Continued from Still Mi Amore — Wild Abandonment Among the Tomatoes and Zucchini:
Shall I not have intelligence with the earth?
Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?
~~ Henry David Thoreau ~~
Only when I studied the culinary heritage of Catholicism did I pay deeper attention to Italian food. The saints’ days celebrations intrigued me, although today few people celebrate those days with as much reverence or fanfare as in the past. But the Italians seemed to be the people with the most invested in doing so.
One day, I realized that a slow simmering seduction really began long ago with a fateful plate of spaghetti and a red-sauce-stained recipe.
And so, starting with a paltry three or four volumes, my Italian cookbook mushroomed through the years into a list of over 100 titles and counting. Stacks of La Cucina Italiana, Italian Cooking and Living, Bella Italia, and Tastes of Italy slumped in large piles on the floor in my living room, too.
As with many people living in frantic, hurry-hurry America, something in Italian cooking called to me. Like a persistent suitor bearing red roses, this summons to the kitchen wouldn’t go away.
And so for one year, with the help of my cookbook collection* and my own perception of the ingredients, I cooked only Italian food. Every day. For 365 days. I kept a diary of the menus. I never repeated dishes. And that’s when I fell in love for good, forever and ever, until death do us part.
At the end of that year, while I certainly didn’t write a “Dear John” letter to my old flames — Mexican, Chinese, Indian, French, or even American cooking, I found that my pantry sparkled with more capers and anchovies than dried chiles or asafetida.
As I try to figure out why this cuisine enraptured me more than others, I think more than anything else it was because it created a sense of coming into contact with the earth again. Not returning to roots, for I apparently cannot boast of any genetic connection to Italy.
No, rather it was that somehow a sort of alchemy provoked something that I can only call cellular memory, or something close to it.
Italian cooking is very earthy, sensuous, simple, and seductive. Cooking often takes little time. Take bruschette and crostini for example. Slow-cooked soups and stews like Arrosto di Manzo alle Erbe (Beef Roast with Herbs and Horseradish) demand more time, yes, but even they require very little advance preparation. One of my favorite recipes, “Beef Simmered in Red Wine with Rosemary (Tuscan Beef Stew),” consists of 5 basic ingredients, not counting oil and salt. Sure, it takes three hours to cook down to the right texture and consistency, but after I brown the meat and onion and stick the pot in the hot oven, I am free to go for a walk, read a book, or write.
That’s the joy of Italian cooking. Although there are few ritualistic preparations — as I’ve said before, the strict adherence to rules as found in French cooking just doesn’t exist in Italian cooking — Italian cooking serves up food nearly untouched by human hands.
It comes to the table very close to the way the earth sent it forth.
But that doesn’t mean the cuisine is simple in the sense of being uncomplicated. It evolved through the efforts of faceless, nameless women, not arrogant male chefs. The genius of the cuisine lies in the incredible mixing of flavors that nonnas [grandmothers] from Val d’Aosta to Sicily created with the most meager ingredients. As Paola Pettini says, “La cucina pugliese nasce come cucina povera.” (Puglia’s cooking was born out of the cooking of the poor.”)
Born in the shadow of starvation.
For, in the end, it was the specter of starvation that drove people from Italy to the New World, in much the same way the Irish Potato Famine generated the Irish migration to America. Immigrants from Italy acknowledged the beauty of their homeland, but as one wise old grandfather said, “You can’t eat beauty,” when his grandson asked how he could ever have left such a gorgeous place.
Hunger, molder of human history, and of cooking itself. The stuff of primeval memory, no?
Slowly simmered and slowly eaten and slowly savored, Italian food often brings me to the same spiritual place that meditation does. When I contemplate it, a well-set table with well-presented dishes reminds me of an altar. Certainly the traditional Jewish Sabbath meal, with its lace tablecloth and candles and flat round silver dishes, and the emphasis on bread and wine, is not far from the Catholic Mass and its Eucharist.
Every meal — however meager — can be considered a feast. A celebration of life and earthly gifts.
And so, holding a ripe tomato in my hand, the smooth and slippery skin tight across the soft flesh, cutting a cross into the blossom end, preparing the tomato for blanching and easy peeling and red sauce, I discern once again that aura of sacrifice hovering around the act of eating.
Serve it forth …
To experience some of the brilliant simplicity of the Italian kitchen, see Cucina Rustica: Simple, Irresistible Recipes in the Rustic Italian Style, Cucina Fresca: Italian Food, Simply Prepared, and Pasta Fresca: An Exuberant Collection of Fresh, Vivid, and Simple Pasta Recipes, all by Viana La Place and Evan Kleiman, all capturing the essence of Italian culinary genius.
Or you might just try this:
Place 3/4 lb. of cheese on a large plate, allow cheese to come to room temperature. Drizzle over it about 1/2 cup of warm honey. Spread the bread with the honey and cheese, grinding over each serving grindings of black pepper. Pass the other 1/2 cup of honey in a pitcher for those who want more. Keep it the temperature of two hands clasping. Imbibe a nice chilled Moscato or another similar wine.
And say a word or two of thanks to the unknown geniuses who invented the succulence that is wine and cheese.
*A few of the books I used in this pursuit:
1,000 Italian Recipes, by Michele Scicolone
Regional Foods of Southern Italy, by Marlena de Blasi
Flavors of Puglia, by Nancy Harmon Jenkins
The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchens, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper
Rao’s Cookbook: Over 100 Years of Italian Home Cooking, by Frank Pellegrino
The Silver Spoon, by the editors of Phaidon Press
© 2010 C. Bertelsen