Robert St. John column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Food convenience mixed blessing, St. John finds after months in Europe

I am blessed with convenience. So much so that I probably take the ease of daily American life for granted.

My kids asked for pancakes for breakfast the other day, so I went to the grocery store and bought a pint of buttermilk. It was an effortless and enjoyable experience that took all of 15 minutes from door to door.

 Nine months ago, during a lengthy stay in Tuscany, I walked into the small market in our village to purchase buttermilk for my 50th birthday breakfast, and walked out— after an hour— with no buttermilk.

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The Italian grocery-shopping experience is a unique event for an uninitiated American. My first visit was on a late Saturday afternoon— the absolute worst time for a novice to try and learn how to shop like a Tuscan. The markets are closed on Sundays, and Tuscans only purchase enough food to last them one day. Therefore, Saturday is the one day of the week when they are purchasing for two days. There is a mad dash on late Saturday afternoons, and I was smack dab in the middle of the madness.

 We had just finished a six-week 4,500-mile journey through 13 countries on two continents. My wife and I were ready to settle down, catch our breath, and cook in a real kitchen for a few weeks.

My shopping list was lengthy because I wasn’t used to shopping like a Tuscan. Minutes earlier, on my initial pass through the village, I had visited the green grocer for fruits and vegetables, walked next door to the butcher for prosciutto and speck, and to the pasticceria for bread. I needed the basics to finish filling the shelves in our villa.

 The Coop Market in Tavernelle Val d’Pesa was bustling with hurried shoppers grabbing the last remaining items of the day. I didn’t know the procedure, I didn’t know the layout, and most importantly, I didn’t know the language.

I had a translator app on my phone that helped me with the basic food terms I had yet to learn. Pasta, canned tomatoes, tomato paste, and cheese were easy and no app was needed. Dairy products were a different story altogether. I had trouble determining the difference between milk, heavy cream, and half and half, but— between the translator app and an enthusiastic game of charades with innocent passersby— I was able to get what I needed.

 The trouble came when looking for buttermilk. My birthday was the next morning and after trekking through Greece, Turkey, Croatia, and Albania— breakfast wastelands, all— I was craving pancakes.

I knew the word for butter, “burro” and the word for milk, “latte” but there is no Italian word for buttermilk. I posted up at the dairy cooler and tried to listen for any English being spoken throughout the crowded and bustling market. None. Next I began looking for friendly faces, “Parli inglese?” No luck. Some stopped and seemed to take pity on the ignorant American staring at several different cartons of multi-colored dairy products. “Burro latte?” I asked. I received nothing but perplexed shrugs.

 My final tactic was to hold up the burro and the latte for a sort of show-and-tell-meets-charades hybrid and that drew even more glares. They had no clue as to what “burro latte” was. I got the distinct impression they thought I wanted to melt butter and add it to milk to drink. If you want to add butter and milk, why not just add melted butter to the milk? But when I tried to wave that notion off, it created even more confusion. Crazy Americans. No wonder they’re so fat!

I could have grabbed vinegar or lemon juice and added it to the latte to make my own buttermilk substitute, but by the time I realized that buttermilk wasn’t available, I didn’t want anything to do with pancakes. Too my credit, I never once made a “moo” sound while playing Italian buttermilk charades.

 After my initial visit to the Coop, I began to get the hang of it. I knew what to handle and what not to touch. I knew how to weigh and label fruits, vegetables, and cheese before taking them to the counter, and finally remembered to bring my own shopping bags, as they charge for plastic bags.

So I live in a world of convenience with all the food I could ever need at my fingertips. The irony is that I occasionally long for the other way of life. I long for the way of life where someone purchases just enough food to feed his or her family that day. I want to be that person. I want to be the person who thinks that walking out of a Sam’s Club with a two-month supply of anything is ludicrous. Ultimately, I want my (pan)cakes, and I want to eat them, too.

(Restaurateur, author and self-described “world-class eater” Robert St. John with his family spent several months during 2011 in Europe where he sought to expand his culinary traditions and conduct research. Contact him at