I had a dinner party this weekend for about 20 Italian friends. A more wonderful, convivial evening could not have been had. But, what I find truly impressive at these gatherings is the Italian use of forks in ways we Americans, with our hamburgers and pizza-eating behaviour, could never fathom. Some people may be born with a silver spoon in their mouths, Italians are born with forks in their hands.
And, while it's not true that the Italians invented the fork, judging by their zealotry in using it, it's no wonder they get the claim to fame.
After all, I actually shared a meal once with an Italian who ate an entire plate of spaghetti alle vongole without touching one single clam shell with his hands in an effort to scoop the little guys out. Although I grew up eating pasta (and I count Kraft Macaroni & Cheese and Tuna Helper in that category), to this day, I make sure never to order spaghetti on a date just because I might just end up twirling the entire plate onto that single Italian-styled fork. Growing up, I considered it a great feat of finesse when my salisbury steak sauce hadn’t magically mixed in with the chocolate pudding number in my TV Dinners.
And so, for Italians, touching food is seen as rather barbaric. But, what happens when it comes to the serving of fruit at the end of a meal? (author’s note: one of those decidedly Italian traditions which remind us all why the Italian lifestyle is, in fact, unparalleled). The Italians break into a dexterity with their beloved utensils not unlike a virtuoso pianist at the grand piano. In short, they start peeling the fruit. All of it. Without touching a one. Or, in the event they must pick it up, no matter, that grubby peel will end up on the plate anyway.
I always sort of thought it was a pesticide hangup, but have since discovered it comes from the annals of those great Italian wives’ tales-for-medicine warning against digestion problems. And in a country where stomach aches out trump all maladies, you will actually have occasion to see someone, fork and knife in hand, peeling their grapes.
I don’t like eating anything that takes too much effort, including lobster and chestnuts, so you can imagine where I might draw the line on grape peeling. When I see this act of over-the-top civility, I realize why movies come out with titles like The Invasion of the Barbarians when discussing America. Go to any Food Court in any American Shopping Mall and you’ll see what I mean.
But I can’t help but think that with the amount of effort involved in peeling those grapes, it is no wonder Italy became a wine-producing country.
You can read about Mae West and her famous quote here or, see Diane Krall's Peel Me a Grape, Baby Video here.