Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cultural imperialism, one sandwich at a time

Dear Readers,

I'm feeling guilty.  I served a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian child yesterday.

Granted, the ingredients were top-quality: unadulterated peanut butter from the Netherlands, delicious locally-produced strawberry preserves, durum-wheat bread.  And yet, I couldn't help but think that I was being horribly blasphemous.

To be completely truthful, I have never been a huge fan of PB&J--sure, I was fed Skippy and Welch's as a child, but as soon as I hit middle school, the days of such gloppy kid-grub were behind me.  Peanut butter reappeared in my life only when I was pregnant with my first child, in the form of a major first-trimester craving--but I Italianized it somewhat by eating it plain on top of fette biscottate.  Recently, however, while racking my brains to try and come up with a new act in the culinary variety-show all we moms stage for our children, it occurred to me to try and introduce this quintessentially American concoction.  After all, I thought, it's part of their heritage--like baseball and televangelist sex scandals.

Well, my son gave the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich rave reviews, and for the past couple months has been devouring them happily, even for breakfast.  But yesterday I was unprepared for the timorousness I felt when Giacomo asked for one as an after school snack while his friend Marco was over.  My experience with many Italian mothers is that they are very particular about what goes into their childrens' mouths, and most of them seem to cultivate bizarre, arbitrary culinary aversions and eccentricities: no tomatoes for Alessandro, nothing fried for Gaia, Leonardo only eats pasta, Matilde won't eat cheese, absolutely nothing spicy for Francesco, Irene is strawberry-intolerant, Pietro hates bananas, no-primi-only-secondi for Maria Giulia, no beans in Mirko's minestrone, etc.  Italian mothers love to regale you with the list of all the foods their kids refuse to eat and how impossibly picky they are.  I've discovered, in the course of such conversations, that it is really the parents themselves who are impossibly picky, and this culinary fastidiousness gets handed down to their offspring like DNA.  As you can imagine, in this kind of hostile atmosphere, consuming ethnic food, or cibo straniero, is tantamount to digestive treason.

So--I asked the notoriously-picky, little sandy-haired bambino if he was sure he wanted to try a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.  By way of explanation I said, "It's kind of like Nutella, only peanutty," (Italian kids scarf Nutella like it's manna).  I opened the jar and let him smell it.  Since he neither fainted nor recoiled in horror, I thought, "okay then, here goes!"  I carefully prepared the foreign sandwiches like an offering for the Black Mass and set them before the boys. 

The verdict?  Marco LOVED it.  He went on and on about how good it was: "è buonissimo! Buonissimo davvero!"

But while I smiled inwardly at this small triumph of American culinary firepower, part of me felt as if I was corrupting this child.  I couldn't help but wonder about Marco going home and telling his mother what he ate at our house.  "You ate what?  Cosa?  Burro d'arachidi e marmellata???  Ma non ti fa male la pancia? [your tummy doesn't hurt, does it?]."

Of course, I need not expound on the glories of Italian cuisine here--its merits have been exalted in countless cookbooks, televsion programs, journals, etc. to the point that it's now part of the collective unconscious. Italians themselves have unbounded faith in its being the best cuisine on the planet.  In fact, more Italians worship their mamma's recipes than they do any deities within the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately, we Americans have earned a very bad reputation for our culinary paganism--which makes serving a humble, un-pedigreed, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian seem like a subversive act.  Italy has already seen more than its fair share of the onslaught of American culture in the form of supermarkets, shopping malls, megaplexes, bad 80's television shows, and the ubiquitousness of poppa-khorn at childrens' parties.  Must I, too, attempt to colonize the Bel Paese--offending its culinary heritage with my seditious after-school snacks?  Am I some kind of peanut-butter-wielding, arrogant, Mommy-Raj?

No, surely the sacred and the profane can exist side by side.  Surely peanut-butter-and-jelly can cohabitate peacefully with the very Florentine schiacciata.  Surely, by making room for my innocent little American sandwich, the grand edifice of Italian cuisine will not topple and fall into ruin like some lost, decadent civilization. 

Or will it?




  1. Questo lo diamo al gatto, questo al sorcio, con questo c'ammazziamo le cimici.

  2. Anonymous3:57 AM

    I am so sending you some Fluff.

  3. Hmm...Fluff? Sounds toxic, Mark ;)

  4. wow, those other parents sound like horrors. Good for you. It's more nutritious than pane e olio.

  5. Alexandra, thanks! Italy may be the only country where you can stir things up with a simple sandwich--or cause the mayor of a Tuscan town (i.e. Lucca) to champion culinary provincialism over a kebab. In North America, of course, ethnic food doesn't raise an eyebrow--here, it's the stuff of revolution.

  6. Elizabeth,
    My goodness, you are a wonderful writer! Thank you for keeping me thoroughly entertained with every post. I am actually starting a new column in The Florentine about raising kids in Florence and would love to meet up sometime and swap stories (especially since I am relatively new at the whole mama thing). If you are interested in chatting, I'll come by the store one of these days so we can properly meet!
    All the best,
    Alexandra Lawrence

  7. Sorry to double post but I just read that you have lived in Sonoma...I grew up there. And I went to grad school in San Francisco. Too funny!

  8. Alexandra, thank you for your kind comment. Would love to meet up and do a mommy-in-Italy story-swap--I'm very interested to hear your take on things. I got my M.A. at SFSU, and heartily miss much about Sonoma and the Bay Area. You're lucky to have grown up there!

  9. I think Italy has bigger issues to worry about than a little PB&J-- bring on the Amercian cuisine!

    I was truly shocked by what children eat in Italy. Not in a bad way, just in a "are you kidding me?" way. I went through serious culture shock when I made lunch for a 7 month old Italian

  10. I love your blog!!! My husband is Italian , he loves all things Nutella surprise, but he does enjoy a PB&J sandwich ..

    I'm trying to coordinate a BLOGLAND Pen Pal group and would love you would participate ... There is a woman in the States that would love to have a Pen Pal in Italy and I think you and her would find writing each other both fun and rewarding!!!

    click to view my blog.

    I'm your newest follower ... and can't wait to read what the boy's mother says...HHL

  11. Thanks, High-Heeled Life! Natalie, I checked your blog out--good job on the Italian baby-food piece. I, too, went through that with my two children.

  12. Martin1:47 AM

    Italians live by the predictability of their rules. By introducing something from abroad, your act will be defined in whatever way it takes to confirm to this child the correctness of Italian culture and the undesirable foreign quality of something not Italian! A key reason, I am sure, for inventing a word like schifo... But you already are aware that you cannot and will not win against the orthodoxy of cibo italiano. Atila, Napoleon, the Austrians etc etc were unsuccessful.

  13. I am wondering how I missed this gem of a post the first time around. Thanks for alerting us to it on FB. PB&J was my main pregnancy craving too!! And I'm proud to say I've made a convert out of my Italian better half. I just wish decent peanut butter was cheaper and easier to find around here. Sigh.

    1. Thanks, Michelle! Funny how those cravings work--for my second child I only craved rest ;)

  14. Loved this post! I've noticed the number of italian cildren that only eat pasta too or that avoid tomatoes (the first confirming and the second seemingly conflicting with the very essence of being italian)

    1. Thank you, Sarita. At least Italian kids seem to grow up eating (and loving) a variety of fresh vegetables--this has always impressed me. And you're right, the avoidance of tomatoes does seem very un-Italian! :-)


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