-Bosco's Cheese Stuffed Breadsticks

The school has "All Amercian Day" every now and then, in which they serve:

-Hot Dog in an Enriched Bun [I'm sure the fact that that bun is enriched is a load off everyone's mind]
-Hamburger/Cheeseburger Bar
-Fun Size Cheetos

Now, to be fair, they do also offer a salad bar, and "Assorted Fresh Fruit and Veggies" almost daily, and one day they do offer Roast Turkey-Gravy-Mashed Potatoes, but I think we can see pretty clearly which way the culinary wind blows.

In Mount Lebanon, PA, the menus follow similar lines: BBQ Rib Sandwich, Chicken Patty Sandwich, Chicken Nuggets with Dipping Sauce, Chicken Tender Wraps, Cheese-filled Breadsticks with Marinara Dipping Sauce. In San Francisco, there was a glimmer of hope when I read they are eating Wheat Penne Pasta with Meat Sauce, Teriyaki Glazed Chicken with Fried Rice, Salisbury Steak with Mashed Potatoes--but these items are more often than not muscled out by Cheese Pizza Dippers, Bagel Dog [what the ??], and Hot Diggety Dog.

Only in Berkeley, home of Alice Waters, did things sound really promising. The school district's website said they are committed to using fresh, local products as much as possible, the food is cooked on site, and the meat is all organic and grass fed (I almost wept for joy at this). Unfortunately, the menus were not viewable at the time--darn, I was beginning to salivate.

As you see, dear Readers, these menus are dominated by concepts of fast and frozen food. It's clear the thinking is that kids will only eat "kid" food, i.e. food that has been manipulated--probably against its better nature--into a fun, kid-friendly shape, with a gimmicky name slapped on it, and a pot of dip placed next to it. As if to say, "Look, no forks required! Have fun, kids, while you pile on the pork and develop Adult Onset Diabetes!" It's culinary dumbing-down. How are kids nourished (and I use the term lightly) on this stuff supposed to all of a sudden make healthy "grown-up" choices later on in life?

In my house, my husband and son like a good burger, and I'm sure there's not a person on this earth that doesn't like fries. I have been known to dish out the popcorn, chips, pretzels and such on occasion (I couldn't call myself American if I didn't!). But we practice moderation in this regard, and we typically eat healthily, with most things made from scratch, using fresh, local, seasonal products. Our food preparations tend to be simple: things are grilled, lightly sauteéd or oven roasted, drizzled with olive oil, with only salt and fresh herbs to enhance the natural flavor. And all around us, the culture supports, indeed feeds, our desire to eat well.

This is why I am so happy about my kids' school lunches. Here's what they've been eating this winter (menus follow the customary Italian procedure of first course--usually pasta--second course, side dish and dessert. There are always baskets of fresh Tuscan bread on hand, too):

Baby gnocchi with vegetable ragù
Fried sole
Salad (olive oil and vinegar dressing always)
Fruit (always seasonal and unadorned)

Pastina in meat broth
Bollito misto (mixed boiled meats) with salsa verde--a very Tuscan dish; the sauce is made with anchovies, parsley, parmigiano, olive oil and lemon--very tasty!
Boiled potatoes

Green spaghetti
Oven-roasted pork loin
Stewed carrots
Fruit salad

Rice with tomato sauce
Fresh Mozzarella
Fennel gratin

Penne with butter and parmigiano
Roast veal
Stuffed cabbage in tomato sauce

Rigatoni all'amatriciana
Chicken breast with sage
Sauteéd spinach and swiss chard

Vegetable soup (passato)
Pizza al prosciutto

Pasta snails in tomato cream sauce
Fish livornese style (with tangy tomato sauce)

Lasagna with meat ragù
Fresh mozzarella
Fresh vegetable crudité

Risotto alla pescatore (seafood)
Chicken bocconcini ("mouthfuls" or nuggets) in savory stew
Oven roasted potatoes

Well, dear Readers, it is nearly lunchtime... I think I'll just nip down the street and see if I can sneak into the school lunchroom. Today's menu sounds good.

My best regards,



  1. Wonderful post. Have you heard of Jamie Oliver, The Naked Chef's impact on school lunches in England. It can change, really even in the US, if they make steps toward health away from stodge in England they can do it in the US.

  2. What a wonderfully entertaining read.
    The more menu I read the more horribly vivid memories I had of my own school lunches, so long ago.
    I hope you don't mind but I signed on to follow your posts.
    I'm from Detroit, too. My plans for the past few years have been to split my time between Detroit and Florence so it's always fun to read the reviews of others who have forged ahead in their pursuits.

  3. Wow! I am inspired to move back to Europe! As a military brat we were stationed in Germany and went to the American school on base... I knew I loved the culture there... I just didn't realize how much more we were missing!

    1. Christine, thank you for dropping by and commenting. I've been to Germany (Munich) and the food was absolutely delicious! There is a food culture in Europe that is indeed truly wonderful. No doubt our immigrant forefathers brought it to America, but so much has been lost in our privileging of convenience over cooking, of processed food over seasonal products, and of homogeneous fast food over food with history, regionality, and soul.


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