My Italian Experience – Gary Granata
Al Bicerin, located in the old section of Torino Italy, is known for creating the world famous Bicerin, a coffee beverage made with espresso, warm chocolate syrup and topped with chilled cream. This decadent caffeinated delight originated in 1763 when Italian ladies would walk across the small piazza after mass, at the Santuario Basilica La Consulata, and treat themselves to a Bicerin.
The incredible taste of my daily Bicerin and the slow pace of this quaint cafe combine to create the perfect setting to write these blogs, something I am often challenged to accomplish in my faster paced life in the U.S. where “productivity” is the daily mantra. Thus, indulging myself with decadent taste has been the catalyst to slowing myself to a pace that allows me to accomplish more work … kind of an hedonistic spin on the tortoise and the hare.
The references to decadence and hedonism may not resonate with some Westerners as both self-indulgence and striving for pleasure are often considered to be more vices than virtues. Hedonism, a school of thought in which pleasure in the only intrinsic good, is actually central to one of the four major themes of the early Slow Food movement:
“To research and promote the pleasure of gastronomy and conviviality,in a genial and tolerant manner that encourages an approach to food based on the hedonistic advantages of deeper knowledge, the education of the senses, and harmony around the table.”-Carlo Petrini, Slow Food (2003)
The taste of food has become the central focus of my journey to Italy. While I have devoted most of my professional life to the intellectual and scientific study of food and nutrition, I somehow allowed “Good” food to take a backseat to food that is “Clean & Fair.” Curiously, I have been an avid cook since childhood and most of the food I prepare either comes from my own garden or from a local farmer that I have come to know personally. Yet, I somehow grew to take for granted the good taste of food as my food always tasted good, in addition to being healthy and nutritious. Thankfully, Italy has opened my eyes to the importance of taste and how taste plays a major role in sound nutrition and a healthy lifestyle.
I had the good fortune to be a graduate student of Dr. Dan Benardot during his tenure as Nutritionist to USA Gymnastics in the 1990′s. Dr. Benardot’s research with the team demonstrated how eating frequently (every 2-3 hours) and avoiding hunger increased performance and optimized body composition. The proof was in the gold medal when the women’s team stepped onto the floor in Atlanta as muscular dynamos, rather than anorexic pixies, and won by the largest margin in Olympic history.
Dr. Benardot’s research also delved into untangling the French Paradox of why the French have such low rates of obesity while indulging themselves in a diet rich in butter, cream, white flour and refined sugar. The very foods that have been labelled as “bad” in the US where the obesity rate continues to proliferate as an epidemic. In general, Europeans eat frequently and do not skip meals, as is the norm in the U.S. Furthermore, portion sizes in Europe are modest, if not petite, compared to the super-sized bargains in America (Kudos to NYC’s mayor Blumberg for outlawing soft drinks > 16 oz!). So, Europeans indulge themselves more often, with smaller portions of delicious food … which is unfortunately changing with the locust-like invasion of western fast food into Europe.
But, back to taste.
I am completely and utterly satisfied by my daily indulgence of Bicerin, though the serving is a mere 6 ounces. The fresh espresso mixed with warm liquore al cioccolate and topped with cool cream … the real stuff … renders my body and soul blissfully satiated. Each sip is a hedonistic adventure to be slowly celebrated and thereby lingers long after the sip is past my lips. Thus, I have little need nor desire for anything else for the 2-3 hours. At which point, I might indulge myself in a petite plate of thinly sliced meat, or possibly some fresh fruit and cheese, or even a small cup of rich gelato. Good taste comes first in whatever I eat in Italy, and thus I have no need to over indulge … and I definitely have no desire to miss an opportunity to eat something delicious.
Contrast this to Americans in their SUV, pulling up to Starbucks’ drive-thru and ordering a “skinny” super grande frappa-crappa-cino topped with artificial, yet cholesterol free whipped cream. Then proceeding to guzzle the 1,000+ calorie caffeine fix while driving, and likely texting, in rush hour traffic, only to hurriedly arrive at work, often late, prompting the need to work through lunch. No worries, as more caffeine, these days in the form of a sugar-free “energy” drink, suppresses appetite, which is somehow considered a virtue in the U.S. (Note: Don’t get me started on “energy” drinks that contain no caloric energy). If the need arises to leave the office, another trip to Starbucks is a good possibility. Then back to the office to work late, followed by the long commute home. The reward for such and arduous and fast-paced day is typically a couple of lite beers, that are mostly light in taste, which are soon followed by the massive consumption of food-like substances that were either foraged at a drive-thru window or gathered from the freezer and popped in a micro-wave to render it semi-palatable.
The quantity and shear volume of food has increased exponentially through the industrialization and standardization of the food supply. But, taste has fallen by the wayside as quality inherently diminishes when quantity is rapidly increased. Thus, people now eat large quantities of food, now abundantly available, in a futile attempt to satisfy their innate need to enjoy the taste of Good food. The result in America is an obesity rate that has risen from 10% to over 30% in a mere 20 years, and a diabetes rate that now tops 10%. The cost of the obesity epidemic needs to factored into the equation when proponents of industrialized food tout how they have decreased the cost of food and somehow increased the quality of life in America. I have seen only one morbidly obese person in Italy during my two week visit and have yet to see an obese child.
The discussion of quantity versus quality brings to mind my background in drumming. The original drums were nothing more than dried animal skins loosely stretched over hollow logs or simply hollow logs themselves. Yet when struck, the naturally resonant sound of these primitive drums could be heard for miles. The resonance or ringing quality of these organic instruments is due to the overtones, the sounds that continue to emanate from acoustic instruments for several seconds after being played. Thus, drums were commonly used to communicate between distant villages and tribes.
Today’s drums are made from a wide variety of materials, many of which are dense and do not resonate. For example, drum heads are commonly made from Kevlar, a synthetic fiber used to make bullet proof vests. Since Kevlar heads are designed to withstand repeated impacts, they produce a dead and non-resonant sound. Thus, drummers fall into bad habits of hitting them too hard, which often leads to tendonitis and other chronic injuries of the wrist and forearm.
However, this dead drum sound has become the popular norm in professional studios and large concert arenas where microphones are placed less than an inch from the drum head. Sound men, the guys sitting behind the large board of control knobs, prefer a dead drum as it is easier to amplify to loud volumes that are typical at concerts performed in large arenas. The World Health Organization has deemed these loud volumes to damage hearing and be a hazard to human health. Once again, quality is sacrificed for quantity with irreversible damage to human health being the result.
The industrialized western world has given us an abundance of loud music, that is hazardous to our health and totally absent of the resonant quality that moves the soul. The industrialized western world has given us an abundance of food-like substances that is central to the epidemic rises of obesity and related diseases and is totally absent of pleasure of taste that we all desire.
Life is all about choices. I choose to listen to music that naturally resonates and moves my soul. I choose to grow and eat food that provide me with the decadent taste that nourishes me with please. And just like the Italian women of the 1700′s, and the four ladies that sat next to my friend and me yesterday, I choose Al Bicerin.