Thursday, September 30, 2010

Cultural imperialism, one sandwich at a time

Dear Readers,

I'm feeling guilty.  I served a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian child yesterday.

Granted, the ingredients were top-quality: unadulterated peanut butter from the Netherlands, delicious locally-produced strawberry preserves, durum-wheat bread.  And yet, I couldn't help but think that I was being horribly blasphemous.

To be completely truthful, I have never been a huge fan of PB&J--sure, I was fed Skippy and Welch's as a child, but as soon as I hit middle school, the days of such gloppy kid-grub were behind me.  Peanut butter reappeared in my life only when I was pregnant with my first child, in the form of a major first-trimester craving--but I Italianized it somewhat by eating it plain on top of fette biscottate.  Recently, however, while racking my brains to try and come up with a new act in the culinary variety-show all we moms stage for our children, it occurred to me to try and introduce this quintessentially American concoction.  After all, I thought, it's part of their heritage--like baseball and televangelist sex scandals.

Well, my son gave the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich rave reviews, and for the past couple months has been devouring them happily, even for breakfast.  But yesterday I was unprepared for the timorousness I felt when Giacomo asked for one as an after school snack while his friend Marco was over.  My experience with many Italian mothers is that they are very particular about what goes into their childrens' mouths, and most of them seem to cultivate bizarre, arbitrary culinary aversions and eccentricities: no tomatoes for Alessandro, nothing fried for Gaia, Leonardo only eats pasta, Matilde won't eat cheese, absolutely nothing spicy for Francesco, Irene is strawberry-intolerant, Pietro hates bananas, no-primi-only-secondi for Maria Giulia, no beans in Mirko's minestrone, etc.  Italian mothers love to regale you with the list of all the foods their kids refuse to eat and how impossibly picky they are.  I've discovered, in the course of such conversations, that it is really the parents themselves who are impossibly picky, and this culinary fastidiousness gets handed down to their offspring like DNA.  As you can imagine, in this kind of hostile atmosphere, consuming ethnic food, or cibo straniero, is tantamount to digestive treason.

So--I asked the notoriously-picky, little sandy-haired bambino if he was sure he wanted to try a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.  By way of explanation I said, "It's kind of like Nutella, only peanutty," (Italian kids scarf Nutella like it's manna).  I opened the jar and let him smell it.  Since he neither fainted nor recoiled in horror, I thought, "okay then, here goes!"  I carefully prepared the foreign sandwiches like an offering for the Black Mass and set them before the boys. 

The verdict?  Marco LOVED it.  He went on and on about how good it was: "è buonissimo! Buonissimo davvero!"

But while I smiled inwardly at this small triumph of American culinary firepower, part of me felt as if I was corrupting this child.  I couldn't help but wonder about Marco going home and telling his mother what he ate at our house.  "You ate what?  Cosa?  Burro d'arachidi e marmellata???  Ma non ti fa male la pancia? [your tummy doesn't hurt, does it?]."

Of course, I need not expound on the glories of Italian cuisine here--its merits have been exalted in countless cookbooks, televsion programs, journals, etc. to the point that it's now part of the collective unconscious. Italians themselves have unbounded faith in its being the best cuisine on the planet.  In fact, more Italians worship their mamma's recipes than they do any deities within the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately, we Americans have earned a very bad reputation for our culinary paganism--which makes serving a humble, un-pedigreed, peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich to an Italian seem like a subversive act.  Italy has already seen more than its fair share of the onslaught of American culture in the form of supermarkets, shopping malls, megaplexes, bad 80's television shows, and the ubiquitousness of poppa-khorn at childrens' parties.  Must I, too, attempt to colonize the Bel Paese--offending its culinary heritage with my seditious after-school snacks?  Am I some kind of peanut-butter-wielding, arrogant, Mommy-Raj?

No, surely the sacred and the profane can exist side by side.  Surely peanut-butter-and-jelly can cohabitate peacefully with the very Florentine schiacciata.  Surely, by making room for my innocent little American sandwich, the grand edifice of Italian cuisine will not topple and fall into ruin like some lost, decadent civilization. 

Or will it?



Monday, September 20, 2010

The strange, sad tale of Mr. Rabbit

Dear Readers,

My neighborhood is full of characters.  Really, at times I feel as if I'd landed in a Fellini film.

For instance, there's the woman whom everyone refers to as "La Pazzarella" ("crazy woman")--a wildly-gray-haired Hermes who rides up and down the street on her bicycle in the same ratty brown parka year-round, small suitcase akimbo in her basket, ranting and doomsaying at the top of her voice.  Apparently, some years ago her lesbian lover died and she's been off her hinges ever since.  There's Maria "La Sarda" ("the Sardinian," forever known by this moniker even though she's been in Florence 60-odd years)--a tiny, plump, witch-voiced widow with raven-dyed hair whose husband used to beat her, and who is partial to the skinned rabbits' heads my father-in-law supplies her for use in her Sardinian brews.  Tullia, another old widow (we're rife with them)--so big-boned she looks like she could tear a man to pieces with her bare hands--often shows up at a strategic hour at my in-laws' house and stands beside the table, in tears, bewailing her widows' lot throughout their dinner, or at least until she's invited to sit down and eat. 

I've only heard tell of a certain Valkiria (that's Valkyrie--can you imagine having such a name?!); I've never met nor seen her around.  Legend has it she's morbidly obese and can't leave the house--one sees only her husband, Vittorio, scurrying about the neighborhood procuring victuals to take home to her.  Maria Grazia, another heavy-weight, with a voice like a hen being slowly eviscerated--is to be avoided at all costs.  If she manages to corner you, she will blather on and on until you begin to drool and your eyes roll back in their sockets.  Margherita ("Daisy"), is an ancient, toothless, snow-haired crone who always sits on a tiny stool in front of her building, croaking "ciao bello!" to all the bambini and cadging groceries and handouts from any passersby with plastic shoppers in hand. 

Then there's Don Germano, the sweet-yet-curmudgeonly chain-smoking club-footed priest, who is so infirm he can barely stand and deliver the homily (well, at least they're always brief).  Our neighborhood convent boasts a small coterie of cloistered Benedictine nuns--all of them decrepit yet eternally girlish, in the way of women who have been cut off from men, the world, and dvd's of Sex and the City.  There's Balestri, the local handy-man--a glossy-domed, ham-faced geezer who totters purposefully up and down the street in his weighty tool-belt, lugging power-saws, two-by-fours and ladders. 

Our postino, Giovanni, is perma-tanned and handsome as sin, always jovial, and possessing the utterly relaxed air--endemic in many government employees--of one who never, ever works too hard or takes things too seriously.  Lisetta (or "little Lisa"), a putty-lump of an old biddy with a voice like a sandpiper, is so averse to the (admittedly) voracious Tuscan-variety of mosquito that she goes around all summer wearing long-sleeves and trousers whose ends are secured with rubber bands, and a large hat covered with a gauzy veil--like some strange geriatric Florentine beekeeper.

I could go on, of course.  But I wanted to relate the story I heard recently from Signor Coniglio (I prefer to think of him as Mr. Rabbit; it sounds rather fairy-tale-like in English).  He's an old gentleman, egg-shaped, kind-faced, with a small, elegant mustache, who works as a part-time gardener at the rather grand villa up the hill behind our house.  He is also a volunteer driver for our neighborhood Misericordia--the ages-old charitable medical/ambulance corps.  I have a soft spot for Mr. Rabbit because of a kindness he showed me a few years ago.  My daughter Gemma, then three, had seen fit to stick a small bead up her nose, and I needed to get her to the hospital so it could be removed safely.  I walked her over to the Misericordia and Mr. Rabbit drove us to the emergency room.  He stayed with us and even helped me, the doctor, and two nurses hold the banshee-like Gemma down while the bead was extracted--then drove us home, chatting softly and amiably all the way.

One day recently, on his way up to the villa, Mr. Rabbit stopped in our garden and, for reasons I could not fathom at the time, told his story.

"You know that I come from Sicily--my wife and I came up here in the 1950's.  Well, I was born and raised in Palermo.  My given name is Castrense, Castrense Coniglio, though I've always gone by Enzo.  [Castrense, which is a decidedly odd name for a child, was an obscure medieval Southern Italian saint whose shrine is in Monreale--though now he does have his own Facebook fan page]

We were poor and my mother had to go outside the home and work.  From just shortly after the time I was born, she would leave me in the care of my older brother.  He would brutalize me.  I have a memory from when I was six months old.  How can I remember something from when I was only six months old, you might ask?  Doctors have since told me it is impossible to have memories from only six months old, but I tell you I have this very, very distinct memory from that time.

I was alone with my brother and I was crying, as babies do.  He became enraged, and took the safety pin from my diaper and jammed the sharp end into my backside.  He pushed it in deeper and deeper, as deep as he could.  He twisted it.  I felt it hit my tailbone, then go in.  I was screaming in pain, but he didn't stop, he just kept twisting it into the bone until the pin broke off.

As I got older--old enough to talk, I suppose--my brother would threaten me never to tell that story to our mother or to anyone.  He said if our father found out he would kill him.  So I protected my brother.  To make sure I wouldn't tell, he used to grab my jaw and squeeze so hard I thought it would break, until I swore to him again I wouldn't tell a soul.  My jaw and lower face became deformed with these repeated assaults.

I have always suffered from intense spasms of pain in my left leg, as a result of my brother's brutality.  Finally, in the '70's, with the availablity of MRI's, the doctors were able to see the source of my pain--the pin that remained stuck in my tailbone.  They operated on me to remove it.

Well, they managed to remove part of it--it had rusted, you know--but the rest of the pin remained embedded, too close to a major vein to be safely removed.  Over time, layers of bone had grown over it and around it--which the doctor explained was the bone's way of trying to heal itself and minimize the foreign object.  It's as if the pin became part of the bone itself.  So, you see, I will never be completely free of the pain."

As he spoke, Mr. Rabbit's usually soft, round, mellow voice was edged--just slightly--with a certain rawness, and with what I think was a kind of longing.

For his faith, San Castrense was made a prisoner.  His persecutors intended to load him onto a battered boat and send him off into the sea, leaving him at the mercy of the waves, sure that he would sink and drown.  But an angel appeared to him and, telling him what trials lay in store, assured him not to despair.  The angel said that, whatever fate awaited him, a wonderful place had been prepared for him, a place of peace in which he would be liberated from every horror.  And so it happened.  According to the legend, San Castrense's boat, quite miraculously, reached the shores of Campania safely.  He went on to live his life, in service to others.



Saturday, September 04, 2010

Not for beginners: an Italian wedding feast

Dear Readers,

I write this with a chilled martini glass of bubbly Citrosodina (think Italian Alka-Seltzer) by my side.  Here's why: I just got back from an Italian wedding.

If there's one area where Italians excel, one innate skill they possess that places them leaps-and-bounds beyond all others--it's feasting.  Indeed, if marathon eating were an Olympic sport, the Italians would be undefeated world champions.  No one can touch them.

Let me describe the proceedings.  After a hot, midday ceremony in the Red Room of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, our group--some 100 of us--made its way to a lovely agriturismo in the nearby Chianti hills.  We arrived at about 1pm, and awaiting us was a fabulous outdoor buffet of traditional antipasti layed out on a mile-long groaning-board and flanked by a battalion of waiters who began serving us with crisp, military precision.  People fell upon the food with rapacious enthusiasm, like bliss-filled wolves.  All the Tuscan crowd-pleasers were present: a spinel-colored haunch of prosciutto being carved by a sepoy-like, grave-faced old codger; trays of fried zucchini and their blossoms, eggplant, and squares of polenta; little quivering balls of fresh mozzarella swimming in their own milk in a large silver urn; slices of pecorino drizzled with local honey; bruschetta with fresh tomato and basil; chicken-liver crostini; a huge terracotta terrine brimming with thick pappa col pomodoro, and a bowl of cold farro salad.  There was prosecco in abundance--always the kick-off libation in Italy--and white wine, vodka-infused punch, and fruit juice for the kiddies.

Then, after a while, we were ushered into the airy restaurant, where we essentially spent the next three hours at table.

We began with a succession of three primi: risotto with porcini mushrooms, straccetti with zucchini flowers, and crespelle alla fiorentina (delicious spinach-filled crepes in a tomato-béchamel sauce).  Then an enormous veal roast that had been set aflame was paraded around the dining-room before being carved and served with rosemary-flecked roasted potatoes.  After that, we were given thick slices of rare, wood-grilled bistecca alla fiorentina, grilled porcini caps, along with a refreshing salad of mixed greens.  There was plenty of Chianti to wash it all down with, and baskets of excellent saltless bread at hand.  We lacked for nothing (except perhaps a vomitorium to repair to now and again).  Finally, of course, came the wedding cake: a giant, colorful pastry-cream tart topped with fresh, dewy berries.

The children (mine included) began gamboling about--having miraculously, but entirely in the way of Italian children, managed to stay more or less at table all this time and eat their fill.  A small baby cried and mewed testily until tasty tidbits of Tuscan fare found their way to her mouth.  A spunky chocolate labrador named Rigoletto careened around wildly, at intervals performing a sort of canine tarantella.  At about 5 pm, I stumbled away from the table and out into the surrounding garden, utterly spent.

As you can see, dear Readers, meals of this sort aren't for neophytes, or the faint-hearted, or people who are afraid of carbs.  This is epic eating, Ironman eating--the gastronomic equivalent of scaling K2.  To make it to the top one must be fearless, determined, and a little mad.  Or at the very least, Italian.

Mind you, I thoroughly enjoy a good meal and a good wine--why, excess is my middle name. (I often think that in a past life I could easily have been a sybaritic nineteenth-century burgermeister who'd polish off a twelve-course meal at Maxim's in solemn and reverent joy, then top it off with a fat Cuban cigar and a Moulin Rouge showgirl). But even after some 10 years in the Bel Paese, I still have trouble keeping pace with the locals.

It's not over till the fat lady sings, as they say.  A table had been set up in the garden, arrayed with digestivi and various liqueurs, trays of cream-filled bigné, fingers of the very Florentine schiacciata all'uva, and an immense bowl of sliced fresh peaches on ice.  Attendants brought tray after tray of espresso out to waiting hands and gasps of pleasure all around.  I had a shot of Montenegro and collapsed in a chair.

Incredibly, as I slumped in defeat, the Italian revelers carried on, smoking cigars, nibbling pastries, and drinking Sambuca.  The thing is, this wasn't even their second-wind--they'd never lost the first one.  It was awe-inspiring.

Around 6pm, as Ride of the the Valkyries blared from the stereo system, some of the hunkier young men stripped to their underwear and jumped into the pool.  Then the bride jumped in.  The groom joined her, and general youthful mayhem ensued.  I was surprised they didn't sink like stones after all that food and drink.  If there was such a place as a Tuscan Valhalla, these would be the resident Gods.

Finally, at nearly 7pm, the gastric stupor overtaking my body like gangrene, the fat lady sang.  And--my dear Readers--she was me.