Recently whilst on vacation in Tuscany, in a quaint little roadside restaurant (as one does in Tuscany) I ordered my dinner as follows: “Vegetarian spelt pasta, with a side of spinach.” Noticing that the spinach was on the back page of the menu prompted me to confirm with the waiter that the dish could arrive at the same time. An Italian friend dining with us started giggling uncontrollably and when she explained what I meant to the waiter, he instantly glanced at me swiftly side ways with sheer shock and a comically raised left eyebrow. I felt somewhat in the middle of an Italian sitcom: the one where the tourist comes in… and orders her pasta with spinach. No one in immediate company could explain why my food faux pas happened. So I went about asking Italian friends over the coming days, what it was that I had exactly done wrong. A lot of them gave me equivalent looks to that of the waiter, all of them were under 35 years of age, but none of them could give me an answer.
We all know that food culture is Italian culture: they live it, eat it, breathe it, speak about it, then eat some more. What I found intriguing was that my friends could talk about political change (Italy currently has no government), the Euro crisis that is crippling them, and of course all sorts of other things, but no one could tell me why the hell I wasn’t supposed to eat my spinach at the same time as my pasta! Which prompted me to ponder the depths of food cultures, deciding there is something charming yet frustrating about this timeless food custom. To do things that way because they always have been done so without questioning it is one of the most frequent cultural habits we encounter (so much so we don’t question that things need questioning) and pretty much defines our cultural norms. With food this is ever so frequently the case. It shows the strength of such traditions that in Italy younger generations still know these unwritten rules and abide by them so rigidly, which gives me hope that the joys of the cuisine will continue. And just as you notice more about your own culture as you do about others when you travel, I realised not for the first time that in New Zealand we lack these layers of food culture: caring for what is being eaten and the way it is being eaten. Simultaneously I value the advantages of coming from a relatively open minded and new food culture – in New Zealand our mainstream food can only really be described as something of a modern fusion. There certainly is room to learn from both: traditions with flexibility and openness? Perhaps it’s a case of the spinach is always greener in this instance, even if it comes a bit later in the meal than you would expect.