The woman I lived with during my junior year abroad in Florence, Italy, was not what I had imaged a sweet yet feisty Italian mama would be like. Signora B was a devoted born-again Christian living in a deeply Catholic country, a vegetarian, and didn’t believe in thermometers or most simple modern medicine. She didn’t have a large family coming in and out of her home, and the family that I did hear about were rarely regarded kindly. Her voice was high-pitched, ridden with false excitement, her hair was untamed and curly with a balding spot at the crown of her head, and her lipstick was everywhere but her lips. Though, her house was stunning—it was right next to the famous Piazza Santa Croce, and it must have been built sometime in the 15th century. She loved to talk about how Giovanni da Verrazzano, the famous Italian explorer, once lived there. Architecturally, it was beautiful; stylistically it was Signora B. Signora B was an artist in her temperament, her life style, and in her design. If she thought she could do it herself, she did, and often times, like sealing the floor with something that turned my socks brown, I had wished she wasn’t a “do-it-yourself” type.
The kitchen and dining room, and the events that encompassed that particular area of the house, were an instrumental part of my time in Italy. Every night, all the students and travelers living in the house would gather for a beautifully dysfunctional Italian family dinner. The kitchen, which was off-limits to her curious guests, was lined with newspaper as a makeshift cover to protect her precious tile from the whirlwind that she lived inside. Sitting in the dinning room, you could hear the newspaper crunching and ripping under her feet as she cooked and moved about. The dining area was warm and welcoming, even the ants from the garden loved to spend time there, hanging out with us at the table and sharing our dinner—dinner really was a Signora B family event.
When I applied to my program for my year abroad, I wrote my entrance essay about food, naturally. I essentially ate my way through my year abroad and I have the photos and stretch marks to prove it. Sometimes I look back on it and cringe at how disgusting I allowed myself to get, but then I think about everything I was uncontrollably gorging down and all pains of guilt and embarrassment disappear. Weight comes and goes, but living and studying in Italy is once in a lifetime. Now, with that said, Signora B’s dinners were uniquely her. As mentioned before, Signora B was a vegetarian, and I strongly suspect that the meat dishes she prepared for us, her sinful animal-murderers, was her passive-aggressive way of punishing us for our wrongdoings. It was usually a flat, un-cutable, un-chewable, piece of beef soaked in olive oil and decorated with chunks of salt. Her vegetables, from what I can remember were good—she made a delicious lentil soup and leek dish. Her wine tasted stale, which might have been from the pieces of the cork swimming in it. It was also not uncommon to find the strands of hair that once inhabited the crown of her head, in our dinner. Signore B unconsciously made sure that we could taste her chaotic emotions and irrational behavior.
Ironically, considering the enormous meals she prepared, Signora B hated leftovers, so she didn’t throw any food away until it was absolutely necessary. For instance, the questionable tuna casserole, which for a week made various appearances at the dinner table dressed in different carefully crafted mayonnaise patterns. Signora B thought she could fool us into eating it if it looked “prettier”—personally, mayonnaise wouldn’t have been my tool of choice in food beautification. Our appetizers were bowls of pasta, and because she hated leftovers and maybe hated me at times, I was assigned with the task to make sure none was left—like I said earlier, I have the photos and stretch marks to prove it. This continued until, thankfully, an American student built like a football player and dressed in J-crew took that burden off my shoulders. I sincerely thank him to this day because otherwise I am not sure I would have been able to fit in my airplane seat home, not that I wanted to go home, but it was a looming inevitability.
Living in Signora B’s house was not just accented by her food; it was also somewhat comparable to living at the United Nations. I was privileged enough to meet and engage in conversation with absolute characters from all over the world. I will never forget the Iraqi family I was almost sold off to as a wife, or the very kind Algerian family who lived in her dungeon-basement for a week. It was Signora B’s dinners, chunks of salt mixed with her strands of hair and all, which made these authentic interactions happen.
My memories of those many dinners is like the food she served—at first perplexing and even sometimes insulting, but in the end endearing. Signora B and I didn’t always get along, in fact there were some very emotional struggles between the two of us, some of which, I must admit were my fault but, by the end of the year through all the madness, Signora B and I had a special relationship. Though it’s impossible to tell what she was thinking and at times I doubted the motives of her reserved yet amicable gestures towards me, I will take it anyway, put it in a bowl, add some olive oil, twirl it with my fork, and, with satisfaction, eat it.
Thursday, January 20, 2011
Saturday, January 15, 2011
I dedicate this post to my good friend, Ashley.
For years a couple of friends and I have been discussing a sort of conspiracy theory. The theory is this: people who don't like to eat can't be trusted. As far as I know there is no "real" scientific data to back this up, though nonetheless it became a hard fact for us. Now, this may seem irrational, but once examined its absoluteness is undeniable. In fact, we have studied and debated this theory so closely that is has become an indisputable rule for our circle of friends.
People who don't enjoy food deny themselves of one of the most basic human pleasures. Although like all things that are pleasurable there is a fine line between hedonism and balance. To find food and eating as a task is also to shelter oneself from culture and engage with others. Food is an art, food makes communities, and finally food is a significant glimpse into other's culture and way of life.
On New Year's Day, a friend from Eritrea (for those not familiar, Eritrea is a country in Africa next to Ethiopia) made for a small group of my friends and I a traditional Eritrean/Ethiopian lunch. It was her way of showing us her love and sharing with us her home. She made different lentil dishes, a beef-type stew, all served with injera. Injera is according to wikipedia: "a large sourdough flatbread, which is about 50 centimeters (20 inches) in diameter and made out of fermented teff flour. Ethiopians eat with their right hands, using pieces of injera to pick up bites of entrées and side dishes. No utensils are used." The meal was delicious and I am lucky to have a caring friend who took the time to expand my mind and desire to know more about the world.
To have denied this wonderfully prepared meal on the basis that food is a task and should be kept to its bear minimum, would have been to reject my friend, and more so refuse to open myself up to a deeper multi-cultural understanding. By stubbornly abiding to such pretenses one thereby refuses to learn, and those who refuse to learn or understand others absolutely cannot be trusted. These kind of people will always choose themselves and their convictions over yours, and you will be always be a second thought to them--I really don't believe a true friendship can last on such a frame-work.
Enough with my ranting, but to my readers, take a moment and consider the people in your life, and think about what I have just written. I am curious to see if this theory is as valid as I am convinced it is.
Saturday, January 8, 2011
Food fraud, it's something that happens all over the world. Countless amounts of tourists and even locals have fallen victim to it. Food fraud, is exactly what it sounds like, food which possess characteristics of authenticity, but in reality is over-priced, poor quality, and a misrepresentation of the item it's attempting to mimic. For instance, tourists flock to Italy for world-famous culinary indulgences and the Italians are very well aware of their cultural allure and the capital that can be made. In the piazzas these restaurants are lined up, shoulder to shoulder, competing for customers. They use the illusion of falsified romanticism covered in pink table cloths and lace to capture the pedestrians' attention. Most, sadly, are ignorant to the over-priced and ill-prepared food they are about to happily digest.
During my time in Italy, I did my best to recognize the signs of food fraud, but back here, in the United States, I was woefully duped in my very own neighborhood, Culver City. Meet Restaurant, a so-called "French bistro" is anything but. It's cozy exterior and warm lighting enticed me, and in a hypnotic haze I decided to eat there. I wish I could say the food was boring, but that would be an over-exaggeration. The cheapness was palpable and the prices were insulting--my artichoke didn't even pretend to have never been frozen. As I disappointingly played with my food I looked around me to find families and even dates filling the restaurant to a moderate capacity. They seemed content--I suppose in this case ignorance is bliss.
Right next-door to Meet is Saint Amour--a bistro so authentic that even the French waiters ignore their tables for just the right amount of time; enough to be annoyed but not to leave. Saint Amour's menu is creative and comforting. It's filled with such treats rarely found in The United States, as Ris de Veau, seared sweetbread, frisee, capers, and lemon, and Cassoulet de Toulouse, duck leg confit, sausage, and white beans. The few bites of these dishes that I stole from my dinner companion were delightful. For my main course I ordered Boeuf Bourguinon, red wine braised beef cheeks, carrots, and gnocchi. The beef cheeks were cooked so precisely that it almost literally melted in my mouth. For dessert I indulged my sweet-tooth with a Croustade, which was warm and just right--if I wasn't in public I might have licked the plate afterwards. Also the prices were reasonable for the food and quality served. All-in-all Saint Amour was a refined remedy to Meet.
Monday, January 3, 2011
I recently paid my very first student loan out of many more to come, and as I watched my bank account whimper with that transaction, I can't help but to look back on my undergraduate days at Sarah Lawrence College. They were some of the most challenging, yet most rewarding experiences I have had to date. In tribute of that time in my life I am posting two poems I wrote my freshman year. It was the only time I dabbled in writing poetry and I think it will be my last, because I am clearly not a poet. I know I haven't really written about food yet, and I promise I will in my next post, but in honor of nostalgia here they are.
Spiral Bound Divinity
My mother told me never look into the sun.
The afternoon I did,
Helios threw poison-tipped spears
through the pupils of my eyes.
Spirals released and attached
like the jaws of a leach breaking
pure flesh. I whisper the words it wants me to
mumble. I am just an accidental Hermes.
Homemade h-bombs drop
on my coincidental curse of the divine.
The only thing that limps away are cockroaches
with oedipal crosses branded on their wings.
Now it is just me and them
stuck in a world inside of itself.
The tread of this life is set
to the tempo of my cerebral pulse.
This stolen gift is my demise.
It claws for nourishment.
Skull swells at each jab.
I am not your keeper.
Drilling the spirals out of my brain
to show allegiance to the norm.
Tin can grin
spits empty syllables,
your misty morning dreams
swallowed me whole.
The stems from our palms entangled,
while we marched on the edge of the sun.
holds you tighter
than I ever could.
Enwraps you with
her long red locks.
I stand idly.
You made your choice,
now I have made mine.
My hero, my love,
you are now
among fish bones
washed up on the shore.
You lay comatose
with your dreams beside you,
I walk away
with no tears.
I do not waste them on the foolish.