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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Taste of Days




In Port Orford, we meet neighbors casually, mostly on our daily walks.

Before we knew anybody, we worried about the creeping blackberry bushes  covering our yards, the strange new rhythm of the  retired, putting off chores, reminding ourselves that our days were free and easy, having something to do becoming a good thing for when we needed something to do.

After a few walks, I ran into Mike whose family came from the general region of Italy where I grew up. We talked about foods peculiar to that area. His version of pasta and fagioli, pasta and beans is not like mine. Mike insists that his version is authentic. His folks brought the recipe from Bari, a town on the Adriatic Sea, a major port and center of commerce with eastern Europe and Asia Minor.

Isolated for centuries, towns like ours developed their version based on available local ingredients. His town was big enough to have commerce and tourism, elements necessary for restaurants to flourish. My town was just not big enough to lodge and feed visitors. Even in 1959, when I left, and the town had grown and acquired phones and televisions, there was only one trattoria attached to a hotel.

I remember my first and only meal in that place. The occasion was a visit from some distant cousin passing by, interested in meeting all his relatives.

The restaurant served pasta e fagioli as a first course, disappointing my mother who was expecting something more sophisticated. I ate nothing, not even the second course of baked potatoes and chicken. Not even dessert.

Whatever and however mother had cooked for us had been the only way food could be cooked and the only food I ate. My grandmother commented to my dad that I had been trained well, skipping food so everyone would have enough. That had not been my intention.

It was the custom that even if we were hungry, if we were offered food at other people’s houses, we must politely refuse the offer. The reason went like this: people barely had enough for themselves and theirs. As a courtesy, if you happened to be at their house around meal times, they would insist you sit and eat with them. They insisted; you declined. Everybody saved face. In my case, it had not been courtesy and good manners. I truly did not trust anybody’s else cooking. Nothing tasted like mother’s food.

Mother’s version of the dish took hours to prepare. First, she had to cook the beans. She started early in the morning, with a crockery pot full of water and dry beans, positioned in the back of the fireplace and rotated on a regular basis. The beans were flavored with bay leaves, garlic cloves and capicollo, a piece of saltback saved for the occasion. Hours in a slow fire melted the beans to a buttery consistency. The beans could then be dressed with olive oil and fried peperoncini or they could be added to the pasta. Mother’s secret was to sauté the garlic and the tomatoes separately in olive oil before adding it to the beans and to pasta. Lastly, she would add pecorino cheese all over the dish, melding the flavors. Whole wheat bread was passed around and wine was poured. The ingredients and the cooking never changed.

I can see us at the table, a white starched tablecloth, a big communal plate, father at the head of table. 

Dinners went on for hours, starting with a pasta dish and ending with fruit and nuts. Wine was always present, watered down for us children. Everybody’s business and the problems of the world were discussed at lenght at these meals.

My version of the meal is abbreviated. I still prefer the taste of beans simmered slowly for hours. But I use canned beans for convenience now and then.

When I sautée the garlic and the tomatoes, the smells begin to transport me slowly. I can almost see Mother over the stove, tasting the sauce, pronouncing that it needs something.

Yes, I want to shout, it needs something. It needs the smell of the land, the same one that Father brought back from the farm with a basket of produce; that smell lingered in the house, even after he washed his sweat and dirt before sitting down to the evening meal. The smell of hard work; the smell of sweat over a parched soil.

When I cook my beans from scratch, or open a bottle of wine, or tear into a freshly baked loaf of bread, with each sip, each bite, the ritual brings the same result. All my days are present on that day, all my history and my ancestry.

My children do not have this connection. For them, eating is sandwiched between soccer practices, piano lessons and television viewing, just another leisure activity, easily exchanged for other leisure activities.

I still want to linger over a meal and a glass of wine; I still want to taste those days.

p.s. This is a Memoir piece.If you want recipes of traditional Italian meals, visit Eleonora's blog:
http://agliooliopeperoncino.blogspot.com/

If you want to read more pieces of my memoir visit my other blog:
http://lakeviewer-wheniwasyourage.blogspot.com/

27 comments:

Tabor said...

Lakeviewer, you and I are so similar in our memories. My mother was not a great cook and I don't even remember anything other than fired chicken and pasta on Sundays...but food was valuable and to be savored. I can remember eating a loaf of Italian bread and pepperoni on the drive home from shopping because we were so hungry for lunch and it tasted wonderful.

CambridgeLady said...

You are describing something that so many communities world-wide are losing .... the pleasure and ritual of sitting down for a meal, taking time to savour food and wine, and just having a conversation across the generations. A meal should be an occasion. Wonderful post and an apt reminder :o)

merrilymarylee said...

What a lovely tribute to your mother and a wonderful memory to savor. I had to smile that your memorable meal at the lovely setting didn't include food.

My children are grown with families of their own and sometimes when I'm beating myself up with coulda, shoulda's, I remind myself that we ate breakfast and dinner together almost every day. One of my crazy memories is that I baked cookies for them every week...only to learn that a REAL treat was an Oreo.

Delwyn said...

Hello Rosaria

this is a lovely story of your family memories and the difference between cultures, even micro ones, and the current day culture which often amounts to grazing on the hoof.

I can get a sense of your attachment to the past and to your family and how food often has the power to make that link tangible.

I think it is very important that families make the time to sit together around the table sharing food and experiences and problems.

It reminds me of a wonderful book called Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Remen, who talks of the loss of shared community around the table...

Happy days

Terra said...

The meal you describe of beans, bread and wine sounds delicious and nourishing to the soul too.

Helen said...

This tribute to your mother inspires me (and I am certain) many others to commit to the dining room, a shared meal and wonderful conversation!

Snowbrush said...

So all that dishonesty in refusing invitations to eat that Garrison Keillor criticizes country people for had it origin in respect and consideration. Thanks for sharing this.

Brian Miller said...

there is just something that happens to a relationship when we take time to linger over it together...the last bit there got me thinking on it...too much busy-ness these days...

√ Abraham said...

I wish I could linger over meals.

The Army did two things to me. One, get me hooked on smoking as they passed out free cigarettes with every c-ration we got.

Then they made us eat so fast. I mean a whole company only had minutes to eat.

When we finally got regular meals the time was about thirty minutes and I still can't take my time eating. My wife hates it.

Diana said...

This makes me long for so many things...the things my grandmother cooked, that mother doesn't, and I never learned. For times when things were simpler. For the days when I was less aware of the passage of time, and how full my days are. I'm not sure how, or if it's possible to get that back...

Wander to the Wayside said...

Everyone else has said everything I would have, so I'll just say thanks for another wonderful memoir post, Rosaria!

She Writes said...

I wonder what your mother would think if she knew you trusted nobody's food as much as hers. How beautiful to read that line. Her way of life still with you to tell of...

Eva Gallant said...

Families don't sit down to meals together like we did as children. Everyone is so busy. It's a shame, really.

Midlife Jobhunter said...

I find it interesting, your sharing of why people refused to eat at other's homes. I had never thought it because of the lack of food.

Even though my kids had more events than I could sometimes keep up with, I still arranged for family dinners as many times a week as I could. I still have a huge dining table and we try to make dinner an event as often as possible.

Thank you for sharing these stories of your mother and childhood. Enjoyed it immensely.

Natalie said...

I insist on a few meals a week, where everyone sits down as a family. Like you, i treasure the connections to the past, and i am hoping to instill a beautiful memory for my children in the years to come.

Ribbon said...

Simply beautiful.
Another great read.

x Ribbon

Pseudonymous High School Teacher said...

Well, I loved this. And it made me very hungry. Plus, wanting to visit Italy.

becky at abbeystyle said...

Lovely piece, Rosaria. Would that I had your childhood experience...

Susan said...

Hours at the table, solving everybody's problems, ending with fruit and nuts ... sounds like heaven. Great way to grow up.

L said...

As I get older, I too get these sudden rushes of memories. What lovely ones you have. Food ought to be respected as it is not these days.

Vagabonde said...

I enjoyed reading your post and it reminded me of the time my grand-parents came to our apartment in Paris for dinner on Sundays. Often the meal would be a leg of lamb or something like it because lamb was my father’s favorite meat. Usually a small cold fish dish as a starter and we would finish with pastries from the pastry shop because they were very good and there was a variety. There always was wine, with water in it for me. But what I remember was that the meal took so long. I did not have any siblings but was ready to go back to play before the meal was over. Not the type of meals families have now though.

Lyn said...

Rosaria,
I swear I could smell the tomatoes and garlic sauteeing on the stove. Dinnertime in our home growing up was also an important communal, family time. Spirited discussions and important decisions made over the family meal. I agree wholeheartedly with you ... today it seems that an important tradition has been lost; I work hard to create these moments for my family in the hopes they will create lasting memories for them.

I would love to join you over a loaf of fresh bread, olive oil and a bottle of wine. Oh the chat we would have!

Woman in a Window said...

Oh, this is gorgeous. This, "Yes, I want to shout, it needs something. It needs the smell of the land...". Rosaria, what we have lost over time, eh. I lament it and yet I allow it. I come here and slow down.

xo
erin

Dimple said...

Wonderful memories well told are a treasure. Thanks for sharing your wealth!

lostinsophistication said...

It's peculiar the kind of memories food is able to stir; I've only recently moved away from home and I find comfort in cooking a dish I believe my mother has mastered to perfection--just so I can have a scent of home spread through my new home.

Thank you for stopping by my blog! In regards to the "follow me"-button, I've never been in need of one(!), my blog having been followed by no-one but Rachel and myself. But I shall certainly look into the matter. :)

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