s an American who has lived in Italy for nearly a decade, among the biggest daily challenges I still face is just holding a U.S. passport. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the range of “American” stereotypes as seen by Italians, let me spell them out:
— We’re loud;
— We drink too much;
— The girls are easy;
— We’re overly polite;
— We not only eat unhealthy food but we cook badly too.
True, Italians face their own international stereotypes, namely pizza, pasta and Mafia. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s recent trials and tribulations have also given non-Italians plenty to sneer, snicker and whisper about.
But let’s get back to the American side. I have no qualms in admitting that there’s some truth to the labels Italians apply to Americans. Stereotypes are usually built on a layer of truth, even though it’s usually exaggerated one. At the same time, if I don’t point the Mafia finger at Italians, why should they point the “she-can’t-cook” finger at me?
Whenever I’m out to dinner with new friends or my husband Fabio’s colleagues, the subject of food and cooking inevitably comes up. I say “new friends and colleagues” rather than “friends” because Fabio’s true friends tossed stereotypes out the window ages ago. They’re the ones who have actually tasted my cooking (wink, wink), and who don’t say, “Wow, it must have been really difficult to for you to adjust to the food here since all you guys eat over there is eggs, bacon, hamburgers and hot dogs.” I confine myself to a big roll of the eyes.
Most of the people who come up with bacon and burgers line have never been to the United States, and I know it. At that point I have two choices, depending on my mood. The first is a sarcastic scolding them and follow-up lecture on the variety American food. They second is to offer up a sweet smile and tell them how nicely I’ve adjusted the Italian diet. I’ve decided on a mixture of both.
“Well,” I reply to the burger brigade, “America is pretty much of a Melting Pot by now. We have so many different cultures blended into one…” and I start to list cultures and nationalities by cities or states. In Miami, we have Cubans, Haitians, South Americans, and so on. In New York, we have Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Italians. In California, there are Mexicans, Persians, and Asians.
“Food,” I continue, “will be heavily influence by the culture that’s present in the place you go.” Yes, there are eggs, bacon, toast and burgers. But not every day. And not for everyone.
This usually produces a long pause as they process the alien information. The next step is question time. This usually starts with someone looking at Fabio and asking, “Well who cooks at home? Fabio?”
He patiently and prideful indicates me.
Ahhhh. Another long pause.
“Well, what do you cook? American and Mexican food?” someone may ask.
“Mostly Italian,” I reply. After nearly nine years, I tell them, I’ve (amazingly) picked up on a recipe or two.
Fabio then goes on to say that we eat mostly Italian food at home and international cuisine only when we go out. To those who murmur, “andiamo bene…”, a not-so-coy way of pitying the poor Italian man who has to eat his native food cooked by an American woman, Fabio always rallies — in his own way. “No, really. She’s actually a great cook,” he says. “She learned a thing or two from the women in my family. But the rest, she’s managed on her own.”
No, I’m not Emeril Lagasse or (Rome-born) Giada De Laurentiis of Food Network, but I can hold my own. Does that put a period at the end of the food sentence? Not on your life. There’s always some one who’ll round it out by saying, “And the rest of the time, you make hamburgers and hot dogs?”
Pizza, pasta, and Mafia, right?