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?