Sunday, March 6, 2011

Food for Thought

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.


  1. I just order a pizza with olive an the pizzeria Capri here on the corner!!! hihihihi

  2. Gabriella, what a delightful post! Yes, a joy to read you and to think about having some pizza tonight!

  3. I knew I loved you. An artist, a warm caring soul, a foodie and supporting animal welfare. Wow.

    And I missed your post of smell but it always serves as a memory trigger for me. Good and bad.

  4. Laura dear! Thank you for your comment, and for ordering a pizza! It makes me happy to think of you enjoying it. Life cannot always be about art, sometimes food is the ultimate expression of life!

  5. Luis - did you end up having pizza tonight? I have visited DC a few times, and of course, the first time my parents took a trip there decades ago, their long weekend was focused around two things: art and food! So when I followed a few years later, I went to the same pizza place in Georgetown they had already "tested" and an awesome steak joint too! So, for future reference, from a native, where IS the best pizza in DC??

  6. E.C. - This means so much to me, what you have said, especially because I know who and where it comes from. I am thankfully no longer someone who lets herself be swayed or paralysed by what others think of me, but the fact is, I do still care, on a very deep level, as a writer, an artist and a human being, how I "come across" to people. As troubling as it can be to know that a negative impression or version of who I am may linger in someone's heart and mind, be they stranger or friend, it is equally uplifting and joyful to learn that I have come across to someone in a positive way, just by being myself. You have no idea (or perhaps you indeed do) what a gift this is. Thank you, my friend. And if you want to go looking for my post on smell, which I do think you'd enjoy, it's in my archives, November 12, 2010. Have a great week!

  7. Nice slide show of photos!

    Your love of food is contagious. I've often maintained that if you are really enjoying your food while you eat it (especially if you're obviously humming while you chew), your body will assimilate it beautifully. People who feel guilty while they eat, do themselves no good.

  8. mmmmm!!!! Yummmmmmm!!!! I don't think I ate enough for dinner!!! lol

  9. Hi Kass! And the fun part is, the images were of the actual pizza we ordered and ate Saturday night! You're right, one's mental state while eating has a lot to do with how the body absorbs and makes use of it! Moderation and good attitude and a varied diet, which includes a no-guilt feast every once in a while, is the way to go! Many thanks for your comment.

  10. Manon - Still hungry? I'd say come on over here for some leftover pizza, but we et it all up last night!

  11. I liked the pizza shots - but I really liked the story about food; about sharing recipes, watching and observing and tasting and testing and then simply 'knowing' what is right. I was there, in the kitchen with my mother and trying to work out how to get it right - where was the magic step I kept on missing. Alchemy describes it so well.

    Red wine tonight, no pizza, but that was Friday night!

    Continue to enjoy life, food and friends! I'll drink to that!

  12. TT- I am beginning to wonder about you - sop far we have a comfortable couch, blue lights and now pizza delivery - whilst I can say congratulations on being featured ion your favourite photo shop website - I am not really sure just how the the work gets done. Anyway - as they say in Italy - eat well, drink well and you will create well - or something like that. B

  13. yes, soul and heart are extremely important , the grandmas had this . That is the diference.
    ohhh. Gabriella , I could take all you words , tastes and experiences and make it mine . If I copy this text on my blog people that know me very well would think it was written by me ( and would think that I finaly learned to writte in english ).
    Italians are so contradictory about food recepies. At the same time they make its own experiences and be creative they are very conservative too. For isn'tance , this american pizza , just the photo made me get starving as a wolf.... but I don't think the italians here would aprove that . hahahah! why ? well... they would say something like " Only the traditional Sao Paulo's pizza is the real pizza even better than the traditional Italian one, americans know nothing about pizza !!!!" .... hahah!! ... and please don't even try to argue with then. Probaly Italian in USA are the same . The Brooklin ones say that their food is better than the ones in other neigbohoods or citys ... and go on and on . hahahah! My italian side of the boold is very strong about food. I totaly relate with what you say.
    Lovely post !
    Now you own me a pizza. it is 10:30 here , hollidays of carnaval and I am really starving ! hahahah!!! better go to the kitchen to prepare something ;)
    hugs !
    te voglo monto benne.

  14. Fiona - it's so important to remember to enjoy life, food and friends! Such a simple thing, and so often lost in the rush of a busy life balancing household chores and the making and promoting of artworks. But I do think the enrichments of those times are well worth the "distraction" from weightier matters, and, in the end, return us to our work relaxed and refreshed. Thanks for stopping by and have a great week!

  15. Thank you, Caio, for being one of the inspirations of this post! It's funny that you say it could be accepted as written by you, except for the English. I just used the Google translation feature on the text and turned it into Italian, and not only did it make sense, it actually sounded BETTER and MORE LIKE ME in the Italian! Except that I could never have written it with my very limited Italian. I guess some subjects are better expressed in certain languages and Italian is the language of both food and love!

    By the way, the pizza Brian and I order here, which is the best we can find after a lot of sampling, is not even CLOSE to what they offer in NYC. New Yorkers would laugh at Boston and say "you call that pizza???" Many thanks, Hungry Wolf, for visiting. One day we will share a pizza together!

  16. Barry - well, I guess it's all a matter of focus! Blog writing is funny that way, a weekly spotlight of whatever it is I am pondering, just one facet of many that make up my inner and outer worlds, certainly not the complete picture, but I do worry sometimes that each one seems larger and more dominant for the special attention I pay it here! Reminds me of the story of the blind men and the elephant, each one defining the beast by the features of the part they happen to have in hand, a skinny tail, a large flat ear, a hard sharp tusk, a massive trunk-like leg...and the beast is of course all of those seemingly contradictory things...

    It's going to be a busy spring, and I can guarantee there will soon be more posts about work and fewer about pizza! Go well, my friend.

  17. I have a confession, I'm a foodie too, but I can't cook worth a damn. In fact, those who love me, tell me not to cook. That pizza looks to die for!

  18. Yes, you're right!
    At the moment we are baking the old recipes, our
    loved ones have taught us, their soul is perhaps
    with us in the kitchen.
    I can feel that too!

    Hugs from winterly Athens with a bit snow.

  19. TB - I know plenty of foodies who can't cook - my brother for instance - whose strategy was to surround himself with others who COULD! It all works out fine in the end, as long as the table is full of food and good company! Thanks for stopping by.

  20. My dear Monika!It is warming up a little here, but we New Englanders know from experience it is not uncommon to see snow as late as April, so I am not believing in spring just yet! I'm glad you too can feel the soul of our beloved departed teachers in the kitchen! It's a wonderful feeling of timeless connection! All the best to you.

  21. Yummy post :) Those pics are truly inviting..the olives look great. I am going to order one after this comment for sure. Congrats on the camera shop featuring your work its great news. I am happy for you...your images are superb.. Have a great day!

  22. Hello Narayan! It's good to know I've done my part to stimulate global economy through a sudden rise in the ordering of takeout pizzas! Thanks for your comment and compliments. Be well.