Saturday, October 30, 2010

Dieting, Italian-style

Dear Readers,

I am surrounded by temptation. Everywhere I turn there are wonderful things to eat: luscious cheeses, heavenly breads, fresh pasta topped with ambrosial sauces, pastries that make you go weak in the knees, and a dizzying variety of inexpensive, excellent wine to wash it all down with.

I'm only human. And American, at that. Let's just say that I have been wantonly overindulging a bit lately--oh, maybe for the past two years--and I've put on weight.

So, last spring, I decided I would avail myself of the national health service (the SSN, Servizio Sanitario Nazionale, for which I am taxed mightily) and go see a dietician. After getting the referral from my primary-care doctor, I rang up in May and was given--according to the dragoon I spoke with--the earliest appointment available... in late October. "Holy crap," I thought to myself, "are there that many fat people in Florence?" I consoled myself with the fact that at least it was in 2010.

Meanwhile, I kept eating....

Let me say right off that I have a natural antagonism toward diets. Apart from the obvious fact that they suck all the joy and spontaneity out of life (no more "Oh, look--there's a big plate of fried calamari! I do believe I shall eat it!"), it's the pictures of dieting women in magazines that really turn me off. These photos invariably depict winsome females enjoying healthy, low-fat meals--usually a dwarf-size bowl of leafy salad greens standing at crisp attention, cupped in the slender and well-manicured hand of a dewy-cheeked maiden dressed in white, who is serenely slipping a cherry tomato into her rosebud mouth with her fingers. Head tilted back, creamy throat exposed, her eyes are closed in profound rapture and the expression on her face is one of pure ecstacy--a pomodororgasmo. I don't know about you, dear Readers, but starvation rations turn me into a wild, hollow-eyed beast craven with hunger, hair standing on end, and itching to pick a fight. (That wouldn't be a very pretty picture, now, would it?)

Anyway, five months and four kilos later, the appointed day finally arrived. Of course, it's a miracle I even remembered I had the appointment. Well, actually I had ample time to have the date tattooed on my arm.

After getting off work, I cycled across half the city on heavily-trafficked viali, dodging double-parked cars and fiendish buses like Frogger, to get to a forlorn clinical outpost on the far edge of Florence's wild west side. "They better hand me the dietary holy grail, after all this!" I cursed to myself.

After the usual bowing and scraping, I entered the waiting area for Dietologia/Allergologia/Neurologia. Besides me, there was a lone, elderly Asian man who was so thin he looked like a Giacometti. I flopped into a chair, overheated from my two-wheeled odyssey, expecting to wait because I was 20 minutes early. But instantly a door opened and a white-coated woman called out "C'è qualcuno per dietologia?" Since Chopstick didn't move, I shyly stood up, like a schoolgirl caught off guard and asked to name the state capitol of North Dakota. "Prego, Signora. Si accommodi." I followed her into her office, somewhat perplexed. If it takes five months to get an appointment--or better, an audience--shouldn't that waiting-room be teeming, like Purgatory? Shouldn't there be fat people wedged into every chair, sprawled on the floor, banging on the door to get in? Shouldn't there be the din of bulimics retching in the bathroom?

Nope--I just sailed right in, all ______ kilos of me. (If you think I'm going to disclose my real weight on this blog, you're off your tarallini, dear Readers.)

The dietician, a sturdy woman with an attractive mop of curly gray hair and disconcerting pink frosty lipstick, seemed amiable enough. She weighed me in, and I couldn't help but blurt out, "Of course I was THINNER back when I made the appointment!!!"

Then we got down to business--she asked me what I normally eat. I said, "Why don't you ask me what I normally DON'T eat and we can get through this a lot quicker?" She seemed surprised at my breakfast, a marked departure from the typical Italian colazione of cappuccino and a cornetto. When I told her I usually eat two slices of whole wheat bread topped with some cottage cheese, butter, or even peanut butter and a dab of jam, along with my caffelatte, she raised her eyebrows as if I'd said I was polishing off a side of beef every morning. And when I complained that this Grand Slam breakfast--eaten at 7:00am, before walking the kids to school and before bicycling to work--didn't carry me through til 2:30pm when I get home and have lunch, she was mystified, "But you should be fine after having such a big breakfast!" After much cajoling/groveling/begging on my part, she conceded me a medium-size piece of fruit or a couple of crackers as a mid-morning snack--like Marie Antoinette tossing a crust of bread to the rabble.

She then prescribed to me the typical Italian diet for shedding unwanted weight: basically I have to eat the equivalent of one full meal (that is, a primo of carbs and a secondo of protein) divided in two between lunch and dinner, with veggies galore, and only three miserly spoonfuls of olive oil per day. Other austerities were thrown in for good measure: 40 grams of this, 70 grams of that, blah blah blah. Oh, and I'm supposed to eat all this wretched fruit (Italians are obsessed with freakin' fruit!). She quickly wrote everything out in inky swirls on my personal pre-printed diet form. Then she delivered her below-the-belt blow--but I suppose it's no surprise really--no wine allowed. I stifled a sob.

However, I was somewhat mollified by the fact that she was clearly very impressed with my 40 minutes round-trip of biking to and from work everyday (admittedly at a cautious snails' pace, given the bloodthirsty nature of Florentine traffic). To her I was Ironman. "But shouldn't I do more? Break a sweat with some intense cardio?" I asked. "No, no! What you do is enough!! If anything, perhaps add a passeggiata* with your family on the weekend."

Common sense, dear Readers--while utterly sensical--is just so damn boring. I was half-hoping to be given a crazy, exotic diet--say, the All-Gnocchi Diet or the Wild Boar Diet or the 3-P's Diet (pizza-polenta-pasta). The whole experience, I must admit, was a bit of a let-down. After waiting five months, I had built up a lot of expectations. It was rather like going down the rabbit hole and finding...a rabbit.

And there was no inspirational spiel forthcoming either--the dietician said gravely in what I suppose is the Italian version of a pep-talk, "Now, with this diet you will lose the weight very, very slowly. But it is better that way. And don't expect to ever go back to how you were before you had your children." (Sane? Able to speak in complete sentences? Permitted to pee in private?) She tucked my diet plan into a large, white envelope and gave me her benediction. Then I was back on the swarming viale, sitting on a bench in the waning autumn sun before setting out, and contemplating my immediate, lean future.

I could sure go for a juicy bistecca

So--considering I had to wait five months to be told that I have to eat like Gandhi until the kids are in college--I went home that evening and popped open a bottle of Grecanico and a carton of my beloved pistachios.

Gandhi could wait til Monday.



* these traditional über-leisurely strolls are performed equally well by women in three-inch stilettos, stumbling toddlers in poo-laden diapers and, well, stumbling octogenarians in poo-laden diapers. Hardly the kind of no-pain/no-gain advice I was hoping for.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Christmas Cake that nearly ate Halloween

Dear Readers,

I returned home from work late the other evening and an unspeakable horror met my eyes.

There was a panettone sitting on my kitchen counter.

For those of you unfamiliar with this traditional Italian (originally Milanese but now ubiquitous) yuletide cake, it looks rather like a plump, burnished-brown cupola. Or a squat, toasted chef's toque. Or a giant, megalomaniacal cupcake.   It is typically studded with candied fruit and is --unless you get a really good one--probably the most unimaginative, boring, dirt-dry, holiday dessert you're ever likely to eat.  But, in any event --and this is really the crux of the matter--it's supposed to be served at Christmastime. Mere custom, of course, being of no consequence to my mother-in-law (she of the demure woollen skirts, thick support hose, size 10 men's clodhoppers, and hoard-mentality), who was without a doubt responsible for the abomination.

For a second I just stared at the thing, stunned, while it sat there in all its tawny malevolence, and my mind did some quick calculations. Was this one of last year's leftover panettone? Or the year before that??? Or, if I were to examine its packaging, would I find the expiration date as sometime soon after the Protestant Reformation??!! Then I realized--egads!--she's already stockpiling them for this year!

I'd heard rumors that some of the supermarkets were already carrying Christmas items, and you see, dear Readers, my mother-in-law suffers terribly from POCD--Panettone Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. She can't help herself. As soon as they hit the shelves, she methodically makes the rounds of all the supermarkets within a 15-mile radius, gathering discounted panettoni, and squirrelling them away god-knows-where. She's hasn't the slightest interest in quality--she lives for the rock-bottom, two-for-one, bargain-basement panettone--it's all about quantity. (Forget the true Christmas message of selfless giving, forget that there are millions of people starving in the world--she is determined to build a bunker of hoarded panettone and barricade herself within, a shriveled Eva Braun clutching a plastic shopping tote and her tessera sanitaria).

This mite of a woman--who normally never ventures beyond the confines of the neighborhood--will actually board a bus in her quest for €1 cakes. During the month of December, she is always seen humped-over and carrying a panettone or two--along with kilos of mandarins, dates, and walnuts, in preparation for the Yuletide Onslaught--returning home from her shopping expeditions far afield. To facilitate her obsession, she cadges all the fidelity cards of everyone in the neighborhood in order to score the best deals on panettone in every supermarket chain in the city. She does this without shame.

And she typically starts serving panettone at every meal (that is, breakfast, lunch and dinner) from Christmas onward, desisting only for a brief hiatus around Pasqua (when she begins hoarding colomba--the dove-shaped Easter cake). Summer usually sees her dishing out an alternating mix of panettone-colomba, supplies of which only tend to exhaust themselves sometime around the Feast of the Ascension of the Blessed Virgin Mary. (This may or may not be coincidence: I'm sure if Mary ate that much panettone, she could only have ascended into heaven with the aid of a forklift).

"My kingdom for a panettone!"
Normally all this insanity begins in say, late November. So you can understand, dear Readers, why I was utterly caught off guard to see one of her cursed Christmas cakes this early on. Clearly it's a sign of the degenerative nature of POCD. She ought to be sedated.

What to do with the damn thing, I asked myself? I toyed with the idea of carving a jack-o-lantern out of it, lighting a candle inside and such--but I was afraid it would caramelize and then explode in a shower of candied citron and raisins. So instead I attached this note to its jaunty cellophane wrapper and, under cover of darkness, stealthily and summarily dumped the thing on her doorstep:

"Dear Madame: please remember that I am a CHRISTMAS CAKE, who particularly resents being foisted on heathens* well before the Anniversary of the Birth of His Most Excellent Lord, Our Saviour Jesus Christ.  Your cooperation is most appreciated. In dulci jubilo, etc. etc."

Yours in all the spirit of the season,

Campobello (the Wicked Witch of the Jest)

* We weathered my mother-in-law's full-watt, passive-aggressive displeasure not long ago when we informed her in no uncertain terms that our son would NOT be going to catechism this year (since we ourselves don't go to Mass and generally think the Catholic Church is just another kind of mafia, or Baywatch with cassocks). She moped around with a muso lungo for three weeks.