Scene– A Milan apartment, 4 people sit around a dinner table, surrounding them are evidences of a good meal, three are Italian, one is American. Beside them sit their tazzine of freshly brewed coffee. The American drinks quickly, she looks at one of the Italians and asks “May I have another?” Her boyfriend takes one look at her and says “In Italia, non si fa così.”
If I had a dollar for every cultural mistake that I have made abroad I would be very rich. Of all my blunders, this story has stuck with me. Especially after reading this post. In the article, the question of digestion appeared three times and it occurred to me that Americans do not often consider digestion when they prepare a meal. Something as simple as coffee is a question of digestion for Italians and their beverage of choice for breakfast, lunch and dinner vary greatly based on this issue.
In Italy, cappuccinos, macchiatos, caffe lattes or any milk based coffee is served almost exclusively for breakfast with a small “dolce.” Yes, that means in Italy you can have cake for breakfast. As a true Northern European/American, this breakfast seems rather scant to me, but perhaps it makes sense. If you are not very hungry, why should they eat a heavy meal? More importantly, a light breakfast means you WILL be hungry at 12 and have space for the 500g of pasta that you consume.
Of course, there is always the local “bar” near your office and you can grab an espresso while still standing. The Italians espresso consumption continues throughout the day. It’s short, it’s quick and it gives you that extra boost that will get you through the next awful meeting. Even at 11PM Italians drink espresso (although they mostly do this if they will be out all night) And they almost always have a caffè at the end of their meals to help you digest.
I’m sure you have heard of the counter-intuitive phenomena that Italians can eat inordinate amounts of pasta without gaining weight. Of course, there are any number of reasons for this, but perhaps one will be that they care about digestion. For them, it’s not about eating quickly, but finding all the correct elements to make the best well-rounded meal. Italians don’t starve themselves, but they don’t over eat either. I have to admit, I often coast through my meals and never wait till I am very hungry before I eat. If you give me a meal at a restaurant, I will probably eat it all and then regret that decision/feel guilty about it/lie on my back clutching my stomach in pain for the rest of the night. Why is something as simple as how will my stomach digest this meal is rarely mentioned when we care so much about our weight and our health? Perhaps we should start eating the way Italians drink their coffee. Think about it…. Italians drink a lot of coffee. But they never drink more than one in a sitting. One is invigorating; two is excessive. I’ve committed many cultural crimes in my life. I have played the ill-informed American who never really learned the balance of satisfied and stuffed in many contexts, but I think learning that restraint allows you to enjoy your meal. Instead of having a full stomach you have a satisfied stomach which is so much more rewarding.
So maybe we should start thinking a little bit more about digestion who know what the results will be. 🙂