Finding Love in Italy

I was once swept off my feet while vacationing in Italy, la terra di amore, the land of love. As I might have expected (as you, by now, might expect) my irresistible suitor was not a “him,” but an “it”–the mercato, the Florentine farmers’ market–and the language of our courtship was curiously slanted toward all things edible: rosemario, pomodorifagioli, aglio.

Blocks away, in my Italian kitchen, I could feel the bustle and energy of the market. People streamed toward it from every direction–on foot, bicycle, or motorcycle–and I joined them each morning as I set out to gather ingredients for the day’s meals.

What the mercato offered was a vision; even now, it takes no effort to conjure it in my mind. Barrels of capers in salt. Anchovies. Artichokes. Fresh beans in their pods. Porcini mushrooms and handfuls of wild mint to go with them. More vegetables and fruit, full of color, odd shapes and personalities, and all at their peak of ripeness, the best and most they would ever be. There was rich, creamy yogurt that must have been a thousand calories. There were fresh whole fish that smelled of salt air and sea, squat yellow peaches, and eggs with deep golden yolks. Rather than pack these eggs twelve to a carton, the farmers offered them one by one, each a treasure.

  © Photo courtesy of:  DTR@Ruhlman.co

© Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.co

Perhaps my favorite moments at the mercato were when I needed herbs, aromatiques. The farmers treated them as weeds and gave them away free and by the handful, choosing which herbs to offer based on what I bought. The assumption was that I would know what to do with them, that I knew how to cook; and I did, because the ingredients spoke a language, not in words but by some otherworldly means, that told me how they wanted to be prepared. I had only to observe and respond, imposing little, and my meals never tasted so good.

As I reflect on the way I gathered food before my Italian adventure, I can point to an emptiness, to a missing story in vegetables neatly packed into grocery store bins, or in shrink-wrapped meat displayed on uniform refrigerator shelves. I knew nothing of the farmer, the farm, or the story behind this food.

Shopping at the mercato reminded me that food comes from some place and some one, that behind every bite we eat are hands and hearts that bring food from the fields so we can put it on the table. Behind every bite are stories that most of us have lost and that we can learn again by getting to know our farmers.

I realize that shopping at farmers’ markets may not be a way to restore anything we have actually lost. It may, in fact, imitate a slow-paced way of gathering and savoring food that was never an integral part of our food culture. I’m not sure. But knowing the animals who will provide, or become, our dinner is not new, and knowing the farmers who put seeds into the soil and pull vegetables out of it is not new either. Finally, enjoying the process of gathering food, and spending time doing it, has enriched us since the beginning of time.

Visiting a farmers’ market each week may not work for everyone, and it may not work all of the time. But it is possible, especially now and for most of us. If we make it a priority, we can participate in the process of reaping the harvest, and it’s worth it because where else can you find so many happy people engaged in food commerce: buying and selling, swapping recipes, and sharing details of the harvest? Where else can you inhale the aroma of fresh, beautiful ingredients while you shop? And where can you find more potent inspiration than from deliciously ripe, seasonal food?

Finding Love (Or a Farmers’ Market) Of Your Own

Farmers’ markets are increasing in number, with more than 6,000 spread across the country and, as of this winter, at least 900 are open year-round. Regardless of the season, farmers’ markets provide more than just food. By reorganizing the buying and selling of ingredients around fresh air and community, they add vitality and interest to a process that might otherwise be depleting. In contrast to supermarket shopping, farmers’ markets lift our spirits by connecting us to others and allowing us to exercise our right to choose food that’s wholesome, fresh and nourishing.

To find a market near you, follow this link: Local Harvest. Or this one: USDA. And if you feel like skipping the market and going straight to the farm, have a look at this site: Eat Wild.

More Reasons to Connect to Local Farmers and Farms

If you have any doubt about the importance of knowing where our food comes from, how it was grown, and by whom, take 18 minutes to watch this exceptional video: Robyn O’Brien’s Personal Story. You will be glad you did. It’s one of the most powerful TED talks I have seen.

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul

Feeding Children

For those of us with children, feeding them may be the most insistent demand we face. The regularity of preparing meals can often seem relentless, and the pressure to put nourishing food on the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner can leave us feeling inadequate. The fact that feeding a family feels challenging, however, does not reflect on us. It doesn’t feel hard because we ourselves are limited; it feels hard because it is hard. The task is intrinsically challenging and can, at times, be a struggle for every one of us. I have built my personal and professional life around food, yet there are still days when I want to hide under the covers as dinner time nears.

When kids are at an age or phase that makes them more selective about what they eat, the task looms still larger. It’s demoralizing to shop for food, prepare it, and then watch it be pushed away; and it’s disheartening to finally find nourishing food our children will eat, and then have it wiped off their list because peers deem it uncool.

Finding the fortitude to face the challenge squarely and to meet its demands creatively takes a lot of energy, especially when food manufacturers spend millions selling us quick and cheap “solutions.” Time is the great commodity, after all. We might resist giving up what precious little we have when our efforts are unappreciated or rejected. “Not worth it,” our small internal voice may say.

©Photo courtesy of: DTR@Ruhlman.com

After spending more than two decades feeding my own children, who range in age from twenty-one to five, there are still questions I wonder about:

  • What is nourishment really? When I was growing up, my grandparents lived an hour away. Each time I visited, they had a ramekin-filled treat waiting for me: either jello with sliced bananas or chocolate pudding. I enjoyed these equally and, despite their few nutrients, they nourished me. Even today, I have one of the special ramekins on my desk holding odds and ends and within close view. My attachment to this culinary memory makes me wonder what actually constitutes nourishment. Maybe a loving attitude and loving gestures, and a feeling of having been considered, are among the most important nutrients we offer. Perhaps even jello served with love can help sustain a child by passing on the caring that went into its preparation. In the ideal, I wonder if food needs to express both good intentions and love to nourish us on the deepest level.
  • What is our responsibility? How much looking away when our children are not eating well is all right, and how much is an abdication of our responsibility? When is giving into their demands for what their friends eat all right and when is it simply surrender? And when is it okay to care a little less when the caring becomes too difficult, or when our ideals and efforts are rejected too many times? As parents, the responsibility for making healthful foods available to our children probably falls to us; if we don’t do it, who will? But, after that, we may need to let go and give children room to express their preferences, respecting the normal push-pulls of early childhood and later peer group pressures that affect what children eat. Maybe our most important responsibility is to focus on eating well ourselves, on embodying the ideal, and trust that, with exposure and gentle guidance, what our children eat will work itself out in time.
  • How much choice do we give our children about what they eat? The answer to this question probably needs to change over the years and with each child. It may be that our role is to arrange our tables so that children, on their own, can reach for and select whatever they need for their growth and nourishment. This would mean filling our tables with healthful options that increase as children grow and then any choice is all right. We decide what to offer and they choose what to eat. Young children might eat only salad one day and soup another, but over a week or so they would likely get the balance of nutrients they need.

It is because I still have questions, and because I still wonder at the challenge of it all after decades of food gathering, cooking, and dishing up food for children, that I can offer this: If feeding a family is a struggle for you, know that it is for most of us. We press on on, not because it is easy, but because we all must eat. When we eat well, our bodies are nourished. When we eat as a family, we are all kept circling in the same orbit. It’s not only the food that works this magic. It’s the food and the talk. The food and the laughter. The food and the encouragement and validation that get dished up day after day. Each one of us, no matter how big or small, deserves a place around the table. To make room is empowering and deems each of us worthy. And making room now is important because the really dependent days of children are few and fleeting. Sports and music lessons and clubs soon narrow our window of opportunity.

In the end, the best way to feed a family may be to care and prepare, and then let go, just as we do when a holiday approaches. Think about how we work to complete all we can ahead of time. We take care of the details that will make the holiday memorable, and then we let go and allow it to unfold, enjoying the experience no matter what happens because we know that we can control our own contribution–what we give to the experience–but we cannot control the outcome. Family meals work the same way.

Our role may be to put in energy and care when we gather and prepare food, at a level that we enjoy and can sustain. When we can’t cook ourselves, we can find sources of good clean food and buy it, and we can try to find pleasure in the process. Without being negative or overly-controlling, we can also set standards that we believe are necessary and true. I am certain of this: if we can find a way to enjoy the time we spend in the kitchen, and if we can keep the struggle away from mealtime, our children will come to appreciate the foods we serve.

In the end, the foods children eat or reject (their autonomy) and what we want them to eat (our agenda) are less important than our willingness to keep at the task: eating well ourselves, offering food joyfully, and letting go of the rest.

Here is a recipe that makes everyone in my house happy, including me. It’s as easy as real homemade pizza can be. It tastes good, and it’s an extension of last month’s post because it’s whole-grain baking that really works. No-Knead Whole-Grain Pizza Crust

Copyright Ellen Arian, Ellen’s Food & Soul