warning: reading this post on an empty stomach may cause you to order pizza
Last year, in a very well-received post, I talked about what a blessing is a sense of smell. It has taken a while, but I am finally, thanks in part to some recent expressed shared enthusiasm among blogfriends for pizza, getting around to celebrating the sense of taste. If you have other things to attend to and would like the short version, this post can be summed up in four words: I am a foodie. While my relationship with food has been compromised at times by periods of excess and denial, for the most part it has been a happy, healthy and satisfying source of pleasure in my life, wrapped up with a lot of good memories and by now such a part of who I am I can’t imagine life without it. Yes, I know I said this about music not so long ago in this space! Let’s just say if I had to choose between a good pizza and Jimi Hendrix rising from the dead to serenade me, my reply would be “can I think about it?”
one of the happiest sights I know
Some people eat for nourishment, on schedule, on demand, a necessary but joyless function that not only fails to enrich but often interferes with the more important elements of their daily routine. I am not one of those people. I think about, prepare, consume and enjoy food as if it were a grand adventure, a love affair, a night at the opera, the kind of experience in which how you get there is just as important as what you do when you arrive and how you remember it when it’s over. Think movies like Babette’s Feast, Like Water for Chocolate, Eat Drink Man Woman, Tampopo, and the famous spaghetti scene in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera. In my childhood household, a tradition my brother and I have carried on into our own adult lives by making sure to choose mates who are also unrepentant foodies, the phrase “what’s for dinner?” always made its first appearance well before lunchtime. We have been known to spend a delicious meal talking about other delicious meals we’ve had and those yet to be savored. At restaurants, I prefer eating in groups not because I love company, but because I always want to sample everything on the menu and the more people at table, the better my odds of tasing the maximum number of different dishes!
go ahead, have a slice!
It doesn’t hurt to be Italian. My people are synonymous with food and its abundant loving distribution, delivered direct from a warm busy kitchen to the soul. Meals have always been to me an occasion for both social bonding and sensory delight, and holiday meals especially an excuse to present unique foodstuffs in a context of artistically arranged settings and zero-guilt enjoyment. This great engine of culinary pleasure was for a long time powered by my grandmothers, whose best recipes were built on instinct, intuition and whatever tools or ingredients were at hand, a legacy of their upbringing in old country poverty. When they were eventually convinced to commit these feats of alchemy to language that could be placed in a standard modern format on an index card, the results were neither complete nor accurate, and earned them a reputation for protecting family secrets and personal pride through a campaign of misinformation. But the fact was, the best instructions for making good dough really do transcend measurements in ounces and minutes. Good chefs, like any other kind of artist, know how to improvise with the most limited ingredients and facilities, or when something doesn’t go according to expectation; bakers know that the phrases “as needed” and “until done” are as precise as you can hope to get in matters of kneading in flour and producing a ball of dough to the right pliable yet firm consistency, not to mention the vagaries of the heat intensity of individual ovens and other factors like altitude and humidity that affect the rising and the baking! If you can’t accept these mysteries of the process, you don’t belong in the kitchen.
hurry up it’s going fast!
As a child I loved being in the kitchen on Sunday visits or during the holidays, soaking in all the smells, the sounds, the warmth, watching the masterful feminine force of all that chopping, stirring, shaping. As a result I retained a lot of visual memory of the goings on that never made it onto those well-intentioned but misleading recipe cards. As I grew older, and my grandmothers passed away and took all their secrets with them, I came to understand that not only did I have a talent for working and judging dough by hand and eye, but I also understood exactly where everyone else attempting to re-create the old recipes was failing. I will never forget the watershed event of my mother and I one day adding an uncalled-for egg to my grandmother’s Sicilian pizza dough recipe. But it doesn’t say so here, are you sure? Grandma added an egg, yes, I’m sure. Or the quirk that my other grandmother, for lack of modern equipment, always used an old demitasse cup, not a standard measuring cup, for flour, making each cup listed on the recipe card actually 2 ounces smaller. This can make a big difference when baking strictly by the numbers!
save the last cheesy mushroom and olive for me!
Over the years I mastered some of the old recipes, and I use that verb loosely, because to this day nothing I make ever tastes the same as their superior versions of it, even if I recreate all the old conditions, techniques and materials. There are always differences to account for, but I like to think there is some other ineffable, unquantifiable element that goes into the creations of a good cook, call it heart, call it soul, but it can flavor a sauce unlike any spice. For a while, I thought I was creating these dishes in denial of the unimaginable fate of never being able to taste them again. But I think now I do it not so much to remember and enjoy my grandmothers’ food, as to preserve everything about why the world was a better place for me while they were in it, by becoming them for a few hours. Sometimes when I’m handling a dough, I even sing their songs.
one of the saddest sights I know
I make an excellent ricotta pie, pretty good bread, and calzone that can bring tears to my father's eyes, using an old ceramic pan handed down from my grandmother, and as close to the original as anyone could get without a visit to the afterlife. But the one thing I could never master (or live without!) was pizza. Fortunately, there’s a very good pizza parlor nearby run by a man who does a much better job duplicating the old family recipes than I do! And he delivers.
Now, before you all run off to phone in an order for pizza delivery, I wanted to share some good news and a link. My favorite camera shop has chosen to feature my work on their website throughout the month of March. They are also offering special prints of select images for sale, most of which proceeds will go to my designated charity, a local animal hospital. Please check out their website, here.