It was a couple of weeks ago, while re-reading 'The omnivore's dilemma' by Michael Pollan, that I realised how much my relationship with food is influenced by the times I'm living in. In the first pages, Mr Pollan speaks about the sudden disappearance of white bread from the shelves of American supermarkets and sees this phenomenon as one of the first signs of the power of food industries in influencing our dietary choices. It was the beginning of the carb phobia era, followed by the one of sugar and then fat. People started replacing the name of real food products with terms like carbohydrates, proteins, omega 3 and so on, following trendy diets, and buying nutritiously poor products erroneously considering them healthier.
The same thing happened in Italy, although with different times and in a very unique way. This story (or should we speak about history?) has been brilliantly described by journalist Paolo Mieli in his food documentary 'Pane e Politica', aired on Rai Storia (the title means Bread and Politics). I have to thank Vito for making me watch this program, as I found it informative and engaging at the same time and I enjoyed it so much that I decided to share some curiosities with you, who probably don't all understand Italian. As the name of the documentary suggests, a great part of the documentary is focused on the relationship between food and politics, introduced by Orson Welles during his visit to Italy, when he invited Palmiro Togliatti (at the time, head of the Italian Communist Party) to ask him why his party refused the Marshall Plan and convince him to change his mind. I'm not going to talk politics, instead I want to tell you a little more about our cooking programs!
Differently from America, in Italy it was only at the end of the 1950s that the country had an economic boom. Before that, Italians were poor and hungry, a population exhausted by the war. While in America the first supermarket opened in 1930, in Italy we had to wait 1957 and it is not by chance that one of the founders was no less than Nelson Rockefeller, with the Italians Marco Busnelli, the Brusotto brothers and the Crespi family. It was the beginning of the consumer revolution. 1957 was also the year of Carosello, the first space for advertisement on the telly. Please note that very few people had a television (only at the end of the 70s it became a normal fact), so those who had one would host friends and neighbours and watch shows together. Initially television was a social fact.
Programs started in the afternoon and had to be educational. In fact, although Italy has been united since 1861, in every region (and every province and every municipality) people spoke their own dialect and had their own traditions, thus the first aim of television programs was to unify the country. A fantastic show I must mention was 'Non è mai troppo tardi', presented by Alberto Manzi, in which he taught to read and write to the nation! With regard to food, Italians spoke like they ate, thus... in dialect! So, new cookery programs started taking place, shaping our dietary habits and trying to provide people with a trait d'union. Initially, the protagonists of such shows were warm and welcoming women, used to cook with love for their family and friends. These warm housewives were always sided by a knowledgeable male host. For example, 'Colazione allo Studio 7', with Luigi Veronelli and Delia Scala first, then Ave Ninchi, became extremely popular because in addition to the re-discovered recipes, it included interviews with farmers, breeders, fishermen and insights into our territory.
It was a great show and people loved it. The only negative consequence was that people started associating haute cuisine with men, and 'everyday cooking' with housewives (so wrong!). From that moment on, men were seen as gourmets and connoisseur, whereas women were relegated to the home. We can see how the female role started to change in the show 'Sale, pepe e fantasia' (salt, pepper and imagination), where Wilma De Angelis frankly admitted to be hopeless at cooking, but brilliant at presenting. A working-woman, quite able to extricate herself around the cookers... and showing branded products. We are at the end of the 1970s, when most families did own a television and thus tv viewers were considered prospect consumers!
With the 80s, the relationship with food changes further. It was Rosanna Lambertucci with her program 'Più sani e più belli' (healthier, prettier) who associated food to beauty, providing tips and advice for being healthier and looking better with the right diet and exercises. Consider that this woman still sells books and is considered an important food writer in my country (can you believe that?!?). Thank goodness in the year 2000, Antonella Clerici started a super popular program called 'La prova del cuoco' (still on!), re-introducing the warmth that only a woman can have in the kitchen. By the way, the format was the one of the British 'Ready, steady, cook', but adapted to our culture. Antonella has recently left the program, which is now presented by younger and sexier Elisa Isoardi, but I have to say that with her gone, the show has a totally different flavour.
In general, with the advent of social media and an ever more competitive society, men have been put at the centre of attention again. No more housewives or working mothers at the stoves, but muscular and strong (sometimes rude) males. Food becomes a show in itself, it must be spectacular and beautifully plated. Suffice to think about cookery competition shows like Masterchef and company. The act of cooking seems to have lost the genuine, pure love for local, seasonal food. Social media have also started the phenomenon now named food porn. Just log into your Instagram and look at all those beautiful pictures, in which ingredients are often associated for their colours rather than for the final taste!
I am myself a victim and a perpetrator of this image-focused world, and I cannot help notice that a huge part of food photography consists in either fake foods (no, the ice-cream isn't really melting ... and btw, it's not ice-cream at all) or mouthwatering and fattening foods, mainly cakes with colourful frostings, burgers of all types, and dripping cheese. What's funny is that this obsession with food and food images is taking place when most people seem to be constantly dieting and when inviting different friends for dinner can become a daunting experience (maybe one is vegan, another follows a paleo diet, and so on...).
As for myself, I like to think that I follow a flexitarian diet and practice natural cooking, which for me means: eat local whenever possible, eat the seasons, eat the rainbow. As my grandmother used to say, 'a little bit of everything in moderation, mainly greens and grains'. So, before saying goodbye, I want to share a very simple recipe with seasonal ingredients: carrots! Because I have been speaking about pretty foods, I opted for the so-called rainbow carrots. I chose them because in addition to being beautiful, they are also healthy and exquisitely tasty! So, buon appetito and let me know if you enjoyed the post.
RECIPE: ROASTED RAINBOW CARROTS WITH HONEY AND LEMON
Level: easy Prep. time: 5 minutes Cook time: 50 minutes
6/8 rainbow carrots
3 teaspoons honey
extra virgin olive oil
mixed seeds (I used pumpkin and chia)
1) Pre-heat oven at 200°.
2) Squeeze the lemon juice and combine with the honey and the olive oil.
3) Peel the carrots and slice lengthwise, put in a baking pan and cover with the liquid.
4) Bake at 180/200° for about 50 minutes. When ready, grind some pepper, top with seeds of your choice and serve.
Excellent with roasted curried potatoes and my special chickpea hummus.