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:
If you want to read more pieces of my memoir visit my other blog: