The Pull of Italy: An Explanation of, or at Least a Discourse on, an Obsession

Just what is it about Italy?

The sheer, sheer beauty? Or …

The turbulent history
The grottoed mushroom-rank earth
The Latin-infused language
The ancientness
The glimmering light
The icy green water of northern lakes
The needle-like cypress trees
The deep phosphorescent colors of art
The blue of the sea
The dark wood floors and terra cotta tiles
The flowers and the grape vines and the olive trees
The spirituality mingling with ancient beliefs

And food and cooking reflect all of these, and ultimately whisper oneness, family, community, home, safety, love, warmth, groundedness. What does this mean when we no longer take the time to cook well and so we never eat well?

Perhaps that’s why my bookshelves sag with more Italian cookbooks than any other “genre.”

Take, for example, the words of William Least Heat-Moon on his visit to Le Cinque Terre:

We travel to some places even before we know where on the globe they are, or that they even exist. Images arise in our childhood imaginings, scenes that can express longings for a world more fantastic than the one we inhabit. But still we understand such demesnes are impossible because logic says hills can’t be so steep, towns can’t look like castles, and, above all, sooner or later we learn that every place must answer to time and the devil. Fantasy or not, some of those realms remain, lying in wait until they find a chance to become real travels.*

That’s what Italy has become to me, and to many other people — a world of fantasy, a place for daydreaming. An escape valve.

In Heat, Bill Buford sensed this, too:

But I often wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.**

Buford drives the nail true and straight. He gets it right. He says what lingers unspoken after the last drop of red sauce seeps into the tablecloth, but no one jumps up to smear salt or another home remedy for removing stains. That connectedness, that contentedness, that comfortable awe keeps you planted in your chair and you gaze at the faces around you at the table. You make a small wish, or maybe not such a small wish, that somehow this moment would last and last, at least in your memory. You will it to an easily accessible space in your brain, tucking it in among the folds like a raisin in a sweet roll, hoping to find it again, to enjoy the sweetness once more.

Peasants in Calabria

And that is why I cook Italian food with a song in my hands and a deep joy in my heart, thanking the people who went before me who cherished the fruits of the earth and the work of their hands so much that they left legacies too delicious to bury with them in their graves. Buford is right, the sense of death does exist in the kitchen, obviously because something has to die — plants, animals — to feed us, but there’s also the spirits of the cooks who tilted the skillet just so to brown the onions and garlic. Who made meals out of stinging nettles and scraps of cheese. Who told their neighbors about their kitchen triumphs and discoveries, and their failures, too. Just so that I and you and all of us can eat better, if we choose to cook and not take the easy way out by slitting open a microwavable package and dumping the contents onto a paper plate before we plop ourselves down in front of the TV.

That, in many ways, is one of the more terrifying things about today’s world. Indeed, we no longer take the time to cook well and so we never eat well.

Virginia Woolf said it best, never minding what end she came to (there were extenuating circumstances, none of which had anything to do with food):

One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.

Sadly she wasn’t Italian; and unlike so many of her contemporaries, she didn’t spend time in Italy. Maybe she should have. Maybe she would have written more books and loved life more. The very fact that so many British like the Brownings expatriated themselves to Italy says something.

Italy simmers just below the surface like a dream, a pleasant dream, that if you’re lucky, when you wake up, at least fragments of it still exist. Walls glowing with burnt-sienna warmth, flowering plants on the porch, a pot of tomatoey ragù burbling on the stove, and bread crusting in the oven.

What is it about Italy? That. And the promise of something deeper, visceral, a life source.

MUSHROOM RISOTTO (Adapted from Marcela Hazan)
Like that of many people, my first real Italian cooking experiences began with Ms. Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook.

1/2-oz. dried porcini, soaked in 1 cup hot water for 30 minutes, drained (reserve water) and chopped fine
2 T. onion, finely diced
2 T. unsalted butter
1 T. olive oil
1 cup short-grained rice, for example Arborio or Vialone Nano
3 T. dry white wine, warmed in a pan on the stove
2 1/2 cups simmering chicken stock
Mushroom water strained
Freshly ground black pepper
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano
1/2 T. unsalted butter
Salt if necessary
Minced parsley, if desired, for garnish

Put butter, oil, and onion in heavy-bottomed pot. Over medium-high heat, cook until onion is translucent. Add the wine and stir constantly until wine evaporates. Begin stirring in the chicken stock, 1/2 cup at a time. Stir constantly until stock evaporates and you can see the bottom of the pot. Keep up this process for 10 minutes. Then add the mushrooms and half of the filtered mushroom soaking liquid. Stir constantly until liquid evaporates. Add more liquid. Add more broth or water and continue the same process. Rice should be tender, but not gummy. Stir in black pepper, cheese, and butter. Garnish with parsley and serve immediately.

*“Morning in Manarola,” by William Least-Heat Moon, Gourmet, August 2000, p. 99-103.

**Heat, by Bill Buford, Knopf, 2006, p. 198.

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

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5 comments

  1. Having spent a good deal of my life there, I agree with much of above. But I have to say that I become annoyed (as do many Italians) that the huge problems plaguing the country are ignored by the fantasists, including some who go there to live full or part-time. (I’m not speaking directly to anyone here.) I don’t think one can really love Italy–or any place, person–until one really sees, hears & accepts its reality. But that’s just me. I’m really not a cranky-puss. (Really).

    When I was young (17) I walked around Venice one November thinking to myself: “Oh how cute. Italian garbage in the water…” And I was a very smart 17-year old. (More so than now:)

    ciao bella

    • I agree with you — it’s sort of like the U.S. and its promise of equality and justice for all. The reality never quite reaches the ideal. We have loads of problems here, too. But it’s the ideal that keeps us going, striving to make things become the ideal, I guess! The Statue of Liberty as symbol, etc. For me, and I’m a definite fantasist (!), Italy represents something nostalgic in the sense of the “homesick” meaning of “nostalgia.” After all, in many ways, Italy — and not Mesopotamia — is the cradle of Western civilization. There’s the perceived connection to the earth, family, and spirituality that so many today are seeking and perhaps not even knowing what it is they are seeking. That’s what I’m writing about. But I am well aware that the real portrait of Italy must include all its problems. Thanks for sharing.

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