Monday, April 11, 2005


Raffi Melkonian blogs a lot about food over at Crescat Sententia. Despite his "pronounced libertarian tendencies," he's all for the efforts to teach kids about food--really good food--in school.

I learned about food in my public high school. I actually was taught to make eclairs in home economics class (and, more usefully, soup). But the cafeteria fare was the usual chipped beef and jello crud.

Perhaps he should consider moving to Italy (from a 1999 NYT article by Alessandra Stanley that should be, but is not, widely available and quoted):
THE first parents meeting of the year at my child's Italian public school started off with a warning. We all hunched anxiously over tiny first-grade desks as the teacher rose from her chair and stated solemnly, "I have bad news."

Teachers' strike, typhoid and no textbooks were some of the potential crises that rushed through my head. But what the teacher was worried about drew a gasp of horror from the other parents.

"Your children are not eating," she said sternly. "Some of them don't even touch their second course."

Everybody knows Italians are obsessed with food. My mother is Italian, I spent many childhood summers in Rome and Tuscany, so I was well acquainted, I thought, with the importance of cooking pasta al dente, the moral imperative to throw out day-old mozzarella, and never to go swimming less than two hours after lunch.

But even I was unprepared for how a food-centric nation handles education. When my daughter started kindergarten last year, I was surprised to find a huge chart posted on the door, marked with what appeared to be grades. On closer inspection, the chart turned out to be a scorecard of the day's lunch achievements.

Every day, next to each child's name, the teacher marked down what she ate, and how well.

EMMA: Primo (first course): Pasta con pomodoro (pasta with tomato sauce). Tutto. Ottimo. (Ate all. Excellent.)

Secondo (second course): Scaloppine di Vitello. (veal scallops) Meta. Molto bene.(Half. Very good.)

Contorno (side dish): Patate bollite e fagiolini (boiled potato and beans.) Poco. Bene. (A little. Good.)

Dolce (dessert): Pera cotta (stewed pear). Niente. Maggiore impegno. (None. Needs work.)
Fraud and corruption scams are to Italian newspapers what sex is to British tabloids. Almost every day, somewhere in Italy there is a scandal over rigged lotteries, sports "doping," or ingenious forms of municipal graft. But the one kind of scandal guaranteed to make the front pages has the word "mensa" in it. They are not referring to the high I.Q. club. Mensa, in Italian, means school cafeteria, and any story that suggests that children are being cheated of their culinary due unleashes mass hysteria.

Last month, 13 people, many of them high-ranking city administrators, were arrested in Milan after a local catering company was found to be providing substandard food to city-run hospitals and schools.

After the Milan story broke, parents who had not once mentioned the war in Kosovo gathered in angry groups outside our school, militantly ready to storm the school kitchen.

"My son brought home an apple that I swear was bruised," one mother said urgently. "How do we know they are not buying second-rate produce and pocketing the profits?"

The school held an emergency meeting to address those concerns. I have yet to talk to another mother about reading skills or after-school programs. We do occasionally gather over espresso at the cafe next to the school to debate the school cook's ability to produce a satisfying "suppli di riso."

Italy is not a society preoccupied with learning disabilities, ritalin and attention deficit disorder. Here, ADD stands only for appetite deficit disorder.

Romans have a healthy contempt for all public officials, but no city administrator is more pilloried than Fiorella Farinelli, the supervisor of Rome's public schools (though Walter Tocci, vice-mayor in charge of traffic, is a close second). Last year, Mrs. Farinelli decreed a meatless day in honor of Linda McCartney, the wife of the former Beatle Paul McCartney; she was a vegetarian and animal rights activist who had just died of cancer. The indignation from parents was so fevered I wrote an article about it.

When I interviewed Mrs. Farinelli, she explained that this was nothing. Once, when she tried to introduce perch to school menus, she was questioned in Parliament.

"Mothers in Rome want their children to eat pasta with meat sauce, meat and french fries, and ice cream," she said wearily.

"Only that will make them feel certain their children are eating."

So far, I have been lucky enough never to get an urgent summons from the school about a broken bone or high fever.

B UT once, early on, I was on assignment in Venice when my husband got a panicked call from Emma's kindergarten teacher, asking him to come over right away. His Italian wasn't very fluent, so as he raced over, he called me on my cell phone to urge me to catch an earlier flight home. I did. The emergency was, of course, food-related. Emma, who at the time still didn't speak Italian, wept when the cafeteria lady sprinkled parmigiano on her pasta and she refused to eat it.

It should go without saying that the school day begins with "merenda," the Italian word for snack, except that it is not considered optional. Mothers are expected to provide their children every morning with a fresh slice of pizza bianca to tide them over until lunch.

In the afternoon, the kindergarten teacher distributes apples and slices of bread and nutella, a chocolate and hazelnut spread. (Child obesity rates in Italy are increasing, but they are lower than in the United States, 22.5 percent vs. 25 to 27 percent.)

After 18 months, I have assimilated. When I get home from work, I never ask my child what she did in school. Like every other Italian parent, I remove the soiled cloth napkin from her book bag and ask, "What did you eat for lunch today?"
I can guess what my kids' grades would be. The four year old would get "Meta. Molto bene." The seven year old? "Niente. Maggiore impegno."


I have fond memories of learing to cook in public school home economics class. I baked a banana nut ice cream bread and won the bake off in class. Even over all the girls (come to think of it, Im not sure that is a good thing).

Well, my mom must have taught me right! That's it.

By Anonymous qandablogger, at 1:41 PM  

Of course it's a good thing! Girls love a man who knows how to cook. I have a friend who is a professional chef. He's married now but when he was single his girlfriends were FAR better-looking and more charming than he had any right to expect based on his own looks/charm quotient (actually, he's pretty charming himself but the ability to whip up a fabulous dinner is part of the charm).

By Blogger ELOISE, at 9:47 AM  

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

By Blogger jordan, at 9:59 AM  

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