Everything I learned about food I learned from a two-year-old

Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love?) had it right — at least the part set in Rome — Italians love to eat. Food is gotten fresh daily, shoppers filling their baskets as quickly as the clerks restock the shelves. Businessmen order their lunches “off the menu” the way they want it —the lunches a long and leisurely break from their hectic day. Restaurants are packed well into the night long after the time most U.S. restaurants close. Yes, Italy is famous for its love of food —fresh food. Still, it was my grandson’s first visit to the U.S. that really brought that all home.

Our son married a Roman woman and he and his young family live in Rome. I was stunned on our first visits after our grandson’s birth to see the care and love that went into feeding him. Every morning my daughter-in-law would go to the local market — what we would call a “farmers” market —for food for his lunch, and every afternoon she’d go again. She used a three-tiered pot. Broth with baby noodles cooked in the bottom pot. Two steamers rested on top of it, the first with fresh vegetables, the second with a small piece of fresh veal, chicken breast, or a premium cut of meat. When everything was ready, they were mixed together, pureed, and poured into a baby bottle with an extra large hole cut into the nipple. This process was repeated for the evening meal with a different selection of vegetables and meat.

The morning after they arrived in our home for that first U.S. visit, my grandson, by now almost two, wandered sleepily into the kitchen.

“Mamma,” he implored quietly, “Ho fame.” I’m hungry. He sat on the little kitchen stool, gazing dreamily into the distance. “An egg, perhaps,” I watched him looking intently skyward, imagining the perfect breakfast. “With a little olive oil… and parmigiano. And afterward, some fruit — strawberries.”

A simple menu, but one filled with promise for this toddler! He knew exactly what he wanted; true, not so different from most two-year-olds. But already he had a basic understanding of the nuances of blending flavors. Already he had a vocabulary for preparing food. Food doesn’t permeate the Italian culture; it is their culture.

As I watched my daughter-in-law prepare the simple repast my grandson had requested, I saw the love in her heart pass through her busy fingers into her child’s food. Perhaps this was the rest of the answer to my unspoken question. Food is the perfect blending of flavors and texture; food is the pause in the busyness of the day; but most importantly, food is love. Yes, Eat, Pray, Love.

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