In Italy, Eating Gets Graded


Photo by Bruce Tuten/Flickr CC

The day my daughter's kindergarten teacher called me into her Italian classroom to tell me my child was failing lunch, I knew I had run up against the great continental culinary divide. As an American married to an Italian, I've lived off and on in Italy for years, in both Bologna and Venice. I'm an adventurous and enthusiastic cook, an impassioned eater, and one of those parents who throw their kids into the deep end of the culinary pool from birth. Sink or swim: eat your fava beans and grilled calamari or starve.

Yet the teacher's face was grave. Lunch, in this Bolognese classroom, was a subject, as important as any other, and though my apple-cheeked five-year-old sat still, said per favore and grazie, ate all her tortellini and strawberry yogurt, she was still failing. At issue, the teacher informed me, was the meat course. My kid was consistently skipping the bistecchina, and something had to be done.

I tried to make light of the situation: after all, the child was polishing off a heaping bowl of pasta (or risotto or soup), followed by salad, fruit, a yogurt and bread. To my mind, we were keeping malnourishment at bay. But this was clearly the wrong tactic. The teacher drew herself up and fixed me with a kindly, but infinitely superior gaze. "Signora," she declared, "the girl is as skinny as an anchovy. If I have to spoon-feed her every bite, she will learn to eat her ciccia."

Parent-teacher nights where 58 minutes are spent discussing the lunch menu, leaving the remaining two for math, science and spelling? Perhaps even Italians could stand to lighten up.

Let me share a secret from this land of olive oil, whole grains, red wine and local produce, this repository of culinary wisdom and common-sense eating: when it comes to kids and food, Italians get a little nutty.

I have no quarrel with teaching kids to eat sensibly and respectfully. On the contrary: it's a crucial life skill, one that offers more concrete rewards--and is certainly more pleasurable to master--than geometry. Would that our own noisy, smelly, industrialized, slop-it-on-the-tray school cafeterias came under such scrutiny. In my younger daughter's Venetian elementary school, children carried in a plate, bowl, cup, silverware, placemat and cloth napkin each day, set the table for lunch and spent a well-supervised hour over their three-course meal: pasta with speck and zucchini; rolled egg and veal loaf with spinach; cheese and apples. What more could you ask? But still: a flow chart for nursery-age children, detailing precisely what went in--and came out--during the course of each morning? Parent-teacher nights where 58 minutes are spent discussing the lunch menu, leaving the remaining two for math, science and spelling? Perhaps even Italians could stand to lighten up.

The obsessiveness starts at birth. Our Bolognese pediatrician advised me to march down to the local pharmacy and rent a scale, so I could weigh my three-month-old daughter after each feeding. When it was time to introduce solid food, he handed me a detailed booklet: I was to begin with cereal, then add olive oil and parmesan; then proceed to vials of freeze-dried, powdered rabbit meat, chopped veal, and puréed pear. Any deviation was considered an invitation to digestive collapse. My undisciplined, American nursing-on-demand habits were soundly denounced: the fresh milk would meet the half-digested milk in the stomach and cause colic. Huh?

By the time my second daughter was born, I knew the score. This nation of svelte, stylish food-lovers has everything to teach us about a healthy and pleasurable approach to the table, from the sensible portions and emphasis on seasonal fruits and vegetables to the customary post-prandial walk. Basic nutritional literacy is almost universal, and while well-fed paunches are often on display, morbid obesity is a rare sighting. But kids? They fatten them up like little Christmas geese. Italy is awash in pudgy kids, locked in battle with their mammas and nonnas over every spoonful, their intake and appetites monitored with laser-like focus. Total strangers feel free to comment on your child's eating habits, and being of good appetite is the ultimate virtue: "How well she eats!," old women will crow, as your kid inhales a cookie on the street. "How skinny she is!," they cluck disapprovingly, as she leaves a few strands of spaghetti in the bowl.

The result can be a concern that crosses the line into comedy. In second grade, one daughter was required to create a lunch chart for each day of the week, with columns representing the first, second and third course, and a fourth to report on table behavior. Each day she was required to rate her intake and manners. After a while, when I'd ask the perpetual parent question--"How'd it go at school today?"--she'd just reel off: "all, all, some, correct." What else could an adult want to know?

All those chubby kids do grow up eventually, of course, and morph into the attractive, unruly, brilliant, and quarrelsome adults that people this most infuriating and seductive of countries. They cook well, they eat well, they hound their own children about every bite they put in their mouths. They give the world gorgonzola di grotta and mozzarella di bufala, risotto al nero di seppia and hand-cut tagliatelle with shavings of fragrant white truffle.

So yes, maybe Italians could stand to lighten up. On second thought, maybe there's something to those flow charts, after all.