A Sense of Place
New York is certainly a fine place. It instilled in me a taste for expensive shoes, but it never gave me a sense of soil, of a food culture sprung from the ground, the supposedly essential interaction between man and nature that produces lovely things like buffalo mozzarella. I, like many Americans, straddle a gray area between two worlds, one of my ever more remote immigrant past and the other of American overkill. As a cook, I find this split perplexing. I’m not perplexed by what I want to cook. That I’m almost certain will always be inspired by my Southern Italian roots. What upsets me, and makes me really, really jealous at times, is that I perceive I lack the deep connection with my land that real Italians take for granted. At least I think they do. They say they do. What must it feel like, to believe that the dirt where you were born, the soil that grows the grapes that makes the wines where your family has lived for generations, that that soil is in your bones and in your wine? Your ancestors’ ashes are part of the cheese you eat, the wine you drink. Here we feast on everyone’s remains, and no one’s in particular. Is that why most New York State wines taste so terrible to me?
My people, as they say, arrived here through Ellis Island. They may or may not have dragged along some Puglian and Sicilian soil, lodged in their sad, worn-out Southern Italian shoes, but they most certainly brought with them a very fixed idea about what food was supposed to be. How that food changed once it got from the Mezzogiorno to Westchester is something that never became clear to me until I started traveling to Southern Italy and tasting my grandparents’ food on its own turf. The food was similar but different. Was my Italian-American family’s fare a shadow of its former self? I guess you could say it was. Was it something altered but not half bad on its own terms? Yes, that’s a better description.
Good Italian ingredients weren’t available when my grandparents arrived in New York in the 1910s. Bad olive oil (or no olive oil), bad cheeses, bad pasta, and bad wine were all around them, causing grief and frustration in every Italian immigrant community. The solution was to grow it and make it all yourself, as best you could. Everyone planted gardens, made wine, wrapped fig trees to endure the Northeast winters. My family may not have been cooking traditional “nostrano” melanzane alla parmigiano with the eggplants they grew in their mole-riddled Westchester soil, a soil completely lacking in volcanic ash, earthquake residue, and dead relatives, but it tasted great to me (and the eggplants my family produced were huge and lush). In retrospect, the cheeses, olives, and nitrite-heavy salumi my family had no choice but to purchase when I was a kid were terribly harsh, sometimes mouth-sore-inducing, but the heart and the will to carry on as if nothing had changed was inspiring. The aromas from my grandparents’ and parents’ kitchens, and now from mine, both good and not so good, are, it seems forever etched in my soul.
Visiting Castelfranco, the poor, dusty town on the Puglia-Campania boarder where my father’s parents were born, was thrilling. The place had a peculiar aroma, I believe from cooks cooking the same things year after year. It permeated the walls, the ratty little rugs, and the streets in a comforting but I would guess possibly also claustrophobic way. After a few days living in the shadows of my forebears, eating olive-oil-laced taralli and home-made orecchiette with zucchini and wild mint, and drinking their mineraly white wine, and, I must say, loving their truly excellent caciocavallo (a specialty of the region and a cheese now protected by Slow Food), I felt connected, but not as fully as I wished.
As delicious and romantic as I find that food to be (and I swear I will someday make it to Castelfranco’s annual Caciocavallo festival), I couldn’t help but think how miserable I’d be with that unvarying diet. I know that my New York mind would start craving hot dogs and kimchi. Possibly the thought of living within the confines of a regional cuisine scares me. But still I sense that I’m missing out on a core culinary right. And at times it feels like a huge occupational misfortune.
Within my sometimes gnawing sense of soullessness, one thing I do know for certain is that no matter where we live, there is no real sense of place without people. Earth–dirt–has substance but no emotional life without the character of the folks who work and mold it, creating their regional cuisine. And once a culture gets inside you, as a cook, then no matter where you move, no matter how crappy the raw materials you come up against, you will, no doubt, like my family, hold onto the spirit as best you can.
So I’ve talked myself into what I now consider a fact, whether a for-real fact or a whitewash concocted in my own head: Regional cooking evolves from culture more than from nature. This is true, right? But still, that jealousy lingers. Can I live with it? Sometimes.
This is what can happen when an Italian-American is let wild in the kitchen, a morphing of fried calamari and apple crisp, without the apples, thank god.
(Serves 4 as a first course)
Extra virgin olive oil
2 pounds very small, tender squid, cleaned and cut into rings, the tentacles left whole
The juice and zest from 1 lemon
1 cup home-made breadcrumbs, not too finely ground
1 garlic clove, thinly sliced
A small handful slivered almonds, well chopped
½ a medium hot, fresh red chili (a peperoncino is ideal), minced
A few large mint sprigs, the leaves lightly chopped
1 lemon, cut into wedges
Preheat the oven to 500 degrees.
Choose a large, very shallow baking dish that will hold the calamari on more or less one level (or use four smaller dishes to make individual servings). I use a large, round, Spanish brown-glazed terracotta dish. Drizzle a little olive oil into the dish to coat its surface lightly. Add the calamari, and drizzle on the lemon juice. Toss well.
In a small bowl, mix together the lemon zest, breadcrumbs, chopped almonds, fresh chili, about ¼ cup of olive oil, and a little salt. Scatter half of this over the calamari, and toss gently. Sprinkle the rest of the crumbs over the top. Drizzle with a little fresh olive oil, and bake just until the crumbs are crisp and lightly golden and the calamari is tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Garnish with the mint leaves and lemon wedges. Serve hot