What an Italian Cook Taught Me about Living

"All roads lead to the home..."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

Anyone who's had a mom (or dad), or perhaps a grandmother (or grandfather), devoted to cooking, you know food is more than food. When made by the right person, they are small mysteries, channeled with all the love and affection a person can muster. It requires all the qualities that are necessary for an exceptional parent, a grandparent, a spouse, a lover, or even a child.

In a bite, you not only learn about the creator but also about yourself. You inherit knowledge of your past, not just of your family, but also your culture. Of what makes you you; that you are never alone.

For this reason, I read cookbooks for a very different reason than most others. I am not looking a repository for recipes that pique my interest; I am looking for writings about food as metaphor, which in home cooking, as opposed to standard restaurant cooking, they are. Food is a conduit for the life lived by its creator, to be passed down to its recipient. So for this reason, it is difficult to find writings about food for my particular tastes; but, perhaps, it was Marcella Hazan who first taught me that food writing could also be a conduit for the life lived by its creator.

Hazan writes:

Eating in Italy is essentially a family art, practiced for and by the family. The finest accomplishments of the home cook are not reserved like the good silver and china for special occasions or for impressing guests, but are offered daily for the pleasure and happiness of the family group.
Not everyone in Italy may know how to cook, but nearly everyone knows how to eat. Eating in Italy is one more manifestation of the Italian’s age-old gift of making art out of life.

This is not only true for Italy but all regional cooking; home cooking is cultural exchange. Food is material, what is at the heart of the matter is familial bonds and community, and the greater understanding of one's place in existence.

It is not created, not to speak of ‘creative,’ cooking of restaurant chefs. It is the cooking that spans remembered history, that has evolved during the whole course of transmitted skills and intuitions in homes throughout the Italian peninsula and the islands, in its hamlets, on its farms, in its great cities. It is cooking from the home kitchen. Of course there have been — and there still are — aristocrats’ homes, merchants’ homes, peasants’ homes, but however disparate the amenities, they have one vital thing in common: Food, whether simple or elaborate, is cooked in the style of the family. There is no such thing as Italian haute cuisine because there are no high or low roads in Italian cooking. All roads lead to the home...

"All roads lead to the home..." That line shattered me into a million little pieces. It's what we all want, isn't it? Whether we pursue money, sex, power, or gastronomic experiences, we just want to be closer to the home of yesterday. Whether it is the love we felt as children, or it is the love we wished we felt.

Perhaps without my always being fully conscious of it, the dishes continued to evolve, moving always toward being simpler, clearer expression of their primary flavors, and toward a steadily diminishing dependence on cooking fat.
In the Italian kitchen, ingredients are not treated as promising but untutored elements that need to be corrected through long and intricate manipulation and refined by the ultimate polish of a sauce.
Flavor, in Italian dishes, builds from the bottom. It is not a cover, it is a base. ... [A] foundation of flavor supports, lifts, points up the principal ingredients.

We think the answer is more. Double it. When there is a problem, double down. But we only need more if we don't know how to fully utilize what we already have. And if we keep adding more, how will we ever master what is already there? How will we master anything? Is the job to highlight or to cover up? And that depends on whether or not you created your foundation the right way.

I believe with my whole heart in the act of cooking, in its smells, in its sounds, in its observable progress on the fire. The microwave separates the cook from the cooking, cutting off the emotional and physical pleasure deeply rooted in the act, and not even with its swiftest and neatest performance can the push-button wizardry of the device compensate for such a loss.
I need to smell its smells, to hear its sounds, to see food in a pot that simmers, bubbles, sizzles. I enjoy the physical involvement of stirring, turning, poking, mashing, scraping.

Like all noble qualities, home cooking is not convenient cooking. Convenience removes us from direct experience. And since life can only be known through experience, to remove ourselves from direct experience is to remove ourselves from the act of living. We are in such a rush for results, we forget that the part in the middle, the thing between birth and death, is everything. If you are reasonable in mind, then you will realize what is in need of praise is not speed, but a praise in slowness. But the state of the world praises the opposite, and that is unreasonable.

Do not throw out the water in which the mushrooms soaked because it is rich with porcini flavor. Filter it through a strainer lined with paper toweling, collecting it in a bowl or beaked pouring cup. Set aside to use as the recipe will subsequently instruct.

We are so quick to throw things away, but if we held onto things longer, we would need less, and we would treat things better. We would be more creative in our uses of things. And we would live with fewer regrets.

And water, so common that we take it for granted. Yet water is vital, those common things are vital. We move to the next thing, the newer thing, rather than mastering the first thing. Like water, we move onto other things before we master our breath, our bodies, our minds, and our spirits. Then we spend the rest of our days in a race against time trying to go back to the first thing.

Water is at the same time the most precious and most unobstructive ingredient in Italian cooking, and its value is immense precisely because it is self-effacing. What water gives you is time, time to cook a meat sauce long enough without drying out or becoming too concentrated, time for a roast to come around when using that superb Italian technique of roasting meat over a burner with the cover slightly askew,  time for a stew or fricassee or a glazed vegetable to develop flavor and tenderness. Water allows you to glean the tasty particles on the bottom of a pan without relying too much on such solvents as wine or stock that might tip the balance of flavor. When it has done its job and has been boiled away, water disappears without a trace, allowing your meats, your vegetables, your sauces to taste forthrightly of themselves.
What you keep out is as significant as what you put in.

What is of value is time. What extras buy you are shortcuts. But you can do with less and fewer ingredients with time as your ally. And what is our usual relationship with time? It is our enemy. We are always against it, we hate it, we feel think we are running out of it. Yet when we have too much of it, we are bored with it, we hate it, and wished it would go faster. Time, like water, we take it for granted. But time is not our natural enemy; it is an adversarial perspective we choose to take. What used to be natural, was for time to be our friend and teacher. To plant a seed and allow time to do its work. Give a child a lesson and allow time to do the rest. To master the primary (flavors or otherwise) is to master time.

With simple Buddhist cooking, to achieve flavor, rather than rich ingredients, the monk uses time. It is her greatest asset. Time beats money. Time eventually beats everything. The more you have, the less time you can spend with any one thing, less time to do any one thing. You can do more with less, this is not just a saying, this is a mathematical truth. Rather than fight time, do what we were meant to do, embrace it. Then begins your time of abundance.

Because the flavor of vegetable soup improves upon reheating, you needn’t make this minestrone entirely from scratch the same day you are going to serve it. You can cook the soup that constitutes its base a day or two earlier...

Like people, some things need time and a second chance to bloom.

May be frozen when done.

Once you develop skill or knowledge, you don't have to use it right away. You can apply it when ready. There are many things you should learn not for immediate use but because it will serve you later on.

Blandness is not a virtue, tastelessness is not a joy.
Virtually anything edible can become the flavor base of a risotto...
Before there was an oven, there was bread.

The point is to live a rich and textured life. If you don't have the ideal conditions, just start from wherever you are. Life existed before all the creature comforts.

Pizza is made from improvisation and brooks no dogmas about its toppings.
I don’t cook ‘concepts.’ I use my head, but I cook from the heart, I cook for flavor.

And if you get lost, improvise. But have fun.

Once the pasta is sauced, serve it promptly, inviting your guests and family to put off talking and start eating.

And sometimes there is nothing more to be said.

What people do with food is an act that reveals how they construe the world.
An Italian meal is a lively sequence of sensations, alternating the crisp with the soft and yielding, the pungent with the bland, the variable with the staple, the elaborate with the simple.

This is the heart of Taoism, balancing and counterbalancing of extremes. We go about our lives believing the world is binary, black and white, and we can get away with this sort of fallacious thinking without every thinking we are wrong. But cooking, like in the martial arts, when you believe something fallacious, there is instant objective feedback: You lose the match; your meal is awful. People who think in binary have extreme political views and make for terrible martial artists and cooks. The activity illuminates your worldview.

Cook at lively heat...
Stir from time to time.
Taste and correct for salt and hot pepper. Toss the pasta with the sauce, then add both cheeses, and toss thoroughly again.

Once you begin, keep it lively, check on your progress, and adjust as you go along.

The explanation is that I consider cooking to be an act of love. I do enjoy the craft of cooking, of course, otherwise I would not have done so much of it, but that is a very small part of the pleasure it brings me. What I love is to cook for someone. To put a freshly made meal on the table, even if it is something very plain and simple as long as it tastes good and is not a ready-to-eat something bought at the store, is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.
The Italian comes to his table with the same open heart with which a child falls into his mother’s arms, with the same easy feeling of being in the right place.

When my mother was alive, she put all her love and effort into her meals. When I asked why, she told me all the ways she felt she was lacking, but the one area where she felt she could impart all of her essence was in her cooking. She was in many ways a victim of circumstances, but in the kitchen she was the maestro. She told me when she cooked, she didn't think about recipes, she only thought of her children. For these reasons, it is not enough to say she was an excellent cook. There are many fine cooks and chefs. But few are loving cooks. And I'll never taste her cooking again. So, when I miss her, I pick up cookbooks. Rather than replicate the taste, I am more interested in what people who put their heart and soul into their meals are thinking. So that I may better understand what she was thinking. Because I didn't ask enough.

Mothers give life, not only through the act of birth, but through the act of giving food. Whether they bottle fed us or breastfed, initially, mothers were our food. Then it does not matter if they ever cooked or cooked well. We will always associate food with our mothers. To their touch, to their love. And even without having any children of their own, a loving cook becomes a mother. Then, sometimes, better than other books, a proper cookbook can express the warm embrace of our mothers, and our longing to return home.

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