Archive for October 2010

Comment: The Roseto Effect and Italian Food   Leave a comment

Today a minority opinion on health and diet in relation to some little known studies of an immigrant Italian community in the United States that may inform how we look at and understand immigrant food and the Mediterranean Diet.

The place: the borough of Roseto in Pennsylvania – named for Roseto Valforte in Apulia – with an overwhelmingly Italo-American population. The time: the 1960s through to the 1980s. A team of scholars under the direction of Stewart Wolf began to look at Roseto’s mortality rates. What they found was fascinating. From 1935-1965 Roseto had had strikingly lower number of myocardial infarctions, i.e. heart attacks, than the neighbouring towns of Bangor and Nazareth despite them sharing the same health infrastructure and the same water system. However, from 1965 onwards the numbers of heart attacks in Roseto climbed to meet the numbers of heart attacks found in the previously-mentioned neighbouring communities.

Roseto had an overwhelmingly Italian population, but Wolf and his colleagues did not, interestingly, explain the difference with reference to food. Roseto they claimed was unusual: ‘Unlike inhabitants of most American towns, Rosetans were found to be cohesive and mutually supportive, with strong family and community ties. The men in Roseto appeared to be the unchallenged heads of their households. The elderly were revered and, unlike most oldsters in America, they retained their influence on family affairs. Problems were customarily solved in family conclaves where each person took responsibility and often made some sacrifice. Less intimate, but nevertheless very close, were ties to neighbours and others in the local community. There was great civic pride. Roseto held an enviable record of always ‘going over the top’ in community drives and in providing prompt financial assistance to flood-torn or other disaster areas around the world, especially in Italy. The overall atmosphere of the town was one of mutual support and understanding, and unfailing sustenance in time of trouble.’ (Wolf et al, ‘Roseto Revisited’, 100-101)

And the change? The scholars studying Roseto believe that it was the collapse of this spirit in the early 1960s. ‘The earlier beliefs and behaviour that expressed themselves in Roseto’s family-centred social life, absence of ostentation even among the wealthy, nearly exclusive patronage of local business, and a predominance of intra-ethnic marriages gradually changed toward the more familiar behaviour pattern of neighbouring communities. Roseto was shifting from its initially highly homogenous social order – made up of three-generation households with strong commitments to religion and to traditional values and practices – to a less cohesive, materialistic, more ‘Americanized’ community in which three-generation households were uncommon and inter-ethnic marriages became the norm.’ (Egolf et al, ‘The Roseto Effect’, 1090-91) The result: a rise in heart attacks including among the young.

Of course, it would be possible to begin to attack this model: so many of these points are difficult to measure empirically, some have claimed (unreasonably) that the statistical base was too small. However, the Roseto Effect might be a useful corrective or warning, let’s say, for those who wish to explain life expectancy on the basis of the Mediterranean Diet. How long you live and how you die depends on so much more than just what you put in your mouth… SY

B. Egolf, J. Lasker, S. Wolf, and L. Potvin, ‘The Roseto effect: a 50-year comparison of mortality rates’, American Journal of Public Health 82 (1992), 1089-1092 – read here in pdf

S. Wolf, K. L. Grace, J. Bruhn, and C. Stout ‘Roseto revisited: further data on the incidence of myocardial infarction in Roseto and neighboring Pennsylvania communities’, Transactions of the American Clinical and Climatological Association 85 (1974) 100-108 – read here in pdf

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Slow Food — Ed. Petrini   Leave a comment

Slow Food: Collected Writings on Taste, Tradition, and the Honest Pleasures of Food (Carlo Petrini et al.) – This thoughtful volume avoids boredom by flitting around the world of Slow Food. The book is anthology of the best writing from the first five years of Slow Food Editore’s quarterly magazine Slow. Among the best of the articles are  Piero Sardo’s “Vermouth” and the curious origin of the concept of the Mediterrean diet in Annie Hubert’s “The Convict’s Diet”. ZN

Posted October 30, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: Absinthe at Food Mile Zero   Leave a comment

This morning’s Corriere dell’Umbria (the main newspaper in the Italian region of Umbria) has a story about a festival called “Orvieto OFF”. This vaguely unfortunate acronym stands for “Orvieto Food Festival”, and promises to combine local enogastronomic specialities with “universal food themes.” One of these themes is the idea of a filiera corta, or a short supply chain; in other words, sourcing ingredients from sources as close as possible to the final food product. This article, as well as several others that I found with Google, all mention “zero kilometer apertifs”.

This example, left thoroughly unexplained, let my imagination run. What bitter local ingredients would flavor these locovore cocktails? Where would their garish colors (Italian apertif cocktails must, seemingly by law, have some never-before-seen-in-nature chromatic identity) come from? Could a cardoon give a purple color? A Jerusalem artichoke a nice yellow? I smugly thought of my own yesternight’s nightcap, a smallish tumbler of home-made absinthe.

Despite the inevitable jokes about going blind or going mad, I’ve been telling all my friends about the absinthe. I grew both the hyssop and the wormwood in my garden, which stands about thirty yards as the crow flies from my kitchen table where we brewed up the witch’s mix. But these weren’t the only ingredients: I used star anise, angelica root, and fennel seeds, as well as a bottle of grain alcohol. None of these were labeled for provenance but I suspect none were from within a kilometer.

It’s the same question I’d ask of the kilometer zero apertif-making bartenders in Orvieto: did all your ingredients come from this chunk of tufa rock? I suppose it’s the attempt at shortening the supply chain that’s important, not obsessive local sourcing, but as these phrases are thrown around more and more frequently (“local”, “natural”, “all-organic”) we’d do well to ask some of these questions.  ZN

Posted October 29, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Pizza — Helstosky   Leave a comment

Pizza: A Global History (Carol Helstosky) – Another delightful volume in the Edible series by Reaktion books (together with already published Hamburger, Spices, and Pancake, as well as others forthcoming), small volumes which combine an elegant format and attention to detail with academic excellence in the monograph. Helstosky (author of Garlic and Oil: Food and Politics in Italy) chronicles the rise of the pizza in three leaps: onto the plate in Naples, across the Atlantic to the United States, and from there to a position of global culinary dominance. The book is as entertaining as it is solid.

Posted October 28, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Comment: A Vegetarian Turns To Meat   Leave a comment

And not just any vegetarian: Simon Fairlie, the editor of the British environmental magazine “The Ecologist”. In truth what’s new is not that Fairlie has gone back to eating meat (his vegetarian period was for six years, in his university days) but rather that he has written a book about it. Just out is Fairlie’s new book, Meat: A Benign Extravagance, challenges the idea that a diet with meat in it is necessarily worse for the environment than one based on cereals and vegetables. Ever since Frances Moore Lappe’s Diet For a Small Planet it’s been received knowledge that simply in energetic terms meat is immoral, in that it takes (to use Lappe’s figures) eight kilos of grain to make one kilo of beef.

It’s this figure that Fairlie challenges, saying that it’s based on the use of grain to fatten up cows–which are ruminants, and should be eating grass anyway. Building on a naturalistic argument, Fairlie (who raises his own goats) argues that grass-fed meat can actually be less environmentally destructive than cereal farming, in that a pasture requires no tilling, pesticides, fertilizers, and can actually build topsoil. Fairlie’s critics (friends of his among them) point out that this is fine for grass-fed meat, but that the world’s consumption is satisfied mainly by grain-fed, not grass-fed meat.

Fairlie’s book is not notable for its originality. Both Michael Pollan (in The Omnivore’s Dilemma) and Nicolette Hahn Niman (in Righteous Porkchop) make similar arguments. The novelty is the fact that a former vegetarian (and environmentalist) makes them.

Grazie a Manuel Barbato per la segnalazione.

History: The Great Spaghetti Hoax of 1957   Leave a comment

The following extract comes from Alex Boese’s outstanding Museum of Hoaxes (Orion 2002) and is a reminder of just how alien spaghetti was as late as the 1950s in much of western Europe.

On April 1, 1957, the British news show Panorama broadcast a segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland brought on by an unusually mild winter. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched a rural Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. ‘The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything lie the tremendous scale of the Italian industry,’ Dimbleby informed the audience. ‘For the Swiss… it tends to be more of a family affair.’

The narration then continued in a tone of absolute seriousness. ‘Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.’ Some viewer questions were anticipated. For instance, why does spaghetti always come in uniform lengths? ‘This is the result of many years of patient endeavour by past breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.’ Finally, Dimbleby assured the audience, ‘For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti’.

Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from puzzled viewers. Did spaghetti really grow on trees, they wanted to know. Others were eager to learn how they could grown their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC reportedly [is this really true? ed] replied that they should ‘place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best’. To be fair to viewers, spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s and was considered by many to be very exotic. Its origin must have been a real mystery to most people. Even Sir Ian Jacob, the BBC’s director general, later admitted that he had to run a reference book to check on where spaghetti came from after watching the show. The prestige of the Panorama show itself, and the general trust that was still placed in the medium of television, also lent the claim credibility. The idea for the segment was dreamed up by one of the Panorama cameramen, Charles de Jaeger. He later said that it occurred to him when he remembered one of his grade-school teachers chiding him for being ‘so stupid he would believe spaghetti grew on trees’.

Link to youtube video

Posted October 26, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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Italy for the Gourmet Traveller – Plotkin   Leave a comment

Italy for the Gourmet Traveller (Fred Plotkin, 2010). Plotkin’s Gourmet Traveller has become, since the first edition in 1996, the Bible for the foot-loose hedonist in Italy. As well as seventy odd general pages on eating, drinking and generally having fun in the peninsula the author has put together another six hundred on the best gelaterie, enoteche and ristoranti from the Alps to Palermo. There is something a little obsessive about Plotkin’s work – do we really want to know that the best coffee to be had at Leonardo Da Vinci airport is between gates nine and ten? But there is no other book that comes close to his achievement. And he writes on opera and healthy babies too… SY

Posted October 25, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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