By Gianluca DeBlasio, Ezine.
The air outside was warm and you could sense the coming of summer. It was lunchtime, and the sun was at its height. Not a soul to be seen. Even ghosts stop to have lunch in Southern Italy!
The table was set. The colors of that Mediterranean land lay on that table. Large fresh green olives, freshly picked tomatoes dressed with oregano and olive oil, thinly sliced fennel with a pinch of pepper, succulent slices of home made Neapolitan salami accompanied by exquisite mozzarella made from bufala milk. That was the antipasto (starter), as they say down South per “aprirti lo stomaco” (Open your stomach).
As I gazed through the window, I could hear a voice screaming from the kitchen next door. It was complaining about the Parish Church Festa planning committee. “No one respects our Sainted Protector anymore, this year's fiesta was disgusting. I bet you they stole the entire offerings, those thieves. Only God knows what they will do with our money.” Life in a little town is a mix of scandals, conspiracies and a lot of invented stories. The Paesani (villagers) have to kill time somehow.
As I calmly ate that Godsent food, an old woman holding two plates came in. She was slim, with a ginger colored perm and wearing thick eye glasses. That was my grandmother, 80 years old but looked 15 years younger. At home, we used to joke that she would never die. She was healthy, energetic, sharp, and knew all villagers' business. As she kept complaining – this time about her neighbor who she believed had a lover – she laid a plate in front of me. It was a picture. Freshly made gnocchi – she would wake up at the sound of the rooster to make them – in a San Marzano (plum tomatoes) sauce, with leaves of basil freshly picked in the back garden. All washed down by a beautiful homemade wine. An apple to clean your palate followed by an espresso coffee -with no sugar, of course. That lunch was nature, flavor and simplicity all in one. Everything we ate was grown at a walking distance from where she lived.
Like everyone of her generation, my grandmother lived in symbiosis with Mother Nature. She ate what was available. She adapted her cuisine to the seasons. She treated her body in the same way a model does. Not too much of anything. There was no binging – apart from Sunday lunchtime: “even God stopped on Sunday, he must be celebrated.” She kept track of what she was eating. She led a well-balance nutritional diet. But, she had no idea of what the word “diet” meant. It was just the way she ate. Her generation exchanged food in a sort of barter system. If one had a wood oven and made bread, they would make extra for the neighbor. The neighbor would in his turn give wine, tomatoes or whatever he had in the vegetable garden.
As for the food that the west had brought on her table, well that was a porcherie (filth). Grandma would shake her head to a Coca-Cola advert. She even went as far as to say “I would rather God take me than eat that porcheria” – referring to a hamburger. Processed food was nonexistent and pesticides were unknown.
If my grandma was still alive, I try to imagine her living in a big city like New York. I picked up an article I read the other day, “Tips for avoiding genetically modified food”. The article pointed out that every food we buy has a five-digit code. Some start with a 5, those are the GMO, those with a 4 are the conventional and finally some with 8. Those are the organic/GMO-free. I could see her asking me “why the hell are you labeling food?” After which she would walk directly to the US Senate “to have a word.” We live in a time when we have to call our supermarkets Whole Foods, because at least they give us a chance to live a few years longer. We also live in a time where 99% of the population cannot afford to shop in those supermarkets. Instead, all they have left is to pray that human greed will not go that far.
Even the way we eat has changed. Today we need an app to track what and how we eat. I can imagine her staring at me, after installing a healthy app on her iPhone. “So now I need a computer to tell me what to eat? I am not decrepit yet, you miserable boy”. She ate as she spoke. “An apple a day takes the doctor away.” Apples help with diabetes, reduce cholesterol, helps the health, and retains body in your body. She used only olive oil as a dressing: “All you need is one spoon of olive oil a day.” It has been proved that the oil helps with good cholesterol. She had a glass of wine a day. She liked to remind me that “It is good for your blood, child”. This is true. Wine – without excess- is an antioxidant. She used to get her fiber from hazelnuts. She got her iron and magnesium from wild greens. She used lemon in salad dressings, lowering the glycemic load of the entire meal. She loved beans, especially fava beans. She ate meat only once or twice a week. She stayed away from salt and sugar. If she snacked, she had some fruit. I wonder what she would think about a healthy snack bar. She ate pasta, but in a regulated manner. When my mom cooked, grandma would shout at her if there were too much pasta in her plate. The app was in her head. She followed her protein and carbs load meticulously. She ate slowly. If I asked her to speed up, she would lose her temper then cry out “What is this? A race? When you eat you fight against evil. Eating in a hurry affects your ability to digest.”
I would laugh when my grandmother used her food quotes. I used to think she did not know what she was talking about – and that I did. Then I read a book: The Blue Zones, Second Edition: 9 Power Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who've Lived the Longest. Dan Buettner, the author, went on to research how the healthiest people in the world lived. He called them the Centurians. There are only 5 places in the world with high concentrations of 100-year-olds and without serious health issues. He located them in Ikaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan), Ogliastra in Sardinia (Italy), Loma Linda (California) and Nicoya Peninsula (Costa Rica). That book made me think back to grandma and her habits. Turns out that she wasn't that crazy after all.