Friday, July 08, 2011

The Angel of Death wears a wet Speedo

Dear Readers,

It is with immense joy I announce that Summer 2011 for yours truly shall entail total avoidance of Italian beaches. (I've written about my particular aversion to the peculiarly Italian style of fun-in-the-sun here and here). In a way, eschewing the oven-baked, seething stretches of Tuscan sand--bordered by traffic-choked streets, ugly apartment blocks, video arcades and tawdry Luna Parks--has become something of a point of pride for me. I much prefer Italy's mountains--my beloved Dolomites--for a getaway that gives me everything I crave: the wonder of nature, luxurious amounts of sweet fresh air, space to breathe in, pleasantly arduous physical activity, great food and wine, and relief from the heat.

To further tickle the repulsion centers of your brains, I shall relate to you a vignette or two from beach vacations past....

The scene: Elba, June 2001. My brother- and sister-in law--otherwise known as the Bürgermeister and Frau Weiner--and their two young, catatonically-compliant daughters crashed our vacation. My husband and I had been living with his parents in Florence (this was a folly for which I'd gladly render my kneecaps in order to completely erase from memory), I was in the early months of my first pregnancy, and we had come to a shady hillside above Cavoli to relax, escape family and enjoy some much-needed Couple Time. My mother-in-law--curse her black, meddling, pantyhose-constricted soul--saw fit to reveal our secret location in a rented house to the Bürgermeister, who then showed up on our doorstep and summarily dumped his bags.

What was perhaps even more disturbing to me than this total disregard for our privacy was the revelation that the Bürgermeister and brood go to the beach and then spend most of the time there actually shunning the water.

Because water--like ice cubes or air conditioning--will kill you, of course. Therefore it is to be avoided--regardless if it's 105 degrees out, and the hot sand shears off an onion-thin layer of your feet each time you step on it. This is Italy, after all, where the feathery tendrils of tepid breezes on even the most scorching days bring on raging pneumonia, where drinking cold beverages freezes your digestion and proceeds to decimate your internal organs with pernicious stomach acids, and where getting wet--either from bathing, swimming, water-pistol fights, or rain--carries the risk of slow and torturous total bronchial annihilation.

They're a strange breed, these Italians. I mean, to them, shampooing your hair and letting it air-dry, or riding a public bus with the windows open (in summer) is considered a come-hither to the Grim Reaper--while running red lights with impunity, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, or passing on a curve at 100 miles-an-hour is regarded as completely innocuous, if not downright wholesome.

I digress. At the small local beach, Frau Weiner smothered a chaise with her rear end and remained there under the umbrella, as languorous as a corpulent Salome, the entire day--all the while shouting dire warnings at the girls who were forbidden to wade past ankle-deep in the mild surf. Me being American, young(er) and blunt, asked, "Why don't you go in the water?"

"Oh, I don't like the water! I never go in," she replied.

"Then why do you come to the beach?"

She volleyed me a look that said "you impossible fool, one goes to the beach because everybody goes to the beach," and busied herself arranging the elaborate, black, see-through, sequined cover-up over her plump thighs.

Meanwhile, the Bürgermeister refused to join us under the umbrella; he stood--stood, mind you--on his hind legs for hours under a tree back near the road, in a white tee-shirt and swim trunks, watching the girls at play with fixed and vigilant eyes, like some prissy, neurotic lifeguard. This was when I tried in vain to come up with the Italian translation of "Jeez, but that guy's got a big stick up his ass" for my husband.

Frau Weiner's aversion to water is inbred, I found out. Her parents have a beach house in Viareggio, mere steps from the boardwalk, and religiously rent a front-row spot in one of the more expensive bagni every summer--but they, too, never deign to enter the water. In fact, even though they pay through the nose for the privilege of having their chaises and umbrella available for the three-month duration, they've stopped going to the beach at all, abandoning their precious patch of sand to visiting grandchildren. "It's too hot," they complain.

That's why there's the water.

One summer, we accepted an invitation by the Bürgermeister clan to join them in Viareggio, and watched the Fear-of-Water-Hurly-Burly-Show play out daily. As usual, Frau Weiner was ensconced on her chaise like Jabba the Hutt on a plinth, each day sporting a different fashionable swimsuit with gauzy, coordinating cover-up and sparkly infraditi. This time the Bürgermeister managed to actually sit for periods--albeit bolt upright--in a canvas director's chair, craning his neck to watch every life-threatening splash the girls made. An oversized canvas beach bag sat next to Frau Weiner, and every time the girls would tire of their games and come out of the water--to play in the sand perhaps, or get a drink of water or a snack--she would pluck two fresh bathing-suits out of the bag and immediately change them, towelling them off frantically, lest they catch a chill. Every time. I was as riveted by this ritual as if she were Houdini performing the handkerchief trick out of a top hat--bathing suit after bathing suit kept coming out of the bag, in seemingly endless supply. Once again I couldn't resist:

"Why do you change them every time they come out of the water [you psychotic, Lycra-encased sausage]?"

"Because they'll get bronchite if they sit around in wet suits [you hopelessly stupid, foolhardy Yank]."

"Oh." I squinted up at the molten, orange orb in the sky and at the waves of heat shimmering along the shoreline, while sweat pooled in-between my toes. "Well, we wouldn't want that."

If the poor girls had even so much as one bite of focaccia, or a cracker, or a piece of fruit, the Bürgermeister would command from his director's chair, "NO GOING IN THE WATER NOW FOR AT LEAST TWO HOURS, OR YOU'LL GET A CRAMP AND DROWN!" Apparently that was his sole function and purpose for being on the beach at all--since nary a stiff, punctilious toe of his ever even dipped in the water.


So if I shan't be spending summer in this Hell--a Hell that could kill me quicker than if I were to be smeared in Spam and left for bear bait--where will I be spending the dog days, you may ask? Why, in Heaven, of course. I shall be enjoying nearly two glorious months in the majestic Pacific Northwest. What's more, I plan on wantonly indulging in all the things that would kill an ordinary Italian: basking in air-conditioned environments until I get goose-flesh, swilling iced tea that is chock full of ice cubes, eating spicy ethnic food, getting soaked at water parks and letting myself air dry--and did I mention eating spicy ethnic food?

Here's wishing a wonderful summer full of similar risks, dangers and pitfalls to all of you, my dear Readers. I may post while abroad, or I may not--we'll see. But rest assured that I'll be back in September--if the Sasquatch doesn't get me, of course. Or the water.

Yours, ever recklessly,


Monday, July 04, 2011

Guerrilla-style potato salad (this is NOT a recipe)

In honor of Independence Day, upon which we were liberated from our Oppressors--culinary and otherwise.

Dear Readers,

It's always something. When you live in a foreign country, even the most innocuous request can open up a can of wriggling, irritating, cultural worms.

Recently, because of my Yankee origins, I was asked to contribute un piatto americano to my six year-old daughters' year-end class picnic. I smothered a loud, curmudgeonly groan and the usual array of curses with an effusive, "Why, of course! I'd be delighted!" The organizer-mom had the cute idea to ask everyone to bring a dish from their native land--which is odd, considering that nearly all the parents are Florentine and thus we'd be having the usual slew of local fare. But, upon reflection, I suppose this class is about as diverse as it gets for my little corner of Florence: there are two American moms (including yours truly), as well as a Japanese, a German, a Danish, and a French mom--and one from Calabria (though from a bona fide region of Italy, she's considered as foreign as the rest of us).

Preparing ethnic/American dishes for Italians is a tricky business (one I have touched upon here), hence my annoyed reluctance to subject myself and my not-too-shabby-if-I-do-say-so-myself cooking to the typically close-minded scrutiny of such cuisine-phobic pantywaists. The iconic foodstuffs, the hamburgers and hot dogs and their ilk, seem to be what most Italians expect from us--rather like malaria from pesky mosquitos. I have found that efforts to enlighten them with our genuine, though perhaps harder-to-suss-out, homemade specialties are usually as lost on their sissified palates as flotsam in a roiling sea of culinary provincialism. For instance, every time I have served an honest-to-goodness, made-from-scratch-and-redolent-with-spice pumpkin pie to People of the Boot, they double over and fling themselves from their dining chairs as if they'd just cannibalized a dear-departed, and practically projectile vomit all over the walls. I have, since, ceased to inflict this particular--though dearly beloved to me--dessert of doom on my adopted countrymen.

For the most part, Italians simply have no idea what other people in the world eat—beyond the stereotypes, of course—and, when it comes down to it, they simply don't care.

Once, in the bookstore where I was working, a liver-spotted, toad-like Italian cretin with Baroque sunglasses and carefully-upturned, pressed polo collar asked me to show him a book on American cuisine. When I pulled out Thomas Keller's newly-arrived Ad Hoc at Home, he added--his voice dripping with sarcasm--“That is, if there IS such a thing as American cuisine!" Naturally, I immediately rendered him unconscious by hitting him over the head with the cash register.

I feel no need to be ashamed of American food that uses the best of our local ingredients. Our vast continent is teeming with a Pilgrim's bounty of wonderful indigenous produce; that fresh, green breast of the New World about which Fitzgerald wrote nourishes its wayward children on an embarassment of culinary riches. And of course the tired, poor, huddled masses whose foreign hands stirred the great, exotic, multi-ethnic minestrone created an ever-changing smorgasbord for generations to enjoy and riff upon. American cuisine is rather like American English—peppered with far-flung influences, constantly innovating and evolving, a veritable bucking bronco of free-spirited creativity—producing a rather astonishing and riotous polyglot range of expression which ennables us to get straight to the point with a grilled-cheese-on-rye, or elaborate more thoroughly with a Creole jambalaya or New England clam chowder. It's a language and a cuisine that both shoots from the hip and frolics with the sublime--and, yes, it does have its fair share of barbarisms.

Entirely at a loss, I put the question of what to make for the class picnic to friends. Among the quintessentially American (and, I suspect, slightly irreverent) suggestions were: pizza-lasagne-spaghetti, White Castle sliders, Tater Tot casserole, funnel cakes, coney dogs, Twinkies dipped in taco sauce (this from a respected educator. Hi Mr. S!), cocktail weenies, lime Jell-O salad, mac n' cheese, and my personal favorite—buffalo jerky, roast squirrel (or, in a pinch, muskrat) and acorn mush. Now that's what I call going native.

In the end I decided on an archetypical picnic food: the humble potato salad. After all, I reasoned, Italians eat potatoes, don't they? I knew I'd be playing fast and loose, though, what with the spicy mustard I add to the mayonnaise. And of course there was the clear and present danger of the bits of pickle and celery—that could trigger the inborn revulsion/expulsion reflex. But dammit-all, I'm proud to be American and by God I was gonna give those self-righteous noodle-eaters a taste of the Stars and Stripes! Hell, yeah!

So I stormed the picnic with a splendidly defiant potato salad, my eyes blazing, my head held high.

I discovered that only myself--representing the red, white, and blue--Japan, Denmark, and Calabria showed up. (Clearly the others were chicken). "Well, here goes--to hell with them!" I thought, as I slapped my Tupperware down decisively on the long table under the gazebo, daring the first Italian to taste my offering. (I suppose this attitude makes me the anti-Christ to Martha Stewart's Jesus).

Did they eat it? No. Sure, there were a few cautious nibbles, then the culinary equivalent of a dead silence. Me and Danish mom (who brought a bowl of crispy bacon, God bless her, of which I and my wolfish offspring ate two-thirds and dumped what remained into my purse) polished off half. Then--to add insult to injury, as they say--I was asked to judge an Italian mom's attempt at New York-style cheesecake. Still burning from my slighted potato salad, I looked down at the impossibly flat, sticky-purple-goo-slathered, burned-periphery concoction and tried not to let a Kurtz-like tremor of horror overtake my body. The thing had three inches of Kalahari-dry, brick-like cookie crust and two centimeters of a glum glop comprised of cream cheese, mascarpone, ricotta and--apparently--cotton balls. But did I gag and clutch my throat? Did I spew in disgust and wrath? No. I choked the abomination down, smiled, and pronounced it delicious.

And as it turns out, I was also too chicken to cackle or mock or show my stunned surprise at the enormous plastic trough of STEWED VEAL that some Italian miscreant brought. (Nothing like thick, hot stew at a picnic in 90-degree weather, I always say! How dare they spurn my cool, tangy, tastebud-tickling potato salad? Fools! Xenophobes! Depraved stew-lickers!).

Thankfully, James Beard, MFK Fisher, and Julia Child--up there among the celestial crockpots in their culinary Valhalla--showed mercy and did not smite chicken-livered me with an outraged lightning bolt from on high.

So as you see, dear Readers, I clearly failed in my mission. I do not possess the forbearance and valor needed to force the food of my star-spangled heritage down the gullets of infidels. It takes real guts to be a soldier in the culinary crusades here in Italy, I tell you. More guts that I have, that's for sure.