An Italian Recipe for Happiness

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A recipe should be simple, right? No guesswork, just follow the instructions. Of course you can improvise but when you do, be prepared for a result you may not expect. I dreamed of a trip to Italy, Tuscany in particular, for many years. The views, food, wine and culture fascinate me. I planned a trip to Tuscany for a food, wine and travel writing course and two months later, my travel "recipe" that seemed so exciting at the time, felt meaningless. I lost my Mother at a time and in a manner that was unexpected. Do I go, do I stay? If I go, will I live the experience as I once hoped? I decide to go.

My mother and I had a particularly strong bond where food was involved. We may disagree on politics or my choice in a spouse, but food connected us without conflict (except when I did not do things her way). My family’s favorite dish is simply called “chicken and noodles.” My mother never varied the recipe and it is a dish my brother requests each year for his birthday. It is simply seared chicken pieces, homemade egg noodles and homemade tomato sauce that is placed in a casserole dish and baked. I have learned to respect the beauty of the simple family classic. My mother encouraged me to explore my fascination with food and my decision to attend culinary school at the age of 42. After she died, I wondered if I would enjoy cooking again. Perhaps my trip to Italy might hold some answers.

I arrive in Montalcino, Italy on a Sunday and have some time before I meet the instructor and fellow students. I do something I have always wanted to do. I take a walk through town to look, listen and imagine what it would be like to live in such a place. I feel unsettled. Is it jet lag or the sudden realization that I can't call my mother and tell her all the sights and sounds of Montalcino? I keep telling myself to snap out of this mood. I wish there was someone who would reassure me that I was going to be fine.

The next several days are filled with writing classes on the beautiful patio of the hotel, lunches, dinners, wine tastings and exploring. The food is both exceptional and simple. Baked Pecorino cheese drizzled with local honey, earthy and pungent tagliarini with porcini mushrooms and black truffles, and the enormous and truly satisfying Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a regional t-bone steak grilled to the prefect rare and finished with coarse salt. I tried eleven different flavors of gelato, including one made with Brunello wine. My favorite dish was during a lunch at the Poggio Antico winery. It was simple ravioli filled with ricotta and herbs and finished with fresh asparagus, olive oil, black pepper and Pecorino cheese. I will try my best to recreate this dish.

The people of Montalcino are gracious and interesting. I visited an enoteca (a wine shop) during my first day and attempted to speak to the owner in my limited Italian. He spoke very little English but said "speak slowly." After 15 minutes and an education about Brunello, I left with a great bottle of wine and a few new Italian phrases. My favorite is “grazie di essere cosi gentile” which means “thank you for being so kind.” I used this phrase often during my stay. My fellow students are diverse, talented and adventurous. Some are professional writers, many are not, but we were all in Tuscany to learn and enjoy the experience. I still wonder, when will I feel that pure, unmitigated joy that I am in a place I have always wanted to be?

On our third day, we take a day trip to Pienza. One of our stops is the Palazzo Picollomini, commissioned by Pope Pius II as a residence for his papal court. It is breathtaking but I am drawn to the Cathedral Cattedrale dell'Assunta next to the papal residence. I think about my first trip to Europe with my mother and remember how we visited so many churches in London. I enter the church with Jenny, a fellow student, who lost her mother some months before me. We wander the cathedral, admiring its beauty and Jenny stops to light two devotional candles, one for her mother, and one for herself, her husband and son to help them with their grief. I was struck by the reverence with which she placed the candles and without any conscious thought, found myself reaching for a candle. Jenny had left a space between her two candles for reasons we can't explain. I light my candle and pray for my mother and for my family as I place it between Jenny's candles. Another student, Heather, follows me and lights a candle for the son she lost. I then realize that this is the moment, this is the reason why I decided to take this trip. In this cathedral in Italy, where for centuries so many have grieved or joyfully worshiped, I realize that I am not alone in sadness. At that moment, I know that I will always love my mother and that she will always love me, but I would need to learn to experience happiness again. I hope that I find happiness in the things I have always loved so much, my family, my friends and cooking. Feeding people has always brought me such joy and I want to feel this again.

As Jenny, Heather and I leave the church, we are crying but realize through the loss we share we have found each other. As we stood outside the church, I tried to memorize the way the sunlight reflected off the centuries-old stonework and the sound of the church bells as they rang at noon. The picture I have of the three of us on the cathedral steps will always remind me that grief and joy are universal emotions. I never met Jenny or Heather until this trip but there is a bond, even between strangers, that forms when you are willing to share an emotion, even one a personal and difficult as grief. Each of us experienced our own distinct personal tragedy but it is the process of talking, and more importantly, listening, that made us instant friends.

As I continue with my trip, I begin to appreciate all that Tuscany offers. Dinner with new friends, a truly exceptional glass of Brunello, eating gelato as I walk through Montalcino, a rainstorm in the middle of the night. One of our last events is a cooking class with a resident who travels the world, but seems to be happiest in Montalcino. I then realize that I am excited to cook for the sheer pleasure of cooking, and to be cooking in Tuscany.

We make our way one evening to the home of Teresa Galli, former resident of Rome and world traveler. She welcomes us into her home and kitchen and begins our cooking class. We are all assigned tasks for our dinner. I am given the job of making one of the doughs for our pasta. As I am forming the dough, I listen to Teresa and my classmates talk, laugh and yell at each other and I feel something light up in me. This is healing, joyful and at times, truly hilarious. I laugh at the assembly line of my friends, covered in flour, trying to feed strips of fresh pasta through the pasta machine as the handle of the machine keeps falling on the floor. Janeen, our personal chef from New York is the drill sergeant demanding “faster, faster, faster” as we each take a turn manning the pasta machine. Valerie, Jake and Heather are trying to keep the types of pasta (saffron, herb and beet) separated by flavor and thickness. We all work on dessert. It is Teresa’s recipe for Ladyfingers Cake which is an irresistible layering of liquor-soaked ladyfingers, pastry cream, berry preserves, dates and almonds.

As I look around the kitchen, I know this is what I want my life to be about. This feeling of family, friends and sharing is what makes the difficult times bearable. We sit down to dinner and I sit with Teresa and listen to stories of, as she describes, her first six lives and what she plans to do with her seventh. Her description of her early years in Rome, her bicoastal existence between Rome and New York and her travels to all the amazing countries I have never visited feed my soul as much as the food that we made that evening.

As we were leaving Teresa's, she kisses my cheeks, takes both of my hands in hers and said "Cara, you must cook for yourself every day, this will make you happy." I have my recipe for happiness. I will cook for myself and the people I love and I will go back to Italy. I will cook my Mom’s chicken and noodles recipe the way she did. I will cook with the memory of my mother as the most important part of the recipe.


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