In conversation: Jeannie Marshall

On Mickey Mouse prosciutto, the loss of food culture and why garlic makes everything better

On Mickey Mouse prosciutto, the loss of food culture and why garlic makes everything better
Photograph by LIana Miuccio/Getty Images

After living in Rome for 10 years with her husband, Jeannie Marshall has witnessed first-hand the influx of a toxic, corporate food culture, most of which is marketed toward children, in the country where slow food was born. In her new book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food, Not Food Products, Marshall, who has raised her seven-year-old son in Italy, details how the Italians seem indifferent not only to the inherent health risks of eating processed food, but also to the potential loss of their centuries-old food culture.

Q: We rely on the Italians to be this bastion of food culture. But living there, you were surprised to see processed foods lining supermarket shelves and that few Italians were hesitating to feed these products to their kids. Do you feel that North Americans in Italy are more shocked by this than the Italians are?

A: Yes, I don’t think they’re as aware of it. It’s somewhat invisible because the processed foods are made by Italian companies. So they might sneer at Americans and their Cheerios but then go get some horrible food made by some Italian company. That’s what’s funny. They don’t see it’s the same thing.

Q: Italians must read the news. They know that obesity rates worldwide are rising. But when you hear about the McItaly—the all-Italian burger that McDonald’s launched in Italy in 2010 that was backed by the country’s ministry of agriculture—it gets you thinking. Why is there that disconnect?

A: It’s hard to say. Before the McItaly, the city centre of Lucca decided to ban ethnic foods, like the kabobs made by some Turkish guys, because the food was very un-Italian. At the same time, you could go to a McDonald’s on the outskirts of Lucca or go into the supermarket and buy all this processed food, lots of it from Nestlé’s and Unilever—these non-Italian companies—but they didn’t see it as the same threat.

Q: You make the point that even if fortified processed foods worked really well, there would still be the loss of that food tradition. Is it so ingrained that they don’t perceive the threat of it disappearing?

A: There is a bit of cockiness. At the same time, I think people do recognize that there is a lot of change. I was just talking to an Italian friend who was asking what the book was about and he became misty-eyed, thinking about his mother, his grandmother and what they made. He was going to get his nieces and nephews together and film them making pasta with his mother. They want to record it because they realized they’ve taken it for granted. I can’t believe that I’ve met Italian people who don’t know how to make pasta! It doesn’t seem right.

Q: Do you think we over-romanticize Italian food and their culture?

A: Yes, sure we do, and I do, and they do it themselves. It is a beautiful culture and it’s easy to romanticize it. It’s actually rare to go to restaurants and get fresh pasta. You don’t find it as often as you used to. And so when I see things becoming more and more industrialized, there are a lot of people that just want to ignore it and pretend it’s not happening because it doesn’t fit their narrative.

Q: There have been other food cultures that have gone through this loss within our own lifetime. In fact, it was a bowl of ribollita soup that acted as your Proustian moment, reminding you that you ate real food growing up in Canada, food that you remembered fondly. Is there a chance of getting back to that?

A: Yes, I think so. Culture is so transparent, and you don’t even know that it exists around you until you leave it. But we’re starting to realize what we had in Canada and the potential of what’s there. And I’m quite heartened every time I go back to see all these shops stocking local products. We did a house swap one year with people who lived near Kensington Market in downtown Toronto, where there’s a butcher called Sanagan’s, who gets his meat from small farms. I went in looking for a piece of pork, which he didn’t have that day, but he had a piece of beef and I said, “Oh I don’t know—I’m not good at cooking beef.” But the butcher—a real young guy—told me what to do with it, just like they do in Rome, and it seemed quite natural for him to tell me. There’s more of that happening now, almost more so than in Italy, where the culture isn’t lost yet. It’s the excitement of rediscovering what we didn’t even know we had.

Q: You’re a bit of an anthropologist in the book, and you write about contained cultures, like the Pohnpei in Micronesia and the Gwich’in people and the Nuxalk in Canada, whose health plummets after being introduced to processed food. But there are stories of hope, like the Pima and Tohono O’odham people in Arizona who returned to their native diet, lost weight and got their diabetes under control. Should these instances act as red flags to Italy?

A: You would think so, wouldn’t you? What was amazing about the people in Arizona is that they could reverse all their problems by changing their diet, but that they didn’t want to do it anymore. They were used to eating the industrial food, and enough time had passed that they didn’t have the same connection to their food culture anymore. My husband, James, said to me, “I don’t think pasta means to us what it means to the Italians. When they eat pasta I think they taste something different.” And I thought, it’s probably true. You have to grow up eating this stuff to really be able to understand what it means because it’s not just about the taste and what it does to your body; it’s about the way it fits into your culture and the memories you have when you eat it. Making sure that these traditions go on into the future is essential. I mean, it’s a bit sentimental, but it’s true.

Q: You mention that your own pediatrician suggested not giving your son Nico any vitamins. And that you stick to three meals plus two snacks a day. Is that sort of cultural advice from the medical community common?

A: Yes, it is. I don’t know any Italian kids who take vitamins, only the American kids. There is also this funny thing—it’s very American—where the child is sitting in his stroller and you just keep giving him food. If he gets cranky, you just give him something to eat.Italians don’t do that. Because when it’s time to have the snack, they take him out of the stroller, sit him on a little chair, or a blanket if they’re in a park, and they eat their snack like it’s a meal. Even if it’s a little thing, they give it attention and don’t just shove it in.

Q: You describe being disheartened at taking Nico to Italian kids’ birthday parties where parents lay out spreads of packaged and processed foods like chips, cookies and pop and about an afternoon at Centre Island in Toronto where the only food options were french fries, bad pizza and ice cream treats. Aren’t some people going to argue that eating junk food at say, a party or a carnival, is a rite of passage?

A: In some ways, I think no foods should be off limits. Even potato chips, which I will confess I actually love. It’s just that it’s so out of control. Junk food should not be replacing real food. It struck me at Centre Island as sort of sad that you didn’t have options, and even if there was a healthy food option, you’d have a hard time corralling a kid to actually eat it. I find sometimes when we’re in the Italian countryside we stop to eat in a restaurant and the food is so simple—it’s not haute cuisine, it’s just simple, healthy and well-made. A little trattoria in Umbria called Il Boschetto makes everything. I asked what was in a salad and it turns out they just go out and pick the greens wild from the fields. The lamb on the menu comes from 100 m away. You could see the cows out the window. It was amazing that everything was from that area. And they weren’t foodies as we think of them.

Q: And they weren’t using “local food” as a selling point?

A: Oh, no. They’ve just always done it. I’m sure they’ve never heard of Michael Pollan.They embody what he talks about but they’ve just been doing it forever, it’s how they live. I just wish there were places like that in Canada at sites where children gather. If they could just sit down at a little restaurant and have a great meal that’s delicious and has nothing to do with being healthy—it’s just really good.

Q: You say that children should be at the centre of any change going forward because they are adaptable. What do you mean?

A: The food industry knows that change happens with children, so I think that’s why in Italy most of the food products are aimed at them. Children are much more malleable.

Q: What sort of products?

A: Most of it is snack food, like snack cakes and flavoured yogourts, but I was in the supermarket recently and they had Mickey Mouse prosciutto in a package, and I thought, why do children need separate prosciutto from the grown-ups?

Q: I snacked on a bowl of potato chips when I started reading your book, but by the end of the day I’d made crostini topped with kale sautéed in olive oil, chilies, lemon and garlic. Would you say your book is hopeful?

A: That’s so sweet! I hope so. I think it is hopeful. My agent was telling me that she was reading it on a train coming back from New York, and her 12-year-old daughter was having a bunch of girls over for a sleepover party. She was very busy and had intended to just order pizza but instead she went shopping, cooked up a meal for them and it was fantastic, and they loved it. I just thought that was great and I hope it inspires people to start cooking and eating all those great vegetables. There’s nothing that a little olive oil, garlic and salt can’t fix, you know?