Far from home, far from family, familiarity, comforts, and daily “take for granteds”, food can become even more sacred. I remember smuggling peanut butter and granola bars in my luggage, bizarrely enough, during that year away from home, when I lived in Italy. In Italy. Like family photos, my favourite pair of jeans, the food I packed was my way of taking Canada with me. In the food Mecca. I had so many food gripes in Italy. So many silly gripes, about the yoghurt and the butter; no flavour, too sweet, the grocery store rules; for example, plastic gloves to pick up and choose produce, or sometimes, you were completely unable to handle anything. Disliking Italian cereals, being unable to talk to the butcher in the first few months, having to eat seasonally. So many of my troubles were simply growing pains. Little stabs of fear and anxiety at newness, rather than real complaints.
Some of my friends embraced the Italian lifestyle wholeheartedly, going native. I found myself becoming even more fiercely entrenched in my Canadian identity, something I hadn't realized I had up until that point. I made bowlfuls of coffee rather than drink the tiny espresso sized servings, broiled my bread to make toast, and flipped through Canadian Living magazine’s food section like an adulterer. In contrast to the Italians, I found that I rushed from place to place and liked to keep an ordered and punctual schedule. I admired the way that some of my classmates were able to slip into la dolce vita, unhurriedly enjoying Spritz after Spritz; a classic Italian cocktail, rolling with the punches, this attitude of enjoyment and laissez faire, fit so nicely into the Italian way of living, and jarred so strongly with everything I had grown up with.
I needed to warm up to my new life. I found that just as food had become my greatest enemy in Italy, it also became my entry point, the way I negotiated, communicated, and started to feel at home again. It all started when I was offered a seat at Peter and Colleen’s dining room table for their Sunday Suppers. Peter and Colleen are a sweet middle aged couple from the American South, specifically, Atlanta, Georgia. Peter was a Masters’ student in the class just above mine. He had already had a successful career, but had decided to move, mid-life, with his wife Colleen, and pursue a Masters’ degree at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Peter, humble and knowledgeable, and Colleen, warm and fuzzy, a mamma to everyone she met, were immediately the kind of couple I knew I had to have in my life. They exuded goodness and generosity, and you felt like you were a better person for having known them. I imagine that’s why we all gravitated around their table, eagerly and hungrily, not only for their home cooked meals, but for everything else they provided. Southerners, to me, have always embodied hospitality, with their softly inflected accents and warm social graces, as though having an order and a way to handle all situations, sets one at ease. It wasn't simply them and the company they provided, as much as the space they were able to create with their dinners. Perhaps this was part of being Southern, just as much as knowing how to set a table, or cook a spectacular roast, there was a method to devising a guest list and creating an ambiance. In their apartment, the dinners rippled and roared like a burning fireplace.
The apartment was elegant and spacious, compared to mine, which was furnished with neon blue Ikea furniture and an ornery shower. Their dining table could seat ten, and after that table was full, they popped up another one, though they also invited others to eat on couches and chairs. The plenitude of guests gave each meal the atmosphere of festivity and the holidays. People, spilling from the kitchen before dinner, and getting up and swapping seats mid-meal, someone’s hand always refilling your not-quite-empty wine glass, felt like the thanksgiving of my dreams.
I've always admired people who establish their own meeting places, social forums, Agora. While studying at the university we took for granted its already constructed structures, its physical spaces which allowed us to journey places mentally, to think, to question, to critique, to dream. At the Sunday suppers, those spaces were created again. Peter always began the dinners by asking us to do two things. To sit beside someone we didn't know, and to have an open mind and heart to new opinions, cultures, ideas while sitting at the table. And in that spirit, we all did enjoy their meals.
I learned as much at the suppers as I did in my classroom. My classmates, the students in lower and upper classes, were voracious learners and challenged my perception, my understanding, and my position on many topics in the food world. I love to talk at that level, where the initial argument is already understood, and to add a point is to think a problem through, like solving a mathematical equation. We had our last bastions of illusion at those dinner tables and on their couches, believing that the world could be changed and debated and discussed ad nauseam, perhaps without really setting foot into it, and knowing how truly large those problems are. The first supper I was invited to I brought an ill-fated chopped lemon pie. The recipe bragged that it was so simple because you used the entire lemon; no juicing, no zesting, no other nonsense. Just throw the lemons to be blitzed in a food processor to create more of a tart complex filling. I was sold on simple. It was one of those afternoons when I had little time and less inclination to bake, but I had forgotten that I didn't have the necessary equipment. No, I had assumed that my hand blender could act as some sort of comparable tool. I, at least, had the good sense to roughly chop the lemons up before throwing them into a bowl with sugar, eggs, and butter, but still tried to use the hand blender. And this being an Italian apartment, there wasn't a socket in my kitchen, so I had to move the entire enterprise onto my bedroom floor. After lemon juice and sugar filling flying all over my floor, clothes, and thoroughly stuck inside the blender, I was sure that I would have to show up empty handed. Before I gave up, I emptied the bowl onto a chopping board and roughly chopped the lemon until there were no more large pieces. I was grimy and sticky. My kitchen and bedroom were a mess, and I wasn't even sure if the pie would be good. But I baked and brought the pie.
After a replete meal savouring the other guests’ offerings, we finally got around to tasting the pie. Its filling was craggy and chunky, bitter, tart, and sweet. It was just like the recipe had described, complex and delicious. Each mouthful had texture and chew to it, rather than the pudding a lemon pie usually is like.
Someone feeding you in their home is perhaps one of the most nurturing acts.We share ourselves in the food we prepare and the stories we bring to the table, and we open ourselves up to the newness when we consume and connect with that strange and wonderful other. We all need those middle meeting grounds to do it. Thank you for the table.