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Leather Storrs: Why Italy is the ‘Bull’ of Food

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

 

Photo Credit: JelleS via Compfight cc

I just returned from Italy’s Amalfi coast where I enjoyed spectacular meals in both high and low establishments. The food was clean, simple and profoundly local. As I thought about why the dishes I ate were so satisfying, I was reminded of the following joke.

There’s this big, solemn Bull on a hill. A teenage bull bounds up to the herd leader and says “Hey boss, let’s run down this hill and screw one of those cows!” The bull turns his heavy head to the youngster and replies “Nope. Let’s walk down and screw em all.”

You’ll soon find that this joke applies to all kinds of life lessons, but here’s how it applies to the difference between Italy and America in terms of food: We are the teenager- newly awakened to a world of mystery and pleasure. Italy’s the bull- wise, purposeful and confident.

A torrid tryst with food

America is enjoying a torrid tryst with food, but our exuberance is clumsy and pubescent. Cappuccino potato chips? Give that guy a raise. Ham hock and collard Pho? Sho ‘nuff! Heirloom tomato 11 ways! Oh, is that all? Rabbit belly bacon? Somebody call Food & Wine!

We are frothy with experimentation in the field and on the plate. Right now, from our local farmers I can buy 9 kinds of tomatoes, a dozen different peppers and something called a “cukamelon”. Hey Chef… Gimme a shocker! Ideally, a winky twist on a classic with a goofy ingredient and some kind of pork. As we spin the bottle and mash with whatever the mouth lands on, we prejudice novelty over flavor. 

An understanding of cuisine

Italy has loved its food for centuries. As a result, Italians have an understanding of cuisine that is deep and sure. On my trip, I saw 2 kinds of tomatoes: big, pale, meaty slicers with virtually no seeds and sweet, juicy red ones, the size of a ping pong ball. There was one type of zucchini and three kinds of peppers: red & yellow bells, little green pimentos that are cooked and eaten whole and the spicy Calabrian chili. Caprese salad featured the pallid but delicious slicers, buffalo mozzarella from the foot of Vesuvius, basil, salt, oil and vinegar. We ate it everywhere and it was the same set. It was delicious. Every time.

Admittedly, this was not big city food, and I’m sure there are Italian chefs experimenting and pulling influences from around the globe. But there is also an abiding appreciation and reverence for the specialties of various regions. Any chump can cure a ham, but the hams from Parma and San Danielle are acknowledged as superior, so that’s what Italians eat, up and down the boot. Same goes for Pecorino Romano, Sorrento’s Limoncello, or the balsamic vinegar of Modena. There is a national pride and solidarity that comes from celebrating regional specialties. 

America’s newness and melting pot quality, coupled with Americans’ need to be individuals who get noticed prevents us from ever reaching such consensus. But that doesn’t mean we have to keep fumbling inexpertly with the idea of good, simple food. Slow down. Caress that melon, don’t compress it. 

Leather Storrs is an Oregon native who has served 20 years in professional kitchens. He owns a piece of two area restaurants: Noble rot and nobleoni at Oregon College of Art and Craft, where he yells and waves arms. He quietly admits to having been a newspaper critic in Austin, Texas and Portland.     

Banner Photo Credit: JelleS via Compfight cc (image_cropped)

 

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