Craving Flavor

New studies every year show that Americans are becoming fatter and fatter. It’s something Europeans remark on every time they travel to the US (and Canada): “I saw more truly obese people in one trip to the supermarket than I’ve seen in all my life in Italy!” an Italian friend said to me.

Conversely, Americans are amazed that Italian food is so wonderful, and Italians eat so much of it, yet there are relatively few overweight people here. What’s the secret?

I think it’s the quality of the food. In Italy, the things that are good for you (fruit, vegetables, fish, pasta, bread, lean meat) are full of flavor, and taste wonderful with very little alteration. A salad gets a dressing of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, because that’s all it needs – you don’t want to drown the natural flavors in heavy, globby sauces. Meat and fish are lightly grilled and served with a squeeze of lemon juice, maybe a dash of olive oil. Pasta is accompanied by rich sauces, but only enough so that the noodles are coated lightly – not swimming. You might have a spoonful of sauce left in the plate when all the pasta is gone, just enough to mop up with your bread and relish to the last drop.

In America, fruits and vegetables have been bred to be transported. They have to survive the journey in trucks from California to Maine, and still look good on supermarket shelves when they arrive. As far as the producers are concerned, flavor is unimportant. American consumers have accepted this logic for years, buying for looks and apparently not noticing that their food has almost no flavor.

Picture the average supermarket tomato in America: it’s large, evenly-shaped, firm, shiny-skinned, in color a pale pinky-orange. The flesh inside looks like crystals of pinkish ice. And the taste? A mouthful of cold, dull mush.

On my first visit to Italy, Enrico (now my husband) and I visited a friend in Firenze, who took us to eat at a workers’ restaurant. The food was simple, but very good. Enrico was amused by the irony of an American capitalist eating lunch in a hotbed of communism. I was mesmerized by the tomatoes. It was summer, the height of tomato season, and these tomatoes were so red they were almost fluorescent (to match the politics, perhaps). And the flavor, ohmigod the flavor! I ate a huge plate of sliced tomatoes with just olive oil and a pinch of salt.

Between 1994 and 2001 I lived in Italy but travelled to the US a great deal, sometimes staying for extended periods. Every time I was there, though I ate portions that seemed normal for me, I gained weight. When I was able to cook, I tried to reproduce the simple meals I make in Italy, but had only limited success.

I realized that I was eating more fried and sweet foods, and heavy sauces and dressings, than I ever did in Italy, because I longed for flavor. We all crave tasty food, and find it more satisfying, portion for portion, than dull food (if this weren’t the case, we could all live on crackers and oatmeal). When the foods that are good for us don’t satisfy our cravings for flavor, we dress them up with sugar and fats, to keep our tastebuds happy. Thus we get fat.

Is there a solution in reach of American consumers? Probably. As a first step, Americans are already becoming more food-conscious, more interested in flavor and quality, and willing to pay for it. Farmers’ markets are available in many places, and are usually your best bet for finding truly flavorful fresh produce. Once found, resist the urge to dress it up or drown it; learn to like vegetables the way God made them.

Yup, that’s my lesson for the day: eat your veggies.

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