Sunday, August 25, 2013

American Foods Italians Don't Get (At Least Right Away)

Italy is a food-centric nation whose inhabitants are either too smug to eat anything foreign or extremely happy to try anything new because, hey, what else is there in life other than food? I fall into the second category, thankfully, and I'm always happy and curious to try foreign specialties and unusual food preparations. In my 9 years in the United States, I've noticed there are some American foods that Italians really struggle with. Some foods can never be loved, others grow on us over time until we embrace them fully.

Peanut Butter

First Reaction: "Help! I think I'm choking!"
When Italians try peanut butter for the first time they are really surprised by how intense the flavor is. I think Italians are confused by the word "butter". I, for example, was picturing peanut butter as a creamy dairy product with a touch of peanut flavor. My first taste was like a punch in the gut to all my taste buds (anatomically confusing, I know). What is even more jolting to Italians, however, is the texture. Italians really don't have anything as sticky as peanut butter, and often their first taste leaves them choking in confusion.
Over Time:  I love peanut butter and I now I eat it happily pretty much every day (it is now even part of my pregnancy cravings, as you can see here), and I know other Italians who really warmed up to it and other nut butters.

Root Beer 

First Reaction: "%#*♘@☆&*!!!"
When I moved to the US at the age of 28, I had never experienced heartburn. Within 2 months of daily American coffee sipped at intervals throughout the day, I finally experienced "that warm feeling" tearing my esophagus apart. "Welcome to America!" said a friend, and the rest is history. I use this introduction to explain what root beer tastes like to me: like heartburn in a bottle. Speaking with other Italians and watching them while they took their first sip just confirmed my opinion. Root beer is the weirdest drink on the planet: It tastes like a medicine, it hurts, and we can't believe American children love it.
Over Time: One sip is enough. I can't see my fellow Italians going near root beer ever again after the first attempt.

Cilantro

First Reaction: "Why are there soap shavings in my burrito?"
Cilantro is not strictly American, I know, but it's sprinkled in so many dishes consumed by Americans every day. To an Italian palate (and to a Spanish and British, too, as far as I know), cilantro tastes like soap, and we all know how great soap tastes. During my first American months, I remember just cursing the universe every time I found cilantro in fantastic-looking South-American dishes, and I even cried a few times when I mistakenly bought cilantro instead of parsley.
Over Time: I personally have changed my mind completely about cilantro, and the same has happened to other Italians I know. I can't believe there was a time I didn't like this wonderful herb, and today I insist all my Italian guests give it a chance. I totally get its fresh flavor that brightens up every meal. Cilantro, you make me happy. Sorry for ever doubting you.

Soft, Chewy Cookies

First Reaction: "Why was this cookie left out all night on the beach?" 
It's a fact that Italians are not dessert-maniacs like Americans are, but still, in Italian cuisine "chewy" is never a selling point: It's a flaw. What Italians do treasure in cookies is friability, or the ability to break apart without too much effort. We want crunch and buttery crumbs, not pliability.
Over Time: Some Italians might warm up to chewy cookies, but I doubt it. In my opinion, the much-maligned cupcakes, as stupid as they've become, are always preferable to this misshapen, sugary mess. Sorry.

Oatmeal

First Reaction: "Wow. The economy must be REALLY bad here."
Italians' first spoonful of this gooey concoction stirs feelings of deep sadness and pity. Wasn't America the land of riches? Why is everybody eating this gruel? It's really a surprise that the country that celebrates breakfast with bacon, pancakes, and omelettes can also enjoy this unappealing bowl of grey, boiled oats. We understand it's healthy, but wouldn't a piece of fruit give you more joy?
Over Time: Here's another food about which Italians can change their minds completely. As far as I'm concerned, once I learned to prepare oatmeal with milk rather than with water alone, and spice it or mix it with fruit, I understood its unadorned, almost Dickensian appeal. I eat oatmeal at least twice a week, and it feels and tastes great to me. It makes me feel like my toddler and I should go on strike at the cotton mill we both work at, and one day we just might!

Marshmallows on Sweet-Potato Casseroles
First Reaction: "Did you bake this casserole with the plastic top still on?"
Italians know very little about marshmallows, and what they know mostly comes from Ghostbusters. The only marshmallows available in Italy are the white and pink variety, usually coated in a dusting of sugar. We might have seen marshmallow roasted in a Peanuts comic strip, but that's about it. Seeing them burnt and melted on top of a casserole and then biting into their gooey mega-sweetness is just too overwhelming for our senses. Too sweet, too sticky, too absurd.
Over Time: This is another food to which an Italian can give one chance only. I did.

Fried Oysters... On A Sandwich???

First Reaction: "Who's Going to Pay for This?"
In Italy, oysters are delicacy for the few, to be consumed strictly raw and with as little flavor-alteration as possible. Oysters are a kiss from Poseidon given to the rich and the beautiful. Seeing them fried and slapped on a sandwich just blows our minds. What's next: Taco Bell's Caviar and Saffron Volcano Maximelt?
Over Time: The first morsel may puzzle us, but by the second we're hooked. This wonderful decadent and unexpected treat is something Italians can't wait to report back at home to impress their friends.

And now let me answer the question that is burning in your mind, dear American reader. Should you serve these foods to your Italian guests when they are visiting? OF COURSE YOU SHOULD. It does not matter if you're dealing with the mega-nationalist or the happy-traveler guest variety: Italians ask nothing more than to compare their food to yours. If they like what they eat, they'll feel wonderfully cosmopolitan and sophisticated. If they don't, they'll just love to tear your food habits to shreds once they go back home to their peeps. No matter their reaction, they'll be happy as (fried) clams.

2 comments:

  1. This is really funny! I married into an Italian family so some of these I can see my family saying. :)

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    1. Thank you, Kali! I have to say these foods were tested over a 10-year period with my Italian family and friends during their visit. Thank you for commenting!!!

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