A market is three women and a goose.

~~ Italian proverb ~~

I know that for many Italian women my nostalgic idea of Italian cooking would seem foreign, as alien as if I zoomed in from another planet. Louise DeSalvo makes that clear in her book Crazy in the Kitchen: Foods, Feuds, and Forgiveness in an Italian American Family as she debunks the myths of the happy Italian family. And the quiet testimony of an Italian-American friend of mine seconds DeSalvo’s litany of woes, with tear-soaked whispers about the sins of an overbearing, dysfunctional grandfather.

The grass always looks greener from the other side of the fence.

And Italian cooking is no different. Food, family, friendship, and fun. That’s what the big happy famiglia looks like to the onlooker. And the festivals, rich and pagan and glittery, redolent of a Catholicism so close to the earth that when scratched, the ghosts of Greeks and Romans and their gods pop up.

Reflecting on the effect of what Italian cooking does for my soul and my senses is like trying to figure out the meaning of life. I can’t really answer that one. Cooks come to cooking almost like a religious vocation, and I am no exception, for sometimes I dream of living with like-minded people, in a Benedictine monastery, high on a craggy mountain in Piedmont, perhaps where Sacra di San Michele seemingly teeters on the tip of the mound.

Sometimes the sounds of the village draw me. And there Marlena de Blasi’s writing transports me, while others find her writing “overwrought,” almost like a 19th-century female swooning in the drawing room over a spider on a tuffet. In di Blasi’s pages, I merge into the Italian way of life, savoring the slowness of traditional country life, “being” in the sense of sheer existence, forgetting the need to run here and there, with a list or an agenda of the “must-dos” of typical American life.

Why are so many people drawn to this culture, people who can’t claim a single drop of Italian blood? Including me. Why is it, I ask myself again and again, am I drawn to this culture of the kitchen?

Italian cooking, let’s be clear at the beginning, the outset, opens to a myriad of interpretations. Just when I think I understand it, when I’m getting confident that I know how to move in the kitchen among the tomatoes and the zucchinis, I learn differently. Unlike French cooking, with all its rigid rules and fussy proscriptions, there’s something utterly enchanting about the wild abandonment of Italian cooking. And in my more reflective moments, those times when I feel that I am in that “thin place” so beloved of the Irish Celts, I get it. Touching the ingredients, inhaling the aromas, and tasting a sauce resulting from of hours of simmering transfigures me.

What really happens is that for a brief moment in time, I end up feeling truly grounded, planted in the earth, deeply rooted like chicory or sunflowers. Feeling the bubbling ends of cut zucchini, slimy with bitter juices; or the seeing the seeds lined up like little sardines inside the fresh tomato; the peppery smell of newly picked basil; the sharp pungency of rosemary, resiny with leaves like a tiny pine tree; the sensuousness of beef simmered in wine.

Seeking something? Seeking place? Seeking peace?

My first Italian cookbook was Marcela Hazan’s first cookbook, The Classic Italian Cookbook: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating. My second Italian cookbook, and probably my favorite to this day, was Elizabeth David’s Italian Food (Penguin Classics). I cooked crespelle with Bolognese meat sauce and rolled out the pasta from scratch for the spinach rotello. My pizza recipe won praise from my son and my husband, and that recipe came from a copy of The Cooking of Italy (Time-Life Foods of the World) that I picked up at a Friends of the Library book sale.

But somehow the cuisine hadn’t quite seduced me yet.

Tuscan Beef Stew
Serves 6

2 lbs. beef chuck, cut into 2-inch squares
Freshly ground sea salt and black pepper
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and halved
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 cup red wine
1 16-ounce can crushed Roma tomatoes
1 tsp. sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Brown the beef in a large heavy-bottomed pot, in the olive oil heated over medium-high heat. You may have to brown the meat in batches. Be sure to get the meat to an almost caramel color. Stir in the garlic and rosemary. Cook for about 1 more minute. Add the wine and deglaze the pot. When wine has reduced by half, add the crushed tomatoes and the sugar. Bring to a boil, remove from heat, and place pot in preheated oven. Cook for 3 hours or until meat is very tender. Serve over polenta or with mashed potatoes.

To be continued …

© 2010 C. Bertelsen


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I am a cook who loves to write. And I am a writer who loves to cook.

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