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Italians Are the Original OrganicsDiscover how our people were ahead of the times with their big vegetable gardens and desire to live off the land and know where their food came from
Our people were organic loving, tree hugging, naturalists long before it was trendy. People in America these days – especially parents of young children – are constantly trying to convince others to purchase organic fruits and vegetables, grow a garden, make homemade meals, and sit at the dinner table together as though these are new ideas they invented yesterday. While I applaud their efforts, Italians (not to mention others in Europe and abroad) have been carrying on this kind of lifestyle for centuries.
Living off the land is still very much a part of life in Italy, especially in the south. Part of the reason is a practical one. It's cheaper to grow your own herbs, vegetables, and fruit than it is to rely on others and have to buy them. Part of it has to do with the culture of cuisine. Food is life and love in Italy, so the freshest ingredients are the only acceptable ones. Besides, Italians, by nature, are conspiracy theorists (yes, the entire country) and they don't trust anyone but themselves to do a job as important as growing the food that nourishes them.
In Italy, though, you're not going to find Whole Foods or anything like that. Sure, there are supermarkets now, and many of them are chains. But people still tend to go to a separate butcher for their meat, a fisherman for their fish, and a fruits and vegetable vender for anything they're not growing themselves.
In Ischia, a small island off the coast of Naples that is home to my ancestors and to me (at least for a couple of months each year), some of these fruits and vegetable growers stand on the corner and sell whatever they just harvested. Everything is seasonal and couldn't be fresher. They are willing to haggle with you to boot.
Then, there are larger shops, mostly run by families who have been growing their own produce to sell for generations. Often, they know other local growers, whose goods they sell. You can think of these places as permanent farmer's markets, and they just sell whatever is in season at the time.
But you can reach out to them for things that are a bit more exotic, too. For instance, I once had one of the fruit and vegetable stand owners seek out butternut squash in October for me. Although it's not easy to find in Italy, it is sometimes available from a greenhouse in your nearest city. I've gotten sweet potatoes that way, too.
Italians want to know what they're putting into their bodies. So, they also head to a butcher with a good reputation, whose meat often comes from animals raised locally. You call up your butcher and ask him for whatever you want to make for Sunday dinner. Often, this is decided while on the phone, when he offers recommendations based on what's available.
On the island, rabbit is the principle dish. You actually call up the family down the street that raises young rabbits to get yours. You may kill the bunny yourself (and I've watched more than my share of people do this both in the States and Italy over the years) or have them do it for you. The thing is you want to know it's fresh. When family and friends give each other rabbits as gifts (and they do this often), they offer up a live rabbit to prove its freshness.
We've had family friends kill the rabbit in front of us to prove this (which I honestly could have lived without seeing). And my father took pictures of my brother and I holding a rabbit that we thought was our pet. The next day while we were eating rabbit, my father told us that our "pet" ran away to join the circus. It never occurred to us – at 3 and 4 years old – that we were actually eating our "pet" in that very moment.
While I can do without seeing the rabbit die, I am all for eating it in the traditional red sauce with white wine and garlic. One of my favorite parts (and my son's to be honest) of the Italian organic lifestyle is getting fresh eggs from chickens. This is the one thing we never attempted to replicate in our home in the States. And the fresh eggs never have to be refrigerated and taste absolutely delicious. They're a bit lighter than the ones we know in the States. Their yolks are almost red as opposed to yellow.
My family – in Italy and the United States – has always had its own garden, made homemade wine, made conserva for sauce, and ate together (with the immediate family every weeknight and with the extended family as often as possible on Sundays). Indeed, we were the fruits and vegetable sellers and homemade wine makers in Ischia once upon a time. Today, many of my relatives, including my father, make their living as landscapers.
Sure, there are fights about whose tomatoes are redder and sweeter and who has the best system for watering the garden. But it's worth it. After all, you always have basil on hand and your food tastes better than everyone else's.
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