A story from Natalina

My husband’s mother,  Natalina  (her obligatory name,  as she came into this world on Christmas day,  Natale)   was an exemplary  migghieruh verrnallese*.    She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress,  as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life  in a rural economy.  Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town  and  deceased relatives at the cimitero;  hers was a simple but full existence.   I fondly remember her daily phone calls,  asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree,  offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings  for my husband:    her only son.   I was always happy to oblige.   She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone.    Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war.    It was the greatest  distance she ever traveled away from her home.   Our swallow-like  habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.

Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories.    These were always delivered in hushed tones,  at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested  that facts be modified.   I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version,  embellished by additions from the grapevine.

She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins.   Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation.   The babies arrived suddenly and were a  surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards.   The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way,   or bring herself to care for him.    She nursed and coddled one  twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other.  It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby.   While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard  so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and  my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.)   I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived.   I suspect that some remnant of an idea  from ancient times, the possibility  of exposing an unwanted  infant to the elements,  might still have lurked in her mind.   She would never  be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide,   but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.

One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight.  The baby had been discovered  in its dark  recess by the  other occupants, mice.  They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it.   I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal,  and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise.   I know that both babies grew up and are still living.    Perhaps not surprisingly,  the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda,  while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy.   I have a special hope that the second  man has been  successful and happy.

I cannot imagine  living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars.   The  members of the family in which these events occurred  have all suffered,  more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated.   Another account  from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax.     It bears observing that the clinical definition  of postpartum depression may be relatively new,  but the concept is as old as the hills.

I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time.  It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost.   Natalina lives on for me in hers.

“Castello di Oriolo”  mixed media on board, 2010

*  dialect:  “Bernaldan wife,”   (Italian:  moglie Bernaldese)

Eat your veggies!

Here is a simple preparation for leafy greens that will stand you in good stead. It has enabled me to go from someone who was exclusively a salad person to someone who is always up for a savory  bowl of greens.  We eat them as a main course with bread, or mixed with beans, with or without grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano,  or mild aged Pecorino.

This is a basic preparation method which works for all kinds of leafy vegetables, from lettuce, to escarole (my new favorite), to turnip greens (rape), to swiss chard, to kale, to spinach.    Of course the first step is to clean the leaves thoroughly.  Whether they come from the market or the garden, this involves inspecting the leaves for bugs, slugs and snails.  Usually a couple of baths in water will do the trick, then I make a quick trip outside to liberate these hangers-on.   They either survive the adventure or end up sacrificed to the chickens, depending on whether or not I feel like playing God today.  If you miss some, don’t worry, they will float to the top of the boiling water and you can pick them out, and nobody will be the wiser!

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, enough to cover about half the volume of leaves, and add a generous handful of sea salt.  Don’t use the iodized kind or you will taste it, and you will regret it.  Stuff all the leaves down into the boiling water, and stand by to shift the mass in the pot while it cooks.  Regardless of the  variety of greens, you will want to leave them until they are thoroughly wilted.    Meanwhile, slice  up some garlic, about a clove for each cupful of cooked greens.

At this point, you want to drain the greens, but reserving at least a cup of their water.  I dip them out and into a bowl with this extra liquid.   Then I throw out the cooking water  and use this same pot to saute the garlic in about two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil.    Fry the garlic in the oil until it begins to skate around in the pan but don’t let it brown!

There are two ways to go at this point:    Plan A is for greens with sweet red pepper, to be eaten as is.     Plan B is for greens mixed with beans for a hearty one-dish meal.

Plan A:    Get your peperoncino ready.  Now here is a problem:  We use liberal quantities of sweet red pepper powder at our house, but I’m not sure what the American equivalent would be.  It is similar to paprika, but if you can find a sweet red pepper powder that is not just generic  paprika, you will have the nearest thing to what we use.   I suspect maybe a Mexican market might have this?  If you can’t find it then I suppose paprika will have to do.     Now get ready!  At this point you can add your peperoncino,   about two tablespoons.  Be quick!   It will immediately begin to bubble as you stir it in, and you should dump the greens into the pan  immediately.   Bring the whole pot to a good simmering boil.     At this point it is up to individual taste how long you cook it.   I usually leave it on the flame long enough to evaporate most of the liquid.  Eaten hot with a sprinkling of cheese (my husband, a D.O.C. southern Italian,  scoffs  at this practice)   or at room temperature with a slice or two of good bread, that’s it.  Enjoy!

Plan B:   Get yourself a couple of cupfuls of cannellini, great northern, even pinto beans, and make sure they are soft.    Cook them yourself or use canned, either will do.    You want equal amounts of beans and greens.   In a pan, saute about three heaping tablespoons of a mixture of finely diced celery, onion, carrot, and garlic in two or three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.   ( I usually make up a huge batch of this vegetable “soffritto” mixture and freeze it in ice cube trays.  Just stick your nose into the freezer bag at any time thereafter for quick culinary inspiration!)  Dump  the beans with their cooking liquid into this mixture and bring to a simmer.  Add a bay leaf and one or two small, peeled and chopped tomatoes.  Cook the beans about forty minutes or so  and don’t let them stick and burn!    Add liquid to keep it soupy if you need to.      You are now ready to combine the two mixtures and serve.  Add generous grated cheese.   I like to add a few drops of really hot oil to my bowl, and a good crusty toasted bread will complete the meal.  Call it soup or stew, it is pure comfort food!

paintings:   “Another Summer Salad, oil on canvas, 2011

“A Vegetarian Courtship”  oil on canvas  2003

A note about editing…

“Impotence”  oil on canvas, 22 x 17 inches

I am learning the ropes of blogging, and I hope you will forgive me for being unable to resist hitting  the “Publish” button before my final edited version has been finished.   Sometimes the final version of a post shows up  on the site itself (after my tweaking) and is not necessarily the version that you got in the e-mail.    Up to now anyway.    I will try to control the urge to publish before I’m ready to publish!

And thanks!

untitled, oil on canvas,  6 x 6 inches,  2011

Love is a Panda futon

The southern Italian society is organized, as are most, according to guidelines that are the result of economics.   In most families money is tight, and a newly adult child moving away to live alone in an apartment is unthinkable.  Of course remaining with the folks until age forty can lead to all kinds of unfortunate situations and negative behavioral consequences,  but that is for another post…a long one.

So most families will raise the children to the age of eighteen,  and then keep them around until they marry, with time out for college or military service. In many families the grown children stay even longer, and three or more generations will live together in one apartment.   Imagine getting married with loads of expense and fanfare, and the next day moving back in with Mamma and Papa’.   (I sometimes think that the concept of  “enabling” was born here.)    These spaces are low on square footage, so that means plenty of closeness and familiarity.  It isn’t surprising that much social interaction takes place outside, on the streets of the town.  Its a party every night out on the Corso, you just have to show up and meet your friends.  But what about those private moments,  the focal point of the evening for many a young couple?    Where can they find a bit of privacy?

“Tramonto, Bernalda”  pastel on paper

It is interesting to note that the English word “privacy” is used in Italy,  because there is no synonym in the Italian language!    There is also a verb for the act of taking oneself away from others to obtain privacy, which is “appartare.”   To draw apart, to separate onself from others.   Enter the automobile.   The most important changes of the last century may be attributed to the mobility provided by the automobile, but there is another reason these tiny mobile rooms have changed society around here: they provide a place to be alone…together.   When your house is small enough that it requires siblings to share a room,  and mom,  dad,  and grandma are always there,  there simply is no better place to go!

The slow crawl of couples in their automobiles on their way out of town begins at dusk,  and ends later when they return to pass the evening in restaurants or among friends in sidewalk gatherings.   Condensation on the windows is a universally recognizable sign that a couple is “fidanzati.”   The word is similar to our appropriation of the French “fiance,” but the interpretation is more open-ended,  and it refers only to the current significant other,  and is quite changeable.   Fidanzati come and go,   and they will only be considered serious if they are taken to important meals with  the parents.   One assumes their arrival to dinner is in a car with clear windows.   I often embarrass myself when,  after my vigorous evening walk in town,  the windows immediately fog up as soon as I get into my car.  I wonder if people think ill of me, a married woman with kids,  as I drive by?

At the end of gravel roads in the periphery of any city,  there will be small accumulations of white facial tissues and,  well, other items which have been tossed out of the fogged windows of parked cars.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that every country road has its “Kleenex” area,   and one would be wise to look the other way when hiking or biking.   Alas,  it is a tradition that small paper items never ever make it into a trashbin if they are used in an automobile.   The idea of keeping the countryside clean and attractive has not caught on everywhere yet.

There is a small Fiat called a Panda,   which is still in production today after thirty years,  although it has been souped-up and modernized.    In the days before the invention of the minivan,   it was unique in that it had a back seat which was pure genius,  and obviously designed with the couple in mind!   It was a kind of futon, actually,   a thin mattress hung on two horizontal bars,  which could be unhooked at will.   With the front seats folded forward,   the back seat of the car could effectively become a cramped but accomodating bed.   It was a very popular car both because it was economical and it had this added feature.  My husband and I both had Pandas back when we were courting, as did many of our friends.   It was a bestseller…no doubt due to its excellent mileage.

I can only imagine the comfort indulged in by couples nowadays, with their  fancy French minivans and Fiat Multiplas which are five times as large as the Panda ever was.   Things might change in the future,   but it will take tremendous economic growth before young couples can afford a place to go to be together other than an automobile.    I don’t see that happening anytime soon.   Models may evolve, and the number of doors may change, but as long as there are dark country roads, the phrase to be used here in place  of  “Get a room!” might as well be,  “Take a drive!”

“Behind Every Man”  pencil on paper


We live along the Mediterranean coast, so we consume a healthy Mediterranean diet, of course.   Well yes and no.  Visitors imagine the locals consuming a healthy diet of leafy greens, legumes, crusty bread and fresh fruits ripe and locally-grown.   This is all true, and yet there is another reality as well.

I have never seen people eat so  much meat!   Breakfast is the only meal that excludes it, so bacon and sausage are not acceptable choices for most in the morning.   Breakfast consists either of a coffee and nothing else, or some refined flour and sugar confection, usually industrially-produced.    Might as well eat nothing, I say.     (Yes, I know Italian coffee and pastry bars are the best in the world, but only the most un-thrifty types head there for breakfast every day.)     But then there is lunch, and there is dinner.    Plenty of animal offerings, red meat mostly.   A man will eat fish, but chicken is considered  a demeaning choice, a feminine choice!…for real men.     And cured meats never are far from any respectable table.    You will be offered sliced cold cuts and cheese for the antipasto, meat sauce on pasta, mixed grilled meats, roasted haunches of meat, meat stuffed with more meat and cheese for a main course.      Not surprisingly, Bernalda, which squeaks over the line with twelve thousand inhabitants, is rife with butcher shops:  there are at least fifteen boutique-type shops,  plus numerous supermarkets with their own butchers.

There are three butcher shops in Bernalda specializing—to the exclusion of everything else—in horse meat.    You can pick your cuts and they will cook them for you right there.    My sons are not unusual in their love of horse meat,  which is considered a more robust and nutrient-packed alternative to beef and pork.    Pregnant women and wimpified men, as well as sickly children, are encouraged to partake.    Young men and boys here have the regular pastime of getting together and going out for a huge meal of freshly-prepared carne equina, which they swear is more flavorful than any other meat.    My husband and I will not eat horse meat, but of course any explanation from people who freely partake of chicken,  pig,  and cow slices would be hypocritical.    It just feels wrong.     One visit to Calabria has provided me the stuff of nightmares.    I saw butcher shops with the heads of cows and horses hung up high in doorways so as to stare out at the sidewalk.    Their sad eyes looked out from behind those multi-string fly barriers which adorn every doorway,   a mute rebuke to every carnivore passing by.

Even these familiar animals can offer some daunting cuts for the table.    A very popular dish for festive occasions are the involtini  (wraps)  of organ meats, called niummurriedd.    These can be tiny and charcoal-grilled, or very large and slow-roasted in the oven.     The large wrapped meat roll–“u marro“— that my mother-in-law used to cook was absolutely excellent.    They are made of heart, lung, liver, and more, and wrapped in lengthy pieces of sheep gut.    They require hours of preparation time and are considered a great delicacy when made correctly.     Folks say the best ones are those which aren’t exactly scrupulously free of,  well,   extraneous matter.    Not recommended for the cholesterol-challenged.

“Homeopathic Diet”   oil on canvas, 2006

I have been offered tiny birds,  arranged on a plate with their startled eyes staring up as if to say,  “I was swatted out of the sky for this?”    Snails are popular,  not large ones served with garlic butter sauce, but tiny little gritty ones.   They are called “lumache” in Italian,  but here they are known as “varvaliesc.”    They are a very popular choice during the Spring,  and folks can be seen alongside the roads with plastic bags collecting them on any humid morning.    One unfortunate dining convocation had me refusing the main dish,  a large stewpot full of boiled chicken feet.   You should know that boiling them plumps them up and removes most traces of color,  but not the toenails.    The sounds produced by a table full of folks enjoying boiled chicken feet is similar to the sounds produced by people eating small garden snails in tomato sauce;   musical sucking sounds punctuated by loud staccato slurping.    I cannot deny that to a blind guest it might seem quite appetizing.

I have been served fox, without knowing it at the time.    A fox is close enough to a dog to be,   well,  dog.   Rabbits are popular,  and my first neighbor across the gorge had a large corral of them.    I always knew when the family was having rabbit for dinner,  because the accoustics were such that I could hear the screams the poor animals made.    There are wild hares,  and pheasants,  most of which have been added by the hunting associations for sport.    Often in their dazed confusion, freshly released from a crate into an unknown territory,  they are hit by cars.   My son’s friends have been known to improvise a barbeque if the victim was fresh enough.    Just the day before yesterday a boar ended up in the stew pot after being hit by a distracted driver.    They say that Italians have perfected the art of making do,   and this is prime evidence of the truth of that!    I once gave my husband a T-shirt with a Road Kill menu on it,   very amusing to some,   but not to all.

Years ago I participated in the making of sausage,   just pork mind you,   and I suppose I made enough snide comments during the session that the women never invited me back.    I will admit I am not sorry.   Making sausage is,  after all,  a lot like politics.    Another pork-related dish is sanguinaccio :   If you are served a dense chocolate pudding after the meal,  you might want to ask what it is called before you eat it.    It is just what it seems,  a chocolate pudding,  made however with a large percentage of fresh pig blood.    To my mind, one could leave out this ingredient and have a wonderful dessert.   With it, not so much.

It should also be said that people here are equally disgusted by  things like  peanut butter, fried rattlesnake  (this one never fails to earn me stares of disbelief),  root beer,  bottled salad dressing,  Spam, and Velveeta.  On the other hand, things do change rapidly in our traveling world.  My husband loves Pizza Hut pizza over the original Italian kind, and imported Budweiser beer,  pancakes and nachos  are all the rage here this year!  Do they sell chocolate Cornflakes in the U.S.  yet?  Go figure.

Of course the typical Mediterranean fare is available as well,   but I will leave that for other posts. Enough has not yet been said about the quality and variety of Italian cooking.    There are so many wonderful concoctions of beans, greens,  vegetable stews,   grains and fresh flavorful fruits,  that becoming a vegetarian would be an easy step to take.   We are almost there,  in terms of quantity, but we do like a little added flavor in the form of animal flesh once in a while.    But some will consider us cowards when it comes to adventurous preparation of animal parts. We keep to our safe ground,   or sliced, and above all,  recognizable,  culinary path.

“At Pasture”  oil on board, 2011