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Finding My Slow Food

September 28, 2010

There are so many things that one can say about the food that we eat. Food tells who we are, where we came from, what our mood is. It reveals our insecurities and fears, gives our temperament away, and indulges our whims.

Growing up, food was a major part of each of my days. Food was comfort and solace: Chicken soup made from scratch with noodles from Pennsylvania Dutch Country (where my father is from) when I was sick. It told the story of where we lived: Chicago hot dogs with peppers and cheese, Boston beans with every Thanksgiving meal, etc. It provided me the taste of different countries, different cultures and different times. My mom was just as much in love with food as I was, and her constant exposure to different flavors, small hole in the wall restaurants, and a willingness to try anything certainly shaped the way that I viewed what was “good”.

My mom cooked every day that I was at home, every day that I can remember. She spent long hours by the stove, and took immense pride in every meal she made. As much of a cook as my mother was, and as much as she taught me about using fresh ingredients, going with my gut, and cooking simply, it was not by our time in the kitchen spent together that I learned. My mom was a stickler for everyone staying out of her space, and it was not until my mid-twenties that I took up the craft for myself. It was by memory of her over the stove while doing my homework, or observing her while while reading in the family room that I learned to cook.

After my schooling was over, and before life in the “real world” began, my mom, dad and I embarked on a journey to Italy and France that would forever change the way that I saw food. Traveling to Europe was a highlight of my life, and I had planned for this trip for many months. My dad had worked in Europe and Asia for most of my life, so he knew his way around, but this was my first journey. Most people have grand plans to see the art, hear the music, experience the old architecture, visit holy sites, but for me I was excited for the food.

I remember jogging through Rome on that first morning, too excited to sleep, and watching the shop keepers open their stalls and store fronts. Fresh meats, cheeses, breads, pastas, fruits and vegetables were everywhere. It felt like something out of all the books that I had read on the country, but it was as real as you could get, and as different to food and culture in the US as I could have imagined.

I gained 7 lbs on that trip (and I walked almost from one end of that country to the other, so that should say just how much I ate). We found ourselves at the top of a winery sharing a meal with a family we had never met, at a tiny restaurant that I swear was in the middle of the road and only served one dish that was so good it melted in my mouth, and in a series of rustic cafes where lunch took three hours and at least that many bottles of wine.

While you would think that it was the most opulent of meals that I would remember from that experience, it has actually been the most rustic and small that have stuck with me. The plate of figs and a small glass of white wine, a slice of bread a hunk of ham and a mushroom omelet. These are the meals that are still with me today. I remember watching families ordering the simplest of meals, and enjoying them like they had never tasted such delicacies. It was awe inspiring, to have that much joy over each meal that you shared.

Before I left for Italy, I paid my annual dues for membership in the Slow Food movement, but once I came home, membership was no longer needed. I had learned first hand what it meant to savor every bite of something, to take pleasure in a long meal with friends and family, to not rush through my casserole in front of the television. I have stacks of books that remind me what life in those countries is like, and if I ever find myself drifting away from the pleasure of true eating, I return immediately to them. Books like A Year in Provence, Under the Tuscan Sun and Seasons of Rome. I have not returned since that trip, and I long to go back, but it was more important for me to recreate the experience here at home than it was for me to try and keep going back to try and recapture it.

A soft boiled egg, a hunk of fresh bread and a slice of cheese is still the perfect meal, and finding the greenest grouping of asparagus still brings a huge smile to my face. The respect I have for farmers in my community who pride themselves on growing not only the freshest, but the best tasting tomatoes is immense, and I am drawn to restaurants who put simplicity and freshness over opulence and size.

I spend more time in my kitchen then anywhere else, especially since my children have come along and I am now able to share this love with them. I hope that years from now, as they are describing me to their own children, they will say such things as “my mom made me the warmest, sweetest applesauce”. If I am eulogized through food, I will be a very happy woman.

This point in my pregnancy has brought my love of food back squarely in my life, and I find my gratitude for the experiences that my own parents shared growing once again. I suppose that I am a believer that the life that we live can be measured by the food that we enjoy, and if this is the case, I have a very good life to be thankful for indeed.