I am in Rome, it’s Easter, and chocolate eggs abound in shop windows. Chocolate Easter eggs are monumental here – gloriously crafted and adorned with marzipan and tiny sugar flower petals. These are celebrations of life, gifts to be exchanged and admired. The eggs are wrapped in beautiful shimmery paper and given to all children. My daughter and a local friend each received one yesterday. A day later, they remain wrapped on a table in the hallway. They are troppo squisito (much too exquisite) to open just yet.
This isn’t my first time in Rome. I was lucky enough to reside here from 2001-2004 and I’ve taken many a passeggiata in and around the vegetable stalls of Campo de Fiori. I’ve meandered along the Via del Corso to the tiny, yet lavish arteries of the Piazza di Spagna – Via della Croce or Via Frattina – which are dotted with cafe tables where people savor afternoon pizzas before strolling to the fountain by the Spanish Steps. I speak Italian too, which has allowed me an intimacy with the Romans. I learned my first words such as pane (bread), or albicocce (apricots) in the food markets, and even today when I utter the words I can feel a little apricot juice in the corner of my lips or hear the cracking crust of pane rustica being ripped apart for the soft baked dough in the center.
Another very important phrase for me to learn was “sono diabetico, tipo di uno” (I am diabetic, type 1) whereupon new friends would nod and say, “Ahh, mi dispiace Elisabetta, ma è difficile vedere – perché sei molta bella!” (I’m sorry Elisabetta, but it is difficult to see for you are so very beautiful!) My Italian friends never saw me as being limited in what I could eat because what was considered good for me was also good for them. As a person with diabetes, eating the right foods is always an issue, but it was in Rome -surprisingly-a place where carbohydrates reign, that I learned the art of eating.
During my first days in Rome in 2001, I went to the market in search of ready –made meals, the kind of items I had bought in New York (I was a busy mom after all) , and was shocked to find very little in that category. I began to understand that I needed to learn how to cook for myself and for my family, and I needed to learn fast – or starve.
My neighbor and our Italian housekeeper called me “povera Elisabetta” (poor thing) when they found out I could not really cook. But before they taught me how to cook, they had to teach me how to shop, how to choose the best, most perfect zucchini and piselli (garden peas), formaggio (bufala mozzarella), fresh pollo (chicken) and fragole (strawberries) for dessert. This was an art and I was a new student.
Those lovely ladies taught me how to simmer vegetables in broth for risotto and serve it with a fresh salad drizzled with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and a pinch of salt. (No thick mayonnaise dressing ever!) Instead of ready-made pasta sauce, I learned to make homemade sauce with fresh tomatoes and tomato puree (no preservatives). Before she was a year old, my daughter ate “la prima pappa”—fresh carrots and potatoes simmered in broth, pureed, then mixed with tiny dots of cooked pasta and parmigiano. Desserts were likely to be a bowl of fresh berries or a slice of pineapple. Here was the secret, fresh food cooked slowed and savored – not gulped. This was the Italian art of eating. Sublime and squisito.
I asked my friends at a dinner party last night (already knowing the answer) how they stayed so trim while eating pasta on a regular basis. In unison they answered “moderation.” Portions are smaller and to be uncomfortably full is not a good thing. Seconds are never taken (unless feelings might be hurt) and generally if pasta or risotto is eaten – it is only for one meal of the day – either lunch or dinner, but rarely both. Grilled fish, chicken or beef fillets are more customary for dinner. Moderation is a part of the art of dining – savoring food in small quantities and enjoying every bite.
I lost fifteen pounds my first year in Rome (2001) and maintained an A1c around 6.5-7.0. I never ate processed food. While chips and snack foods are available in Rome, most of the locals snack on an orange or a crust of bread on the street – not a pouch of Doritos. Rome taught me to stop snacking for instant gratification. I learned that healthy snacking was better for me and my waistline.
I have kept all of these healthy habits for life. I left Rome (in deep mourning) and moved to London, but I didn’t leave my Mediterranean diet behind. Not only did eating like an Italian help me maintain a solid A1c and feel better, I also enjoyed food much more. I believe to a certain extent that my newly formed eating habits have prolonged my life. And I feel strongly that anyone with poor eating habits in North America or Northern Europe would do well to learn what I have. My diet is now full of fresh vegetables, healthy grains and low-fat meats and cheese.
My daughter, who was six when we left Italy, complained that no one in London knew how to cook Italian (except for me). I never went back to ready-cooked meals, although it would have been easy to buy frozen fried potatoes and fish sticks. And I credit the skills I learned in Italy for my ability to manage diabetes well. I still cook with the same zeal in Hong Kong where I’m currently living.
Italy taught me how to enjoy the subtle goodness of food in moderation. It was a perfect environment for a person with diabetes. The secret was learning how to really cook, eat well and enjoy.
For over twenty years, Elizabeth Snouffer worked in marketing and advertising in New York, London, and Paris with Grey, WPP and Publicis in the pharmaceutical and health-care communications sector while also dedicating much of her energy in a volunteer capacity to juvenile diabetes and JDRF. Today she lives in Hong Kong where she continues to consult in healthcare communications. She is also working on her first book.