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Mangiare Bene

December 1, 2010

It was almost midnight on a Friday evening.  Dallas and I walked into our host family’s house after a night out in Florence (like two Cinderellas, we had to rush to make the last bus home, which left before anything really got started in the city.)

Our host dad greeted us: “Come avete mangiato?”

This exchange explains a lot of what I love about Italian culture.  It’s always all about the food.  No matter where you go, or what you do, an Italian will need to know “How did you eat?”

Not “How was the food?” which is what you might hear in America.  “Oh, it was good, or it was great, or that cheesecake totally knocked my socks off,” you might respond to that American question.

The Italian question is actually so different, and it’s not just a matter of grammar.  “How did you eat” encompasses the whole experience of a meal, from aperitivi to antipasti to primo to secondo to contorni to dolce to frutta to vino to caffe.   The meal is never boiled down to its individual components, but taken holistically, experientially.  “How was your experience of eating that meal?”

Dallas and I almost always answered his question, “Abbiamo mangiato molto bene!”—We ate very well!  Because we almost always did.

Which brings me to another reason I love Italian culture: the concept of “eating well.” It’s not related to eating heathy (that’s “mangiare sano”) or eating locally (that’s a give-in) or eating organically (why do we Americans let politics suck all the joy out of the elemental physical pleasure of consuming our nutrients?)

It’s about the way the wine complemented the meat, the way that the sugo clung to the pappardelle, the way that the hostess took care of you and encouraged you to eat as much as you possibly could, the way that the conversation engaged you from the first bite of tortellini in brodo until the last sip of espresso.

Studies have shown that eating pasta improves your mood, my host dad often said in between primo and secondo, and this is what mangiare bene is all about: the feeling that you get when you know that every detail of a meal was perfect, every transition was as smoothly performed as though it were choreographed.

One scene of a play is not enough to make it a positive experience; the audience has to be connected to the plot, to the actors, to the characters.  If someone asks you, did you enjoy that play, your response will not be, “Yes, Act III scene ii was just to die for.”  Either the play captured you, or it did not.

The Italian meal is a complex performance, and the diner is a peculiarly involved member of the audience, contributing to the performance while also witnessing the drama of flavors mingling in the most private of theaters.

This is the beauty of Italian food culture.  This is the reason Italians are not fat.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. December 3, 2010 1:56 pm

    What a beautiful post on Italian food culture. I’ve always admired it too. I am Russian and sometimes I feel like food means absolutely nothing to most Russians. I know a lot of people who can have their mashed potatoes and cutlet every day for years and years without even noticing what’s on their dinner table… Hope this will change some day 🙂

    • December 4, 2010 5:44 pm

      Thank you so much Alina! I certainly think there’s hope for Russian food culture after taking a look at your gorgeous blog.

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