Last updated on February 11th, 2015
I’m feeling full just from reading the annual cornucopia of food writing that appears around Thanksgiving—endless ways to brine your bird, bacon your Brussels sprouts, and fluff your sweet potato pie. Everything sounds so good, but so rich that I’ve got agita just thinking about it.
I’ve got a big appetite and a poor sense of consequence, so it’s not unusual to find me rifling through the medicine chest at midnight on Thanksgiving hunting for that dusty container of tropical fruit flavored Tums. I miss the bottle of prescription strength Zantac given to me by doctor for a cough, of all things.
“Sometimes a cough is caused by acid reflux,” he said. “It’s probably not in this case, but I’ll prescribe it for you anyway and you’ll be able to eat the most disgusting, greasy cheeseburgers with impunity.” When I’m feeling sick, I’ll reach for anything to feel better, but I also believe there is a way to be occasionally gluttonous and recover via more natural methods than the ones devised by Big Pharma.
What more expert source could I look to than my own culture? Italians are obsessed with their digestion. They talk about it constantly, in mixed company, with no sort of WASPy compulsion to hide the fact that we all have bodily functions. They become depressed and despondent when constipated. Italians experience great existential angst as they contemplate how this fate befell them, because they did everything right!
The order of an Italian meal is set up for the sake of your digestion. The antipasti (before pasta) inaugurates the meal with all those hard cheeses and cured meats. The carbs come next in the lineup, followed by the meat course. Batting cleanup is the contorni or the vegetable course which can be white beans with garlic and olive oil, sautéed spinach, broccoli rabe or chicory, braised shcarole, or a simple green salad.
The logic of eating vegetables last is that the roughage helps move things along. Among other American food fouls like venti espresso and “endless breadsticks,” my Italian friends have laughed at is the silly American concept of salad as an appetizer. Indeed, I have always found a limp salad a pretty dull way to start a meal.
There are other accessories to the digestion plot. Not quite seltzer, but water con gas helps avoid it and will always be offered to you while dining in Italy. Espresso at the end of the meal also acts as a digestive. (Cappuccino, on the other hand, is a breakfast drink. Italians are horrified that anyone could ingest all that milk after a heavy meal.)
After dessert, Italians also enjoy alcoholic digestivi—bitter drinks made from herbs, often with recipes similar to those of the monks that made them in the Middle Ages. Limoncello, vin santo, grappa, or my personal favorite, Cynar, made from artichokes, all do the trick.
When all else fails, there is one final option that I like to call “Italian Pop Rocks.” My grandparents always had a large blue jar in their cupboard, filled with what looked like white cheese doodles. It was officially called “Brioschi,” and after a large meal, they would drop the little squiggly rods in a glass of water and watch it fizz up before quickly drinking it. They’d sometimes give the hard pieces to my brother and I to eat like candy.
We’d giggle as the rods dissolved on our tongues, feeling a little bit like a buzzing bee, and tasting of citrus. Brioschi (pronounced “bree-oh-skee”) is similar to Alka-Seltzer, but without the aspirin. It’s all natural and made from the original 1880 recipe: sodium bicarbonate, sugar, and lemon flavor. (It’s also great for curing that other Thanksgiving tradition–hangovers.)
Though you may have never noticed it before, Brioschi is available at chain grocery stores and pharmacies around the country. Recently I found a similar brand straight from Italy at Mount Carmel Gourmet Food inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market.
May a little Italian wisdom help your all-American Thanksgiving meal be the excessive affair it deserves to be.