BG’s Note: What a thrill it is to have daughters who share my passion for cooking and culture. How fabulous it is that one of them lives in New York and calls me whenever she happens upon a food shop she’s sure I will love and must visit next time I’m in the city. How amazing it is that the other one is in the heart of Italian food culture this year (her junior year abroad) and writes so beautifully about her explorations, over on her blog, in her column at the Italian magazine Degusta, and now here in this guest post. Elizabeth is a wonderful, creative cook (who has taught me a thing or two in the kitchen, and a lot about life) exploring food and culture in her university studies, and, even more significantly, in her life. Thanks, Elizabeth!
The aspect of food and cooking that strikes me the most is how it brings people together and bridges cultural differences. Food is a common language. I have never felt this as strongly as when I went to Sicily with my boyfriend over Easter to meet his family. His mother and I instantly connected over our love of food and cooking. Just the day after my arrival, we were already in the kitchen together making baddotte (rice balls with fresh ricotta, eggs, parmesan and pecorino and cooked in a leek and wild asparagus broth), a traditional dish to celebrate San Giuseppe.
I sat at the table with his mother and sister, and together we rolled the sticky rice between our palms into smooth balls. As a second course, we ate salsiccia, grilled in the wood oven built by his father, with fresh lemon wedges to squeeze over the meat. For dessert we had chocolate fondue with bananas, apples and strawberries. His mother and I were the last at the table, scraping the remaining bits of chocolate out of the bowl.
For the entire three-week visit, she served us multiple-course meals with pasta, meat, vegetables, cheese and dessert. When Emilio would leave for a few hours to help his father chop wood for the stove, I spent that time in the kitchen with his mother, learning traditional Sicilian recipes. She showed me her own handwritten recipes collected in a small journal. She taught me how to make the real melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmesan), focaccia stuffed with fresh ricotta and sausage (similar to calzone), and pasta with the tomatoes they had sun-dried themselves and the hot pepper oil she had made by soaking the peperoncini while still green in the olive oil pressed by their family.
For Easter, she made the traditional sweet, bread with a boiled egg laced in intricate designs of birds and flowers.
Once, after a long day visiting Siracusa and Noto with Emilio, I caught a bad cold. We returned home to find that his mother and sister had cooked us a surprise dinner– fresh bread and roasted artichokes (one of my all-time favorite foods)– but with my sore throat I couldn’t manage to swallow any of it, so, even after a long day of cooking, she made me soup with soft, tiny pasta inside.
At the end of the three weeks, she confessed that she had been nervous to cook for me. Emilio speaks with his mother almost every day, and before our visit had often told her about the dishes I cooked for him. I had been nervous to meet her, afraid that I wouldn’t understand or fit in, but our mutual love of food conquered any cultural or language barriers we had feared. She showed her love through cooking and welcomed me into her kitchen and family, teaching me the ancient traditions and eager to learn my own recipes and about the strange foods I ate in a distant land.
When Emilio and I left for Bologna, our bags burst with oranges and lemons from his grandfather’s orchard, homemade sun-dried tomatoes and capers, freshly-picked herbs, artichokes and tomatoes. I often think of her when I’m in the kitchen recreating the dishes she made for us. In particular, I always take with me the power that food has to demonstrate love and caring and to connect two people, from opposite sides of the earth, by enjoying a delicious meal together.