When I chat with my youngest collaborators, the conversation often gets round to their and their families’ eating habits. If I think back to when I was a kid, when I used to go to my grandma’s for lunch after school – my initiation to the most diverse flavors and traditional local recipes – or when my family and I went on Sunday runs and ate lunch in olde-worlde country restaurants and inns, I realize there’s a huge gap between us. I wonder how it might be possible to change certain newly evolving eating habits for the better. The fact is that, with the emergence of ‘fast’ consumer habits, intra-family relations have changed.
First and foremost the old imposition, ‘Eat what’s put in front of you!’ has lost all its authority. We all have our own childhood nightmares of the times we were forced to eat stuff we couldn’t stand. Yet it’s also true that, without being forced to, we would never have learnt to know and love the bitterness of certain greens or the soggy, watery textures of certain dishes. Kids today grow up without going through this process. ‘Don’t like your soup, junior?. No problem, I’ll fix you some french fries or thaw you a pizza!’.
The pleasure of conviviality, of eating with others and staying at the table to talk for hours on end is a thing of the past. I used to have to tag along with my family on their Sunday forays to the typical restaurants of the Langhe. I didn’t always feel like it, but the experience allowed me to discover a different world. It taught me to enjoy myself at the table and appreciate good company. Today when families go out for lunch, the youngest kids are allowed to stay at home! Sometimes mothers cook sumptuous Sunday lunches for the whole family, but the children are stressed out by the presence of relatives, they’re keen to go out with their buddies, and, last but by no means least, they’re simply unaccustomed to certain flavors. They end up tasting hardly anything of what mom’s cooked for them. Then they leave the house and, attracted by the razzamatazz of fast food joints, their mouths watering at the sight of the pizza slices, they end up eating nothing else the whole day long. Their gustatory experience is thus based on two or three standard, never-changing flavors. But there’s even worse to come. Often mom and dad both work, and with the excuse that they haven’t got time to spare, they serve up pre-cooked foods. So, indirectly, the result is the same: no wholesome home cooking! I’m by no means advocating a return to old-fashioned patriarchal and matriarchal impositions, but there can be no doubt that the abundance and speed of modern living leave a mark on the habits of young folks. The risk is that, while nowadays we can still speak in praise of a delicious meat stock or a plate of chard or a hearty soup, in a not too distant future our words are going to prove utterly futile.
First published in La Stampa on 03/03/02
Adapted by John Irving