We're All Italians Now

To get through this, we have to learn to eat like Italians, writes Christine Sismondo. And that's way less glamorous than you might think.

I can be pretty flip about a lot of things. Dry January, excessive self-care, drinking collagens, most vitamin supplements, anything called a “cleanse,” for example, are all likely to elicit a sarcastic response from me.

As such, you might expect this dispatch from self-isolation to be about how I’m using up the heels from all my old bottles to make fascinating new cocktails or getting closer to wine agents and craft breweries that deliver. I’m in favour of all those things, of course, but I, personally, am not focused on alcohol right now. Now is a time to be thinking about food.

“Food will win the war,” Canadian and American governments used to say during both world wars. At the time, people were encouraged to ration food and grow their own “victory gardens” so that all available resources could be used to support military efforts. And food will play a crucial role in beating this pandemic, too. Don’t worry, I’m not suggesting that there is a food shortage looming. Nor do I want you to hoard anything. I am going to suggest, though, that we need to start acting as if it is a precious resource and learn to be more responsible with it.

The main reason I think we need to do this now is because social distancing demands that we only go to the grocery store once a week. And if your job is non-essential, that’s really the only time you should be going out, except for walks.

As a “daily marketer” who used to send Al to four different stores per day just so I could make dinner, this is not easy for me. I squeeze fresh lemon juice in every glass of water and I have very particular ideas about where to buy the best broccolini. But I can’t behave like this for a while. Luckily, though, I’m Italian, so I knew exactly what I needed to do right from the outset. And I’m going to urge you to follow my lead and, if you hate Italian food, don’t worry, since the same principles can be applied to any regional cuisine except North American.

The Italian dishes in restaurants (both here and in Italy) that showcase rich proteins and plenty of fresh vegetables in no way resemble the meals of my youth. We had a salad every night, sure. And we made hay (well, eggplant parmigiana, actually) after we harvested the eggplants and tomatoes from the community garden plot. The rest of the time, though, the vegetables came out of a can or the freezer. Unless they were onions.

So, a few weeks back, when people were flocking to the toilet paper aisle, I bought three bags of onions. Because you can’t make anything without onions and there’s a surprising number of pasta sauces that can be made with onions and basically one other ingredient—breadcrumbs, garlic, anchovies, peppers or, you know, if it’s someone’s birthday or something, guanciale.

Fully one-third of the names of traditional Italian pasta dishes translate into English as something like “Pasta from that year in the war when all we had was flour and garlic,” or “Dish made from the stalks and tips of vegetables nobody likes to eat” or “Bugs got into that cheese, but we were hungry so we ate it anyway.” It’s hardcore. And it’s not really fun food to grow up with, but you can’t argue with the results: I can make meals from my three bags of onions and a few other staples I picked up at the No Frills that will last me until May or this pandemic is over, whichever comes first.

And it was cheap. Which brings me to my other point about this type of food culture—it’s also the original zero-waste cuisine. Cynar, which is my all-time favourite spirit, is literally made from artichoke waste (which happens to be my all-time favourite vegetable). If there’s a way to re-use, upcycle, macerate, distill or turn garbage into stock, my people have discovered it. Not only is this good for the planet, eating garbage-water (chicken stock) saves Al trips to the store and money. If you have money to waste on food right now, give that money to the food bank.

Finally, it’s relatively green. My childhood was not meaty. I honestly can’t recall ever eating chicken. We had a pig roast once every summer, a pork roast a few times a year, fish at Christmas and a steak cook-out here and there. As little as we Italian-Canadians had meat, Italian-Italians probably had it less. I recall bringing beef and buffalo steaks from Canada to my family in Rome in the early 1980s as a Christmas present, since they rarely had red meat. That’s good for us and for the planet.

Look, I’m not saying I’m holing up with my cans of garbanzo beans and bags of arborio rice and never coming out again. Just that, if I can make half my meals out of dry, canned and frozen goods, I waste as little as possible and can get all my groceries done with one trip per week.

Which we have to do right now—for ourselves and others. And, if I can go from 28 separate grocery transactions per week down to one, so can you.

Sample grocery list: onions; canned and bottled tomatoes; pasta (yes, I could make this myself, but I’m not going to); eggs; chickpeas; eggplants; anchovies; rice; frozen peas; bacon; garlic; Parmigiano Reggiano.

As the weeks unfold, we can talk about what to do with these ingredients. And, I think we’ll also stretch out a little here on Moose Milk to discuss what’s good on TV, new-to-me music, virtual museums and making do with what we have. And drinks, of course.  

For now, watch this bizarro propaganda film.

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