Thursday, June 19, 2014

A Labor of Love - Un Lavoro D'Amore

The plebs sat at the table in a taberna in ancient Rome
This morning I was talking on the phone with an Italian friend, who lives in Boston. She said, at some point in our conversation, that the history of food in Italy is more than two thousand years old. That remark started haunting me. I suddenly remembered the hours spent translating insightful pieces of literature about food from Latin into Italian. Specifically, the words of Orazio, Plinio and Marziale that were keeping me awake at night as a teenager. Many memories!

Back in ancient Rome, most people (the plebs) cooked and ate sitting on benches at the table. Of course not everyone could afford the lavish extravagant banquets with the refined cuisine and spectacular effects of ostentation, which were going on until late at night in the rich people's houses. I remember the descriptions of Plutarch of this aspect of the Roman life and the type of cutlery used at the table. Although they could not afford to eat all day long, the less well-to-do people were also keen to eat well because, according to the Romans, it was the only thing which was able to provide everyone with the "bene supremo" (the supreme good), which is the pleasure of life.

More specifically, the indigent people lived in small, narrow, rented rooms, with no kitchen. They were allowed to use the only crowded kitchen of the building, placed in the common atrium, a sort of courtyard. Despite these difficulties, most of them were cooking with a warmer at the center of the room to avoid fires; others, in order to cook their meals, were bringing the boiling water from an underlying "taberna" (a bar located underground). The ones who had no time to come home for lunch were eating at the nearest taberna simple but tasty dishes such as whole wheat bread with anchovy paste obtained from garum innards, boiled eggs, sardines, cheese, fruit and vegetables, and they could even drink wine mixed with warm water. So food in ancient Rome was already a labor of love, across all classes. 

"How was the sugo today? I tried to cook it light so it can be easily digested." Gran Carlo Restaurant's Chef, Torino.
As Lèvi-Strauss put it, “if a society without language cannot exist, a society that cannot cook at least a small number of basic dishes the same way cannot exist either.” In my experience, the English have a limited number of dishes they try to always cook the same way, for example lamb chops (always with mint), fish and chips (always with vinegar), roast beef (always with puddings) and chicken curry, a dish the English invented after discovering curry in India (always with naan bread). The English are aware of this limitation and always reminded me of the few traditional dishes they have. In England, I remember hearing that some of these dishes have to be cooked in a certain way, the English way. I viewed this as part of the identity of England and was able to get used to most of their dishes (with the exception of fried blood :)).

On the contrary, here in America, I only know a couple of traditional dishes: the turkey (with cranberry sauce) cooked at Thanksgiving and the American BBQ (with corn bread). Honestly, these are the only two dishes I am happy to eat in alternative to ethnic food here, because I know what to expect. Or at least, I do most of the times. The other dishes are filled with ingredients I struggle to digest (e.g. butter, garlic, sour cream, fried bacon), overly flavored, and never prepared in a consistent manner. So, the moment of sitting at the table in a restaurant for me, here in America, instead of being the pursuit of pleasure, is usually filled with anxieties.

To me food is not only a matter of identity (traditions) and intimacy (taking care of my body) and social relationships ("After a good meal one can forgive anybody, even one's own relations”, used to say Oscar Wilde) but, after becoming intolerant to various foods, it has also become a matter of the heart. It is the first and most important link between my mind and my body. It is a way to communicate my identity and my positive emotions to others, in particular to the people close to me.

Cod marinated in olive oil, lemon, salt, pepper, thyme and rosemary
 William and Chiara dining together
"La frase d'amore piu' vera, l'unica e': hai mangiato?" (The question that truly shows love, the only one: Have you eaten?)  said once the famous Italian novelist Elsa Morante.

The American reader who might not understand the meaning of this question, often pronounced by most Italian mothers, can listen to the famous Italian-American song below, which says pretty much the same thing. Enjoy.

So, have you eaten? If not, we are cooking here. :)