Thursday, May 21, 2015


At the end of last year there was a resurgence of articles questioning the feminist or anti-feminist nature of home cooking. The debate is not new, but it flared up in response to the publication of "The Joy of Cooking?" (the article is not longer available for free, so buy it here or read about it here), an article by three sociologists from North Carolina State University that was based on their interviews with 150 black, white, and Latina mothers and on over 250 hours of observation of 12 working-class mothers dealing with cooking and family life.

The article was quite discouraging for those who believe America should embrace home cooking in the name of public health and a lesser environmental impact. What emerged from it is that mothers, even when they hold full-time jobs, are still the ones saddled with cooking and all its implications, from meal planning to grocery shopping, from making the time for cooking to cleaning afterwards. To make matters worse, the onerous home-cooked meal stands a good chance of being rejected by the kids AND the husband, so the whole ordeal might end up in a maddening waste of time, energy, and money. The mothers' uphill battle is not only confined within their homes: Junk food is advertised everywhere and easily available, and school cafeterias most often serve just that (it reminded me of a comment in the movie Fed Up, defining some schools today as "7-11's with books"), so convincing their children to start eating healthy, home-cooked meals becomes a near impossible task.

To be fair, the article never uses the terms "feminist" or "anti-feminist" to define the problem, but much of the debate that sparked from it posed that very question. Is home-cooking feminist? The debate intrigued me. I've often heard Italian mothers complain that they have to do all the cooking, but I had never seen the blame being put on home cooking. In fact, home cooking is still upheld as one of the best things Italians have accomplished, and I've always agreed. But should I? I started thinking about my Italian experience with home cooking, about its rituals, meaning, and consequences on Italian family life. As you may already know, food in Italy is pretty much sacred, and most Italians are very educated (and opinionated) about nutrition. We have a great, incredibly varied cuisine that spans from the very simple to the refined, from the perfectly healthy to the obscenely sweet and/or fat. Is cooking for Italian women a source joy, a necessary chore, or just a tool of oppression? I decided to talk a little bit about food culture and home cooking in Italy to see if it could help shed some light on the American cooking conundrum.

The following considerations come from my personal experience (I do not work full time at the moment, but I was raised by a mother who did) and that of a few Italian female friends I spoke to who were raised by full-time working parents or are working mothers themselves.


How Do Italians View Food? 

Of course you know this, but I have to say it: Italy is a food-centric nation. Italian cuisine is exceptionally varied and relies on a fantastic quantity of amazing produce for each season. It is also worth remembering that Italians' rural past is just a couple of generations away. Almost all Italians have strong connections to people growing produce or raising livestock, be it in their family or in or around the place they live in. In my personal experience, even though I grew up in the city with two full-time working parents, my family would often stay at my grandfather's home in Tuscany, which had a small farm right behind it where my sister and I would pick fresh fruit and eggs, help with the animals, and occasionally be given the chance to milk a cow.

How Does Home Cooking Work in Italy? 

I would say the vast majority of families eat mostly home-cooked meals during the week, although, compared to previous generations, they tend to prepare easier and quicker meals (home-made pasta is a treat to make once in a while) and eat out more than in the past. Cooking skills are passed on from generation to generation, and even if you were not interested in cooking or your parents were less insistent on your learning (that would be me), Italy as a whole is permeated by a constant conversation about food and its preparation. You cannot be immune to that information: You are going to pick up at least the basic techniques, recommended ingredients and combinations, meal planning ideas, nutritional information, etc.

Who Cooks? 

Mostly women. Men in my family did grocery shopping and some of the cooking, but I know that was not the norm among my acquaintances. I have to be honest about this: Italian culture is still deeply sexist, and men are not expected to provide any help in the kitchen. In fact, some of my male friends grew up never once helping around the house whereas their sisters were absolutely expected to. Italian men may cook for their own pleasure or on special occasions, but it's not common to see them actively participating in every aspect of meal planning, preparation, and cleanup. I know the situation has evolved, but we can't talk about equality yet.

Is it easy to eat healthy food in Italy? 

Yes, and the reason is simple: Produce is still the cheapest option in Italy. Even in the expensive Northeast where I come from, you can subscribe to a CSA to provide you with organic produce for a family of four for 7 euros a week. Non-organic produce is even cheaper and readily available in markets.

How Do People Shop for Groceries in Italy?

Today many Italians might visit a supermarket once a week like Americans, but up to the 1990s (when big distribution really took off in Italy) the situation was different. Italian cities and towns were still densely packed with small specialized grocery stores where people could by quality local food easily and cheaply. Small stores disseminated all over the cities made for frequent but quick visits that allowed for a pantry populated with fresh food. Even though today many of the small grocery stores have closed, especially in the North, people still tend to have quick and easy access to a wide variety of foods in their neighborhoods and towns.

Do Italian Children Eat Everything? 

No, they don't. Some of them do, but just as in the United States, many children have very definite preferences and aversions that need to be defended at all costs. Yet, junk food in Italy is much less available compared to the United States, and society expectations on children's diets are higher (Italian restaurants do not serve kids meals, except for smaller individual pizzas), so I think Italian children tend to grow up appreciating a wider variety of foods.

What Food is Served in Italian Schools? 

There might be some debate about accessibility and quality of Italian school cafeterias, which are only present in preschool and elementary school (from middle school onwards, Italian kids are mostly home for lunch), but food options in school cafeterias are much healthier than in the United States. It's unthinkable for a school to offer fast-food items to children, and desserts are generally absent (fruit tends to end a meal). Mealtime in Italian school is seen more and more as an opportunity to teach children about healthy behaviors. It doesn't work all the time, but at least the school cafeteria is not sabotaging the parents' efforts.

What's the general opinion about junk food? 

Italians have always had a strong stance against processed food, so fast-food never really took off in Italy like it did in the United States. I actually remember the uproar when the first McDonald's opened in my town in the early 1990s: Even as a teen willing to try the greasiest of foods, I knew very well that was unhealthy and could never become a staple in my diet. Also, a McDonald's meal was still much more expensive than better-quality food made at home, so the appeal was simply not there. I would say that, for Italians, junk food is a guilty pleasure to be enjoyed in moderation, but hardly a meal-replacement option to be consumed several times per month (this survey suggests that about 39% of Italians practically never eat at fast-food restaurants).

My conclusion 

So this is it. I offer no solutions, no great idea for steering America back towards home-cooking, and especially on how to help working American and Italian women lessen their burden. And yet... Even though Italy is a sorry mess of a country, economically and morally, I do think that the Italian experience might have something to teach us at least in terms of availability (both economic and physical) and a proud culture of healthy eating.

Personally, I think cooking is a wonderful skill. I know, I have a food blog, so of course I'd say that. But I also really believe there's something magical about the way cooking can make us healthier, happier and bring us together. Good ingredients, a touch creativity, and a table with family and friends to celebrate a great day or to gather in silence after a horrible one. It is a gift of health, human connection, and time. And also, there are so many practical skills we can learn and share with our kids, and home cooking is one of the easiest to tackle.

If I think about the gender implications of home cooking, I wouldn't say that home cooking is in itself anti-feminist but that serious issues of gender inequity surround and complicate the matter. In fact, as I reread the original article, I have a nagging feeling that one real problem was left unexplored. I never see fathers questioned about their role in all of this. Once again, this looks to me like it's being presented as a women's issue rather than a family issue. Sure we should indict an economic system and a food culture that pushes junk food before healthy food, but why are fathers never mentioned, never asked to participate? Home cooking can greatly contribute to improve the health of the Italian families, but we can't expect mothers to do all the work.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015


In the past years, there have been few things that made me happier than the rehabilitation of the egg as a health food. It is really up there with the comeback of leggings and the birth of my children. Really, I love eggs. I love them in all their gastronomic incarnations and for their simple beauty (please check my humble Pinterest homage, "The Egg Came First"). In fact, I'm pretty sure my elder days will see me as an Italian-American version of Edith Massey's Egg Lady, juggling hard-boiled eggs in the air and dishing out frittatas left and right. You've been warned.

You can only imagine how I felt when I found the recipe for "pasta with a fried egg" in a tome of ancient traditional Italian recipes that a friend gave me when I moved to the United States. The dish is from Calabria, the region of bold and spicy flavors, and is so simple and genius I could not believe I had spent thirty years of my life without it.

So, what's pasta with a fried egg about? Well, it is simply good-quality spaghetti tossed with extra-virgin olive oil, red pepper flakes, and pecorino, and then topped with a fried egg. Once the dish is presented to you in all its sunny cheerfulness, you just break the egg with a fork and release the runny yolk for your personal, instant mini-carbonara.

The first time I made it for myself and Mr Bee, we became almost giddy with joy. This spicy, hearty pasta was flavorful and creamy, and probably one the best examples of old-Italy comfort food. Also, for someone as lazy and perennially late as I am, I could not get over about how easy it was to make.

Now to the important stuff. For a dish this simple, the pasta needs to be good quality, which means it needs to have flavor on its own and be able to keep "al dente" (many low-quality pasta turn to glue a minute after you take them out of the pot). For the past few years, I've been using Trader Joe's organic spaghetti, but they've recently changed brand, and I still need to test it. I think De Cecco pasta should work, and you definitely can use hardier long pasta like Venetian bigoli or bucatini. In a pinch, and for a healthy accent, I like to use Trader Joe's whole-wheat pasta, which has surprising great bite and taste. I know that's not traditional, but we're not purists here: We just have standards, right? One last piece of advice: I would not use egg pasta; as much as I love eggs, that would be redundant.

So let's celebrate the good weather we're having and the decreasing pollen count with a simple, quick, cheap, and happy pasta that is as fun to serve as it is to eat. And for the hearts of stone out there, how can you resist that yolk's adorable stare? DIG IN.


Makes 4 portions

10 oz spaghetti (good quality)
1/2 C grated Pecorino
1 whole dried red pepper, crushed, or 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (or whatever you feel comfortable with)
3 tbsp EVOO + more of drizzle on pasta
4 eggs (preferably pasteurized)

  • Cook the spaghetti al dente in a large pot of salted water.
  • While the spaghetti cook, fry the eggs in the EVOO until the whites are firm, and the yolks are still runny.
  • Drain or scoop the pasta out of the water (you want it to retain some of the water to better bind with the other ingredient) and place in a bowl. Stir in the Pecorino, the red pepper, and some more EVOO to taste.
  • Divide the pasta on the plates, and top each with a fried egg.
  • Sit down to eat, chop the egg coarsely with your fork so that the yolk runs all over your pasta, and enjoy.

And since we're making pasta, let's refresh our basic pasta skills:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015



Before last week, I had never been to Busboys and Poets, the DC "community gathering place" where you can eat and read (my favorite pastimes). So when Mr Bee woke up on Sunday and suggested I take two hours away from the kids to have coffee by myself somewhere, I got dressed and ready in 10 seconds flat, grabbed my laptop, and rushed to the new Busboys and Poets location in Takoma, DC. When I got there, the place was packed, but I saw one free tables in the cafĂ© section, albeit with a few dirty cups from the previous patrons. I asked the hostess if I could sit there and plug my battery-pauper laptop, and she said yes. Ten minutes passed with me standing in front of my dirty table, so eventually I picked the cups, put them on the bar, and sat down only to realize there was no outlet to plug in my laptop. The waitress finally came and acknowledged the lack of outlets. We looked at each other in the eyes for a long instant, and then I told her I would go somewhere else. As I left the place, a little confused and a little sad, I realized the last thing I expected from a place called "Busboys and Poets"  was to have to bus my own table and leave. So the only appropriate thing to do was to write my own poem as well. That'll teach them.

Dear hostess,
Are you useless?
Or just smarter than me?
'Cause I cleaned up your table
And did not get my tea.


MicroBee is in the sunny last line. 
A couple of weeks ago, in a moment of boredom, I was perusing the apps on my smartphone when I opened the "baby" folder and found again The Wonder Weeks, the companion app to the bestselling infant development book of the same name. For those who might not be familiar with it, the Wonder Weeks are ten stages of mental development that all infants go through on their way to becoming accomplished toddlers. A Wonder Week is an amazing mental "leap" during which your child becomes magically able to master new physical, mental, and emotional skills. Unfortunately, each Wonder Week is preceded by an exhausting period of extreme, unforgiving, back-breaking rage and neediness from said genius child that I believe the authors were too chicken to call The Month of Shit. It is the other side of the infant coin. In any case, according to the app chart, my 18-month-old MicroBee has finally emerged from the rollercoaster of mental growth-spurts that are The Wonder Weeks. So I guess my parenting will be downhill from here. *pats own shoulder* 


I'm currently in the process of becoming a US citizen, and the second step, after submitting all of the paperwork, is getting fingerprinted and photographed for the so called biometrics. I went through this process once already when I applied for my green card, and the experience was marred by my assigned officer complaining multiple times about my "greasy, greasy thumbs" that were preventing her from collecting my fingerprints. This time, I arrived all clean and made-up, and with perfectly degreased thumbs, only to be told that my bangs could not be in the photograph. I had two hairpins with me, but no mirror, so I started pinning my bangs back blindly with very poor results. How do I know the results were poor? Because this time my assigned officer had a laughing fit while looking at my image on the screen. And when I told her, "I don't want to see how I look," she answered, "Yeah, YOU DON'T WANT TO SCARE YOURSELF." Oh well, so much for my hopes of gaining that world-famous American confidence through naturalization. I guess I'll be the eyesore in America the Beautiful.