HEALTHY COOKING - POEMS - STORIES

In the virtual world of blogs and social networks is all too easy to forget the real suffering of those who still live well below the poverty-threshold on our same planet, and of what we can do to relieve their struggle. This blog is a drop in the ocean, but together with your drops we can create a small oasis of love. Thanks for having paused a moment and thought about what seems so far-away and remote, and yet today more than ever is very close to us.

 

The story of a culinary redemption

The words and the picture of the logo for my blog are from my children Equia and Richmond. Yes, Equia is a poet, or at least she was one to my delight, from the age of six to the age of ten, because after that she has not written one single word. She is now 13 years old and busy with figuring out new ways to irritate me every day. Sounds familiar? Then welcome to my blog:  Low Toxin Life!  I will share with you recipes and stories, pictures and memories that I hope will help you remove some toxins from your life. And because to do good makes you feel good, I will tell you immediately that somewhere in this blog you will find also the link to buy a little booklet that I printed with all of Equia’s poems and the drawings of my talented children, I have three in total, children I mean.

How terrible!!! I write a blog to sell my children’s work!?  I could be reported...Oh, let me reassure you that all the proceedings will go to a charity that you will also find in the link and that the cost of the booklet is very small...indeed. So, share, please.

However, I should not start from Equia, because together with her twin brother Martin, she arrived in Sorrento where we live, only in the year 2008, I should start with Richmond who is their eldest brother and whom I adopted while I was working in Africa, Ghana, back in year 2000. Richmond was, in fact, responsible for my interest in food and the reason why I converted myself from a college canteen follower to a responsible eater and cook for my family. This experience is common to so many women and most of us can testify that our children have made us do things that we never dreamt we could or should do in our lives. And, why not? it could be nice to have a section in this blog where we share these experiences.  You know the kind of format that says: “I remember that time when I had to...” …And all have a laugh or shed a tear together…If anyone is interested, let’s do it! We could call it: “Mothers almost in Despair!”

I started this blog, as some visitors will remember, a few years ago, soon after I came back from Africa in the first years of 2000. In fact I lived in Accra, Ghana, for two years, teaching philosophy to college students in Legon, a nice college built by the British in 1948. While there I adopted my first son (but this story I will tell you  another time), a boy of 2 years, called Richmond who was not only handsome but “edible” as you can see from the pictures, and  who definitely gave a different flavor to my life.

 

Until that moment, in fact, my life   had been entirely dedicated to books. Food was not my thing!  Just like children had not been my article until that moment…. I had been feeding myself and my poor husband from college canteen’s food at University college in London where we were both working whilst we were also living very close to our college in the heart of London west-end. But now, there I was, back in London, central London, one of the most fascinating places in the world, fast beating and fashionable,   with my memories of Africa and a young son to rear and …feed. The University canteen was not an option, though, I confess, I tried to take him along with me, one or two times, just to discover that there was very little there that my Italian mother super-ego would deem even remotely  appropriate for the ideal growth of a human being.

The road to redemption comes from the past

So, now what? Nobody, until then had placed any demand on me as a cook, neither in Italy, before I married my English husband, nor in England, after I married and came to live in London for several years. As a girl, whenever I tried to help in the kitchen, generally on a lazy Sunday morning when I had no homework to do and I enjoyed spending time with my two unmarried aunties, both the image of fulfillment despite the bad fame earned by spinsters in Italy in those days, they always pushed me out of the way, telling me that my hands were too delicate to clean artichokes or scrub mussels. I was actually dismissed as an inexperienced young woman, acquainted only with books, every time I would timidly try to enter their domain, because that was probably seen as trespassing. Back then I was very happy to be relieved of the task that a lot of girls my age had to undertake, often unwillingly: help their mothers in the preparation of food. A mixture of laziness and aloofness made me comply so much with the helpless image they all had of me, that when my English fiancé, always so discreet about his needs, confessed to me on a summer evening that he was a bit hungry, and there were no leftovers from lunch time, I boiled some water with bay leaves and oil and gave it to him to dip some homemade bread in it, pretending it was some rural delicatessen. The poor man, blinded by love, sat down to eat it in religious silence, I don’t know if because he was too disappointed and was contemplating his grim culinary future, or if because the austerity of the ingredients reminded him of the “last supper” with not even the wine to console his heart! Finally, my brother came to the rescue and produced from the larder some local cheese and homemade pancetta and salami and wine, of course, and we all feasted, thus giving the homemade bread a better destination than the boiled water and bay leaves I had prepared. All is well that ends well. Maybe that evening my brother saved my engagement.

 

However, I must confess that I was not as helpless as everybody thought. In fact, as soon as I arrived in England, and I had been married only for few days, I decided to prepare a meal for my husband’s family. It was my first time in the kitchen and I didn’t want, I could not think small. After all, what else could I cook if not something that was staple food in Italy? So, my first meal was homemade ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, and even more fantastic! homemade Italian sausages! I had a lot of courage, because I had to start from scratch, i.e. from buying the pork skin which I stuffed with pork mince, all with my little hands. I think the impulse came to me not so much from the desire to prove myself, but rather from the longing for a true Italian sausage, because in that part of the country, back in the nineties, they had never heard of them and you could only buy them in some delicatessen in London. English sausages to my inexperienced taste buds seemed to me a bizarre imitation of Italian sausages. I thought that the butchers were actually trying to make Italian sausages but could not make the real thing. Afterwards I understood that they were meant to be different and eventually their taste grew on me. It was winter, there was a lot of snow outside that year in Surrey where we were staying with my in-laws before moving to London, and I had nostalgia of Italian food which in those years was much more seasonal than it is now: sausages were eaten only in winter, at least in Naples. The incredible thing is that the result of my effort was excellent, as everyone can testify. I had never cooked anything in my whole life, besides a boiled egg, and yet I managed a laborious and intricate preparation all on my own! Of course, years of idle watching the experienced women of my family prepare these foods day after day had left an indelible trace. However, the whole effort was also so unforgettable for me that after having proven my capability and restored my reputation as an Italian wife, I went off cooking again for several years. It was graciously accepted by my patient husband that I was a full-time scholar and as such had no time for cooking.

But now, with my little African boy by my side, looking at me with trusting eyes, my Italian blood was screaming and all the women who had been making my childhood a happy and comforting place, also for the beautiful food they prepared often to smother me alone, where looking at me with reprimanding if not menacing eyes!

There I was, in my aunty Carmela's kitchen, sitting with my feet on the big brazier in long and cold winter afternoons (also in Naples gets cold, you know…), keeping her company whilst I read a book or did my homework. Aunty Carmela would have been at first concerned, and then in a crescendo of feelings expressed by the tone of her voice, first offended and finally frankly outraged if, after having asked me for the third time if I was hungry, I had not surrendered to a “yes!”. And so she got down to prepare one of my favorite nibbles. They had just killed a pork for family consumption and the lovely meat had been minced to go and stuff the pork skin and become salami, sausages and soppressatas, each one of them with their own unique flavor and meaning. Every time they killed a pork aunty Carmela would reserve some of the clotted blood to fry it for me (before you make that face, you should try it, unless you are a vegetarian, of course!) or the mince to prepare a sausage and cook it under the ashes.

Maybe not many of you have had the good luck to eat an Italian sausage cooked under the ashes of a brazier, and so it is not possible for me to convey with words that unique experience: the smell that starts to exhale gradually from the brazier as it cooks and burns the paper and the sudden change of the aroma that lets you know when it is ready. I said “burnt paper”, didn’t I? In fact, the most peculiar aspect of this preparation was that my aunty would ask me to tear a blank page from one of my copybooks, soak it in water, squeeze it and after she had shaped some mince in the form of a sausage, generously seasoned with salt and pepper, she would wrap it in this paper, make a neat parcel and hide it under the ashes, cover it with brazing charcoal and let it cook slowly. I could cry at the memory of it, both because I am moved by her tender love for me and because of the wonderful culinary experience, but I can’t, because aunty Carmela was not a woman who would appreciate me crying over her memory. She was an ode to joy, a celebration of all the little and now forever gone facets of family and domestic care. Despite the fact she didn’t marry, I have never seen anybody take care of so many people as she did. Not only family, close and distant, but friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, or people who had just heard that she could do a certain stitch or was in possession of a certain old and rare recipe or whatever.

She was the one who would come and take care of us when my mother was called, day or night, to the bed of a woman in labour. Aunty Carmela would arrive with any kind of weather, with her round little body, slightly swinging for the arthritis and a packet of biscuits. She would come to feed not only us but also our chickens, and sometimes, our rabbits when my father decided in his autarchic tendencies, that we should rear rabbits as well as chickens. My mum was a busy woman and took all his suggestions in her stride because there was auntie Carmela who was also very interested in the autarchy and always ready to face a new challenge which would have made our home even more self-sufficient. In those days my family bought very little from shops because my father, an ear-nose and throat specialist, was also a pioneer of the full autonomy. My father had a big garden where with a little help from a gardener, and a lot of his own work, he grew all the fruits and vegetables which were in season, and to tell you the truth, in those years, the 70s and 80s, in Italy what was not in season could not even be found in the shops. Only, later in life, when I found myself in London supermarkets, contemplating tomatoes that resembled the shiny plastic ones of my toys, I understood how much love my father had dedicated to nourishing us.

As for aunty Carmela, she had never been formally trained in anything, but she could do virtually everything was necessary to make a home self-sufficient: from growing vegetables to sawing clothes, from knitting jumpers for the children and intricate crochet shawls for the elderly friends, to using every part of the pork, included the skin and the fat in exquisite preparations that would last the family the whole year round.

 

Aunty Carmela was convinced that love passes through the gift of food and the exchange of such gift. Many years later when she was so often bed ridden and I would visit taking her a little present, always some kind of food or drink that she would in her turn exchange with somebody else, she would look at me with restless eyes until I took some toffees or a little vermouth from the larder and, sitting on the bed next to her, I would thus reassure her that nothing had changed.

One of the dearest memories of my childhood is watching my auntie prepare the food for our chickens. I recall the smell of the raw bran, her small hands swiftly mixing the various cereals whilst she would crush and mix in the second-quality boiled potatoes which all went to feed our very wholesome chickens. No wonder they had an unmatchable taste! A small confession from the savage little girl which I was back then: sometimes I could not resist the smell of that slop and I would beg my aunty to let me eat some of that stuff! She thought nothing of it and would let me have it every time I asked her. After all, she would say to my horrified mother, I was going to eat the chicken that had eaten the slop, wasn’t I? A stringent logic that seemed at the time faultless to me. Ahem, now I have one or two reservations…. especially because various animals dwelled in the sacks of bran and I won’t tell you which. Though I must admit that ever since I have had a strange preference for raw foods, especially pastries.

Though aunty Carmela was the one who stepped in every time, day or night, my mother was called to care for a woman in labour, I would not be fair to my heart if I did not mention also my father’s unmarried sister: aunty Anna. She brings me back to another beloved ritual of my childhood years: Wednesday’s lunchtime and afternoons at Anna’s place. Then she would cook my favorite main course: homemade tortellini with homemade chicken broth. Aunty Anna had been a sublime cook some years before. She had prepared lavish feasts for priests and monsignors who often stopped for lunch at the rectory where she lived with my uncle who was also a monsignor and served as a parish priest in a town not far from our village. During one of these long banquets I had been introduced to the sweetness of Muscat, the wine that my uncle used for mass, and there, ignored by everybody, I innocently helped myself too many times and I got drunk for the first and last time in my life: I was 4 years old. But those were different times. Then our uncle had left us prematurely and aunty Anna who had not married to look after him, left the rectory and returned to live in the old family building, in the heart of our village. So I took to visit her once a week, on a Wednesday, in fact, after school. After having lunch with her I would spend lazy afternoons talking about family memories and people who were long gone, some of which I had never met, like my grandfather, looking at old family pictures from an old album that I still hold as one of my dearest possessions. I loved to hear stories about times that I had not known personally: the years before and after world war 2, when my parents were young and had just started their engagement, events which were at the origin of our family life.

My favorite story, I must admit, was a gruesome one from world war 2, a story that seemed to belong to a film or a book rather than real life and that aunty Anna was always ready to tell me because its happy ending was still giving her joy after so many years... My father, then a young medical student, was studying on his own land when a division of German soldiers retreating to Germany made him a prisoner together with many other men they had found in the streets of the village that day, similar to what their colleagues were doing in many other villages in Italy during their retreating march, leaving behind a trail of horror and destruction and thus writing one of the saddest and most absurd pages in the history of my country. As a matter of fact, this particular massacre that took place in my little home town is probably being written now for the first time by me and thinking about it not even a tombstone has been erected in memory of those martyrs who had the only fault of being found at the wrong time at the wrong place. Maybe the reason for this neglect is that soon after the war Italians just wanted to forget such bitter times and move on. These men in my town were all killed there and then by the Germans and thrown in a ditch just off the main road; only my father was spared because he showed the soldiers a document, just some silly card of the fascist “dopolavoro” (the National Recreational Club) which he possessed like a lot of Italians did in those times, and that for some fortuitous reason impressed the German soldier who let him go. I was so fascinated by this split-second experience and as a young girl I couldn’t believe how lucky I had been for this my father’s narrow escape which allowed me many years after that event, to enter this world. “I could have not been here!” I gasped with relief every time….as if the tale could have ended differently from the time before, while I listened to the last terrible part of her story.

They let him go but he was very scared and so went into hiding; when he was not back home that night, my aunt who was then my same age, around 13 years old, went with my grandfather to wash the face of all the men they had killed and thrown in the ditch that day to see if he was there, because someone had told them he had been taken by the Germans too. Every time I would hold my breath as she went through the list of the men which she had identified that night, because they were from her own village. “Luckily your father was not there!” She would thoughtfully sigh….while nodding her head. Of course, they wanted to forget such absurd atrocities!

Despite this sad memory whose full-scale horror I would have understood only later in life and that I wanted to tell here as my own contribution to the Memory, I am so overjoyed to write about these two women who, though being childless, were so incredibly maternal and generous with all of us and particularly with me! Only in the years after they had gone, whilst visiting the rooms of the memory from the faraway places where my endless curiosity had taken me, I realized how lucky I had been to have them in my life, how many blissful moments I had spent with both of them and how much less a happy place my life would have been if they had not been around us.

However, my two aunties could not be the concrete inspiration for my culinary rebirth. They embodied the lavish side of food, though still prepared in a traditional way, or especially because it was prepared in a traditional way:  they belonged to a generation of women who could actually sit down to cook, they had to sit down, because the ragù, the typical Neapolitan sauce (a sublimated form of the Bolognese sauce), for example, could take up to five or six hours before it was ready. In the meantime they would prepare intricate foods with exotic names, like aubergines with chocolate sauce or supplì on the telephone (rice balls with a heart of mozzarella which once melted became like a string or a telephone cable), mozzarella in the carriage (mozzarella in carrozza), fried artichokes (these were a specialty from Giginella, another woman in my famiy and another story…) and so many other nibbles that were all arranged in one big plate and served as a starter. And, beware, these were only starters!

Though I loved their cooking, I needed to cook traditional food which could fit in the life of a busy mother, food which was tasty, light, fast and traditional at the same time. It was not impossible because that was exactly the way my mother cooked. My mother always said  she didn’t like to cook, and to be truthful I don’t remember her spending much time in the kitchen, not that she had much time anyway,  but there were some dishes that she prepared to unrivaled perfection and for which she was famous in our circle of family and friends. The Pastiera Napoletana (our traditional Easter cake), the Migliaccio, a cake to celebrate carnival, the Struffoli, symbol of money, as good omen for the new year and a very luscious chocolate ice cream which I will tell you about one day.

I cannot end this little gallery of women without saying something about my mother. To talk about one’s own mother without falling into a rhetorical nostalgia, is almost impossible, especially if she has gone and her memory is further transfigured not only through daughterly love but also through the glass of time. However, there is a sober praise I can offer my mother without fear of going overboard: it goes to her credit that my life could be adorned by all these wonderful women who brought a surplus of joy and serenity to my life and were often a sanctuary where I could run to, especially when in my teen years I would occasionally clash with my parents. If my mother had not been able to harmonize all these people around herself, all the more difficult as they were all women, we would have been a traditional nuclear family for better and for worse. It is not a small praise if one thinks that today in our families each individual cannot even bear her own self!  My mother liked to surround herself with “helpers” who shared the daily cares of her family life, with all the pros and cons that this implies: she was not an exclusive woman but an inclusive one. I think I have inherited this one feature from her.

An Italian writer, Luciano De Crescenzo, said once that mankind is divided into two: those who are inclined towards loving relationships and those who by nature are more inclined towards friendly relationships. I think that, like my mother, I belong to the first group of people because I like to build my life on relations of intense love and care: I like to take care of many people and in return people take care of me. It is not always easy and like in every situation there are drawbacks. However, whatever you are, you are naturally so, and cannot manufacture it. After all, mankind is half and half, as Luciano said, and it’s good that way.

Buon Appetito! and all the rest in  life...

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