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Vats of sauce, tiramisu, cannoli and pizzele’s: My food continuum

I don’t quite remember when my relationship with tomatoes began, but my earliest memories were around 4 or 5, watching my Italian aunt cook bucket-loads of sauce.  My aunt was the dearest soul on the planet–clearly a favorite aunt.  She was silly (every kid loved her), incredibly fun, generous, lively, and a great cook.  She never really seemed like an adult to me.  Perhaps it was the fact that she stood only 4′ 11″ tall.  However, as short as she was, she was near as wide.  If oompa loompa’s had been written about back then, I am sure that I would have assumed her to share their DNA.  What I didn’t know until I was in my late 40’s, is that my aunt had horrible food allergies.  In addition to obesity and food allergies, she also had a lot of rashes, which were also as a result of her food allergies.  Sadly, she never did deal with any of these issues.  It then was no surprise that she ended up with diabetes and lived in a continual down-hill health spiral until her death.

I frequently spent the night at her and my uncle’s house.  You name it, she had it, not only was her pantry filled to overflowing, they had a lot of money, no children (I was like her kid), and she didn’t seem to know the word, “No.” Oh yea, it was my favorite place to be!

The truth is, I learned how to cook Italian gravy (pasta sauce) and Italian desserts from my aunt.  While my father was an even better cook than her, she had that motherly patience to walk me through the process in the kitchen. Year after year, month after month I would hang out with my aunt and learn traditional Italian cooking–Chicago style.

Unlike my parents, my aunt was a queen at making famous Italian desserts like: Tiramisu, cannoli’s and pizzelle’s, and she made them frequently.  Tiramisu, also known as “Tuscan Trifle,” the dessert was initially created in Siena, in the northwestern Italian province of Tuscany. The occasion was a visit by Grand Duke Cosimo de’Medici III, in whose honor the concoction was dubbed zuppa del duca (the “duke’s soup”). The former duke brought the dessert back with him to Florence. In the 19th Century, zuppa del duca became popular among the English intellectuals and artists who lived there Consequently, it is also known as zuppa Inglese. They took the dessert to England, where its popularity grew. Zuppa del duca eventually made its way to Treviso, just northwest of Venice, in the northeastern province of Veneto. Treviso is best know for its canals, frescoes and Tiramisu.  Of course, it gradually made its way to the United States via Italian immigrants.  Traditionally, Tiramisu is a pudding-like dessert, usually consisting of sponge cake (ladyfingers) dipped in a liqueur, then layered with grated chocolate and decadently rich custard.  Originally, the custard was somewhat loose, but it has changed over the years.  In fact, there are numerable variations on a theme.

I honestly did not have a favorite of these desserts, but the pizzele is probably the least rich and least fattening, since it doesn’t have any custard or creme filling.

Cannoli are actually a traditional Sicilian dessert, originating in Palermo.  My family is not Sicilian, but  hails from Campobasso, which is located in the Molise region of the Italy.  At one time Compobasso was a part of two mountainous regions (Abruzzi and Molise) that were joined as an administrative district under the name Abruzzi e Molise but now separated, extend from high in the Apennines to the Adriatic coast.  However, cannoli’s have become a very popular Italian dessert.  These little deep-fried shells, filled with a mixture of eggs, sugar, ricotta cheese and chocolate were a temptation to all who tasted them.

Pizzele’s (Italian wafers) were a common mainstay in my aunts cookie jar.  The name comes from the Italian word, “Pizze,” which means round and flat.  In some parts of Italy, especially among the upper class, the irons would be made with the family crest on them, and would be passed down to each generation.  While I don’t have an iron with our family crest on it, I did get my grandmother’s iron, and made these on special occasions and holiday’s for my own children, family and friends.

Pizzele
So…whenever I stayed with my aunt and uncle, my aunt and I primarily hung-out in the kitchen making vats of tomato sauce for a wide array of Italian pasta dishes and baking rich Italian desserts.  Julia Child wrote about “The Joy of Cooking,” but my aunt was Julia Child x 100!
Keep in mind, I was (as I am now) allergic to wheat, corn, dairy, etc. According to my allergist, you never really grow out of chronic food allergies.  So, once again, the foods I consumed were setting the stage for weight gain, rashes, immune system issues, and hormone imbalance.  “If only” I Knew then what I know now…things would have been played out MUCH differently.
I recently came across an article online called, “Are Your Food Allergies Making You Fat?  It described so many of the things that I’ve gone through to a T.  Dr. Mark Hyman reveals that food allergies and inflammation cause obesity.  Food allergies cause digestive disorders and inflammation.  It’s a vicious cycle. He suggests the following three steps:
  1. Try an elimination diet for 3 weeks. Cut out the most common food allergens, including gluten, dairy, eggs, corn, yeast, and peanuts. Some people are sensitive to soy, so you can also cut that out.
  2. Eat a whole-foods, plant-based, high-fiber diet. This is essential to feed the good bugs in your gut and to provide the nutrients you need to functional optimally.
  3. Take probiotics daily to boost the healthy bacteria in your gut. Look for those that contain 10 billion CFU of bifidobacteria species and lactobacillus species. Choose from reputable brands.
Essentially, this is precisely what I did when I first found out that I had chronic food allergies.  I eliminated the foods not just for 3 weeks, but for a full year.  Because I went through allergy testing, I knew what I was allergic to, so there was no guessing game.
Hence, my Italian diet was a culprit for ill-health.  It’s not hard to know that desserts like:  Tiramisu, cannoli’s and/or pizzele’s are not healthy, but pasta?  Tomato sauce? Steak?  Cheese?  Bread?  The list seemed endless.
Tiramisu
Of course, the big question in my mind was, “What in heck do I replace all of this good-tasting food with?  What was left?  My journey had only began… Now 10 years later, I am still on the road to redemption.

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.” – Moliere

Cannoli


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What do you mean I can’t eat polenta?

Imagine my surprise, to find out that 80% or more of what I had been eating all of my life, I was allergic to…The doctor laughed at me after I got upset over being allergic to corn.  He said, “Most people cry when they find out they can’t have chocolate.  You were upset over polenta!”

Of course, as time went on, and I began to research corn a bit, I discovered that it isn’t just the allergy factor.  Corn, because of the way it’s been genetically modified poses a problem.  Corn is cheap to reproduce, and it’s in EVERYTHING!  Our cattle, chickens, hogs, and even our cats and dogs eat it… and in the form of corn syrup, it’s actually cheaper to use that sugar.

However…cheaper is not always better.  Perhaps the old saying, “You get what you pay for” is true.  Nutritionists claim that obesity, which is currently a rising epidemic in the U.S. has been affected by corn and all of its modifications.  By the way… it’s also affecting the quality of the meat; it’s become fattier.

According to Time Magazine, “From 1972 to 2002, the amount of sugar and syrup produced annually per American grew 21%, from 104 lbs. to 126 lbs., according to the Department of Agriculture. In that same time period, the percentage of syrup sweetener in that total grew from less than 1% to nearly 50%.”

Ouch!

Dr. Mercola would have to agree.  He says, “Pundit George Will has joined the ranks of those who have noticed that the U.S. government’s treatment of corn is wrecking the health of Americans…Rates of chronic diseases like cancer and Type 2 diabetes are much higher today than they were in 1900. Type 2 diabetes is a $100 billion a year consequence of, among other things, obesity related to a corn-based diet. Four of the top 10 causes of American deaths — coronary heart disease, diabetes, stroke and cancer – have well-established links to diet as well.”

Of course, since I am allergic to corn, this should have no barring on me… Yet, it’s taken years for me to “try” and wean myself off of corn, and to be truthful, I still have not completely accomplished this, but I am working on it, and I have lowered my intake of corn products radically.  The greatest offender is corn tortillas. I live in Southern, California, and they’re hard to avoid. However, I do not eat any product that has high fructose corn syrup, especially with the absolute understanding that this ingredient is wrecking the health in America.

Think about it:  We are eating products that raise our insulin levels at every meal.  When I was eating “Italian,” even though “sugar” was not a common part of my everyday diet, so many things that I ate became sugar when broken down in my body.  For example:  pasta, bread, cereals, rice, polenta, potatoes, etc.  The carbs in some foods (mostly those that contain simple sugars and highly refined grains, such as white flour and white rice) are easily broken down and cause blood sugar levels to rise quickly.  The foods to avoid are mainly empty carbohydrates including all white flour breads, pasta, white rice, anything made with white sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose, processed foods like boxed or prepackaged foods, foods with no or low fiber, fruit juice with added sugar, condiments with added sugar, sugary cereals and regular soda. The two vegetables that have the highest glycemic index are potatoes and corn. Most foods that are packaged like frozen dinners and canned foods have fillers like corn starch, sugar and carbohydrate-based preservatives.

It’s interesting that for the past few years, health practitioners have been encouraging people to eat according to the Glycemic index, which measures the effect that carbohydrate consumption has on blood sugar levels.

After reviewing my eating habits for most of my life, it is no small wonder as to why I’ve developed some health issues, beginning with food allergies.  In an recent article on WebMD, it says, “A food allergy occurs when your immune system responds defensively to a specific food protein that is not harmful to the body…The first time you eat the offending food, your immune system responds by creating specific disease-fighting antibodies (called immunoglobulin E or IgE). When you eat the food again, the IgE antibodies spring into action, releasing large amounts of histamine in an effort to expel the “foreign invader” from your body. Histamine is a powerful chemical that can affect the respiratory system, gastrointestinal tract, skin or cardiovascular system.”

So, essentially, I compromised my immune system with the foods that I grew up eating, and it’s no wonder that I’m currently rethinking Italian!
“He who enjoys good health is rich, though he knows it not.” Italian Proverb –OH THE IRONY!

Sources:  http://www.ehow.com/about_4603110_foods-diabetic-should-avoid.html

http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2009/04/04/corn-is-making-the-us-unhealthy.aspx

http://www.webmd.com/allergies/food-allergies

Spiked punch

As I previously mentioned, my father was an opera conductor.  I’ll never forget one of the after-party’s following the closing of  a production of Madame Butterfly.  There must have been 200 people crammed in our house.  Everyone was still dressed in either evening attire, tuxedoes or black evening gowns, and as always, there were literally tables of food scattered everywhere, an open bar in the living room and a table with a large bowl, filled with spiked punch, various cheeses, meats and assorted appetizers.  Naturally, my father and mother prepared the main course, which was usually lasagna or manicotti’s.  In short, the place was filled with stuffed food and stuffed people!

My younger brother was a bit of a prankster, and was never very enthused with the yuppity party’s that my parents threw.  So, you can well imagine that mischief was always lurking around the corner.  On this particular night, he was bored as usual and my father was in a jovial mood.  The truth be known, one of my parents musician friends had definitely been dipping into the spiked punch one too many times.  Actually, he was probably hitting the open bar, and using the spiked punch as a chaser for the food.  In short, he was plowed.  So, my brother decided to practice his pitch (he was a left-handed baseball pitcher) using strawberries as the ball and the back of this guys bald head as the target.  Fire 1, fire 2, fire 3…he never knew what hit him.  It got worse.  Instead of my father scolding my brother, he was laughing and saying…”What in the heck are you doing?  He looks like a strawberry shortcake!”  So, my brother proceeded to go to the refrigerator, pull-out a can of whipped cream, and he walked over to this guy, hugged him and while they were having a chat, he sprayed the whip cream in his tuxedo pocket without this guy ever even knowing.  🙂 About five minutes later, the man put his hands in his pockets and yelled out,  “Good God!  What is this?”  I won’t begin to tell you how much my father, brother, sister and I laughed over this.  Since the man was so intoxicated, he never did put the pieces together, and we all had a good laugh looking at this human strawberry shortcake.

Back to the FOOD:

So, while this was a special event, once again, I was eating foods that were high in fat, carb-driven, loaded with dairy, and undoubtedly not gluten-free or sugar-free.  Since I didn’t normally gravitate toward the dessert table, I was under the impression that I was eating healthy.  I couldn’t have been more mislead.

Once again, I am more convinced than ever that my lifestyle growing up helped pave the way for some of the health issues that I’ve been dealing with off an on for the last 20 years.  It’s been a long road.  I’ve not always wanted to surrender what’s been familiar to me, but after changing my ways and eating organic, vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free, I’m feeling so much better.  It’s no wonder that I’m rethinking Italian!

Bonded by tradition

Part of the beauty of the Italian people is there sense of abandonment to life. When visiting Italy for the first time, I felt near-drunk on the exuberance of the people on the streets, in the cafés, or watching people chatter in the piazzas.  Like animated characters in a film, everyone seemed to have a story that was bigger than life.  Even more fascinating though, was my connection to the people and the lifestyle in Italy.  It felt like I was among family.

Italian’s have a deep connection to food.  It is one of the cornerstones of Italian culture.  No matter how frenzied life becomes, there is nothing more important than gathering together around a meal–even if only sharing an espresso, it is the connector for life. Every city and town has markets where people shop for fresh fruit, meat, vegetables and fish.  If one doesn’t find what they need with the food vendors, there are also supermarkets and small shops specializing in one type of food.  Italians find great pleasure in sitting at a table, whether at home, in a restaurante, or in a café and sharing a meal together.  Everything around you slows down to a glacial speed, while the food is being enjoyed.  It is a moment to savor life!

My parents were always on the go.  My mother, a concert violinist and music professor always had something going on.  My father was equally busy.  He was an opera conductor, music arranger and composer, and actually didn’t open his restaurant until I was in my late teens.  Life in our household was filled with two things:  Music and food.  Yet, in  the midst of so much busyness, they still found time to gather the troupes and enjoy cuisine together.

Holiday’s were out of control.  My parents had an over-sized music studio that housed not only a grand piano, a cello, several violins and a flute, but a pool table.  The pool table was a lot of fun, but it was functional as well.  About four days before Easter, my father would line up several huge pots in the kitchen and make bucket-loads of sauce.  The process began something like this:  Using large beef neck bones, he would brown the meat in about ¼ cup of olive oil, adding seasonings (marjoram, oregano, basil, rosemary and anise or fennel and salt and pepper) and about 5-6 fresh cloves of crushed garlic to the mix.  When the meat was browned, and covered with the seasonings, he would add several cans of Progresso (it had to be Progresso) canned tomatoes in puree and several cans of puree, about ¾ cup of red wine and ½ cup of fresh (finely-grated) romano cheese.  He would then fill the water to the brim and the cooking process began!  It was an all-day adventure.  I won’t even begin to tell discuss the mess he made.  Mamma mia!

Once the sauce was underway, he spent 2 solid days rolling out homemade ravioli that were the size of a clutch purse!  They were truly remarkable, and undeniably calorie-loaded. He would lay out bed linens on our pool table and literally layer ravioli on the table, filling it from side-to-side, and stacking at least 2-3 layers.  I think he made around 300 raviolis for family and friends.

Easter morning was always a scene, because my dad was the choir director at the Catholic cathedral and my mother played the organ.  We rose early, got dressed in our Sunday finest and went to mass. Admittedly, that was never the fun part of Easter Sunday for me.  It was the food aftermath, which began with an Easter egg hunt in the backyard with family and friends.  While my father was in the kitchen cooking the ravioli’s, and tending a roasting lamb, the kids (and my mom) were running amuck outside, gathering every piece of candy we could find.  Keep in mind that desserts were not normally a part of our diet, so Easter-egg hunts were epic adventures.

The table was prepared with absolute care. From one platter of food to the next, there was little space for much else.  The only real challenge was that our stomachs couldn’t possibly hold that much food, and within the first 10 minutes of eating, we were as stuffed as the raviolis that were prepared.

Holiday meals were not just about sharing food and wine together, but they were also the stage for sharing one family story after another.  If our sides didn’t ache from all of the food we devoured, guaranteed they nearly popped from laughter.

I am sure most Italian’s would relate to this scenario.  The connection with food, family life, and the abandonment to it is what makes life full.  It is not just about eating; it’s about tradition.  We don’t just have a relationship with the food, but an indissoluble bond.