Minnesota Meets the Mediterranean Diet

What began as an exploratory seminar in Italy for Dr. Meg Wilkes Karraker has become an opportunity to bring Italy to the University of St. Thomas in a savory way  through food. Rossella Galletti, a Naples native who studies cultural anthropology at the University of Naples, will spend time at St. Thomas focusing on the “Mediterranean diet.”

In July 2014, Karraker participated in a CIEE International Faculty Development Seminar in Naples, Italy, an opportunity sponsored by St. Thomas’ International Education Office. The seminar, “Sociocultural Significance of Food in Italy and the Mediterranean,” was, as Karraker described it, “a chance to make meaningful connections with scholars beyond our borders.” Two such scholars were Elizabetta Moro and Marino Niola, professors of cultural anthropology at the University of Naples who proved to be both “good colleagues and good friends.”

The connections Karraker made in Naples granted the University of St. Thomas the unique opportunity to welcome Galletti, one of Moro’s graduate students, to campus as a visiting scholar.

Where food and culture meet

The term “Mediterranean diet” first was coined by University of Minnesota scientist Ancel Keys. The diet consists of fish, whole grains, fruits, vegetables and even red wine. Keys studied rates of heart disease in individuals in southern Italy compared to those in Minnesota and found that eating a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of heart disease.

Galletti now has the opportunity to bring her Mediterranean upbringing to the home of initial research on the Mediterranean diet. She cited growing up in Naples as a strong influence on her interest in the subject.

“Food is important culturally everywhere, but in Naples in particular,” Galletti said. She recounted the tradition of families in Naples gathering on Sundays to make and eat ragout, a tomato and meat sauce. The preparation for ragout begins at 7 a.m. and can take up to nine hours to make. The ragout is served over pasta and enjoyed with the company of one’s entire extended family “a real domestic ritual,” as Galletti called it.

“When I was a child, every Sunday we were all together around the table, not only with close members of the family … but also my grandfather, my grandmother, on my mother’s side, on my father’s side  everybody,” Galletti said.

Such traditions made Galletti wonder about the inextricable ties between food and culture.

“I began to ask to myself what is a culture, why humans create cultural systems … why there are different cultures and beliefs, different ways to eat,” Galletti said.

Thus, for Galletti, the Mediterranean diet is more than a way to be heart-healthy; it’s a piece of her history as a Naples native.

“Neapolitans are quite conscious of their past,” Galletti said.

Cognizant of her heritage and the many cultures that have combined throughout history to create the eclectic nature of Naples, she is fascinated by the Mediterranean diet present there. She described Naples as a “kaleidoscope” of colonizing cultures mingling to create a city that is a literal melting pot, a point perhaps best seen through its food traditions.

Bringing Italian connections to America

Of course, Galletti acknowledged that growing up in Naples has made partaking in the Mediterranean diet possible; however, she believes the diet is feasible and perhaps even easier to partake in in American than elsewhere.

“We shouldn’t forget that many of the food products today considered typical of the Mediterranean diet come from the Americas, such as the tomato,” Galletti said. Her advice for Americans is to cut down on animal fat and dairy products and to eliminate junk food.

Galletti will use her time at St. Thomas to conduct her own observational research on students and their beliefs about the Mediterranean diet.

Karraker’s Italian connections not only have opened the door for future international visitors, but also have enhanced her teaching of her sociology class “Families in Italian Society.” Karraker even has developed a new course, “Food, Faith and Families: A Sociocultural Journey through Italy,” which she will lead along with Barbara Zell in Naples in January 2016.

Karraker’s aspirations for her future classes align well with Galletti’s expectations for her research: “I hope that (students) will be more aware about what they eat and that a dish is not just a dish but behind it there is a culture. It is important to take care of their food because it means (taking) care of their bodies and soul(s) too,” Galletti said.

Galletti will be in residence in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice through May 23.