This is a second in my series examining simple living, the Italian way. I’m intrigued by the Italian outlook on life and find that it meshes well with the American simplicity movement, but with a zest for life (la dolce vita) that gives it a more joyful twist.
I’ve written before about our tiny kitchen and 10+ year old dishwasher (the little dishwasher that could…) but I don’t want people to get the wrong idea. We have all that we need and can afford a newer dishwasher when the time comes. What got me thinking about the kitchen again was Frugal Scholar’s recent series on kitchen renovations. During the process, she started pining for an $8,000 French stove…until she imagined a French friend rolling her eyes in shock at that silly indulgence.
This tale of French frugaliy reminded me of Italian frugality, which I think might be rather similar when it comes to cooking and kitchens. The only difference is that the frugal French friend sets you straight with an eye-roll while an Italian would probably find a friendlier way to tell you. Both cultures are known for excellent cuisine and boast some great home cooks, yet the “dream kitchen” of granite counters, stainless steel sinks, Viking stoves and restaurant-quality appliances is a distinctly American one.
During the recent housing boom, Americans were bombarded with glossy lifestyle magazines and TV shows that paraded dream kitchens and renovations. At the same time, the media touted kitchen renovations as fool-proofed investments and banks easily approved home equity lines of credit. No wonder Americans started believing that bigger is better and more expensive is even better. If you have a giant house, you want a giant kitchen, right?
In Italy, there wasn’t a massive housing boom brought on by easy credit. I believe it was and still is common to put more than 20% down on a house. I’m sure that it’s easier to resist the allure of walnut cabinets and $8,000 stoves if no one around you is spending like mad on kitchen renovations.
Perhaps Americans subconsciously believe that a high-end kitchen will result in good cooking and fun dinner parties with friends and family (as pictured in the numerous glossy magazines). The thinking goes like this: “I hate slaving in the kitchen but if I had X and Y, I would cook more. And if I cook more, I’d invite people over and spend more quality time with friends and family.” At least that’s my theory….
The kitchen is truly the heart of the Italian home and this cannot be bought. Don’t get me wrong. Most of the Italian kitchens I’ve seen have good cabinetry, nice appliances and excellent tilework (no cheap linoleum), yet very few are flashy or decked out like a restaurant kitchen. If you know how to cook, you’ll realize there’s little need for a fancy dual-range double oven or mega-refrigerator. In general, due to history of home-cooking and food-loving culture, Italians are better able to appreciate a well-used kitchen over an idealized dream version.
As with all generalizations, there are caveats. I don’t know if younger Gen-Y Italians are more likely to want a restaurant-style kitchen. If Italians do brag, it may be about clothing, trips or other things. My personal history has also affected my perception. I remember listening to a colleague brag about her expensive stove and other fancy appliances; she was the typical aspirational spender, with a house bought with zero percent down, a designer clothing addiction, and a lease on a luxury car on a middle-class salary. A friend owned several high-end pots and pans that sat unused for years. I’ve known many who considered fancy kitchens a status symbol in the vein of luxury cars or a sauna. Maybe what bothers me most is the huge disconnect between reality and fantasy!
It’s nice to daydream but I think we could all benefit from re-imagining our dream kitchens as a more functional, simpler place. At the end of the day, it’s not about the expensive pans or appliances, it’s really all about the food.