Before we left Rome, I got together with a friend of mine who had just returned from a summer spent in Brooklyn. "Brace yourself," she told me as we walked up the steps of Villa Borghese. "It's overwhelming." She wasn't talking about her family's temporary transition back to the States (which can be intense, even in a short-term setup). She really just meant the grocery store. "Everything says 'Organic' and all the chocolate has salt sprinkled on top now," she told me.
We'd each been in Rome for about four years, and we'd each become moms while living abroad. Now, my family of five was pulling up stakes, my husband's project at the UN over and my dream of living in a rural area with our three small kids (3 years, 1 ½ and 7 months) about to come true, sort of. Enter stage one: repatriation in a rental house.
The first time I went to the Kroger here in North Carolina, it was literally dizzying. I had to hold onto the cart (which I didn't realize I was supposed to wipe off ahead of time -- when did that start?). Baby George's plump little face smiled back at me reassuringly as I wheeled down the aisle.
Everyone was exceedingly friendly but compared to the Italian grocery store I'd pushed my sturdy red stroller through for the last few years, the sheer size of the place was shocking. It was easily eight times as big, reminding me more of an airport than a place to gather ingredients for dinner. How would I ever find anything, and HOW LONG would this shopping trip take? I suddenly regretted bringing my miniature co-shopper and started doing the math, figuring out the number of hours until his next meal. Now we needed to hurry.
So I started with the produce section thinking confident thoughts like, Oh look, potatoes. I know how to buy those. At least I thought I did. But I kept finding doubles of everything. No sooner would I collect a bag full of yams than I'd glance over at the next table to find more, only these were "ORGANIC." Take 10 more steps and there's a third pile and these are on "SALE" -- if you have the special little card at checkout, of course.
This was well before we even hit the processed foods, of which there were hundreds to choose from. Obviously, you can buy pretty much everything premade at this point; frozen pies, cakes and pizzas are all ready to bake and handy taco kits line the shelves. But I was skeptical, scared even. While labels shouted out at me from every aisle, "All Natural!" and "No Trans-Fats!", the sheer fact that they'd each last long enough on the shelf until every one of my kids starts kindergarten turned me off. What about all that sodium? The fattening fillers? And the GMOs? No, thanks.
As I turned up and down each aisle, it felt more and more like a war zone. One that included something called "Shake and Pour" brownie mix that comes, naturally, in a disposable pitcher. No wonder childhood obesity has tripled in the last 30 years. Keep your head down and head for the real ingredients, I thought. There's something deeply creepy about wondering if your food is going to harm you -- since, in fact, our bodies are designed to seek nourishment to survive.
I had been so excited about all the conveniences of American life again, particularly when it comes to buying stuff for babies. All three of mine were born in Italy, which is not a third world country, but it's definitely second. And Italy has such a low birth rate these days (1.23 children per woman) that baby products aren't big business -- instead, they're nearly impossible to find.
Regular groceries were available but expensive in Rome. Food prices are always higher in cities than the 'burbs, but there's another factor involved: Italians, who have a much lower obesity rate, spend twice as much on food as Americans. High quality meals are simply a high priority for them. In fact, it's a matter of pride and family heritage, too. And "Organic" isn't a thing there the way it is here, largely because the EU's agricultural standards are different from ours. People do buy convenience foods, but not nearly at the same rate. Most parents still cook and family meals are an expected, and pretty highly respected, part of daily life.
But back to finding food at the supermarket here. In the weeks since my ridiculously anticipated first visit, I've pulled myself together. Today I calmly made my way through the place, weaving around, picking out the whole ingredients I needed and totally loving the sale prices everywhere (because I now have the special little card for checkout). I found the organic stuff, ignored the rest and got lots of ideas for Foodlets, my blog about trying to cook real food for my crazy little family of five. On my way out, I actually squealed just a little bit when I saw the sign for Dry Ice, thinking of festive Halloween parties to come and the ease with which I could now get over-the-top treats like this.
I also bought myself a chocolate bar. It's organic, with salt on top. And delicious.