In a Kitchen Far, Far Away …

Once upon a time, in a kitchen far, far away …

A neophyte Italian cook opened up Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating and two handsome princes swore eternal love over an ethereal pasta roll stuffed with spinach and ricotta.*

That’s how the story would begin, and end, in a fairy tale. [More about fairy tales and their real significance HERE].**

But this is real life and what really happened was this …

My love affair with Italian food started with a bite [read more HERE], but exploded into an earth-shaking passion when I cooked that huge spinach-stuffed pasta roll in my tiny kitchen at El Zamorano.

“Where’s that?” you might ask. In Honduras, El Zamorano boasts its own interesting story. Also called Escuela Agricola Panamericana, El Zamorano is an agricultural college located in the mountains of central Honduras, about 25 miles from Tegucigalpa, the capital.***

And El Zamorano is also a living testament to the contrition of the confessional, of sins committed and repented.

“Whose sins?” you wonder.

Those of the United Fruit Company. You know, Chiquita Banana and all that. Land grabs and the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, among other acts not pleasing in the sight of the Almighty.  Legacy of Manifest Destiny and colonialism, empire and conquest.

But on the afternoon I decided to cook the pasta, I wasn’t thinking of sin.

A week before, our friend Eduardo returned from Miami with a copy of Ms. Hazan’s book for me. My first real Italian cookbook. And thanks to another gift, from Aurelio, the professor of Dairy Science at El Zamorano, I possessed a 2-quart plastic container of creamy ricotta and longed to cook something other than lasagna.

I leaned against the pitted concrete countertop of the tiny galley-like kitchen, my bare feet relishing the coolness of the terrazzo tiles on the floor, a warm breeze blowing through the opened screened door and the double windows looking out at the laundry hut. To the left, if I craned my neck just so, I could see the forest-covered mountains that dominated the valley. With a little stretch of the imagination I could have been someplace in Italy. I now know that.****

Flipping through the pages of the cookbook, looking for recipes containing scads of ricotta, I stopped and read a recipe for spinach-stuffed pasta roll. Although it sounded incredibly challenging — I’d have to roll out homemade pasta dough, wrap the stuffed dough in cheesecloth and tie the ends, and then figure out how to cook the thing in an enormous boiling pot — I decided to give it a try.

We shall bypass the middle part of the story, where our heroine struggles to roll out the dough just thin enough, patching ripped spots where the filling could seep out, pulling out her hair over her lack of a fish poacher for properly cooking the spinach roll. Never mind the whirlwind of flour on the wooden bread board and the recalcitrant rolling pin.

Was there a happy ending? Well, yes.

The look on the princes’ face after the first bite, priceless. The blue-eyed four-year-old, green-vegetable-hating son ate every forkful. The pasta melted on my tongue and the smooth filling nuzzled my throat with each swallow.

You could even say everyone lived happily ever after, especially me, because my love for Italy, Italian food, and cooking in Italian (so to speak) has led me to places and people I never would have known otherwise.

Fairy tales can come true, if you wish hard enough. Sometimes. Particularly if you believe in the transformative power of cooking. And cookbooks.

______________________________________

*See the blog “The Italian Dish” for a step-by-step visual rendition of a similar recipe.

**See also The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, edited by Jack Zipes (2003).

***Students go to class half the day and work the farmland the other half. They produced most of the food for themselves and the staff, mostly meat, cheese, and other dairy products, although many vegetables also appeared from time to time. Talk about locally grown comestibles!

****The climate at El Zamorano is extremely benign — we never needed air-conditioning, not like in La Lima, the Honduran headquarters of United Fruit Company, where just walking down the stairs [nearly all the houses stood on stilts] from the back door to your car brought on a sweat more in keeping with a workout at the weight club.

© 2010  C. Bertelsen

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