Guest Post #2: Elizabeth Ganley-Roper on the Power of Food to Build Cultural Bridges

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.

Baddotte

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.

Easter Breads

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.

Grilled artichokes stuffed with parsley & garlic, sprinkled with hot pepper oil

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.

Sundried tomatoes in Ortigia

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.

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Categories: Culture, Guest Posts, inspiration, kitchen

5 Comments on “Guest Post #2: Elizabeth Ganley-Roper on the Power of Food to Build Cultural Bridges”

  1. Hetty
    July 5, 2010 at 6:07 pm #

    Liz,
    My mouth is watering. Wanna come to Newton and cook sometime???
    I loved Sicily. Especially the antipastos- olives, sausages. And then the freshest of shell fish. What a time you are having.
    -Hetty

    • July 18, 2010 at 8:26 am #

      Hi Hetty,
      Where were you in Sicily? I found it such an interesting place, full of stark contrasts, and, of course, delicious food!

  2. July 7, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    Elizabeth,

    I’m with Hetty about the sounds of all those dishes being mouth-watering (and having you cook)!

    I’m interested in how Emilio’s mother was nervous about cooking for you and you were nervous about meeting her–that you both quite naturally wanted to please one another and weren’t quite sure how that would go. And it wasn’t over the eating and gathering around the table at mealtimes alone that gave you both a way to get to know each other, but through the preparation of the meals together, the teaching, the showing, the sharing. Imagine if she had “cooked” with the microwave or ordered in food–how might that visit have been different?

    That you at your age feel the power of sharing those moments, and of expressing your love for family and friends through the care you give the making of meals from simple, fresh, homemade & grown ingredients is quite remarkable. The ritual of slowing down and coming together over preparing and sharing food–how many of us have lost that? Especially college students?

    I love that his family sent you back to Bologna laden with their harvest. I will send you back to college this fall with jams, jellies, chutneys, peppers, spices, herbs and freshly picked vegetables from my garden!

    • July 18, 2010 at 6:01 am #

      I completely agree– I can’t even imagine what it would have been like without her cooking!

      I find it sad and disturbing that so many people my age have forgotten the importance of preparing food for and sharing meals with the people they love. Even in Italy, a country renowned for its strong gastronomic traditions, almost all of the young people I’ve met have no interest in cooking, even though they certainly do enjoy eating. My roommates are always shocked when they come into the kitchen and see me making homemade pasta, or pizza, or anything that takes a bit of time and effort. They wonder why an American, from the land of fast food, makes their traditional dishes while they heat up frozen, pre-made foods.

      I’m so looking forward to cooking with you in August and can’t wait to have all of the delicious food from your garden!

      • July 18, 2010 at 2:44 pm #

        Unfortunately, I don’t think it is just your generation that opts for fast food and quick-to-prepare food. Mine, too. It’s all about speed and convenience. Lots of people don’t seem to sit down around a table and share dinner together as a regular, nightly activity.

        When I’m out in the chamomile patch, picking small blossom after blossom, a painstaking process, I wonder how many people who plunk a teabag into a cup have any idea what it takes to get that tea there. When I’m removing the chaff from the dried mustard seeds and then storing them to grind later into mustard, I know that few people grow their own mustard and then make it from scratch. For me, it’s a wonder that anyone ever figured out that chamomile flowers made such good drinking, or that little tiny seeds ground up and mixed with other things would make such a sauce. I like to take my time with these thoughts and processes, but I know that I am looked at by many as out of step.

        I look forward to learning from you the recipes from Sicily and Bologna, to roll out fresh pasta dough, to make our bread from scratch, and to sit around the table talking talking talking.

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