“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?
The garden at our family home is exploding with the best autumnal colours, and with a few edible delights – pomegranates and jujubes. You might have caught sight of a jujube shrub or tree before; for one, they are very widespread in Veneto. Traditionally used as ornamental plants, locals slowly began to appreciate them for their fruits, which they would use to make confectionery and liqueurs.
Every year in October, the tiny medieval village of Arquà Petrarca, in the Euganean Hills of Veneto, hosts a picturesque, popular festival dedicated to the humble jujube. During the festival (but really throughout the whole year), you can find all sorts of jujube-based gastronomic delights, from brodo di giuggiole (a sweet liqueur obtained by macerating the fruits in an alcohol and sugar); to cakes, candies and cookies.
In my family, nothing has ever been done with the host of jujubes from our shrub. We’ve always just eaten them al naturale, munching on them straight from the fruit bowl. This year, though, the production was more abundant than usual, demanding for some culinary inventiveness to sort out any excess. The most natural thing to do, at that point, was to fire off the oven and get ready to bake.
Whenever I say I grew up in a tiny village in the Venetian countryside, people start to make assumptions, and I don’t blame them. It must sound like the best place to land on this planet. Although it has its charming traits and its good sides, there are quite a few myths to debunk about my childhood.
For starters, there were no kids – only four of us in my class in primary school. Four. Which means a) any team game was automatically a bummer and lasted very shortly, and b) I had to do the maths and the grammar at the blackboard every single day. And what is worse, I had no one to exchange or share my food with. On the break between classes (intervallo), when kids were allowed to eat a snack and run around, I would eat whatever my mum had put in the little zipper pocket of my Cartoon-branded backpack without a chance to trade it with someone else. Statistically speaking, four people were simply not enough. Not that anybody would have wanted to trade their food with mine anyway, and the reason for this takes me to the second myth.