I come from the rural US, the heartland. When I was 21 years of age, I couldn’t wait to leave it. Without even attending my graduation at Bradley University, I packed the car and rushed out to San Francisco.
That last sentence was supposed to end with “…and I never looked back.”
In a sense, it’s true. I don’t really want to return to the heartland from which I sprouted. The food you find there is largely breaded and deep fried. What you put on your squishy bread is usually a chemical based margarine product of dubious origin and health value. On the other hand, there is a different rural experience in the Lunigiana—where I ended up. I look back on that quite favorably indeed.
You see, in Illinois you find rich, black earth in which almost anything will grow. What do they do with it? They grow corn for biofuel and to feed animals which can’t digest it. It’s cheap because they all grow it. So it gets fed to machinery and farting cows. I don’t blame the cows; they can’t help it.
But in the Lunigiana, which isn’t blessed with the favorable conditions farmers in the heartland are used to, people largely produce food for themselves and their neighbors. I’m so used to it that when folks pat themselves on the back for eating food that comes from “only” 100 miles away I begin hoping all that patting will result in excruciatingly painful Charley horses for all of them.
I love eating my neighbor Armondo’s prize winning salami. I won’t even go on about the Culatello. It comes from a barn on the edge of town. In the fall I will get my hands dirt documenting the process. I’m excited.
When I have a meal with my neighbors, it’s all local—dinners together are not some parlor trick you do to get patted on the head by your like-minded neighbors who are well known for their forays out to the shed in the dead of night to chow down on Mars Bars.
After I’d been in rural Tuscany for a while, I began to wonder why tourists go all wonky over the Cinque Terre. Yeah, it’s pretty, but there are hundreds of places equally compelling in Italy, it seems to me. Then I started listening to them describe their “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences in the Cinque Terre. They’re thrilled to go to sagre and eat on communal tables with the locals. They wax poetic over their B&B owner’s homemade limoncello. And they do it all in the safety of a place that has a tourist infrastructure so they don’t have to learn a word of Italian.
Don’t bust their bubble by letting the cat out of the bag, but they’re having the typical Italian rural experience, the kind I have every weekend when I’m home in the Lunigiana. That’s why it’s been so hard to see things from the tourist perspective: they are lusting after what’s normal, because it’s so damn different from what’s normal in their country.
It seems to me that there should be a cooperative of places that really make the rural experience part of a normal stay. I’m not talking just about leaving the clueless out in the countryside in a farm building that has a humongous swimming pool like a giant, blue wart on the countryside; I’m talking about places that will show folks that they can eat extremely local and extremely well if they develop discriminating palates and demand better food from restaurants like those that serve industrial flaked and formed ham instead of real piggy goodness, for example. Perhaps then they can take some ideas home to their communities. Perhaps they will make the heartland produce the creamy goodness it is capable of producing.
Then I could look back with fondness. Maybe I’d even want to go back.
Endnotes: In a later post I’ll try to outline some rural experiences you can have with little trouble and without knowing so much Italian language.
If you are on the ground floor of providing a rural tourist experience, email me, please.