Monday, June 11, 2018

The story of Figaro - written 1984

An Event that occurs early in a person’s life often helps to explain an emphasis or theme in their lifestyle. This is the story of the cat that brought the magic of feline companionship into my life.

On Sundays if my sister and I were lucky, we visited Grandpa’s house. He lived in a typical New Jersey urban dwelling, back to back with similar homes and a small backyard almost entirely devoted to a flourishing semitropical garden.

My grandfather, who always had a twinkle in his eye, called me over to his garden one day. “Come here, there’s something I want to show you.” I followed him into the back of his garden. He stopped and told me to be very quiet. There beyond the fence at the rear of his garden I could see a whole litter of tiny kittens frolicking and chasing each other. I was thrilled. I had always loved kittens, like any self-respecting 7 year old. My family had had cats on and off throughout my young life. “Want one?” asked my grandfather, suppressing a chuckle. My eyes were as big as saucers and when I answered with a big “yessss!” the kittens all scampered and hid underneath a pile of wood.

“How will we catch one?”I asked tremulously. I already knew how fast they could run. Grandpa, a man of few words said “come!” and we crept up to the fence. He leaned over and slowly removed the top branches of the woodpile which was right on the other side of the fence. Finally a furry mass of kittens could be seen in the middle of the woodpile. They were all grey tabbies, huddled so tightly together that I could not tell where one kitten ended and the next began. My grandfather picked me up so I could reach all the way down and pull out a kitten. I grabbed the rump end of a screaming squalling ball of fur into a box which my grandpa had conveniently placed near the fence.

I was in heaven as my father took us home that night. I carried the box on my lap ever so carefully. Once safely home, we cautiously opened the box. To my surprise, instead of a wildcat there was this tiny frightened kitten huddled in the corner of the box. He had a pink nose and a white muzzle and 4 perfect little white booties. I named him Figaro which I felt was a perfect name for such a marvelous creature. (Later he developed a liking for a new brand of cat food that just happened to have the same name!)

My mother instructed me to fill a newpaper-lined box with dirt. Figaro used it that night and never had an accident in his entire life.

Figaro grew and grew. He was never an exceptionally friendly cat and did not like to be held. Not having been handled in his infancy, he had never entirely bonded to humans. He was loyal and responsive to me though, and was so aware of my feelings that he would suddenly become lovable when he found me crying in my bed.

In those days cats roamed freely outside and neutering was not even considered for male cats. We were quite poor and in our neighborhood, mice were a real problem. Figaro became such a good mouser that my mother would actually loan him out to friends in need; Figaro always got his mouse.

At maturity, Figaro spanned 36 inches from nose to tail tip and weighed 12 pounds. One of his most memorable tricks was his method of procuring treats. He’d stand on his hind legs and impatiently scratch the metal table top until we gave him some of our dinner. His favorite food was shrimp and he would perform for anyone. A sure way to fetch him would be to break an egg. At the sound he would dash into the kitchen from anywhere. He was an aggressive fighter, constantly coming home with new battle scars. One day he showed up with a bloody ear that remained stiff for the rest of his life.

Some years passed and mother decided we should get out of New Jersey . It was time to move to California and seek our fortune there. Since she had never appreciated Figaro’s growly disposition or his frequent abscesses that usually drained on her nice dining room chairs, our mother decided to leave him behind. We would give him a good “country” home. A friend, Mrs Brown, already had a cat and a dog, and didn’t mind taking care of Figaro. So one day we left him at her house in Lake Hiawatha.

Soon after we left my beloved cat behind, his new owner wrote to say that he was dead. That was the end, and I grieved this loss for a long time. We stayed in California from June until November but when things did not work out, mother got her old job back and we returned to Lake Hiawatha, about 2 miles from Mrs. Brown’s.

The following spring, I came home from school and was wandering around the house. Like most normal teenagers, I gravitated to the bathroom to take residence there. For no particular reason, I climbed up on top of the toilet seat and stood there, looking out the window. To my surprise, directly in front of me about 60 feet away I could see a large grey tabby walking through a neighbor’s yard. I called out “FIGARO!!” and the cat looked up at me!

Laughing and crying, I flew down the stairs and ran out the door and up to where I had seen him. I called him softly and he warily approached me. It WAS Figaro. He looked terrible, his coat was dull and he was quite thin. I kept coaxing him until I was close enough to grab him. He didn’t fight. He growled softly as I carried him back to the house, but he never struggled. I put him into a walk-in closet with food and water and sat there with him - - overjoyed at my long lost friend’s return.

Mother came home later and couldn’t believe it was the same cat. But look here, his paralyzed ear, and here, this scar. She finally became convinced when he reacted to an egg being cracked in the kitchen when he came running just as he had always done, mother was in tears. Mrs Brown finally admitted that Figaro had run away the first day she had him and had not returned.

Mother had brought a little black Persian from California. Now that we had two male cats, she took them both to the vet to be neutered, so they would not fight. At the same time the veterinarian gave us some medication for an infection in Figaro’s mouth.

Of course I favored Figaro and personally fed him daily, canned cat food with an egg on the top. Since our reunion, he did not like to stay in the house (probably because of the competition) so I gave him what affection I could at feeding time or out on the porch where he liked to bask in the sun. Figaro lived for about a year after his return. He gradually developed a ravenous appetite (and I fed him more) but he finally died one night from what in retrospect, I believe was the result of a severe worm infestation – probably heart failure. In our total ignorance, we had not wormed him in years or even suspected that he might be wormy. (Nor did the veterinarian!) I found him curled up in his bed on the porch, he had obviously died very peacefully.

Almost 20 years later, I am crying as I write this. Poor Figaro suffered needlessly because of our ignorance. Sometimes knowledge comes to us at great cost. I will always be indebted to this great cat and will continually be repaying his memory with care for my present and future cats and keeping myself and others informed about cat care.

Written circa 1984 by Mimi Torchia Boothby

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Writing a memoir

I can remember when my sons were in high school, one of them told me that he was the only one of his friends who had a sit down dinner with his whole family almost every night of the week. It was about that time that we realized that had something special. It honestly surprised me, because we had been through so much already, we had had a really rocky marriage.

When I married my husband in 1978, if my parents had actually been present, they probably would have strongly advised against our tying the knot. As it turned out, 3 months after we started dating, we got married and neither of my parents were present for the ceremony. His parents came, and honestly, if I had known them prior to that day, I am not sure that I would have married him!

We were married for almost 35 years, and after a really chaotic first ten years, our relationship started to get better. We learned how to live together and work together. After the kids left home, we started focusing on each other, and by and by, we noticed that we had become a role model for other couples. We really did have something special. We used to talk about maybe we ought to write a book on relationships. My husband, who was in a twelve step program, and sponsored many men through recovery, gave them a lot of advice about relationships. Of course his advice was based on what we had done ourselves. At this point, he wrote "Advice from Donald on Relationships." I loved it and saved it carefully (it is in our book).

In 2011, my husband was diagnosed with a really nasty form of cancer. Suddenly, those dreams we had of growing old together vaporized like so many soap bubbles. And we lived each day together with even more realization of how precious each one was.

One day while my husband was in the hospital fighting for his life, we decided that we needed to write this book. I wrote the first chapter and showed it to him. He loved it and wrote the second, it was his response to what I wrote. We did it in a "he says she says" format. Armed with his laptop, he composed and printed out rough drafts for my sons to proof read. Starting from our youth, and finishing with our mature relationship the book quickly fleshed out, we added photos and put it in a blog format just to keep it safe. As his fight for life got more intense, the book was put aside. After he died I forgot the book for a while, caught up in grief. But then one sunny day I remembered, and finished my part of it.

What we wrote is a testimony to our love, an autobiography and memoir of our marriage. I believe that someone reading it can learn from it and maybe improve their own relationships. I changed almost nothing that he wrote, because I wanted to preserve his style. I used Lulu as my publisher and even got an ISBN number. If I wanted to jump through a certain number of hoops, I could sell it on Amazon, but I have not done that yet. I know this book will never make the best seller list, but my children and close friends have this memento, a little piece of history. I know that if I ever have grandchildren, this will be required reading, because it will be a way to acquaint them with the wonderful grandfather they never met. All in all, it was a good experience and I recommend it.

Our book - The other side of love
my blog Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors
Donald's Blog The Boothby Chronicles

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Adventure in Chiapas, Mexico

My new husband, Dale and I were invited to visit his friend Jeremy who lives in San Cristobal de las casas in Chiapas, Mexico.  We flew down there in the spring of 2017, where we booked a nice little bed and breakfast close to town.  We actually had a little trouble meeting up with Jeremy, but we were having such a wonderful time that it didn't matter.  Jeremy wanted us to go with him to see his mine, which was on  a farm somewhere near Palenque.  We would rent a cab, which was indeed inexpensive, and stay over night and come back the next day.
There were several delays, but we finally met Jeremy in the late morning, with an affable cab driver ready to get us all the way down to the jungle.  The ride was 200 kilometers and it would take 4 hours. I didn't believe them at first. The first leg of the trip was really gorgeous and we were moving pretty fast. But soon, we were driving much slower, because there were topes everywhere. Topes are speed bumps that locals put in to slow cars down. They are nothing like speed bumps that you might find in the USA, because they are handmade. And they break, and sometimes leave holes. So the trip really did take an exhausting 4 hours. Apparently there are about 200 topes on that route.
Jeremy, Dale and I were to stay overnight at a beautiful resort called Misol Ha.

Before we went to bed, Jeremy warned us about howler monkeys, which would pierce the night with their strange calls. I laughed it off and went to our cabin where the man who led us to our room lit the water heater. Since we had gone from 7000 feet of elevation to sea level, it was now hot and muggy, so Dale was ready to shower. There was no light in the bathroom, so I opted for a sponge bath and jumped under the bedsheet to wait for him.  He discovered there was also no hot water, so he took his cold shower in the dark and came back out to discover there was something very large flying around in our room. It was a bat as large as a squirrel.  I bravely waited under the sheet while my naked husband escorted that very smart bat out the door. We marveled at the encounter and finally went to sleep.

Howler Monkey Sounds

Right about 3 am we heard this horrible sound. It is what I have imagined zombies might sound like. It didn't sound like any animal I have ever heard. They sounded like they were right above us in the trees.  But at daylight, they were gone and everything looked safe and innocent.

We ate a great breakfast and said goodbye to Jeremy, who still had not gotten in touch with his brother Tommy who was working at the farm. After breakfast, we toured the grounds and I found a nice place to sit and paint. While I painted, Dale walked around the waterfalls. It was really lovely. We went back to the restaurant for lunch and were just getting ready to order food when Jeremy showed up and instructed us to take a cab to Palenque where we could see the pyramids while he got business taken care of.  He had a ride waiting, so we rushed off and were dropped off at the entrance of the resort, where we were then to wait for "a cab."  What we actually rode in was the back of a pickup with hard benches and a canvas canopy.

 And it flew down the very bumpy road. We were having a great time, it was really something. There was a young couple on the truck with us, they were native to the area and very sweet it was so noisy and bumpy back there that all we could exchange were giggles.  Soon enough we were dropped at a crossroads in the town of Palenque where we would then catch another cab which would take us into the park. That was not to be, there was a huge international bike race that day which had commandeered the park and it was closed to visitors like us.  We joined a crowd of tourists, who were trying to get rides to other places. A cab stopped and offered us a ride at more than ten times the price we'd paid to get all the way down there the day before. So we passed.  Some Europeans decided to help us, we could pool and get a cab together. Just then,  a small pickup pulled up with some locals inside.  Our new friends were saying, no, no don't go with them, while Dale had just recognized Tommy,  Jeremy's brother, who happened to be in that truck. So we jumped into the truck, SAVED, and met Don Armando, Tommy, and a young relative of Don Armando. Tommy assured us they had caught some bushmeat which we would be eating later.. yum?

We drove for about an hour, and turned off the highway to this peaceful settlement with gravel roads, animals, and modest houses.

 We arrived at Don Armando's place, met some people, including a Korean partner, and were led through cow pastures to a field while the Korean guy rode a nice little stallion, to see the mine.

 The mine was a big pond in a bog, totally unimpressive to me.  The mining equipment was this huge tractor thing which wasn't apparently running.  So after a bit of this, we went back to the house, and Jeremy announced that they were going to have a 15 minute meeting, after which we could get back to civilization. We sat on a cement patio with naked kids, chickens and skinny immobile dogs.  It was in the shade, and the sun was hot. so we sat there.

I  asked to see the bush meat, and was led to a refrigerator with a huge bowl. Inside the bowl were these cat-sized creatures which were apparently shaved, with greenish skin. I saw their heads and I can't tell you what they were! but they were NOT something I wanted to eat, really. We were offered pieces of watermelon. I was starved, but was afraid of what might happen to me if I ate too much watermelon, so I only had a couple small pieces, still expecting dinner of some sort. I was hungry and wasn't feeling all that great. When I finally had to go to the toilet, I chose the one that said "DAMAS."  Upon entering, I discovered that it was occupied by a turkey hen sitting on her eggs.  I managed to not get bitten, but she warned me. When I came out, they told me it was the wrong bathroom. And I sullied their water by putting my hands into it. I felt like an idiot, because I didn't know the rules. It was clear to me that the residents wished we would leave so they could relax. The meeting went on and on and on. Finally, the men came back out and Jeremy told us they'd take us back to Misol Ha resort, where we would find a taxi to get us back home.

Dropped off on the side of the highway once again, standing in the sun, I wondered how many hours it would take to find a ride.  To my dismay, most of the taxis that passed were going the wrong way, and they were full. Suddenly, a big modern looking bus drove up, and stopped, and for a reasonable rate, agreed to take us to Ocosingo, which was civilization, and just a one hour  cab ride away from San Cristobal.

 We jumped on the bus, which had a/c, plush seats, and movies.  We relaxed..except when the bus lurched while flying over bumps. The driver didn't slow down for those topes.   A time or two I was sure that we were going to tip over!  After about an hour, Dale got up to go to the bathroom. He came back from the toilet and said, "The door to the toilet sticks, be careful" oh great. This strong man had trouble with the toilet door. I went back there anyway. To my relief, it was clean, although it was NOT air conditioned and there were diesel fumes. And I could not open the door. I kicked, I yelled, I wiggled the latch. Ayudami!  I yelled and yelled, and some guy asks me, you speak English? like who cares?  It was so hot back there, I was feeling sick, trapped..Then they stopped the bus and Jeremy came back.. somehow, someone got that door opened. As I walked back to my seat, everyone was glaring at me. Stupid tourist... ugh.   I crawled into my seat and fell apart. Tired, hot, starved, nauseated. I just wanted off that damn bus.

As we were coming into Ocosingo, Jeremy said, there's a restaurant right where the bus will drop us off.  That made me feel better, barely.  And then we got off the bus, and the restaurant was gone..apparently boarded up and closed. We all looked at each other, and I just started walking to San Cristobal. I found a supermarket and went in but couldn't find anything that resembled food that I could eat.  I finally found some yogurt and bought that and some water.   Meanwhile, Jeremy, who was in a lot better shape than I was, bought bread, cold cuts, and condiments.   I downed the yogurt as fast as I could, and we hopped into a cab. In the dark, I made sandwiches. The lunch meat was labeled "FUD" I am not sure if that was supposed to reassure me, but it did not.  My sandwich was disgusting. Nothing tasted good.  The bread, the meat, not even the mayo.  Dale and Jeremy had no problem, they ate their sandwiches and Dale finished mine too. I'm happy to say the rest of that trip was uneventful, and we safely made it back to our bnb.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Calabrian days and cold cold nights - 2006

I just got back from a sunny November week in Calabria. After some recent rain, everything was green and beautiful. Unlike the north of Italy, the air was pure and the sky was such a dark blue that it didn’t seem real. Due to far too much confusion with the cousins, I stayed in an agriturismo ambitiously named “Borgo Erto Grande Agriturismo Schirripa.” Loosely translated, it means the bed and breakfast by the superb big garden of Schirripa. Since I was not furnished with an address, a kind gentleman from the same town sent me a photograph of the place via email. Without that photo, there’s no way that I would have ever found it!

Normally, I travel with my husband, who loves to drive and has an innate sense of direction. This time I was alone, so everything was very different and driving for me is not a pleasure but a necessity. I arrived at the Lamezia Terme airport at dusk, so by the time I had navigated through Catanzaro and up most of the mountain road to Sersale, it was completely dark and quite cold too. I drove along with my trusty photo at my side, wondering how it would help me in the pitch black darkness. Amazingly enough, when I got close, there was just enough light in the sky to outline the landmarks in the photo.

I drove up to a big gate beyond which was total darkness, and called the phone number I had for the agriturismo. I was informed that they would be right there! I sat there, tired, hungry, thirsty and in need of a bathroom, until a car with three people (Felice, Maria Teresa and their ten year old daughter Noella) drove up and led me to the entrance of the agriturismo. All talking at once, and accompanied by four baying dogs and two meowing cats, they turned the lights on, but the circuit breakers slammed shut 6 times before they figured out how to turn on just the emergency lights.

In the cold and semi darkness, I was served a fantastic dinner while Felice explained several times about the problems he was having getting the contractors to finish their work on the building which included installing a front door. My dinner that night included homemade ‘mparrattati pasta with funghi, which had been gathered in the woods nearby. Maria Teresa also served polpetti, but they were shaped like footballs instead of golf balls, cheeses, olives, salamis and great bread. Then they hustled me off to Felice’s mother’s home in Cropani, a town nearby, where there was electricity and heat and I had a chance of surviving the night. In Cropani, I walked into a little apartment, and this lovely white haired lady greeted me at the door. She grabbed my hand and lamented how cold my hands were, “come sit by the fire”, she said, “and warm up!” As we talked, I learned little by little that she knew most of my relatives. And did I know that my cousin Pino Mercuri was burned recently and stayed in the hospital for 8 days? She knew everyone and everything. I sat at her fire with her and we exchanged chocolates. She gave me a piece of hers, and I gave her one of the Halloween Kitkat bars I had taken along with me for that very purpose. I slept in a big bed by myself, in a coolish room, but there were enough blankets that I slept comfortably.

Morning came and I began the typical routine of trying to explain why I could not eat everything in sight. In Calabria, you can be sure you will be full when you leave the table. In daylight, I felt ready to enter Sersale, with its “strette strade” (narrow streets) with many curves. I found a fairly safe looking parking space and headed for the home of the one cousin “Cicciu figlio di Saverio” whose house I could remember the best, which was down a steep path too small for cars. Of course, his wife Annina was home and greeted me warmly. I was welcomed in, and before I could say pasta with broccoli, I was eating again. Have more, this is good! Here, have some of this; take another piece of meat. The fight continued until I had eaten a lot more than I had planned on, and poor Annina still felt like she had lost the battle, I hadn’t eaten near enough. Annina called more cousins, who came over immediately. They had me follow them in their car so I could find their house the next day. They lived “in campagna” which was less than a mile from the center of town, but on a very steep and twisty well paved road. This is not a place you want to drive in the snow. Everyone wanted to know why I came in November. I told them, I wanted to see the Sagra della Castagna, the chestnut festival. So everywhere I went, I was fed castagne. They are very good raw, they almost taste like apples. And they are cooked in the huge bread ovens, for 24 hours and then stored. To eat the cold previously baked chestnuts, you must re-heat them. I was given sacks of chestnuts and was already dreading going through customs with all this produce. (note: all chestnuts arrived in Seattle safely) That night I returned to the agriturismo with the sky lit up by the full moon, and it was colder than ever. They had fixed the electricity, but the building was still freezing cold, and they still didn’t have a front door. I had dinner there again that night, but it was just too cold in the dining room. Above Maria Teresa’s protestations, I insisted; I would not eat in the dining room, I would eat in the kitchen. After that, I ate breakfast every morning in the relatively cozy kitchen. After my dinner of pasta e fagioli, I went up to my painfully cold room. The heater, mounted at ceiling level, was going full blast but cold seemed to seep in from the corners of the room and radiated through the floor. So I jumped into my capilene underwear and then crawled under the covers and stayed there until morning. At last the next day they covered the building entrance with plastic since the door had not yet appeared. Sunday afternoon, I was expected for lunch at Pino and Santina’s house, where life was looking good. They had recently finished building a beautiful house right next to their large garden, about an acre of trees and vegetables. Pino had been burnt by an explosive combustion of alcohol that he was using to start a fire less than 2 weeks before, so he was holding court, and everyone in town was making rounds to come see him. Fortunately he had healed very nicely and was really enjoying all the attention. So each time I came to their house, an endless stream of relatives appeared to pay their respects, making it easier for me to make connections. Every meal with every cousin and friend contained delicious surprises, including homemade pastas, grilled zucca, roast capretto, tender chicken and various fried vegetables. Every meal was different, with the exception of pasta e fagiole, which I had twice, but the recipes were different. I ate chestnuts at every meal, and on my walks, I picked freshly fallen chestnuts off the ground and stuck them into my pockets. After every meal I was offered fruits and nuts. I ate salads fresh picked out of the garden. And thanks to all the studying, I enjoyed real conversations with my family. Finally I had enough grasp of the language to understand what was being said about me, and to be able to ask real questions. A cousin showed me how to make the ’mparrattati pasta, and asked me questions about Genealogy. Another cousin cut me some fig tree starts. This was the first time I’d ever gone to Sersale by myself, so with pleasure, I walked the streets and steps and found everything on my own. Tiny elderly ladies in black eyed me suspiciously until I told them who I was, and then they’d burst out in huge grins with claims that they had known my grandfather, who had left Italy one hundred years before. My last morning arrived much too fast. With the car packed up, I made rounds to all the cousins who were at home and said goodbye. I drove the 25 kilometers back down the hill where I counted 40 switchbacks before I forgot and lost count. At almost the end of the road where it connects to the highway, I saw two women in black. It was Santina and Annina. I pulled over and jumped out of the car. They were next to an olive field. I asked them, “Are those your olives?” No, they weren’t. “What are you doing here?” Santina pulled a small wad of cicoria out of her pocket. “We were looking for greens, but there’s almost nothing here. Now we’re waiting for my daughter to return from work to take us home.” These two women with large gorgeous gardens full of fruit and vegetables were out foraging for greens, go figure. Old habits die hard I guess. I could only imagine that they started gathering cicoria as children so they would have vegetables to eat. I gave them both hugs and bade them farewell, and drove off to the airport, marveling about my adventures. Calabria… It fills me with joy and sadness. There’s no place like it in the world.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Taralli in the family

Like many fortunate Italian Americans, I had two Italian grandmothers who were great cooks. One of them made taralli, a spicy kind of Italian pretzel.
When I was only 18, I left New Jersey and moved to Boise, Idaho to go to college. I loved the mountains, the wide open spaces, the horses, the goats and the chickens, but after growing up in Northern New Jersey, I found myself in a kind of cultural vacuum. I could not find semolina pasta at my local supermarket, and the only pizza place in the whole state was a chain that sold something akin to saltine crackers glazed with tomato and oregano topped with yellow cheese. So I was always grateful when my grandmother Lucy Fressola sent me care packages filled with biscotti and taralli that she lovingly made by hand.

I suppose taralli are an acquired taste, if you set them out at a non-Italian potluck, chances are that they will be passed over for the richer double fudge brownies and the super chocolate chip cookies and the beautifully decorated designer biscotti that you can buy in stores here. But they don’t last long at my house.

The details of my grandmother’s taralli changed from time to time, but the way I liked them best was when she added both ground black pepper and fennel seeds. They are not sweet like so many other confections.

Over the years, my mother, my cousins and I requested the recipe from her several times, and upon each request, she dutifully sent it to us. We rarely even tried to make them because it is a complicated recipe. To make taralli, you must knead and raise dough, make about a mile of dough snakes, shape them, boil them and then finally bake them until they are just right. This is not a recipe for busy or timid cooks.

Some years ago, after we noticed that every one of the recipes for taralli that my grandmother had given us were different, we convinced her to show us how to make them at a family gathering. My sister, my mother, my husband and I sat and watched as she tried to measure the ingredients; she doesn’t REALLY measure, she was only doing it for us. Then she kneaded the dough, quickly, efficiently and we all realized she wasn’t going to slow down to show us that process. After the dough sat in a warm place for 1.5 hours, we all sat around the table with our own pieces of dough and rolled out snakes, worms, pencils and eventually braids and various other knotted shapes. My sister made the most fanciful designs, I labored to imitate what my grandmother was doing. No matter what, hers were nicer, faster, and more consistent. My mother was intimidated with the boiling water procedure and the slippery wet unfinished taralli but she and my husband managed to get them all in the oven under my grandmother’s watchful eye.

I made her biscotti recipe a couple of times for her before she died, faithfully reproducing her recipe of simple ingredients, but I’d never ventured to make those taralli. When my grandmother died in 2003 she left quite a hole in the family fabric.

That autumn, my family went to her home town of Sant’Agata di Puglia, where her cousin made sure that we went home with the RIGHT kind of taralli. But they were different. I knew I’d never have my grandmother’s recipe again unless I learned to make them myself.

In the kitchen, I generally lean on my husband, who learned to bake bread as a boy while living on a farm. He finds Italian baking very frustrating because to him her basic method is “backwards.” He was taught to make a dough by starting with the water, the yeast, and the oil, gradually adding the dry ingredients until you get a good dough. All our Italian recipes start with; “make a well in a hill of flour” to which you add wet ingredients until the dough is right. Each time I made another disastrous attempt at some sort of bread dough recipe, I would call him in, he would sputter and protest, and I’d watch as he changed that bumpy fractious lump of crumbs and grease into a perfect, soft, glistening ball of dough. It was still a mystery to me, frustrating, just beyond reach.

In the autumn of 2006, my husband spent most of his time in New Orleans on catastrophe duty. This gave me plenty of time alone in the kitchen, lots of time to think. I wanted to learn to make Taralli - by myself.

I planned my attack carefully, I figured I’d make my first attempt while my husband was still at home, and then I’d keep trying until I got it right. I cut her recipe in half, 8 cups of flour was way too intimidating. On my first try the dough came out awful. It was tough and cobbled with lumps. My husband wrassled it like it was a recalcitrant hog, pronounced several choice words, but before my eyes transformed it into something that looked pretty good. It was a very hard dough, but at least they tasted like taralli.

I tried again a couple days later, but this time the yeast didn’t rise. The poor thing just sat there in a lump. I left it out overnight in a warm place. In the morning after observing that the only change was that it was now a darker color, I threw it away.

My husband went back to New Orleans and I still hadn’t gotten it right. I was now ready to solo. If I really tried, I could have some ready for the holiday gathering. I tried four more times before I was satisfied. Five times is a charm? The last batch were salty enough, crunchy enough, they rolled out nicely, they browned perfectly. I finally feel like I own the recipe.

Upon reflection, sometimes my grandmother seemed to be sad because she was the only one that knew how to make these things. I’ll bet she’s smiling now, I’m sure she’d say, “you didn’t roll those out thinly enough.” and “Next time, don’t use so much pepper.” Sharing my grandmother’s taralli is kind of like sharing her. Now the younger generation is assured of getting a taste for her recipe, and perhaps the longing for more. Finally, I was able to preserve another family tradition. Her recipe is safely knit into our family fabric for at least another generation.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Milanese little shop of horrors

There was just one day for me to walk the streets of Milan, check out the little shops, and hang out in the piazzas so I was very happy when a native Milanese who worked with Elena drew me a map. “Go here, there’s lots of things to see.” Armed with that little map, I was off. The streets was narrow, there was no parking and it was very difficult to see how cars managed to get through. I saw many bicyclists, some talking on cell phones or smoking negotiating the cobblestones and the cars. The sidewalk was less than two feet across, so if someone came from the opposite direction, you might end up in the street trying to get around them.. where those cars and cyclists were.

One of the little shops drew my attention. There were miniature skulls in the window. Now that’s odd. I looked inside and saw all kinds of skulls; big animals, small animals, animals with horns, as well as some skeletons. I had to go in there! There were tiny skulls carved from semiprecious stones, and even paintings of bones and things, but there were real bones too. It was just a tiny place, the size of a small living room, cluttered and full of wonders, many clearly ancient. And there was a guard dog. He met me outside of the shop, but by the time I got to the back, he was relaxing on this overstuffed dark red leather sofa. I drew close to the displays of the tiniest carved skulls and creatures to see if I could find a price. I had enough class not to gasp and drew away from the tantalizing display. Fortunately the proprietor permitted me to take a photo of his dog..

This painting is cross-posted in my art blog

Monday, October 18, 2010

Catania 2004

People write about their different kinds of trips, but "slow travel" was truly what my last trip to Catania was about.
This isn't a trip just anyone can do. There are a few requirements:
1. You need to know the language where you are going. You are going somewhere that English is not a given.
2. You need to know somebody willing to take you in for a week, in my case, a relative, a very distant relative who was
more than happy to receive me at her home and share her hospitality.
3. You need to be prepared to go where they go, do what they do. You are entirely at their mercy. Again, this IS
total immersion.

So accepting the above tenets, I booked myself a trip to Catania, one of the two largest cities in Sicily, for the last week of March, 2004.
Catania is not featured with glowing reviews by any travel guides, it is often mentioned for this duomo or that, but in fact, their famous sons are people most of us have never heard of. The city was demolished by a series of earthquakes, and once, by
Etna itself, so there is not a lot of really old stuff there. Or so I thought.
Actually, Catania is dotted with historic sites, old villas, fancy old buildings, and churches. But without exception, every single one was "in restauro"
being restored, hidden, (in some cases only partially) by scaffolding and tarps.
Fortunately, the famous elephant was there in the open for everyone to see.

My last trip had been to Calabria with other cousins where there was a tremendous language barrier, not because I couldn't speak Italian, but because my cousins didn't speak Italian. They spoke in their own very special dialect; it might as well have been Spanish, or Latin. I relied on people in their teens and twenties to translate for me. They knew Italian, having recently been in school. But after a few telephone conversations with my cousin in Catania, I was confident that she spoke proper Italian without an accent. This was not actually true, but close enough.

I wrote to them about my dietary preferences, (I don't drink alcohol, coffee, or pop), and the kinds of food I liked (everything, yes, meat, yes, fish, yes, pasta, yes, vegetables, yes) and so they prepared for me. My cousin Antonietta, and 3 of her children, who lived in other homes, planned out how they would swap me around and entertain me.

I arrived in Catania at around noon. I had promised to wear "un fazzoletto rosso" and so had Antonietta. I'd already seen lots of photos of her and her family, so I kind of knew what she looked like, but I happily complied. The Catania airport has two doors. A big one that hundreds of passengers come out from after they pick up their bags, and a little one with the sign "Dogana" where international travelers -exit after going through the customs search. (In my case, they x-rayed my suitcase). I exited that door, and looked over to my right, where a small crowd of very short people were clustered around the main passenger exit. Right center front was Antonietta, who is about 75 years old, resplendent with her red silk scarf. I walked up behind the little group (about a dozen people) and called her. They were all so amazed that I was behind them, instead of in front of them.

I am a towering 5' 3" and a fraction, just to make sure you all understand. But except for the two male son-in-laws, I was taller than all the rest of the men and women in this family. We got into the house and it became apparent that I needed house slippers, they all had them. I looked at all the feet in attendance, and had to turn them down. No one had feet as big as mine either!

The previous year, I had spent a week in Cefalu'. (read about my adventures in Cefalu' here: )
I took a language class at Solemar-Sicilia and chose the "homestay" with an "Italian family" Boy, that sounded so wonderful, I imagined a family, delicious smells in the kitchen, kids, chatter; but what I got was a sad woman about my age (Sandra) who sat around smoking and watching TV all day. She did not have a warm blanket for my bed, and did not heat my room. I was very very miserable there at night.
She also hated to cook (so I didn't pay for any meals) and the way she was able to ruin tea has forever endeared her to me.
So after my experiences with Sandra, I was very afraid of being too cold. From phone conversations with Antonietta, I was not afraid of starvation, but of cold. I didn't know how to ask if I would be too cold without insulting someone. So I had packed silk, wool, and Capilene underwear.
So upon my arrival, the entire family assembled at Antonietta's house for a wonderful dinner. The flavors were totally different from Calabria,
the tomato sauce, the salad, the polpetti (meatballs). Then I was sent to bed (having missed an entire nights's sleep). I unpacked my warm undergarments, but to my surprise, the bed was WARM!!
One of my cousins had thoughtfully plugged in the electric blanket for me. And she did this EVERY night I was there!

I never wore any of that warm underwear. There was absolutely no need. This is not to say that I had nice weather while I was there, in fact, the weather was so bad, that I never ever saw Mount Etna. And I sat and listened to my cousins describe how they could watch the fireworks display (the 2002 eruption) from their kitchen windows, while I couldn't even see the mountain which was pretty frustrating.

When I first got there, they asked me what the weather was like in Seattle. Was it true that it rained all the time?
of course not, I explained that Seattle wasn't really wet, it was just grey.
As the grey days continued, I could see that in Catania, a drop of rain or a cloudy day is a major interference with the normal state of affairs. Many of our expeditions were canceled because of the "rain" (light drizzle) and in fact, people did not come to see us because of this "weather" - people that lived 3 blocks away.
However, Antonietta, the family hero, was not deterred by weather. Every morning we were up at 7:30 and had a lovely breakfast set for me every morning. The tea, the bread, the cookies, the fruit. She actually found good green tea for me somewhere, and to my horror, CORNFLAKES!
"But," she said, "This is American food! I bought this just for you." I never ate any cornflakes. I never could as a child I certainly wasn't going to start in Italy, when I could eat their fantastic bread and fresh picked citrus fruits every single morning.
After breakfast, we dressed for Mount Everest, armed ourselves with giant umbrellas and went to the Mercato. This was about 4 blocks from their house. I had brought my wonderful Seattle raincoat, just in case, but this was discarded, it wasn't warm enough. I was given a ridiculous jacket that was too small for me (in the style of the 70's super stuffed down jackets) and I had to wear it every day. They didn't want me to freeze. Mercato was just as wonderful as it could be, and it abutted a famous pescheria. We went there every day, whether we had to or not.

My Catanese cousins were very different from my Calabrian ones. They were city people, college educated, and professionals. The down side of this was no one could tell me what this flower was or that tree was; my Calabrian cousins are country folk and know all about the flora and fauna.
I was introduced to the Great Bellini, a composer at least as important as Mozart or Bach. I didn't have the heart to tell them I had never heard of the guy, and it was with great relief that I determined that I HAD at least heard of one of his Operas, La Sonnambula.
Another famous name, who I fortunately knew, was Giovanni Verga. However, my cousins were not impressed that I had read one of his novels and several of his short stories. (Hasn't everyone?) We visited the museums situated in the homes of both of these gentlemen.

It became apparent that my cousins, even though, yes, they were true Sicilians, Island people, were not really from the coast. As mountain people, their knowledge of Sicilian fish dishes wasn't much better than mine. Antonietta told me that it took so long for fish to arrive in Agira, where she was born and raised, that people just didn't eat much of it.
I discovered that they didn't normally eat fish, but prepared it twice for me. When we had the sword fish the first day, it was obviously
the special dish for a guest, but the second time, when we had two different types of fish that we bought fresh from the Pescheria, one of the cousins asked "WHAT THE HECK IS THIS??" and Antonietta said, smooth as glass "Oh Mimi picked this out." Yeah, right. I had merely asked what it was, and then she bought it. but it was delicious. One was called blue fish, and I'm sorry, I don't remember the name of the other.

They promised me that they would take me to Etna, and Agira, the birthplace of our common ancestors. I never got to Etna because of the weather, nor Agira because of family conflict. We did see Siracusa and some of its ruins, and right next to Siracusa was an island town, a tiny little island called Ortigia, a really nice little place to visit.

Taormina was also a beautiful place, filled with touristy shops. Apparently, during the tourist season, the shops and restaurants are open all night. After gazing at a lot of the same offerings that I saw in Catania, I did not buy a single gift in Taormina. The prices were almost

In the evenings I sat with my cousins in front of the television. The shows all seemed to blend into one. Gorgeous tall babes with offensive hairstyles and ridiculous (i.e. lots of skin showing) outfits everywhere, and a couple of men leading the show. Whether it was about what to do for PMS, politics or an actual fashion show, it was pretty much the same.
Often, my cousins would say, "Look, she's American! this is what Americans are like" Once we watched an old Gina Lolobrigida movie. That was pretty neat.

I learned some family history, and some family mysteries. I always thought my grandmother's small stature was due to malnutrition as a child, but here I looked at the grandchildren of her sister, well fed healthy modern and SHORT.

I brought gifts of course, and received gifts in return. Since I live in the state of Washington, I brought Aplets and Cotlets which they loved because they were soft. Teeth problems? I didn't ask! For my cousin Antonietta, partially because it was also her birthday, I had an 18k Cameo brooch that I bought in Firenze a few years before. She loved it, but was concerned because I gave her something pointy "like a knife"
So after consulting with her oldest daughter, She gave me 20 centesimi "in exchange" for the brooch so the ill effects of this gift would be nullified for changing it from an outright gift to a trade.

Antonietta lives in an old house built in the 1850's. She lives there with 3 adult developmentally disabled children I had no idea that this was the case. Particularly endearing was Riccardo, my appointed body guard and heavy parcel bearer. Every time we went out, he went with us.

The day before we left (just to see if I could) I decided to go around the block to take photos of the Odeon, Greek ruins that actually abut Antonietta's house. Wait! says Antonietta, Riccardo, get your coat on! I convinced her that I would not get lost going around the block. They let me.

Riccardo never said much to me, and he really wasn't very affectionate. The smaller cousins all loved him, he was always getting hugged and tweaked, and he stoically endured it. He did like playing with the little kids. He was fairly street smart, as if that might be necessary. It was not. Everywhere we went, Riccardo was grabbed, hugged, and loved by neighbors, store clerks, and teenagers. (Riccardo is almost 50 and about 4'11" he's perfectly proportioned, just small) I have never seen anything like it. In our country, the developmentally disabled are loved and cared for by their families, certainly, but teenagers in the market? In public? It was pretty cool.

On the second morning, I brought out my Easter egg dye kit. It was 2 weeks before Easter, and hard boiled eggs keep, right? No one had ever done this, so everyone was invited, but most did not come because it was... raining, you guessed it. Those of us that were there had a great time. I had not thought of the logistics, and had asked EVERYONE if they had measuring cups or spoons NO!! they did not. (why would anyone need such a thing?) I managed with the measuring cup because I had an 8 ounce water bottle from my flight, and I just guessed with the spoon and lucked out.
We all sat there for hours, happily coloring brown eggs. When we were done, Antonietta made a lovely display on a silver vassoio (tray) and when the others came, she brought it out and showed it to them all. We made 1 egg for everyone, and each person, child and adult, had to see their own personal egg.

On the 4th morning, we needed to get up "early" because we needed to get the mercato done in time because Filippo and his wife were going to take me out. I checked my watch and planned to get up in another 30 minutes when someone banged on the door. My watch had stopped. We were now late. Nonplussed, directly after breakfast, Antonietta took us to a strange little shop (I have no idea what they sold in there) to buy a battery for my Timex. The guy took my watch apart, looked at the battery, and said "Sorry, it's not the kind we have" and he directed
us to another shop, 3 blocks away. This little shop full of clutter, and a desk with an adding machine, had a nice woman sitting there. (I later found out that she was the wife of the first guy) She was able, with difficulty, to open the watch, found the correct battery, but could not close the case again. She taped it shut, and gave it to Riccardo! who then ran back to the other shop, and in minutes, returned beaming with my watch, set to the right time, and happily ticking. I paid the woman my 2 euro and left the shop.
Riccardo continually performed feats of heroism, like running back to the store for something 10 minutes before closing, and reading my mind a time or two. He almost never said a word to me, until he saw me eat some raw finocchio. He said "mi fa schifo!" I guess he didn't like raw vegetables.

The last morning arrived. After starving on my Delta flight, Antonietta decided that she would furnish me with enough food to feed the entire airplane. Since I was already overloaded with heavy goods (a case of Latte di Mandorla, 3 kilos of cheese) I really didn't want 3 kilos of mandorini and a pound of soft cheese. She bought several loaves of bread for me, and 4 bulbs of finocchio (oh, it was SO Cheap!!) and we then had to fight over how much I can REALLY eat and how much I can REALLY carry. (I wish I did carry more home, as my carry-on items were not searched.)

While the other passengers were munching on their pathetic mixed cracker mix, I had the best casoreccio bread and fresh Tirocchi (Blood oranges).

Life can be so good.