Tag Archives: cuisine

Reflections on my very first trip to Italy + What is the point of traveling anywhere anyway?

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“Italy is incredible! I love Italy!” This pretty well sums up every conversation I’d ever had about Italy before going there this spring. Americans are inordinately fond of Italy. The food! The culture! The art! The fashion! The Renaissance! Tuscany! We both put it on a European pedestal and then boast about how we’re a quarter Italian.

I’m a bit contrarian so if everyone loves something, I’ll immediately find fault. So naturally in college I chose to study abroad in Cuba rather than Europe. Though I studied history, I focused on American and Latin American history and indeed only managed to take one European history class in my four years.  Then I moved to Mexico, something that puzzled pretty much everyone I met on either side of the border.

I told myself I’d make it over to Europe once I was established and fabulously wealthy and tired of weathering travel in developing countries. It was partially a way to blunt the pain of prohibitive cost and partially a rejection of European cultural hegemony. I’m a native Californian – I reject East Coast cultural hegemony, much less people putting on airs from across the Atlantic.

This May, I went to visit friends who have been living in Pozzuoli, near Naples, Italy. I knew so little about the country, I couldn’t have pointed at Naples on a map (or Rome or Florence or this fabled Tuscany place). And I had no idea what I was expected to see.

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I have a culture!

Voila! Catherine reveals the perfectly roasted turkey at "American Thanksgiving in Mexico" - no small feat!

Voila! Catherine reveals the perfectly roasted turkey at "American Thanksgiving in Mexico" - no small feat!

I grew up in an America where it was cool to be ethnic. College was one long succession of cultural appreciation events from Passover to Kwanzaa to the annual luau. Everybody got a chance to share their beautiful traditions and it was great – something to celebrate every week.

I remember in 5th grade when we spent months learning about Ellis Island and how people immigrated to America, bringing their traditions with them. What could be cooler than being a hyphenated American? Two cultures is better than one, no?

The thing is, I’m just plain American. I’m not African-American, Mexican-American, Italian-American or Native American. I figured I was probably descended from all those Ellis Island folks, a European mutt like most of my friends, but while home on vacation, I picked up a copy of my dad’s family history and the myth was shattered. Apparently some distant aunt got a bee in her bonnet about joining the Daughters of the American Revolution and she’d done it – she’d proven that we had at least one relative who was here before our country was even a country and who fought to make it one. I’ve heard about east coasters that are very name-centric and who are all about how they were descended from the Mayflower (don’t ask me how that comes up in casual conversation), but I’m a west coaster. Somehow, finding out how deep my roots go on this continent actually made me feel like less of an American than the newcomers who had to risk life and limb to get here, learn English and actually pass the citizenship exam.

A traditional American breakfast: biscuits and gravy. Mmmmmm... (Sidenote: In Cuba, the culinary academy's main courses were "Comida Criolla (Traditional Cuban cuisine)" and... "Desayuno Americano (American breakfast)"

A traditional American breakfast: biscuits and gravy. Mmmmmm... (Sidenote: In Cuba, the culinary academy's main courses were "Comida Criolla (Traditional Cuban cuisine)" and... "Desayuno Americano (American breakfast)"

Somehow, I felt like I didn’t have any culture. It’s not like you can really own being the mainstream. We celebrate Thanksgiving – booyah! We eat chocolate chip cookies and hamburgers! And we play volleyball!

Well, thanks to my travels abroad and my boyfriend (who has never celebrated Thanksgiving), I have realized I actually DO have a culture. He constantly points out to me weird things that I do. Now I can just tell him that they are cultural. Things like drinking tap water, going hiking and composting my kitchen scraps. And about 95% of the stuff on the Stuff White People Like Blog (My boyfriend likes about 40% of the things mentioned and perhaps 10% of the list elicited “Why would anyone ever do that?”).

These cultural differences were hit home by my inability to find certain foodstuffs at the supermarket by my house (El Super). It is an extremely Mexican market which is generally great since it has fresh-made tortillas, a huge produce section and outrageously low prices. However, sometimes you just have to go out of your way to get authentic products from the homeland. In my case, that special place is Ralph’s.

This is my shopping list:

Hummus

Pumpkin pie filling

Brown sugar

Cream of tartar (for making the traditional snickerdoodle cookie)

Cranberry sauce

Stuffing

French bread or any other kind of fancy bread with lots of seeds

Goat cheese or bleu cheese

Shallots

Lemons

Edamame

Asian sauces and sushi-making fixes

Rice for risotto

Fancy mushrooms

Pudding mix

Frozen pie crust

Lousiana hot sausage

Cajun spice mix

Couscous

Canned clams

Worchestershire sauce (For making my favorite: Chex mix)

Graham crackers and normal-flavored marshmallows (For s’mores)

Balsamic vinegar

Sesame oil

Imported beer or microbrews

Perhaps my shopping list kind of borrows heavily from the cuisines of other world cultures, but what can I say? I’m American.

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