What is it that’s so popular about Italy? Possible answers include the language, the art, the FOOD. Luckily for U of M students, the Learning Abroad Center offers a May seminar that focuses specifically on Italian cuisine and the processes by which it is produced. Led by CFANS professor Dr. Mike White, “Sustainable Food Systems of Italy” takes students of all majors on a delicious gastric journey through Italy. The seminar will next be offered in May 2014.
If you’d like a taste of the feast, check out this reflection piece and photos by Carly Hall, a senior majoring in environmental science, who went on the trip in 2012.
“When I first heard that I was headed to Italy, I told all my friends I was going there to eat. While this was partially true, reflecting back on the trip, I’ve realized that what I’ve done there was much more than just eat. I’ve traveled abroad the first time, I’ve met some great people both American and Italian, I’ve experienced Italy’s food system firsthand, and most importantly, I’ve learned a lot about not only the Italian culture, but also my own culture.
Before the trip and when I first arrived I was very overwhelmed. I thought that everything was bigger, better, more beautiful than the United States. I wondered why we couldn’t eat dinner late at night or why we didn’t charge for plastic bags at the grocery store. As I stayed longer and started to experience the various interactions with Italians that I described before, I realized that Italy wasn’t better. It was just different. There are plenty of things Americans enjoy that Italians don’t and the reverse is true as well. I witnessed how being respectful or honest or any other way that we ought to treat each other is a universal idea.
I’ve noticed many differences in Italian food culture compared to American, but similarities are also there too. One of the biggest distinctions between the two is attitude. Italians view meals as a very social activity. You stay a long while and through many courses. Eating alone at a restaurant is not normal, and often Italians would invite lone diners to their table. I think the United States is different because our culture is generally more rushed. We do not want to be inconvenienced by long meals or we don’t have the time to cook. But similarly, I think both cultures understand the importance of service. Americans appreciate an attentive, friendly server. In Italy, it’s a little different, but overall servers are very warm to customers and do their best to make them feel at home. In terms of food production, this is where there is more of a discrepancy. Italians are much more involved with who producers their food, where, and how. I’m amazed at how much the Slow Food movement has affected food culture. If farmers are not growing organically, it is often for a good reason. In the United States, however, we are restricted to one or two kinds of produce to choose from in our three or four kinds of grocery stores. I am beginning to see changes, though, from the U.S. I think many are becoming more aware of the rising food movement happening here.
Much like the U.S., Italy has different regional foods, but on a smaller scale. Sicily was abundant with fish and citrus, but a short plane ride to Rome revealed another food system with much more pasta and chicken. Unlike the U.S., though, it was hard to find foods from another region. If you don’t enjoy seafood and you’re in Sicily, don’t expect much food from Tuscany to make its way on the menu anytime soon. In the U.S. it’s extremely easy to find a TexMex restaurant on the same block as a fried chicken restaurant. I would guess that it makes sense in Italy to keep local foods local, where in the U.S. we have the infrastructure and large industrial farms that are capable of delivering anywhere in the country.
Visiting Italy was one of the most impactful experiences of my life, without a doubt. I feel like I’ve learned so many things and met so many unique people. I definitely want to return to Europe. This trip has shown me how easy it is to personalize your experience just by looking into one cultural niche, in this case, food. You can be sure that the next time I visit another country it will be to study its food system.”