Learning to Cope in Tuscany

Ciao, bellissimi!

Greetings from Italy or, more specifically, Florence! Located in the famed region of Tuscany, this city is one of the most beautiful and culturally rich places in the world. And, more importantly, it has the distinction of being the place where a good portion of my family is based.

I know I’ve been MIA for the past few weeks, and I’m sorry for it! But, however, while here I plan to make up for it by taking advantage of this wonderful opportunity in the world of foodie blogging: a trip to Italy, the cooking capitol of the world!

That said, Italy is food heaven for omnivores. As a vegetarian (as I have been for nearly 5 years) it was sometimes hard enough  to find meatless fare, or get locals – particularly my family – to understand my food choices. But as a vegan it has been, as I anticipated, much more difficult. When I refused meat, my grandmother would simply give me fresh mozzarella or a slab or two of provolone, or make an easy frittata (an Italian omelette) full of different cheeses or veggies. Now, she’s more or less dumbfounded about what to feed me.

To fully understand, it is necessary to give some background first on Italian eating habits:

Breakfast is light, and usually centered around coffee/expresso with or without a bit of steamed milk, and some sort of small pastry or light, biscuity type sweet (often dipped in aforementioned milk or coffee). More recently, American-style breakfast cereals have surfaced, and yogurt and fresh fruit are also sometimes eaten, along with some sort of bread/croissant spread generously with marmalade or the ubiquitous Nutella.

Lunch (or “pranzo”) is eaten later in the day here in italy than in America, where the standard lunch hour is noon. Around 1 or 2 in the afternoon, everyone just shuts down to focus on what is traditionally the biggest meal of the day. The idea is that in the middle of the day, when you need the most energy to keep you going, you have the most food. Pranzo is often an hour-plus-long affair, and is broken up into at least two courses. Traditionally, the grain (in the form of a risotto or, most frequently, pasta) is served first, followed by some form of protein, which is virtually always of animal origin. After the meal, fresh fruit or some form of dessert is served.

Dinner is lighter, and is eaten (when compared to American dinners) quite late, anywhere from 7 to 11 at night. It contains the traditional grain and protein, though it is often in smaller quantities and with lighter ingredients. Often, a little cheese, bread, and some form of vegetable (often drizzeled with olive oil) is eaten before a little bit of fruit, and sometimes even expresso, which Italians will drink at any time of day, it seems. (One coffeeholic cousin even claims black expresso at night helps her get to sleep!)

At least in my extended family, snacks (which I depend upon and treat with the same importance as meals, especially after undergoing recovery) seem to essentially be a rarity. I have never seen a member of my extended family eat between meals, with the exception of maybe one or two instances. This is a bit odd for me, as I dislike going 5+ hours without eating, if only because of my metabolism paranoia. I am much happier with a small, frequent meal approach, rather than a stuff-everything-you-can-down-your-throat-now-because-you-won’t-see-food-for-another-seven-hours kind of approach. But I digress.

The real issue here, besides obnoxiously late dinners and the afore-mentioned eating philosophy, is the issue of veganism. I have gone from being simply a liability to being a flat-out lunatic in their eyes. Not only that, but as you can see from the meal summaries above, Italian cuisine isn’t exactly vegan friendly. Even when you get rid of meat, which is tough, dairy products and eggs pop up everywhere and are an expected part of every meal. It’s been really tough to get in enough protein, because my grandmother doesn’t really get the concept of using legumes or beans or nuts in her cooking to add vegetable protein, because she’s so used to depending on animal products for protein. Luckily, I brought a new can of vegan protein powder and a HUGE bag of almonds from the States, and have been snacking on those to at least get my protein in between meals. That, and I’ve been fortunate enough to find Italian soymilk! Check it out:

Between pistachios, almonds, or other miscellaneous nuts at breakfast and mid-morning, 2 ½ servings soymilk a day, protein powder, and whatever legumes or whole grains I can find I think I’ve at least gotten a fair amount in.

But protein isn’t really the biggest issue here – my family is. Their response has been one of horror and even disgust. They literally think I am insane. What hurts the most is that they assume I have no idea at all what I’m doing.  The countless visits to dieticians, the numerous books and research done on soy and calcium and protein is not at all recognized. In fact, I’ve stopped even trying to defend myself, because whenever I mention something, even if it’s true, they just scoff and dismiss my comments. They tell me that I’m ruining my health, that I will pay for my foolishness in my later years, which seems unfair to me, as I have actually done this for my health, not to destroy it. They tell me that I’m going to die.

Fellow vegans, vegetarians, and omnivores alike – help me get through this. Is it possible that all I’ve read was a fallacy? I respect them and know they are just concerned about me, but I don’t appreciate their stubborn, single-minded approach. Do I not have a right to choose what goes into my own body without having to endure the criticism of others at every meal?

We’ll see where I am in 40 years, it’s true. But for now, I’d like to leave you all with some statistics from John Robbins’ incredible Food Revolution that I found particularly astounding:

Countries with the highest consumption of dairy products: Finland, Sweden, United States, England

Countries with the highest rates of osteoporosis: Finland, Sweden, United States, England

Daily calcium intake for African Americans: more than 1,000 mg

Daily calcium intake for black South Africans: 196 mg

Hip fracture rate for African Americans compared to black South Africans: 9 times greater

Calcium intake in rural China: one-half that of people in the United States

Bone fracture rate in rural China: one-fifth that of people in the United States




July 17, 2010. Tags: , , , , . Uncategorized. 1 comment.