Friday, May 26, 2006

Hungry for Life

I think my mother and I used to make bread together. I imagine her, sifting and measuring and wiping everything down, me sinking my hands into various “wet” or “dry” mixtures and squishing the contents through my fingers. I don’t remember the actual act of making bread, but to this day the sight, smell and feel of flour remind me of her and the efficient, full fledged production that was her cooking.

I do remember my mother used to make Christmas bread for her friends. Obstinately believing holiday gifts should not be bought but made, she’d spend five days and nights in the kitchen, baking over 500 loaves of bread that would then be individually wrapped. Afterwards, she’d resentfully swear she’d never do it again and, still covered in flour and smears of yummy smelling goo, she’s slip her stained oven mitts on one more time and yank a loaf fresh out of the oven, bang on the bottom of it and shake the contents onto a rack on the counter. She’d cut thick slices of it, and we’d eat it with our fingers, without even sitting at the table. A few minutes later she’d take a gulp of coffee, declare the ordeal officially over and go to bed.

Paris. My father took me there for the first time when I was seven. I know we went with a lot of other people, but I see only him and me at that tiny, candlelit table for two. He taught me how to take a mini-pancake from the basket, set it on the plate, put caviar on it, and slowly place it in my mouth. Soon, the pancake basket- plate- caviar bowl-pancake-mouth process became a two step caviar bowl – mouth frenzy while he pretended not to notice. I haven’t had caviar since. Why interfere with that perfect marine memory?

Early morning. Bread and fruit in Naxos. I’d leave the room we were staying at, go to the market before anyone else was up, order bread and fruit in Greek (between you and me, I mostly just pointed), pay, count the coins, say efharisto and take everything back to the room. It was my first taste of independence (I can go downstairs, up the street and into the market, alone) and empowerment (I can make myself understood, anywhere. Ergo, I can do anything.) I’d return, triumphant, generously spreading out the goods on the bed and giving back the correct amount of change. Making our parents proud fulfills the most basic, most insatiable of needs. (Go ahead. Psychoanalyze that.)

Pepper steak, somewhere on the coast of France. I didn’t know pepper could be not pepper, not a pungent, dark dust but a buttery, wood colored sauce. And so….well, peppery. I don’t like meat that much anymore, but pepper steak has a place in my heart. When I see it on a menu, I pause and greet it before moving on.

When I was maybe eleven, I had a friend, Maru, who had a permanent stash of “American candy” at her disposal. Her parents would travel to the US frequently, and bring back whole suitcases of loot (And Agree shampoo). I would go over to her house and we’d set up a tent in their garden, then go through an obscene amount of sugar (Fun Dip and Milky Way remain clearest in my memory.) Junk food was sacrilege at my house. I didn’t want Maru to know I was breaking such an uncool rule, so I would tell her that I would be picked up 10 minutes before the real pick up time. I’d say goodbye, then spend that frantic moment rinsing my mouth and my fingers with the hose in her garden. I’m sure my mother noticed my purple tongue despite my efforts to conceal the evidence – besides which, I must have been bouncing off the walls. Today, I unfailingly stare at the rows and rows of candy at the supermarket. I don’t buy any – I don’t even want to. But I’m irrevocably attracted to the bright colors and delicious excess of the displays.

Panzerotto in Duvrovnik, on a small, rickety white table overlooking the Mediterranean. My husband later explained, in a mildly offended tone, that panzerotto was Italian, not from (then) Yugoslavia. He took me to a place where they make them behind Piazza del Duomo. Yup. Same gorgeous, golden, bubbly stuff. So good, it did not let down my recollection of it, which had remained untouched for more than 20 years.

Tabouleh and hummus at my Godmother’s house. She was Lebanese and everything about her radiated a sophistication I could never quite belong to. The flowing hair. The silk robes. The white fluffy rugs. The low furniture. Having a meal while sitting on the floor. And, hummus! Who knew that could be done with a chick pea? (Incidentally, there is a fabulous Armenian restaurant in Mountain View called Amanor Deli and Bakery. They make the best Tabouleh and hummus I’ve ever tasted – better than the one I remember from so many years ago. I don’t eat it without thinking of my Godmother who, somewhere in heaven, must be appalled that I still leave the house without a lick of make-up on.)

Noodles in China. I sat in a sort of stall in the streets of Xian, watching a man roll, then stretch out the dough, slice it magically into noodles against his arm, after which he’d throw it into a huge, steaming bowl. He’d proceed to serve generous portions of it, and I could barely see his slim face and straight, black hair through the clouds of steam. Those noodles were spicy, hot and worth a trip back to China, which I plan to do. Soon.

The first time I ever had pasta al aglio, oglio e peperoncino. Luca put an apron on, chopped, measured, timed, drained and put it into a serving dish, which he set with flair on the center of the table. As I ate, I thought “A man who cooks. With an apron. I must marry him”. When I looked over, he was looking at me, wide eyed. “What are you thinking?” I asked, hopefully. “You just ate nine servings of pasta” he responded. (To his credit, he wasn’t horrified. He was in awe.). I thought the power of pure, true love would make me immune to caloric consumption. (It didn’t).

Risotto alla parmigiana in a hole in the wall by the side of the road near Aosta. Pretty much everything I’ve eaten in Italy belongs on this list, but that risotto again proved to me that you don’t need much of anything to make a meal good. Food is not meant to be a snobby affair. All you’re really required to do is eat it.

Burrata. The most fresh, most creamy dish ever created. “Fresh” is usually used to describe vegetables, leafy greens, fruit. “Creamy” is rich. It’s mouth feel and often heavy. This is fresh and creamy and light, with a clean aftertaste, not greasy. I seem to have a natural affection towards any dish that comes from Puglia. I’m afraid to visit.

Cremini FIAT. The best chocolate. Ever. This from someone who likes to try new things and who consumes chocolate regularly. When in Italy, I buy a box or two of Fiat “to take home and savor across several months”. The boxes have never seen the inside of my suitcase.

Chile covered mango from Trader Joe’s. I know. Not very sophisticated. But reminiscent of my childhood and adolescence. In Mexico, you eat tamarind covered in chile, lollipops covered in chile, gum covered in chile and even just chile with sugar. I’d found nothing like it here, until I came across this chile encrusted dried mango I can’t open without feeling my mouth water.

John Lennon was right. Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans. If you’re very lucky, though, you’re eating something while making them.

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