It isn't often you get to play tourist in the city you grew up, but last Friday that is exactly what I did. Back in November Michael and I had plans to celebrate the 5-years we've been together without killing each other, but then life happened and before we knew it it was June and we hadn't done anything to commemorate the accomplishment. Being that he is 100% Italian (well, half Sicilian, which they say is different) and having traveled to Italy with his parents in October, we decided to sign up for a tour of Boston's Little Italy - or as locals know it, the North End.
And man, was it worth it. I forgot how much I love being a tourist. We were the only two people in our group of 13 actually from Boston, but for all we learned in the three hours wandering around listening to our guide explain the historical evolution of Italian-American food, we might as well have been from Kansas.
After getting a brief introduction to the history of the North End and the many immigrants who inhabited the tiny neighborhood over the past 400 years, our group spent the better part of the afternoon stopping in at hole-in-the-wall shops I normally would have marched right past, sampling the deliciously authentic food of Michael's ancestors. Among the many nuggets of wisdom I picked up during the tour, the following list highlights my favorite:
- The North End was originally inhabited by English settlers in the 1630s. It remains the oldest neighborhood in the city of Boston, and the English stayed there until after the Revolution ended because of its strategic vantage point (they could see the British coming from any direction - "one if by land, and two if by sea..."
- Once our forefathers had officially claimed their independence from Great Britain, the English community grew too large for the North End and settlers began expanding into what we now know as Back Bay and further suburbs of Boston. The North End is prime waterfront real estate, and it quickly became a central neighborhood for immigrants moving to America throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. After the English moved out, a large contingency of Irish immigrants moved in thanks to the potato famine of the 1840s. They were soon followed by Jewish immigrants, who retained a sizable part of the North End from the 1860s until turn of the century. In fact, one of the most historical streets in the North End now known as Salem Street was once actually referred to as "Shalom" Street!
- Finally, in the late 1880s and 1890s, the Italians came to America. By 1900 they had firmly established themselves as the majority population living in the North End, and by 1930 the neighborhood was 100% Italian.
- Americans are being duped. When we go to the grocery store in search of items such as cinnamon and Nutella, we are buying either products that are completely false fabrications or that have 3 times the sugar content of the original product.
- More on cinnamon: American grocery stores have not stocked real cinnamon for nearly 100 years, and in fact the only place it is even grown in its natural form is in Sri Lanka. When we go to our local Shaws or Shop n' Stop to buy the delicious smelling spice we often associate with autumn desserts, we are not actually getting honest-to-goodness cinnamon but rather its less cool poser cousin, cassia. And while real cinnamon has properties that are beneficial to our health (such as helping to regulate levels of sugar in the blood), cassia can be toxic in large quantities due to its higher content of coumarin, an ingredient that causes blood coagulation (makes you think twice about doing the Cinnamon Challenge, eh?) While it is nearly impossible to tell the difference between ground cinnamon and cassia, comparing sticks of the two allows you to differentiate quite easily the authentic spice from the identify-thieving imposter. Click here to learn how.
- More on Nutella: This really bummed me out. Nutella, one of my all-time favorite condiments, is a farce in the USA. The real Nutella contains no trans-fats and only 7 grams of sugar per serving (which is 2.5 times LESS than the recommended serving size in America!) while the stuff sold in stores here is loaded with hydrogenated peanut oil (resulting in its creamier consistency) and contains 21 grams of sugar per serving!! In fact, Nutella is current being sued in part because of these un-labeled discrepancies, as well as because of a rather misleading commercial in which a mother encourages the viewer to feed her children Nutella for breakfast because of its nutritional value when in fact it is akin to giving your kid a Snickers bar before sending him off to school. Yes, Italian Nutella costs about 8$ per jar while the US version is only 4$, but for the wild difference in nutritional value you can expect to find only the glass-bottled Italian brand in my cabinet from now on.
- There is no difference between green olives and black or purple olives - they are the same olive. The color only signifies the time at which the olive was harvested - green ones are picked earlier while black or purple are picked later.
- There is no such thing as "white balsamic vinegar," and even red balsamic vinegar isn't as it seems. Authentic balsamic vinegar is made in Modena, Italy. It is the reduction of pressed grapes left to age for no less than 12 years, at which point it is called must and is brought to the consortium tradizionale in Modena where it must be taste tested. If approved, consortium-sealed tradizionale balsamic vinegar 100 ml bottles can cost between $150 and $400 each, and they only get more expensive with age. The must that does not pass the test is then mixed with varying degrees of wine vinegar and sold commercially to unsuspecting consumers.
- There is no salt in the bread in Florence because of an ancient salt-tax imposed on the city dating back to the 15th century. Florentines decided they could live without salt in their bread because it became too expensive to use for cooking, and today they continue the tradition of no-salt bread (though in my opinion it also means no-flavor).
- In Italy salad is often served at the end of a meal because the acids in the vegetables aid in digestion of previously consumed pasta and meat dishes. It is an Italian-American tradition to begin a meal with salad, since Americans were too impatient to wait for a warm first dish so the Italians flipped the order of the dishes and decided to start serving salad at the beginning of the meal.