The Psychology of Italian Food

Nov 7, 2011

Carla Nuti

Una psicologa in cucina

A Psychologist in the Kitchen

When I met Carla Nuti years ago in Rome, I knew a smattering of Italian; she spoke no English. So we combined Italy’s two culinary arts: she cooked mouth-watering renditions of such classics as Roman-style gnocchi and artichokes, tagliatelle in meat sauce, veal scaloppine, and Neapolitan pastries. At her tavola imbandita (elegant table), I learned to eat like an Italian—not just with one's mouth, but with eyes and nose, heart and soul, brain and mind.

Carla has assembled a collection of her recipes in a new book, Una psicologa in cucina (A Psychologist in the Kitchen), available in Italian from Sovera Edizioni online and in bookstores in Italy. As a trained therapist, Carla offers insights into gli aspetti psicologici (the psychological aspects) of preparing and enjoying food, including:

*Confortante (comforting). When we are stressed or in a bad mood, we turn to un cibo gratificante (a gratifying food) like pasta that, beyond evoking pleasant memories, is ricco di carboidrati (rich in carbohydrates), a good source of serotonina, (serotonin), the neurotransmitter known as the “molecola della felicità’” (molecule of happiness).

*Simbolico (symbolic): Certain foods, based on their contesti socio-culturali (sociocultural contexts), are associated with particular emotions and experiences: il latte (milk) with il calore materno (maternal warmth), for example, and il cioccolato (chocolate) with romanticismo, lusso e ricompensa (romance, luxury and reward).

*Edonistico (hedonist): Eating involves il piacere di tutti i nostri sensi (the pleasure of all our senses). Even something as simple as un mandarino (a Mandarin orange) delights us with il suo colore (its color), the touch of la buccia (the rind) and the scent of il suo profumo (its perfume).

*Preferenziale (preferential): Men tend to favor sapori forti e decisi (strong and decisive flavors); women, foods that are soffici, delicati, facilmente digeribili, gradevoli alla vista e poco calorici (soft, delicate, easily digestible, pleasing to the eye and low in calories).

*Sessuale (sexual): Cibo e amore (food and love) have much in common, including l’appagamento di un desiderio (the satisfaction of a desire), la produzione di piacere (the production of pleasure) and la sopravvivenza della specie (the survival of the species).

*Afrodisiaco (aphrodisiac): Fiumi di parole (rivers of words) have been written to describe the provocative effects of certain foods, but nulla di scientifico (nothing scientific) has been proven. However, enjoying food has indirect effects by stimulating our creatività (creativity), volontà di sperimentarsi (wish to experiment) and desiderio di fare nuove esperienze (desire to have new experiences).

Just as she does at her table, Carla spices up every dish with bits of storia e curiosità (history and curiosity. For instance, we learn that Christopher Columbus brought back i fagioli bianchi (white beans) from the Americas and that the word ravioli comes from la famiglia Ravioli (the Ravioli family), proprietors of a 12th-century inn in Liguria that served a dish made of erbe, uova e formaggio di pecora (herbs, eggs and sheep cheese).

Carla’s final words to her readers are an exhortation: Scoperchiate le pentole e…liberate i vostri sogni. (Take the lids off your pots – and liberate your dreams!) But be forewarned: Carla’s dishes are so irresistible that they can prendere qualcuno per la gola (literally, take someone by the throat). 

Words and Expressions

cucinare –- to cook

libro di cucina –- cookbook

cucina casalinga -– home cooking

affogare i dispiaceri nel cibo –- to drown one’s sorrows in food

essere goloso di dolci / avere un debole per i dolci –- to have a sweet tooth

Dianne Hales is the author of LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language. 

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