October 4, 2023

Lessons From Italia Pt. 2 – It’s The Food, Stupid

By: Brian Parsons

“Everything you see I owe to pasta.” – Sophia Loren

Italians are known for having one of the world’s oldest populations, and their food is a big reason.  The Mediterranean diet is known worldwide for being one of the healthiest you can eat, full of good fats like olive oil, and nutrient and anti-oxidant-rich products from tomatoes to wine.  It is not an exaggeration to say that these staples are ubiquitous throughout Italy, and as you traverse the countryside, their hills are lined with vineyards and olive orchards.  It was quite common to see extensive home tomato gardens in local backyards.  Our Academy tour guide in Florence was very proud that his family grows, presses, and bottles their olive oil.

Italian cuisine was the thing that I most looked forward to on our trip to Italy, and if you get a chance to visit, there would be no shame in making it the focal point of your trip.  Despite the Olive Garden version of the tour of Italy, Italian cuisine varies largely by the region that you are in.

Pizza and tomato-based pasta dishes were a staple in Rome. Florence featured heartier dishes like stews, bistecca (steak), and wild boar pasta.  The Florentines had a joke that if your steak wasn’t at least 3-4 fingers-width thick, it’s carpaccio.  In Cinque Terre along the Ligurian Coast, we were treated to fresh pesto with potatoes and green beans.  Ironically, the only thing Italians knew of us in Idaho was potatoes. In Venice, seafood was on the menu.  The food was always fresh and often hyper-local. We ate a lot, and we ate often.

Not wanting to miss a thing, my wife left very little time for relaxation on our trip, save for a daily two-hour siesta, ciccetti (appetizer), and an Aperol spritz.  My pedometer counted an average of seven miles of walking per day.  A combination of ninety-five-degree weather and unending walking may begin to explain how I lost weight while stuffing my face with various forms of carbs and libations for two weeks straight.  There were other very notable health benefits to the Mediterranean diet as well.

As the spouse of a medical professional, there was a one hundred percent chance that during the COVID-19 pandemic, we were going to catch it, and we did.  The acute symptoms of the respiratory virus were almost non-existent in our household.  There was very little in the way of fevers, coughs, or colds.  However, within several weeks of having COVID, my immune system went into overdrive.  I developed new and serious allergies for the first time in my life.  What started as dizziness and fatigue progressed over months to asthma, esophagitis, and angioedema.  Angioedema is swelling, largely of the face and throat: think Will Smith in the movie Hitch.  

Over the months following COVID-19 infection, I would see four specialists and have multiple trips to my primary care provider.  Despite all of the standard testing, there was very little in the way of answers to the symptoms I was experiencing.  It wasn’t until my face began to swell and a trip to the immunologist that I was put on a regimen of histamine blockers and mast cell stabilizers and began to regain some semblance of normalcy.  Through a process of elimination, I narrowed down severe allergic triggers to sucralose (Splenda) and carrageenan (a common dairy thickener in nearly all creams, yogurts, ice cream, etc. in the US that is banned in the EU).

While in Italy, I maintained my daily prescription regimen as prescribed by my doctor.  However, my symptoms largely vanished within days of our two-week trip.  There were days when I would forget to take my morning or evening prescription, and I mostly felt normal.

On our return flight from Paris to Salt Lake, passengers were served several airline meals, largely frozen and reheated entrees.  The ingredient labels were a hodge podge of unpronounceable additives, preservatives, and sciencey nonsense.  The difference in quality was not only apparent in taste, but also in how my body responded.  To put it lightly, our American food supply is comparatively garbage.

There are certain rules that Americans should know when traveling to Italy.  Dinner doesn’t start until about 8 p.m. It’s generally considered uncouth to order a cappuccino after 11 a.m.  Someone didn’t tell the loud Americans at the table next to us in Florence who ordered four decaf cappuccinos with their tiramisu after dinner.

Many ristorantes and trattorias charge a service fee to sit, or they may charge a small coperto for bringing you bread before a meal. The water isn’t free, so you might as well get the frizzante (sparkling water.) When you get gelato (ice cream), order from the places that keep theirs in metal cans, not those that mound their gelato into a visible heap.

Try to patronize the places out of the touristy areas and off the beaten path, and you’ll likely get a more authentic and cheaper experience. Tips are included in the price, often significantly cheaper than a comparable American meal. Leaving a euro or two tip was immensely appreciated.

Regarding the American diet, few could argue that the results of heart disease, obesity, and diabetes are a problem.  I can tell you that all of the additives and preservatives do not enhance the flavor, as the flavors in Italy largely bested our own.  The only reasonable explanation for our obsession with sciencing our food is to extend the shelf-life, appearance, and desirability, minus the qualities that make food superior, like taste and nutritional value. A saying comes to mind: “Did you die? Not likely. But did you thrive? Also, not likely.”

Brian Parsons is a paleoconservative opinion columnist in Idaho, a proud husband and father, and saved by Grace. You can follow him at WithdrawConsent.org or find his opinion columns at the American Thinker, in the Idaho State Journal, or in other regional publications.

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