One of my favourite long essays from the book tells the story of a food stall in Padova.
Parked in one of the central piazzas from mid-afternoon until dark, ready to sort out your pre-dinner snack, La Folperia (this the telling name of the stall) dishes out plate after plate of folpetti – boiled baby octopus droused in emerald-green salsa verde. This is not all it offers, mind. Max and Barbara, the affable stall ownders, can also sort out some seafood salad if you like. But it’s certain that octopus is the main point of attraction for both regulars and newcomers. Or, at least, I know it was for me.
I paid this stall a number of visits during my University years, always for folpetti, and always with a glass of white wine in hand. On these occasions I had the chance to observe the habits and behaviours, manners and hydiosincrasies, of the patrons gathering around this stall. But also to ask a few casual questions – how it’s the octopus cooked, for how long – and record them for future use. For I had never had octopus so tended before. And, to tell you the truth, I rerely have afterwards.
“Why do you write about food?” People ask.
“Well,” I’d like to tell them, “sometimes I wonder the same thing. Let’s just say it’s complicated.”
Instead, I try to be confident, to give them a straight answer. I spit out a few words like ‘culture’ and ‘family’ amidst a vortex of phrases, but the actual train of thoughts, already blurred in my mind, often lacks any coherence. Were I prepared, or warned, or simply good at giving answers that feel lucid and well-pondered, I would reply in M.F. K. Fisher’s words. No one better than her has expressed the reasons why. In the foreword to The Gastronomical Me, she writes:
The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the other.
Love and hunger are, evidently, what keeps me writing too. And yet, I often interrogate myself on how I can keep this passion of mine burning brightly like a cherry wood fire, year after year. How do you keep yourself close to the craft while also away from burnout? The question resurged last week, as I was making a batch of these almond semolina cookies for the third time in a row. The recipe belongs to Dorie Greenspan’s new book, which, being her twelfth, decrees her as one of the most prolific cookery authors of our time. How does she do it, I thought. How does she stay interested after so many years, and so many books?
I have just recently come to terms with the fact that, for the biggest part of my life, I missed out on one of the most delicious things nature has to offer: honey. Unlike, say, beetroot, which I continue to dislike no matter how much I try to masquerade it under thick layers of horseradish-injected dressings or to blend it into chocolate cake (I just can’t get past the very earthy flavour), my feelings towards honey have changed with me. They grew as I grew, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, increasing and amplifying at every stage, spreading like a spoonful of oil on a smooth surface, slowly, unavoidably. And so, I gradually went from being the kid who couldn’t stomach a drop of it to the grown-up addict who eats her weight in liquid sugar, jar after jar after jar.
Making coffee at home in the morning is a ritual Jesse and I shared from day one. It was a habit that preceded our relationship, that we brought together effortlessly. Of course, the habit of making moka pot coffee was mine before it was ours – Jesse was always brewing his cup with a French press before moving to Italy – yet it entered our joined life without much questioning. Living in Italy, the ritual and gestures just made their way into our morning routine quite naturally.
I write this as the Christmas tree sparkles in front of me, a clear morning sky and a bright sun in the background. The air is cold and pungent, perfect to wake you up after a long sleep. One more day off before we get back, a few more hours of festive celebrations. We haven’t quite given up sweets and rich foods for the January detox regime just yet…there is still some panettone left for breakfast, good for dipping into a steamy cup of coffee. There is still Epiphany today, the last day of the holiday season when stockings are filled with sweets and citrus and nuts.