Well, although perhaps not an obsession, food certainly is a national passion—part of a zeal for living well, enjoying life.
I don’t remember when it was that I became ardent about food, or at what point in my life I caught my “cooking fever.” I always was fascinated by food: mesmerized by the mixes, the manipulation, the infinite tastes, fragrances, and colors; and by the transformation of flour into the innumerable forms and textures once combined with water and shaped by fire.
When I was a child, my mother, sisters, and I went for our summer vacation to a country home in a small town just north of Rome. A medieval abbey built upon the rocks deep in the valley, a castle, and an old bridge evoked a sense of history and time. The austerity and nobility of the environment contrasted sharply with the simplicity of the lives of our neighbors, the peasants. Their lives appeared to be flowing in slow motion, yet in harmony with nature. They repeated the same gestures year after year, busy in their day-by-day occupations of survival—growing their crops, raising their livestock, and cooking their food. I will never forget the aromas of those times: the perfume from the lime tree blossoming with white flowers in front of our house; the smoke exuding from the fireplaces into the narrow streets; the scent of the herbs and the tomatoes; and all the foods—the sauces, lamb, and freshly baked breads and cakes.
Baking bread was a big deal. Every other week the wood-burning oven was fired. The hinged top of a large wooden chest was opened and the flour was scooped onto the sieve on top. I stood on tiptoe looking at the flour being sifted to separate the bran. The yeast (nothing other than a piece of the fermented dough from the previous week) was pulled out of a small sack where it was kept and was added to the flour together with water. Kneading by hand was hard work. Yet, soon, a dozen big loaves were set to rise covered with a blanket on a long wooden board in a warm side of the kitchen, close to the fireplace. Then, the trip to the oven: The women walked slowly, carrying the long boards on their heads. Taking advantage of the event, my family prepared more food to be baked—lasagna, tomatoes stuffed with rice, angel food cakes, or some doughnuts. For the peasants it was a life of strife. Those times are now gone, and all those flavors and scents have disappeared forever with them.
Back at home in Rome, when anybody was in the kitchen, I was there too, looking, asking questions, and listening to the never-ending debates between my parents: My Roman father remained unyielding in his persuasion that Rome was the gastronomic caput mundi (the capital of the world), and my Sicilian mother tried to convince him that cooking without saffron and fresh fennel was uncivilized. But my greatest mentor was our neighbor Flora. She must have seen in me the granddaughter she never had, because she treated me with unending patience. A clever cook, she knew not only the recipes, but also the tricks to make them succeed.
One wintertime evening visit, when I walked in the door that she normally left ajar so that I didn’t even have to knock, she shouted from the kitchen, “Hurry up. Close the door.” I saw something on the table, covered with a blanket. She furtively lifted an edge, finally breaking the suspense, and showed me . . . doughnuts! She was protecting them from the cold temperature while waiting for them to rise. In the years that followed, I must have fried her doughnuts a thousand times and never tired of seeing peoples’ expressions of pleasure and satisfaction while they ate them.
My work experiences and travels added to my capabilities with food. Like me, many people, as they become more skilled, want to experiment with increasingly sophisticated preparations. As I became more ambitious, I wanted to demonstrate that I could “make it.” Later, I realized that the most difficult dishes are not those with a long list of expensive components, but those where very few flavors participate. I learned from my father to give careful attention to the basic ingredients, a meticulous precision for the perfect dish of pasta or roast, and, in general, a love for simplicity. The greatness of Italian gastronomy is not in strange, unusual combinations: Foreigners often are surprised by the minimalism of Italian cooking, which is based mainly on fresh and tasty ingredients.
I don’t even consider myself a “chef,” a term that should be reserved for the professionals working in the kitchens of restaurants. Like most of my readers and students, I am basically someone with a love for sharing food, which is an ancient way to communicate: Sitting together at the table unifies a family and draws friends together. Cooking is not merely a matter of processing food; rather it is like a language with thousands of dialects, each dish a word that needs its proper spelling. Like a language, cooking is a product of the territory, and that is why we don’t have to be surprised if every Italian considers cooking a form of expression, fully integrated in their culture. As is true with language, cooking has deep roots in history, and a person’s knowledge of how the meals they eat have evolved imbues those dishes with new meaning.
In an age when fast food competes to take away the joy from the kitchen, we think it is important to look back and reflect on the significance of our great cooking traditions. The attentive cook needs to approach traditional cooking with respect for those before who for centuries lit the fire, prepared these dishes, and contributed to their evolution. By understanding these recipes, you can further adapt the old ways to fit your lifestyle.
This website is dedicated to all people who enjoy cooking and are especially fond of Italian cuisine. I hope you will enjoy cooking together,
Buona Cucina! Anna Maria