October 17, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about food and reconciliation: how food repaired a relationship of some sort—or didn’t, despite your best efforts. Our first essay comes from Alexia Nader, a graduate journalism student at New York University and a freelance writer.
How Do You Apologize in Italian?
By Alexia Nader
I was up to my elbows in raw ground beef, anchovy paste, capers and onions, and completely panicked. “Call your mother now and tell them that dinner is going to be late, tell them to wait an hour,” I yelled to my boyfriend Marco as my chest sank—I had already ceded complete success. It’s bad form to show your dinner guests the frenzy of preparing a big meal; when they enter the door, the cook should have everything under control in the kitchen and look calm and composed. I was walking around the kitchen barefoot with frizzy hair and no make-up, wearing Marco’s dead aunt’s ancient apron and sweating profusely in the August heat. But I was determined to put on the table the meal that I had traveled two hours to Marco’s tiny hometown of Russi, Italy to prepare. It was my last plea for Marco’s family to forgive me for stealing their son away to America.
Two days before the Sunday lunch, I gleefully sketched out a list of dishes and ingredients for the meal. Having just returned from a month-long, self-guided exploration of Basque France and Bordeaux, I had foie gras confit in my pantry and memories of gambas and steak tartare at the forefront of my mind. What really determined my menu choices, though, was my refusal to make Italian food for Marco’s family after attending one inimitable lunch at Marco’s grandmother’s house. I could never compete with her four courses, honed to perfection by hundreds of years of Emilia-Romagna tradition—the antipasti were diaphanous slices of mortadella, prosciutto and coppa; cappelletti in brodo, puffy lunettes of fresh filled pasta that were the product of hours of painstaking craft, floated in a savory pork broth for our primi; tender and hearty roast rabbit with mashed potatoes followed; cake, coffee, and sorbet felt like a symphonic coda. Much of the same audience would soon be eating my food. I wanted to dazzle them with the exact opposite of rustic, traditional cuisine: an understated meal that, for them, would evoke both the exotic and urbane.
The attraction of the unknown had worked well when I first started dating Marco three years earlier. I was studying abroad in Bologna. He was an engineering student, precise and methodical in his thinking, shy and naïve—the complete opposite of the quick-talking city people that I usually befriended. Some months into the relationship, I learned that he came from a family of farmers. His uncle still owned a peach grove where Marco picked peaches for ten euros a day every summer, and his grandmother was the type of person who could wring a chicken’s neck for dinner without batting an eye and pick out a ripe cantaloupe by rapping on its tough rind.
On our first date my lack of an extensive Italian vocabulary prevented us from talking about most of our interests, except for one—our obsession with trying new food. I learned that Marco would try any dish at least once and, despite his hometown’s lack of foreign restaurants, had discovered and fallen in love with Japanese food. He learned that my childhood—living in Miami among people from all over Latin America and the Caribbean—had given me this compulsive need to sample and cook with as many flavors as I could get my hands on.
For our many meals together in my cramped apartment, I cooked everything but Italian food—lentil lettuce wraps, arroz con pollo, tacos al pastor, panang curry—all dishes that made his eyes widen in surprise upon experiencing a flavor he had never known existed. I got an immense feeling of satisfaction when he called his mother and excitedly told her what new food he had just tried. He had lived for 19 years eating an unadulterated form of his regional cuisine; I relished corrupting his palate with my bastardized, global cooking repertoire. Marco was a convert, but his family, whose members had never been on an airplane or lived outside the humble, rural province of Ravenna, wouldn’t be so easily won over.
I decided on a three-course menu: mâche salad with foie gras, black grapes, and balsamic drizzle; steak tartare with toast points and truffle oil; and a fruit salad. These choices were a product of many hours staring off into space and mentally aligning different factors: the season, how hungry Marco’s family would probably be at 4 p.m., the late afternoon heat, how much truffle oil would cost and the day of the week. When I was growing up, Sunday was when we ate a Lebanese version of steak tartare called kebbeh nayeh; I planned on telling Marco’s family this as I set the plates of tartare on the table.
When Marco’s family arrived at the apartment at 5:00, the tartare was setting in the refrigerator, my balsamic glaze had reduced and I had conscripted Marco for the duty of brushing slices of bread with truffle oil. Marco’s father and brother gathered around the table that I had set up near the balcony, trying to keep their fidgeting inconspicuous. Marco’s mother offered to help out in the kitchen. I burst out with a sharp no, and immediately stopped short, telling myself that subjecting your boyfriend’s mother to your control-freak cooking tendencies is not a step in the right direction. I brought out the courses, spread them family-style around the table, sat down, and tried to loosen up with a big gulp of prosecco.
There is one key element of a successful meal that can’t be planned in advance—lively, continuous conversation. Even though Marco’s family ate everything on the table, the unfamiliar food made them uncomfortable. I gradually understood that, for Marco’s family, casual conversation was not appropriate for a fancy meal. They ate their foie gras and truffled toast points in silence, save for a few comments about how fresh the meat tasted and what a nice touch the balsamic glaze was. I tried to stimulate small talk but my attention was divided between eating my food and spying on everyone’s plates to see how much they were eating.
That the food was too strange and foreign was as much of a white elephant as the fact that the meal was meant as an apology. I was the reason that Marco was leaving his family; no amount of pleasure that could be garnered from my impeccably planned meal could obscure my role in the matter. My first try at mending bridges with food failed. I realized that, for a meal to meld, both the diners and the cook need to put their ideas of what the food should be and mean aside, and simply eat. Had we done that, we would have been a happy group of four Italians and one American interloper, enjoying some delicious summer fare on a sticky August afternoon.
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