Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In Italy, we are closer to our food. Too close, sometimes…

Prior to moving to Italy, I spent two of my summers here, working on archaeological digs in Ravenna and Sardinia. My university colleagues asked me about my experience on Italy’s second largest island, and I summed it up by saying, “Well, in Sardinia, you’re a lot closer to your food.” Italy is tough for an animal lover; here, the bunnies and doves and songbirds and in some regions (like Sardinia), even the horses that we so love and anthropomorphize in the US are first and foremost food. I can hardly admire a pretty bird without Paolo saying, “Oh, those are good.” He doesn’t mean good to look at, and he mostly says it to get my goat (though I don’t think they eat goats here).
In the US, mostly because of my love of animals, I was very nearly a vegetarian, though I occasionally ate fish and chicken. (I understand that for real vegetarians, occasionally eating fish and chicken doesn’t count as being a vegetarian. They are absolutely right and I acknowledge my hypocrisy. Now let’s move on.) When I would visit Italy on my own and later to see Paolo, I avoided meat without too much difficulty, though my dinner choices were often limited. This is and was especially true at restaurants, where chicken is not really considered an entree one would seek out for a nice dinner. There are no veggie burgers or vegetable fajitas on Italian menus, though you may see the rare omelet. Mostly, if you want to eat vegetarian, it’s pasta, pasta and more pasta.

But when I moved here and started cooking for Paolo, that meant cooking meat. All sorts of meat. While I might be able to sneak in one or two meatless meals per week (and that usually means fried eggs or an omelet), for him, a meal is not complete without meat. That meant I had to buy meat, touch meat, prepare meat and serve meat. And if I were going to do all of those things, then it sort of just made sense that I would eat meat, too. I still don’t eat rabbit, lamb and most game birds, but fish, chicken, beef and pork are all on my menu now. I would be perfectly happy not eating it at all, or eating it just every so often, but while I got my husband to give up hunting, I’d never get him to give up meat, nor would I try to do so.

This is a lucky chicken; her only job is to lay eggs.

I’ve managed to rationalize my omnivorous habits by reasoning that food animals in Italy have it a lot better than food animals in the US. Particularly if one stays out of large grocery stores, much of the meat one buys here is raised nearby, and most likely the animal lives out in the open air until it is slaughtered. People who raise animals for food keep them in pretty good conditions, even if that’s more out of concern for cleanliness and sanitation than for animal welfare. As my friend Alan likes to say, “In Italy, when you eat a chicken, you know it had a pretty good life for a chicken.” Still, there’s no getting around the slaughtering part, and in rural Italy, that can be a bit too “in your face” for we Americans, who like to maintain our blissful ignorance about how an animal winds up on our plate. 
I much prefer live pheasants to dead ones.
Photo courtesy of http://www.naturephoto-cz.com/

So when I say that Sardinians are closer to their food, the same can be said for all of Italy, at least once you get outside of the big cities. I learned this early on after moving in with Paolo. The chickens I heard happily clucking in the garden below our apartment were not pets, nor were the ducks or geese or rabbits. I’ve walked into Paolo’s mother’s rustica (our future garage apartment while we renovated) to find drops of blood splattered on the floor and a pile of chicken heads and feet on the table. On another occasion, I squawked upon entering Franca’s kitchen, where I saw a beautiful pheasant, dead on the kitchen table, and the back legs of a baby cinghiale (wild boar) sticking out of the kitchen sink. Paolo’s friend Gaetano had gone hunting, and shared the spoils with Franca. OK, so I hate hunting, but these guys eat everything they kill, and nothing goes to waste.
It was with this rationalized attitude that I accepted that we should buy a large quantity of organic beef from a local organic farm. Organic meat is almost impossible to find in grocery stores here, and besides, I’d looked at this farm’s website. The cows and sheep and pigs live outside. They cows eat grass and get plenty of sunshine. They have a good life up until the end, which is quick, if not altogether painless. The 20 kilos or so of beef we ordered arrived already packaged and ready to put in the freezer. The experience was as sanitized and far removed from the slaughter as if we’d bought the meat in the grocery store, except with less guilt and growth hormones.
So when Paolo’s friend Sauro, who works at the farm, called to tell him they had some small pigs ready to slaughter, I thought this too, would be OK. Paolo as well assumed that we’d get our 40 kilo pig just as we had the beef, already butchered and packaged for us.
Except we had snow that week. The truck from the farm was able to take the animals to Orvieto, where by regulation all local animals are slaughtered, but the truck carrying the dead animals could not make its way out the snow-covered strada bianca, or gravel road, to the hilltop farm to deliver the pig. Sauro called to say they truck would instead drop the pig off at our house.
By the time the truck driver knocked on our door, Paolo hadn’t put two and two together, and I know I certainly hadn’t. The driver hauled, first in one half and then the other, an entire pig, split neatly down the middle from toe to tail, and slammed it with a splat across our dining room table. At this point, we were living in the rustica, so the dining room was also our kitchen, living room, bedroom and my office. There was no shutting the door to avoid the glassy stare of the dead pig. On top of everything else, the pig weighed 70 kilo, not the 40 we’d been promised. The table legs teetered under its weight. Then, the driver said he had a dead lamb to deliver to another local client, but he was running late, and could he just leave it with us?
A dead, bisected pig across my kitchen table was already more than I could handle, but a lamb too? No way. I grabbed Daisy’s leash and, averting my eyes the whole time, headed outside with her in the freezing cold, yelling to Paolo something about how he had to get that damn pig and lamb off our dining room table. I vowed not to reenter the rustica until the Damien Hirst sculpture and the lamb were gone.

Art collectors pay big bucks for Damien Hirst's work, like
this bisected pig. I could have made them a deal on ours...
But where do you stash a whole pig?

Just then, our friend Simona, a far more formidable woman than I, passed by in her van, and Paolo flagged her down. They decided to put the pig on the front seat of Paolo’s truck, since it was below 0°C outside, and he didn’t need the truck for work that day. So Daisy and I turned our backs, shivering, as the poor pig got roughly shoved inside the truck and thrown across the bucket seats, followed by the lamb.
I spent the rest of the afternoon inside, thinking about the dead pig and lamb parked outside our front door. It was after dark when our neighbor came to retrieve the lamb from the truck. Paolo moved the pig, with help from his Uncle Aldo, down to our cousin Peppe’s cantina, where they set about butchering it. I went back and forth, hauling freezer bags of pork back to our place. We ate pork for months, at what seemed like every meal, and even Paolo agreed: no more pigs.
As is the case with many people who love animals yet eat animals, I still have an uneasy relationship with meat. I’ve since found a local butcher who raises his own animals in free-range, organic conditions. When you buy meat from him, it’s in a store, neatly packaged in coolers, far, far removed from its source. Am I hypocritical? Guilty as charged. But until I can convince Paolo that we really don’t need to eat meat to stay healthy and satisfied, I just have to stay a little farther away from my food.

In Italy, even fish sticks stay true to the source!


  1. You mean lamb doesnt come from its mother pre-ground and wrapped in cellophane and styrofoam?! UGH! Sometimes ignorance is bliss I guess. LOL

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