Usually, my blog is a place of great snarkery. Not great as in ‘of high quality’, I’ll admit. Sometimes I hit the mark, and sometimes I don’t. But it often makes up in quantity what it lacks in quality, and who could ask for anything more, right? But no snark today. I’m not in a snarky kind of mood. I’m in my kitchen as I write this, between batches of cookies I’ve been placing in the oven for my family and neighbors to enjoy over the holiday season. I love cooking and baking, and sometimes wonder if I’ve missed a particular calling (one of many, perhaps, but that’s another post for another day). I’m feeling a bittersweet mix of nostalgia and contentment, overlaid with a clear and calm sense of joy and well-being. I attribute this mainly to the direction of my thoughts as I work away with the mixer, recalling friends, far away for the moment, and conversation and laughter over many meals lovingly, if sometimes haphazardly, prepared. My small kitchen is full to bursting right now with a parade of guests, young and old, running through my mind, their voices and laughter and warmth making their way into each batch of dough. These will be some of the best damned cookies anyone ever tasted, I can assure you.
I’ve been experimenting with new recipes, some of them from Andrew Carmellini’s “Urban Italian” cookbook, which I highly recommend. He has one called “Nero Cookies”, which are dark chocolate balls with crushed toasted almonds and a hint of mint, dusted with sugar, and surprisingly light, airy, and crunchy once baked. Another is a delicious cookie made with ground-up hazelnuts and white chocolate with orange zest; the chocolate barely detectable but adding just enough moisture and sweetness to satisfy. Then there are his pistachio and Sambuca biscotti, and my own shortbread cookies topped with raspberry jam and Belgian milk chocolate. It’s heady and tempting stuff, and I’m simultaneously aware of a growing gratitude for the new workout DVD, an early Christmas gift from my mother, which I requested.
While scurrying around my kitchen between pantry and counters and oven, I’ve been listening to an audio book by Frances Mayes, called “Every Day in Tuscany”. Yes, I do like to multi-task occasionally. Oddly, it doesn’t feel that way today. It’s all blending quite seamlessly into one whole, delightful experience—the smells from the oven, my reverie, the author’s voice. In the book, she gives many fine and detailed descriptions of food and cooking, gardening and harvesting, and life in Tuscany among her adopted friends and family. She shows a deep appreciation for life’s simpler pleasures that I recognize, and it’s feeding my own memories of friends and food.
This post isn’t a story, really. It’s more of a description of a moment in time. The kitchen smells glorious right now, if I say so myself. My kitchen window, right next to the oven, overlooks the backyard where, in the kinder weather of early September we entertained my partner Rudi’s family who had come for two weeks from their home in Italy. We did the usual sightseeing, and I got to give my newly developed Italian language skills a test drive. I got to discover how far my skills had come since our visit to Italy a year earlier when I first met the family, and just how dauntingly far I had yet to go. But no matter—we all understood the language of food, even if the dialects were a little different. For instance, they don’t speak “mayonnaise”. I respect this though, understanding that mayonnaise—at least, Kraft style—is the culinary equivalent of peppering one’s speech with “ain’t” and “y’all”. Use sparingly and only for effect among Italians. But I digress.
The day was September 11th, which while infamous the world over for obvious reasons, also happens to be the birthday of my partner’s mother. I’m noticing how cumbersome that sounds. But she is not yet my mother-in-law, so how about we just call her Luisa? September 11th was Luisa’s 70th birthday. It also happens that we live right outside New York City, on the Jersey side. We can see that skyline from our house and yard, especially up on the second floor. On a clear night, the city lights sparkle in a way that almost makes up for the way it deprives us of the ability to see the stars at night. None of us, however, felt much like taking public transport into the city that day for the usual sightseeing. None of us wanted to brave the bridges and tunnels. Still, nine years later. We made a day of it at home, enjoying our large backyard, the gardens, the shade of the giant oak tree. There was some debate about how to structure the day; should we go to a park, would we have lunch, or make it dinner? We tried to keep to the Italian way of doing things, and planned a big afternoon meal at home. This met with a little resistance from the American faction at first, with the question being posed, “What ever happened to ‘when in Rome do as the Romans do’?” to which I responded that these are the descendants of Romans, and you just don’t screw with the Romans, ok? Besides, trust me—you might just like their way of doing things. I know I do.
My own mother drove the nearly three hours north from her home in order to meet “la famiglia”, as did a couple of my cousins who live much nearer. Coming from a barrier island in south Jersey, she had the stroke of genius to buy a huge batch of fresh clams for us to make part of our feast. And again, I’m not doing snark today—it really was a great idea. An even better idea, as it turned out, was allowing my partner’s brother, Davide, to cook those clams. I am not a clam eater, I have to say. The little suckers freak me out, frankly. I mean, have you ever really looked closely at one of those things? It’s a whole freaky little universe in each shell. But, since everyone went to such trouble, I figured I’d close my eyes and give it a shot. Turns out, it’s a friggin’ tasty little universe, too. My landlady said the same thing; at first reluctant to try them, a little arm twisting convinced her and finally with a big smile and juice on her chin she said, “Wow. I like clams. Who knew I liked clams?” She sat, and had a plate full. Inhaled it, truth be told. A woman after my own heart, for sure.
My mother also surprised us by bringing a basket full of figs. Not a bag, but a real basket. She said that upon hearing about our foreign guests, my aunt Bianchi back in my hometown had her grandchild climb a ladder into a fig tree I never knew she had, and pick some fresh figs for my mother to bring with her, saying “Italians love these.” She was right, of course. Back in Napoli, Luisa and family have their own fig trees. . . and lemon trees, and orange trees, and nectarines, and olives, and citron, and, and, and, don’t even get me started. It appears Jersey folks like freshly picked figs, too, by the way. And maybe I’m crazy, but anything tastes better from a nicely-woven basket than it does from a bag.
The cooking started early in the day, and in the meantime, the family, the landlord and her kids, me and my partner, all went indoors and out, preparing and relaxing intermittently. Rudi taught my neighbor’s six-year-old son how to play bocce, and he loved it. Rudi’s parents joined my mother with the soft, crocheted Frisbee she brought with her, and tossed it around the yard, looking like a bunch of senior citizen hippies. I kept watching for one of them to bust out a hacky-sack and a joint, but it never happened. Go figure. I picked fresh tomatoes and basil from the garden, and flowers for the table. My landlady’s husband brought us freshly baked bread from the best Italian bakery for miles. Good times. I didn’t even argue when Davide wanted to make the clams and grill the chicken himself.
I was tempted, though, because a few days earlier I had been making my homemade tomato sauce in the kitchen when he said in his broken English, “Next time, I show you the right way to make it.” I was aghast, as it wasn’t even finished yet. He hadn’t even tasted it. But like a good hostess, I kept my mouth shut. Besides, at that time I didn’t yet know how to say, “bite me” in Italian. Oh wait. . . I said no snark, didn’t I? Anyway . . . a little while later, as we were eating the pasta with my sauce (complete with fresh tomatoes and basil I had nurtured from seed and protected from groundhogs. . from seed, dammit!), Davide’s wife went wide-eyed at the first bite, smiled and said in what English she could muster, “It’s so good! How you made this?” I resisted the urge to say, “the wrong way”, and instead pulled from the shelf the book that taught me a few new tricks (Carmellini’s again. See above). I noticed Davide stopped critiquing after that. So, I let him do as he would with the clams.
The table was full of simple fare, fresh, quality ingredients, greens, veggies, olives, figs, pasta, clams, grilled marinated chicken, lemonade, iced tea and aranciata, just a little red wine, great bread, olive oil, and a chocolate birthday cake for Luisa at the end, along with a lot of espresso, and some sampling of Rudi’s homemade limoncello.
Like I said, this was not intended to be a story. It has no plot, no gripping twists and turns, and just a pinch of the usual sarcasm. It is simply a description of a moment in time, and maybe something of a prayer of thanks for such simple pleasures, and hope for more of it in the future; more chances to be with family and friends, over good food and frisbees, under a bright Autumn sun, amid the green grass and oak leaves, English and Italian mixing in the air with the smell of food, and the sound of laughter.
That evening, we sat outside around a fire in the chill September air, under that same oak tree, the smell of woodsmoke billowing around us, the wood crackling and crickets chirping, the light reflecting off satisfied faces. I looked east beyond the trees and saw the two giant beams of light; the Twin Towers memorial, and remembered the date. Lacking confidence in my Italian skills, and knowing that Luisa best understands her Neapolitan dialect anyway, I said,
“Rudi, I want to say something to your mother, and I need you to translate for me.”
“Ok,” he said.
“Tell her . . . tell her I’m so thankful to have a happy reason to mark this day for a change.”
He translated, and there were affirming nods all around from our guests. Then Luisa said something in Neapolitan.
Davide spoke this time, “She says she will come every year, if you want.”
We all laughed softly and smiled in the firelight.
“Tell her I want, Davide. Io voglio.”