Taking a bite out of America’s food culture

<strong>Andrea Ciccolini has breakfast at Long Beach Café</strong>
Andrea Ciccolini
Editorial Intern

[Ed. note– The following piece, written by Signal Tribune intern Andrea Ciccolini, was only lightly edited in an effort to preserve his “voice” and writing style, as he makes his transition into learning English.]

I’m Italian. I love food, and the first thing that a lot of my Italian friends or relatives told to me when I announced my departure was, “Pay attention to the American food!”
All right. In the U.S., there isn’t the best food in the world, but I think there are more dangerous things, like criminality. But how, I said, I’m Italian, and for us food is really the first thing. It is not rare that we judge a country only by its food. An example of a conversation between two Italian friends:
Mario: “Hi Luigi! How was London?”
Luigi: “The food was terrible!”
This is enough to judge London, without any mention of museums, monuments or people, and Mario probably will not go to London.
To change which country you live in for a long period of time, for an Italian, can be a “food-shock.”
About food, I remember one of my first days in Long Beach. I went to the theater with a girl, and after the movie we were hungry. We walked to a place where there are some restaurants, and I became immersed in the atlas of international food. Our choice was not between a cheap or expensive restaurant or between a classic or modern restaurant. The choice was: in which country do we want to eat today? The choice was among an Argentine restaurant, a Greek restaurant, a Italian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, an American restaurant, an Australian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and two different Japanese restaurants. Awesome! I love foreign food. Finally, we went to eat in the Far East, and while eating sushi and drinking sake, I made a reflection.
I am sure I can predict the result of the following survey.
“If I say to an American the word, “Italy,” what is the first thing that comes up to his or her mind?”
Almost everybody will answer, “Food” or “Pizza” or “Pasta.”
And I am sure I can predict the result of another survey.
“If I say to an Italian the word, “Italy,” what is the first thing that comes up to his or her mind?”
(The answer will surely be: “Why are your speaking to me using English if we both are Italian?” But I care about the second answer).
Almost every Italian will say, “Cibo,” (the Italian word for “Food” or “Pizza” or “Pasta”).
Why? I think the reason is that Italians have a strong food culture. It is evident in the number of Italian restaurants in Italy, in the number of Italian restaurants scattered all over the world, in the number of non-translated Italian words about food like: pizza, pasta, mozzarella, spaghetti, pesto, broccoli, prosciutto, olive, lasagna, salami, macaroni, zucchini, peperoni, oregano, cappuccino, pistachio. It is evident in the number of people who have eaten an Italian dish at least once in their life, in the number of people who know something about Italian food, in the number of people who have tried to cook pasta at least once in their life. It is evident in the fact that every Italian’s favorite food is Italian food.
Here, in the U.S., the relationship with food is totally different. There are international- and fusion-food restaurants everywhere. The feeling is that Americans sometimes fight against their own food. Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because it is impossible to not do that. All over the world, it is sufficient to think that American food is famous for fat, full of chemicals and hormones. In one word: unhealthy.
Of course it is not fair to think about U.S. food only in a bad way. Here, there is a great meat knowledge, and the ability that Americans have to cook meat on a BBQ is unique in the world. But, if there is less than one hour to eat the meal, the Italian will eat pasta or pizza, and maybe he will drink one glass of wine or simply water. The American will eat a hamburger with french fries, ketchup, BBQ sauce, a large Coke and maybe fried chicken nuggets. Now, what is more healthy?
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because the U.S. is a country that has one of the highest number of people with alimentation diseases and the largest obesity population in the world.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because, ever since I’ve arrived here, I’ve had to cook something vegetarian every time I cook for a party, because there is a vegetarian or even vegan at the party. For me, it is not a problem. I love vegetables. I’m not vegetarian, but I respect their choice, and I’m interested in their points. My cousin is a vegetarian, and Italy is the European country with the largest number of vegetarians: 7 million, 10 percent of the population (according to the data from Eurispes research in 2006).
So, there are absolutely no problems for me, but here in California I was surprised by the number vegetarians. It looks like an epidemic of vegetarians/vegans, and everyone has told me that the reason for their decision is to be healthy. In the U.S., according to a 2012 study by “Vegetarianism in America,” 78 million people are strictly vegetarian and 22.8 million people affirm that they largely follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet.
The highest concentration of vegetarians is on the West Coast, and almost half of them affirm that their choice is due to healthy reasons. They are who I call “the food fighters.” They are mostly young, and their population is growing more and more everyday.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because sometimes I’ve seen Americans who don’t fight against the food, and maybe they are the largest part. I have seen fake health-fanatic Americans. Inside the supermarket, the most important thing was finding fat-free food and sugar-free food. It can be good, but after buying all this “light food,” they started eating and drinking a ginormous bunch of this “light food.” The rule was if it is sugar- or fat-free you can ingest it without stopping. According to 2012 nutritional data from Food Facts, the recommended total number of calories a person should intake each day is 2,000, but the average number of calories an American consumes daily is 3,800.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because, to survive, it is impossible to found a culture on unhealthy food. Here, to forge a food culture is more difficult because there are so many strong foreign influences that it is difficult to be deaf to the calling of a good sashimi or chili with meat. But without this food culture it is easy to have a bad relation with your own food. On the other side, the influence from different food cultures is the best way to know about traditional food from all over the world, and this is a great thing.
The U.S. is a new country. Maybe this is why it doesn’t have a food identity yet; it needs time to create a tradition. Maybe, in 200 years, the U.S. will be the country of vegetarians, and I would not be surprised if that happens.
My reflection was too long, and I am quite sure that the girl who was with me decided to quit the green-tea ice cream to run away from me as soon as possible. Anyway, I went to the Japanese restaurant again with that girl. This time, I didn’t talk about food, and she also had the green-tea ice cream. I’m Italian. I love food, and the first thing that a lot of my Italian friends or relatives told to me when I announced my departure was, “Pay attention to the American food!”
All right. In the U.S., there isn’t the best food in the world, but I think there are more dangerous things, like criminality. But how, I said, I’m Italian, and for us food is really the first thing. It is not rare that we judge a country only by its food. An example of a conversation between two Italian friends:
Mario: “Hi Luigi! How was London?”
Luigi: “The food was terrible!”
This is enough to judge London, without any mention of museums, monuments or people, and Mario probably will not go to London.
To change which country you live in for a long period of time, for an Italian, can be a “food-shock.”
About food, I remember one of my first days in Long Beach. I went to the theater with a girl, and after the movie we were hungry. We walked to a place where there are some restaurants, and I fell down in the atlas of international food. Our choice was not between a chip or expensive restaurant or between a classic or modern restaurant. The choice was: in which country do we want to eat today? The choice was among an Argentine restaurant, a Greek restaurant, a Italian restaurant, an Indian restaurant, an American restaurant, an Australian restaurant, a Mexican restaurant and two different Japanese restaurants. Awesome! I love foreign food. Finally, we went to eat in the Far East, and while eating sushi and drinking sake, I made a reflection.
I am sure I can predict the result of the following survey.
“If I say to an American the word, “Italy,” what is the first thing that comes up to his or her mind?”
Almost everybody will answer, “Food” or “Pizza” or “Pasta.”
And I am sure I can predict the result of another survey.
“If I say to an Italian the word, “Italy,” what is the first thing that comes up to his or her mind?”
(The answer will surely be: “Why are your speaking to me using English if we both are Italian?” But I care about the second answer).
Almost every Italian will say, “Cibo,” (the Italian word for “Food” or “Pizza” or “Pasta”).
Why? I think the reason is that Italians have a strong food culture. It is evident in the number of Italian restaurants in Italy, in the number of Italian restaurants scattered all over the world, in the number of non-translated Italian words about food like: pizza, pasta, mozzarella, spaghetti, pesto, broccoli, prosciutto, olive, lasagna, salami, macaroni, zucchini, peperoni, oregano, cappuccino, pistachio. It is evident in the number of people who have eaten an Italian dish at least once in their life, in the number of people who know something about Italian food, in the number of people who have tried to cook pasta at least once in their life. It is evident in the fact that every Italian’s favorite food is Italian food.
Here, in the U.S., the relationship with food is totally different. There are international- and fusion-food restaurants everywhere. The feeling is that Americans sometimes fight against their own food. Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because it is impossible to not do that. All over the world, it is sufficient to think that American food is famous for fat, full of chemicals and hormones. In one word: unhealthy.
Of course it is not fair to think about U.S. food only in a bad way. Here, there is a great meat knowledge, and the ability that Americans have to cook meat on a BBQ is unique in the world. But, if there is less than one hour to eat the meal, the Italian will eat pasta or pizza, and maybe he will drink one glass of wine or simply water. The American will eat a hamburger with french fries, ketchup, BBQ sauce, a large Coke and maybe fried chicken nuggets. Now, what is more healthy?
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because the U.S. is the country with the largest number of alimentation diseases and the country with the largest population of obesity in the world.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because, ever since I’ve arrived here, I’ve had to cook something vegetarian every time I cook for a party, because there is a vegetarian or even vegan at the party. For me, it is not a problem. I love vegetables. I’m not vegetarian, but I respect their choice, and I’m interested in their points. My cousin is a vegetarian, and Italy is the European country with the largest number of vegetarians: 7 million, 10 percent of the population (according to the data from Eurispes research in 2006).
So, there are absolutely no problems for me, but here in California I was surprised by the number vegetarians. It looks like an epidemic of vegetarians/vegans, and everyone has told me that the reason for their decision is to be healthy. In the U.S., according to a 2012-study by “Vegetarianism in America,” 78 million people are strictly vegetarian and 22.8 million people affirm that they largely follow a “vegetarian-inclined” diet.
The highest concentration of vegetarians is on the West Coast, and almost half of them affirm that their choice is due to healthy reasons. They are who I call “the food fighters.” They are mostly young, and their population is growing more and more everyday.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because sometimes I’ve seen Americans who don’t fight against the food, and maybe they are the largest part. I have seen fake health-fanatic Americans. Inside the supermarket, the most important thing was finding fat-free food and sugar-free food. It can be good, but after buying all this “light food,” they started eating and drinking a ginormous bunch of this “light food.” The rule was if it is sugar- or fat-free you can ingest it without stopping. According to 2012 nutritional data from Food Facts, the recommended total number of calories a person should intake each day is 2,000, but the average number of calories an American consumes daily is 3,800.
Why do I say that Americans fight against their own food? Because, to survive, it is impossible to found a culture on unhealthy food. Here, to forge a food culture is more difficult because there are so many strong foreign influences that it is difficult to be deaf to the calling of a good sashimi or chili with meat. But without this food culture it is easy to have a bad relation with your own food. On the other side, the influence from different food cultures is the best way to know about traditional food from all over the world, and this is a great thing.
The U.S. is a new country. Maybe this is why it doesn’t have a food identity yet; it needs time to create a tradition. Maybe, in 200 years, the U.S. will be the country of vegetarians, and I would not be surprised if that happens.
My reflection was too long, and I am quite sure that the girl who was with me decided to quit the green-tea ice cream to run away from me as soon as possible. Anyway, I went to the Japanese restaurant again with that girl. This time, I didn’t talk about food, and she also had the green-tea ice cream.

When not in Rome...

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