Economies are slowly recovering but migration, especially that of children still remains a hot potato to political parties. Language, schooling and peer expectations are all discussed at length, but little is expressed about a child’s cultural food identity. The challenge of children adapting to new food served at for example nursery and school or by the new-best-friend’s Mum is almost overlooked.
My son is British, but the Pasta Machine Kid spent his gestation absorbing sweet snips of peperoncini, truffle pasta and salty ewe cheeses that tasted of sweet dew and wild meadow herbs from sheep grazed high on Gran Sasso mountain tops. The last 18 months of his total 30 in age he’d spent in a small mountain village in Abruzzo Italy, and on work days at a local nursery eating a 3-course traditional Italian style lunch with snacks of fruit, breadsticks and bread, olive oil and homemade cake. Like so many of our Italian neighbours, and millions historically, recession in Italy would be a driving reason to bring us back to our real home.
10,000 Taste Buds to Value
A toddler has 10,000 taste buds, double that of an adult, which explains the face pulling and refusal to eat a humble supermarket refrigerated value egg at Grandmas. It meant that his taste buds were still bright enough to recognise and prefer the taste of eggs from the clutch of the little red hens housed around our village of Bascianella who’d been fed on wild rocket, dandelions and home-grown corn. Each day he’d ceremoniously receive from one of our neighbours the present of a freshly laid egg to carefully carry home and enjoy for his breakfast or an evening frittata.
Bread with Bite
5 months in our new home and eating UK bread remains a no-no (“NO!”). Is it the lack of ceremony that Little A is missing beyond the loose texture of his beloved crusty pizza bianco or an oily but so good frittelle? Our village bread van would arrive and the 2 pre-school children would be given their own roll in a little brown bag to go and munch on with Nonna or an elderly neighbour on the shaded bench. His childminder in the UK considerately buys him ciabatta in an attempt to appease his Italian snobberies but without success! We bake and shop around experimenting on different loaves from supermarkets, bakers, whilst avoiding the suspiciously swollen focaccia that looks like it has swallowed Viagra it’s so inflated. We try the local Italian deli, reputationally one of the best in the South East, but whose bread is too soft, too close in texture to resemble those I know across Italy. Do migrant Italian taste buds weather after 30 years living overseas enough to believe this is now authentic, or is it simply a matter of profit and the Italian baker caters for average though increasingly worldly British taste buds?
The Problem with Olives
More rejection for Grandparents who try hard to accommodate their English boy from Abruzzo, not understanding that briny black olives nor the supermarket olive pot marinated in a spiky overpowering herb essence is like presenting a green monster to eat for their grandson. Soon a little face scrunches up when olives are mentioned; oh to find fleshy water cured olives so good they only need a simple lick of peppery olive oil.
Thank Goodness for the Cheese Man
Cheese …luckily we have a Dutch man who sells incredible cheeses at our local market and seems to have nailed A’s taste buds when we explained where we’d been living. With an acknowledgement of his life before, the cheese man gives him something a little different each time we visit; it’s new, it entertains…we’re back to ceremony once again and a life of not just Pecorino! I nearly whooped with joy when Little A at his first playgroup spat out the creamy, orange cube that some large conglomerate calls cheddar and donates to nurseries on a PR exercise, there was also an inward smile too when told that he’d rejected ‘Cheese Strings’.
Rejection of Kids Menus
We’ve been to a couple of local restaurants claiming to serve Italian where the Pasta Machine Kid has rejected the Vesuvius hot overcooked slurry served on scalding-hot plates. Thankfully he hasn’t had to suffer the wine! With such food I wonder what decade I’m living in, and gasp as I hear locals lauding the chef on the “best Italian food [they’ve] ever had”; is this really what Italian cooks are driven to just 17 miles outside London? Is this the cook’s perception of the English palate, and that digestion is express, each course rapidly pushed onto the table before the previous is finished? Mama sits contemplating what really is the influence of food in media? From now on we’ll have to hunt out and make a list of local Italian restaurants where menus describe pots of honey served with cheese, where there is no mention of a kids menu and the word “doughball” is not even heard sotto voce or seen sotto scritto…
Life wasn’t all la foodie dolce vita. No longer is there the ugly truth of explaining where our neighbours’ bunnies have vanished to nor what an enormous buck is doing to slip of a doe. Despite having a strong belief in nose to tail eating if you’re going to eat meat, being invited to watch turkeys being scalded and plucked in wheelbarrows and listening to the crunch of a chicken’s beak being cut off and made ready for the soup pot isn’t high on my enjoyment register. This is life in rural Italy whether you are old or young and you can’t hide, there is no sentimentality shown where food is concerned. I no longer mentally replace my neighbour’s face with the witch in Hansel & Gretel as I listen to the sad bleets of a lamb fattened in the dark that my little boy used to “baa” to after he was introduced to him, nor do I have to attempt a cheery social smile as we are presented with the newly named tethered calf freshly removed from its Mother for fattening that will move no further in its life than the 2.5 metre rope it’s tied to. None of these experiences created pain for Little A, he watched, he listened, smiled but hopefully they have left an imprint somewhere in his sub-conscious to value the life of his dish and that it doesn’t start on a white meat tray.
Go kindly next time you sigh and tell an ex-pat child or immigrant child to eat up as you think fussy eater. Their combined hyper alert taste buds and the ceremonies they associate with eating deserve more than you simplifying your dishes as the greater and tastier. Ask “what, how & why” for a foodie adventure through a child’s eye.