My sophomore year of college, over winter break, I had the privilege of going to Southern Italy for 2 weeks on a school-organized trip. The trip was planned by the Nutrition Department at SLU. Because of this, the entire itinerary we had planned for us involved all things food-related. We were to be immersed in the culture and exposed to the true Mediterranean diet. While I knew that this was going to be an entirely new experience for me, I didn’t realize all the amazing cultural things I would learn and how they would ultimately impact my perspective on food.
Experiences & Observations
Sorry this is a pretty detailed list of what we did. But I feel as if they were each pivotal experiences that allowed me to see the value in the food process. Feel free to skim. (;
We’ve probably all heard this before, but just to really bring the point home, real Italian food is very very different from “American Italian” food, at least in Southern Italy. It was really cool to see the Mediterranean Diet in action where it originated. Since we went all around places along the Mediterranean coast, we ate a lot of seafood. I’m pretty sure our first dinner had at least 10 different kinds of seafood. It was crazy. Definitely very different from anything I had eaten in America. There was also a plethora of olive oil, wine, and plant-based meals. It was a refreshing change!
Something I really wasn’t used to when I went to Italy was the length of time we sat at the dinner table each night. We would go to dinner around 8 pm and would stay for 3-4 hours. And to be honest, you don’t even feel like that much time is passing because you’re enjoying an innumerable amount of amazing courses and chatting among friends. And each bite of food was savoured because we took our time with each course. It was so so different from the way Americans eat. No one was rushed, or eating quickly. No one was running off to get something done or go somewhere else. We were all just in the moment, and it was really cool.
Our first morning in Salerno, we were taken to a fish market by the chef who had cooked for us the night before. We were able to see where and how he bought his fish. Everything was so fresh, and carefully hand-picked by this chef. It was a remarkable thing to encounter.
The next day, we visited Cilento for the first time, and I absolutely fell in love with it. We were scheduled to go to a small Italian-style “bed and breakfast” type place. We were able to work with 3 older women who cook there. We made handmade pasta and sauce from scratch, using vegetables from outside. Everything was so simple, yet so delicious and fresh-tasting!
A few days later, we were taken to Amalfi, where we had the pleasure of touring the Pansa Bakery, which has been run by the Pansa family for 5 generations. We saw a pastry-making demonstration and were able to sample a few of their products. Each one was made so carefully by the bakers. And watching them being made allowed us to fully appreciate what we were eating.
One of my favorite days was when we went back to Cilento to tour a local fig farm. We were able to assist in making simple fig snacks and enjoyed them with other fig dishes. (We sure ate a lot of figs that day…) On our way back, we stopped and toured a small, family-run winery. The wine cellar was in the basement of the family’s extremely historic home and the vineyard was just down the street. It was incredible to taste this carefully-made wine and then go down and see the grape vines from which it came.
Another day, we went out to the countryside to visit an organic water buffalo farm, where we were able to take a tour and sample a multi-course meal containing their products. We saw where the buffalo were kept and how they were treated, and then we were able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. It was really cool.
Minerva’s Garden was another amazing place that we visited. This was right in Salerno where we were staying, though it did require us to climb quite a few stairs to get there. Minerva’s Garden is one of the oldest botanical gardens in Europe and it was created by a doctor who attended the first medical school in Europe, which is also located in Salerno. This doctor thought the garden would be a good way to teach medical students and other doctors where their treatments came from, in these plants. Not only was it incredible to know that you were in such a remarkable place and piece of history, but the views of the city below were spectacular!
How These Experiences Changed My Perspective on Food
Now that I’ve filled you in on the details of my trip, I want to discuss how exactly these experiences helped shape the perspective on food that I have today. While I was there, I definitely didn’t realize how amazing of an opportunity this trip was. Yes, I saw the beautiful views and experienced the difference in culture. But only after looking back did I realize how much I was being exposed to and how that would go on to affect my paradigm of the whole food process.
If there is one main thing that I learned from this trip, it’s the importance of slowing down and enjoying mealtime. Enjoy the food, enjoy the ones you’re with, and appreciate how your food was made. It’s so valuable for anyone who eats (so everyone) to understand the process of making food. Where does it come from? How was it made? Who made it? It’s so rare that we actually get to answer these questions for ourselves, and this trip gave me many opportunities to do that.
Somewhat related to that, I learned that cooking is an art form that we should never lose! These days, in America, from-scratch cooking is so rare. I mean, why bother when you can just run down the street and get something already prepared? But when we make our own food from just the raw ingredients, we are a part of something that humans have done since the beginning of time. It is an innate way to nourish our bodies and to be connected with other people throughout the world and from all generations. And because of this, it’s an important part of who we are as humans.
As far as ingredients go, I observed a few things that most Americans know but don’t necessarily follow: Lots of healthy fats can be incorporated into your diet and create delicious food. And it’s good for you! In the case of Italy, they use copious amounts of fish and olive oil. I’m sure there are others as well, but these were the main two that really stuck out to me. I also observed that “plant-based” doesn’t have to mean “boring.” Using the proper spices and combination of ingredients, a plant-based dish can be just as delicious, if not more so, than an animal-based dish. We need to stop stigmatizing “plant-based” and get out of the mindset that absolutely every meal has to involve meat. This is just absurd. Those of us who feel way need to step outside of our comfort zone, and I believe we will be pleasantly surprised.
Lastly, I learned that we all need to just stop worrying so much about what we’re eating. I’m not saying throw all caution to the wind. But I really think that Americans have taken micromanaging to a whole new level with our food. We all calorie count and use portion control and swap out unhealthy ingredients and obsess over everything we put in our mouths. While some of this is necessary sometimes, sometimes we also just need to live. And intuitively eating is a part of living. We need to get back to listening to our bodies, not our calorie counters. When done properly, intuitive eating can actually lead to a much healthier diet, lifestyle, and most importantly, mindset when it comes to food. If your goal is to ultimately nourish your body, your eating will fall into place. Food isn’t something we should demonize or restrict to an obsessive degree. It’s something to be cherished and enjoyed.