In Praise of Minimalism: Vegetarian and Italian Food Traditions

I love the ethos of Italian cuisine. Variety may be the spice of life, but simplicity is its main ingredient. Whether that’s a warm cup of tea before bed or a small, quiet moment with someone you love, it doesn’t have to scintillate for it to be recognizably beautiful. Thus, the food of Italia. There are no surprises when you eat, and the ingredients don’t attempt to impress you. To begin with, there are never usually more than three or four ingredients at all, but each is reliably fresh, local, and expertly-prepared. As an ethical vegetarian and one already slightly inclined toward minimalist habits, I felt as if I was among birds of the same feather during my stay in Italy and that no more a harmonious marriage of food philosophies could be made than between that of Italy and my own.

The simplicity of vegetarianism is in its economy, but I even find the attendant humility of plant-foods to be an attractive aspect of the diet. It’s true that eating at a low trophic level can be an incredibly sustainable dietary choice in a world of increasingly limited resources and can constitute an affordable diet for those on a college budget. However, for me the real charm of vegetarianism is in the daily ways it connects me to myself and to those I care about. During moments of intermittent relief from the daily deluge that life normally brings, I love to prepare my own food. It’s a simple pleasure to be able to wash and chop my own vegetables and take the time to prepare a meal for either myself or those I love. Whether it’s warm bowls of veggie soup or spiced porridge on wintry days, or colorful fruit salads in spring, it does satisfy something besides just hunger. It’s a way to care about myself, my friends and family, and the planet that we inhabit.

There’s a similar flavor that is imparted to the food you eat in Italy, not just in the way it’s prepared, but in the way it’s eaten. Everything seems to move just a little slower in Italy, and that includes the meals. That can be frustrating for those of us used to a hit-and-run, grab-and-go lifestyle, but the evening repast in Italy is less about the food one eats and more about who has joined you for it. And hopefully you like who joins you; it wasn’t uncommon when I was in Italy for dinner to push three or four hours long, with the expectation that you were involved in lively conversation with your tablemates. Therefore, a simple meal becomes more. It’s a facilitator, a binding agent, and the unimposing complement to something already good: human companionship.

There is something quite beautiful about the unassuming—the things that don’t ask for attention or reward, so simple that they can only be honest, so obviously good that they can be the first to get overlooked precisely because of their simplicity. I discovered a few of these things in Italy—whether it was line-drying my clothes in the orchard behind the Casale San Giorgio of Barbarano Romano, hiking up the San Giuliano plateau on brisk yet golden mornings, or traipsing over hills bespangled with wildflowers in the hopes of finding ancient Etruscan tombs. Yet the best part about the simple things is that they are for everyone, and you certainly don’t have to go to Italy to find them. They are likely right beside you.

 

— Anna Lam

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