There was a little four-year-old girl in my mother’s nursery class one year that didn’t know what a potato looked like. Didn’t know what it was. There was a fake one in the play kitchen in the classroom, and my mum came home one day baffled that she had to explain potatoes to a child. The mother of the girl had shrugged at the story when she arrived at pick up that day. “Yeah, she probably hasn’t seen a potato. Just frozen french fries, etc.” When that happened we balked at the idea. How could someone not have taught their kid what a potato was?!
Then I moved to Italy, and in the first fall, Rami and I had the following conversation:
“It’s fig season,” He explained as we stood in his little kitchen and held out a Tupperware full of green things that looked to me like weird onions.
“This is what figs look like!?” He gave me a strange look and put one in my hand. I held it out, expectantly.
“I don’t know what to do with this.”
“What do you mean?”
“…the only figs I’ve ever eaten are in fig newton cookies.”
“fig what cookies!?”
And then he looked at me like my mother looked at the potato girl, and then taught me how to eat fresh figs.
So I guess not knowing where food comes from is all relative. Though I still put myself higher on the scale than potato mom, we all have our limitations. After seven years here, however, the close culture around food and where it comes from really changes your perspective on all of it. Now I can identify edible salads and wild asparagus while walking through olive groves. For a year or so when Stitch needed a raw diet, I’d buy full rabbits at the store and grind them myself at home.
I remember when I was in Ascoli, we walked through the local market and one of my friends pointed out a man with a few life rabbits on a table in the corner. She thought he was selling them for pets. I at that point had enough logic to know that wasn’t the case (there were also chickens) and tried to explain it to her, but it wasn’t until I went up and asked the man how much one of the bunnies cost, and he responded in price per kilo.
People are close to their food here. All of it. Yes while there are processed foods here, most is still very basic, clean, natural ingredients. Vegetables are grown locally that are in season. Same with fruit (did you know Italy is one of the top Kiwi farmers? I also saw a kiwi tree/bush for the first time up north in the Apennine mountains). We get our eggs from the chickens my in-laws keep behind their house. Our olive oil comes from the trees up above the hill. We grow basil and tomatoes in our garden and get our cheese and milk from the latteria in the next neighborhood over. I’ve seen their cows up over the hills that surround Florence.
It’s taken me a while and years of firsts to stop being a potato girl, but not many things surprise me now. I’ve tried and tasted everything from figs to fried brain (a local specialty), and I believe it’s so much better this way. When everything is pre-packaged and boxed into a shape that isn’t even recognizable, we lose the passion and appreciation for the food that we need to survive. Italy lives off their passion for food, and it’s a beautiful thing. So we need more fig lovers, and less potato people – and make sure you learn what you’re eating, and teach your kids how to get their hands dirty in the garden.