Master Chef and other TV shows celebrating fine food are all the rage. But in real life, both rich and poor are increasingly buying pre-packaged meals. Reflections from a London-based Sicilian.
PALERMO — I learned how to cook in Mosé, in Sicily, on my family’s farm. We made the tastiest of meals with vegetables from our own garden and the best that came from the chicken coop. Once around the table, each of us chose from the serving dishes we wanted, but always left enough for the others.
It was a moment of sharing, in every sense.
The first dish was always the same: pasta with tomato sauce, topped with pecorino cheese. The preparation of the sauce was always a long discussed topic, both in the kitchen and at the table. Is the tomato better skinned or not? Smooth, or chunky? Should the onion be added raw or already cooked into sauce? What about garlic? What kind of pasta should be used? Was basil to be added during or after cooking?
Afterwards we would eat vegetables and eggs, cooked in various ways, and, once a week, poultry. The cooking of the peasants was quite similar to ours, just a bit less elaborate.
At the table we would talk about the dishes that had been prepared, offering our own opinions and suggestions. The opinion of all — parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, laborers and barons — was considered perfectly valid. It was simple cooking limited to seasonal ingredients with the addition of some preserved elements: capers, jams and pickles. The question was not what to cook, as that was dictated by the season, but how to cook it.
Today, every household has a refrigerator and a freezer. In supermarkets it is possible to buy food from all over the world, whether in season or not, fresh, cooked, pre-cooked, portioned, or frozen. So, what’s the difference between how the rich and poor eat in my two cities: London and Palermo?
English cuisine is less varied and less tasty than Italian. The rich used to buy foreign foods as well as traditional ones, which the poor ate: woolly sausages, salty pies and a limited choice of vegetables. Everything has changed in the last 40 years.
In London, people work hard, earn money and then spend it. At home, the rich people, well trained and conscious of the importance of maintaining one’s figure, consume frozen food or dishes prepared the same day by great chefs, while watching cooking programs on television. The most appreciated female celebrity chefs are curvy and flirty, while profanity and sexual illusions dominate the men’s category. British men have learned to cook — but only when guests come over.
Along the walls of the dining rooms, on the deep shelves, it is possible to find an array of TV chefs’ cookbooks, where you can find the perfect dishes to impress your friends and even seduce women. A banker from the City who serves first fruits and uncommon fish is cool; he becomes downright sexy as soon as he offers offal — the latest trend. Food porn has become normal.
These days, the pleasure of choosing what and how much you want to eat at the table has gone away. Each diner gets their own plate, often a construction of meats and vegetables decorated with squiggles of balsamic vinegar. Just like in the Renaissance, rare and expensive foods that are well-decorated are the symbol of the rich and powerful.
Many of my young clients in foster care survive thanks to welfare. The food traditions of London’s mixes poverty and isolation, thanks to the tremendous growth of unemployment. Today, there are pre-cooked and frozen solutions: they cost less than the fresh ingredients and they’re ready quickly thanks to the microwave.
Entire families have forgotten how to cook, and how to eat together at the table. Sitting on sofas around the TV, eyes glued to shows where other people cook, adults and children overeat fries, sausages and canned spaghetti. There are no vegetables, and very little fruit. Obesity has become a national health problem.
The family unit no longer consists of cooking together, and then eating and talking. The external misery has become internalized. On the other hand, rich Londoners have healthy diets; but like the poor they rarely cook fresh food, and tend not to eat with their children.
What about us Italians?
No matter where you go in Italy, whether rich or poor, the tradition of beauty, the taste of the food and good company is of the utmost importance. This is what British culture lacks. We Italians cook every day, yet our supermarkets are full of pre-cooked meals, soups and ready-made sauces. Currently they are still more expensive than if you make it yourself, but what will happen if they cost less one day?
Italian cuisine was born in the city, not in the countryside. My hometown, Palermo, has a long tradition of cucina povera, peasant’s food, that mimics the rich, competing in the creativity stakes. The copies are countless: “fish” made out of potatoes, pasta with canned sardines instead of fresh ones, and meatballs made with eggplant instead of ground meat.
Becasse farcie is a dish: baked fowl stuffed with raisins, breadcrumbs, cheese and spices. Those who couldn’t afford it substituted the fowl with a humble sardine, rolling it up with a similar filling and then putting it in the oven topped with breadcrumbs and a drizzle of olive oil.
Perhaps the first step is to rediscover the traditional recipes from each city and encourage residents to rediscover them, introduce them to their children, and share them together with their extended friends and families.