2 March, 2020
MADE BY HAND, MADE WITH LOVE
The evening has become pleasantly quiet so that my, well not ‘my’ exactly but Bach’s Goldberg Variations sound very much in harmony with the autumnal mood of the evening. I relish a very simple stew I am making in the Slow Cooker. Lizette lent it to me and my first two attempts were not a success, even though there was enough liquid, and nothing got burnt, I suspect one should not leave your food in the Slow Cooker overnight. Tomorrow I am going to buy some free-range chicken thighs which I reserved today. Massyn said she’d keep it for me. – no, not quite, I asked her to keep it for me and I told her my name and asked her hers, just so that she knew there was accountability in the air now that I had her name. I told her she had a lovely name and she half giggled shyly and thanked me.
But a Slow Cooker is true to its name. It takes forever. But meanwhile this, as the bell rings on the dot at 8 pm.
Some years ago I read a food article, or rather a travel article infused with what shall I call it, insight, weltanschauung and plain wisdom, by Jason Epstein, a well-known publisher from New York. I think he started the New York Review of Books. The article was called ‘The Other Side of Paradiso’.
I shared the contents of the article with, Pascale, a friend who lives in Paris who told me she lived in the district in Paris where Italian emigres settled, in the juxtaposition, as she called it, between the old Puritan families and the newly arrived Italians. She noticed that, without exception, the Italians seemed eager to hide their own culture from the world…the beautiful things like their love of art, opera and food…She was taught it was shameful to be Italian…the “beauty of ordinary things” was made to seem an embarrassment…..it was an impediment to modernity.
The conversation turned to the Internet…”that great invention that would make us all über-futurists,” she said. She recalled the words of Marcel Proust who said that the most stupid thing a person could do was to speed things up and call it progress.
I elaborated on Jason Epstein’s article, I recalled the absurd manifesto of the Futurists in which they railed, among other things, against Modigliani’s ‘languorous’ nudes:
‘“We fight against the nude in painting, as nauseous and as tedious as adultery in literature,” proclaimed the Italian Futurists in 1910. The nude was dead; the speeding car more thrilling than the female body.’
Let me try and recapture the last part which is as important as the beginning or, for that matter, the middle.
Epstein, his wife (although the guests are never referred to more specifically than ‘guests’,) and some others have rented a villa in Tuscany. Epstein is somewhat disappointed to find that the villa comes with – I forget her name, let’s call her Maria – a cook, who is there to prepare their meals (the belief being, of course, that Americans know nothing about the fine art of cooking!). Epstein is disappointed because he is a keen cook and wanted to prepare the meals himself. There are further disappointments too – the tomatoes, unlike the plump Bella and Rosa tomatoes he found in New York, were rather on the green side, and without that shining red that he imagined.
Maria patiently explains, with her hands, producing soft arabesques in the air and in her mellifluous Tuscany Italian, that you find the red tomatoes he is thinking of in the south. Yet, to make amends her husband, who is also the gardener, manages to find some ripe tomatoes with a nice reddish sheen. Epstein and Maria have competitions to see who can peel garlic faster and, Maria, being a traditionalist, and peeling garlic the same way her mother has been doing, and her mother before that and for generations, is on the losing end, as Epstein crushes the garlic with the blade of his knife, peeling the clove in one go, while Maria cuts off both ends before peeling off the skin.
They go down to the village and their search for the perfect Parma ham is a delight to read. It is while roaming around the village markets, that they come across a very beautiful young man.
‘A few minutes later, under the flutist’s spell, I walked back into the square to rejoin my friends, and there I glimpsed what (E.M.) Forster might have seen when he conceived his novel’s hero. Reclining on a balustrade, his back against a pillar, his head turned to one side, a book unread in his hand, and his expression distracted or irritable, was a young man of such forbidding beauty that he dispelled any inclination to possess it, even if one were so inclined. He might have been a Della Robbia, if he were not so clearly human. Forster’s young English suburbanites flung themselves incautiously at such a Tuscan beauty and never recovered their native aplomb.” (He now understood why the town made such an erotic impression on the young Forster.)
The end is a rather sad indictment of our modern age which is to say, the digital age, the age of the internet.
Their stay in Tuscany is drawing to a close and soon they will have to leave. Epstein and Maria have formed the kind of bond that can only be formed in kitchens. This evening is a special occasion. A prominent politician is coming to dinner and for the occasion Maria’s husband has managed to procure a half a dozen pigeons which he himself roasted beautifully over coals, producing a crisp, deep brown outer skin with a most wonderful smoky flavour from the woodfire.
The Italian politician is embroiled in a corruption scandal back in Rome but the guests have been primed beforehand and are careful to avoid any mention of this. But the Italian politician has barely touched his food. As Maria comes to the table to remove the politician’s plate, her beautiful dark eyes become sad because he has hardly touched his food, despite all the trouble her husband went to procure these pigeons, despite her toiling in the kitchen all day.
The reason is because he has talked excitedly throughout dinner, quite forgetting about his food. He is talking about a new phenomenon: the internet. And then there is a new way of communicating: via something called ‘e-mail’. Yes. At the press of the button. Off you letter flies to anywhere across the globe!
The internet, he predicts, will change the world!
And so we leave the Italian politician and his predictions about the future of the world to the middle part of Epstein’s article, and it concerns an Italian Futurist who also predicts a dramatically change of the world. In Jason Epstein’s words:
“Some 60 years ago the eccentric – one might as well say insane – the Italian Futurist F.T. Marinetti wanted to replace the traditional Italian diet with one that reflected the modern world of radios, fast trains and ocean liners, a diet with the taste of steel and electricity. Above all he wanted to abolish pasta. “We stand on the last promontory of centuries! We will glorify war – the world’s only hygiene,” Marinetti had written as a young man in 1909, in his Futurist Manifesto: “We will destroy the museums, libraries, academics of every kind …We will sing of great crowds, excited by work, by pleasure, and by riot; we will sing of the multi-coloured, polyphonic tides of revolution in the modern capitals; we will sing of the violent nightly fervour, of shipyards blazing with violent electric moons … It is from Italy that we launch through the world this violently upsetting, incendiary Manifesto of ours. With it, today, we establish Futurism because we want to free this land from its smelly gangrene of professors, archaeologists, ciceroni, and antiquarians. For too long Italy has been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from her numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards.”
If there is a moral to this tale, it could that madness waits in the wings, and we have to be vigilant at all times. We must also not forget the beauty of ordinary things at hand, even as we gaze into the future. Let’s pretend someone else said that.
When hearing my story of Tuscany, another friend. Helja, told me of President Mubarak and his visit to a remote village somewhere in Egypt. While visiting a small commune, where a group of women were producing the most fantastic handicrafts for sale, the president told them: “I am so impressed, I am going to see, that you will get all the modern machinery to do your work from now on…”
I suspect people want to get back into the kitchen. Year after year, I hear or read that cookery books still outsell all other genres (I suppose with the exception of 50 Shades of Gray.) People want to cook again, bake bread, cook red wine stews; do things with their hands.
PHOTO: Johan Liebenberg. Cook & Stylist: Maria Jensen.