Dear Blog Readers,
In this blog I have allowed myself to be a little fast and free with my stereo-types about Italians – fretful Mammas who spoil their sons, spoiled sons who stay home until they are 40 with their Mammas who iron their undies, crazy cursing drivers, butt-pinching men, big breasted women who serve their philandering husbands …etc. So, I suppose it is only fair that I tell you about some Italian stereotypes of Americans. I am sorry to say but most Italians think Americans are big, fat, junk-food eating slobs.
I repeatedly tell Italians that Americans are not all big and fat and that they should travel to the United States, visit the country and come back and tell me what they think. Italian friends come back and this is what they tell me. “Everything is big in America, the people are fat, the cars are huge, the highways are wide and the parking lots are endless. When you order food at a restaurant the portion for one person can feed a family and when you buy a soda they give you something “jumbo” or “king-size” that you cannot possibly finish.”
One Italian friend explained to me her horror at going to some discount foot store like Costco that sells food in huge amounts, and seeing obese people driving around large corridors on motorized carts, filling them up with huge containers of junk food.
Italians are particularly impressed by the size of American cars. I tell them that many of my Mamma friends in America drive cars that are bigger than my Roman kitchen. Italians drive Fiats, Smart Cars, and even Mini-cars. Yes, there are some SUVs in Rome, but only the richest and snobbiest people drive them. And Romans have tiny kitchens that are miles from their dining rooms. I miss this big American kitchens where there is room for a table and you can sit and eat in the kitchen. Not possible in my tiny Roman kitchen.
Italians tell me that they cannot believe that Americans are constantly eating or drinking. They are amazed that Americans drink in their cars, that American Mammas have special coffee holders on the back of their strollers, that kids snack during class. (By the way, they don’t eat or drink while driving, but for Italians talking on cell phones and texting while driving is considered perfectly normal). Italians have pointed out to me that Americans carry food and eat while they walk, something rarely seen on Italian streets. Italians are disgusted by the American junk food habits and are repelled by doritos, peanut butter, marshmallow fluff, and twinkies. On the whole, Italian food is much healthier, although there is a national weakness for Nutella. My poor sister-in-law had a heart attack when we took her son to McDonalds. At 10-year’s old he had never been to McDonald’s before. He survived and is still thin.
Sometimes healthy Italian eating habits make life harder on a working Mamma. I remember when I first moved to Rome my mother-in-law was dismayed that I would do a week’s food shopping at the supermarket. She thought I should make daily trips to the fruit stand, baker and butcher. What working Mamma has time for that? She also told me “we do not use frozen foods”. She bought me a machine for making fresh-squeezed orange juice for my children every morning (is there any working Mamma ready to get up a half-hour early to fresh squeeze the orange juice for the family? Not me.). She also told me, “there is no need to buy butter, we don’t use it. “ It is true, she doesn’t use butter, just olive oil. Some habits die hard. I’ve been in Italy almost 20 years and I still load up at the supermarket, and I definitely still use butter and frozen peas.
Snacking is not an Italian habit. You don’t see Italians eating on the street or in their car. Italians eat during meal-times, during which they tend to have a primo (pasta course) and secondo (meat course) along with a contorno (vegetable) followed by a fruit and an espresso. No wonder they don’t need to snack. Breakfast is the only small, brief meal. Coffee is taken in the form of an espresso or cappuccino thrown back quickly while standing at the coffee bar (see Coffee Italian Style). Italians do have an official snack time which is the “merenda” which comes around 5pm. The “merenda” helps tie one over until dinner which is between 8-9pm. Italians also do not eat much in the way of dessert after dinner, for example, in our home we have followed my husband’s family tradition of a piece of fruit at the end of the meal. If one wants a gelato, you get it at merenda time.
Speaking of gelato, Italians are astonished at the size of American ice cream servings. I love American ice cream and could probably easily single-handedly polish off a pint of Ben and Jerry’s or Haagen Daz. If you get a couple of scoops in the US, they are big. In Italy they are small.
While I am on the Italian stereo-types of Americans, I must say that many Italians see us as gun-toting cowboys who prefer to send our criminals to death row than keep them in prison. When I try to explain that my state, Massachusetts, has relatively tight gun-control laws and no death penalty, they just respond, “well what about Texas, that is much bigger than your state.”
So…what can I say? Americans are not all gun-toting, fat slobs, Italians are not all mammas-boys and butt-squeezers, but there is a tidbit of truth in the stereo-types.
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.