Someone, it seems, is always saying something about the power of sharing a meal. There’s a concept of sitting people down around some homemade food, and letting the magic happen. No one has to know each other very well, or even speak the same language. The atmosphere around those tables is sacred.
I know Anthony Bourdain said something about it once. I can’t recall the exact words, but I think it all boils down to opening your mind to the fact that the way you’ve experienced the world can be very different from someone else’s, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter when you’re sitting across from them at that table. Usually, I give a story a few more words before I force my point, but I wanted my intentions to be clear from the beginning.
As I sit between a glass of homemade red wine, an oscillating fan, and a napping puppy trying to pull these sentences together, I realize it’s been a year since the world lost someone who largely inspired me to do what I (try to) do.
I remember watching so many of those magical meals unfold on-screen that some aggressive and odd desire invaded my brain that I wanted to have one too. And now that I think about it, I know I’m lucky enough to have a few of those kinds of meals under my belt. One with an elderly Peruvian couple in the suburbs of Minneapolis. Some with a college friend over samosas in Queens and dumplings in Chinatown. Another with a French family over raclette in a small skiing village in the Alps. Loud meals and quiet meals, all lasting much longer than anticipated.
In my world, the majority occur in Tuscany. With a robust ex-pat community and amount of land that demands outside help, it was easy to run into a very diverse group of people, many of whom my family now call friends. And if I’ve learned anything after coming to this country for the past 15 years is that Italians (and anyone infected with what I like to call the “dolce vita” bug) love to gather. Swing into any coffee bar around five o’clock and there will be a crowd of locals filling the air with gossip and cigarette smoke over a round of negroni’s.
Nothing epitomizes this urge more than the phenomenon of the Sunday lunch. Taken at restaurants or at home, it’s typically a multi-course extravaganza accompanied by wine, a constant flow of lively conversation, and with every ability to stretch into the early evening. It’s a reward at the end of a long work week, and the perfect chance to catch up with family and friends. This was not a ritual I grew up with, but I think can best be equated to the potluck-style meals that follow a Sunday mass. If you’re Catholic, that habit is likely a translation from the old country itself.
I’ve participated in many flavors of this type of gathering, but most recently, Sunday lunch took place at the “mountain house” of one of the residents of the village we live closest to. After negotiating the switchbacks that run above our village, it was fifteen minutes on a dirt road (a generous term) into the woods. Our Fiat 500L is hardly an off-road vehicle, so to say the drive was rough would be an understatement.
The destination was a small stone farmhouse perched on the side of one of the mountains that tower above the valley city of Pescia. Until the 1980s, the area was farmland. (I have no way of describing how this was possible given the incredibly steep incline.) In the 40 years since, a dense forest quickly took back the land. In the middle of a notoriously warm Tuscan summer, the temperature there can easily be 10 to 15 degrees cooler.
The structure featured a small kitchen with a dining/living/bedroom next door. Around back was an outdoor bathroom that abruptly dropped off into a gully if you ventured too far. Lunch took place under the covered seating area off the front of the building with a portion of our meal cooked in the outdoor wood-burning oven. Originally a rest area and work shed, it’s now a weekend cabin that requires the help of a charged car battery for electricity.
Our hosts were Piero, living proof that the concept of the Renaissance man is still alive and well, and his wife, Cesarina. They are two of the hardest-working people I’ve ever met. Piero makes wine, but also knows the ins and outs of olive tree care, various types of heavy machinery, and apparently, after our conversation turned towards the history of the area, road building. How they found time for this afternoon is beyond me. My dad said without a hint of sarcasm that it was the longest time he’d ever seen the two of them sitting down. Also in tow were both of their mothers, and a large black dog named Ben. None of whom (especially Ben) spoke any English.
Our mutual family friends, Dario, an Italian, and his wife Marie, an American, served as translators with their two kids occasionally pitching in. Rounding out the guest list was my family; my parents, younger brother, and our rambunctious nine-month-old dachshund, Hugo. In short, it was quite the group, all crowded around one table.
We started off the meal with pasta salad, tortellini in broth, grilled zucchini with peppers, and goat cheese stuffed dates wrapped in prosciutto (my contribution). Those dishes were followed by salad dressed with vinaigrette, tomatoes with olive oil and herbs, baccalà (salt cod) fried in tomato sauce, and whole baccalà roasted over an open fire. Dessert consisted of watermelon, an assortment of cookies, and a galette with cherries from my family’s own tree. All was accompanied by homemade wine and prosecco, and later, homemade grappa (a strong Italian liquor made from grape must) and espresso. It was just as overwhelming as it sounds.
The conversation was chaotic; starting at one end of the table in Italian, ending up in English at the other (or vice verse), and sometimes getting lost along the way. Even if some part of a story wasn’t fully told, there was always just enough to connect the dots. It’s times like these when I don’t understand the term “language barrier.” Having a translator of course makes things easier, but it always surprises me how much you can get across with a loose list of vocabulary, hand gestures, and an easygoing attitude.
The situation had a sneaky kind of novelty to it. It wasn’t something you noticed unless you made a distinct effort to pull yourself out of the moment. Watching my dad laugh at a joke told in English, and then seeing the reactions of others once it was translated made it obvious. That’s one of the special things about these meals. Everyone laughs at the same jokes, only one side gets to hear it first.
In truth, all was perfectly ordinary. Piero recommended interesting places to visit in the mountains. Cesarina scolded her mother for taking too much pasta. We learned about the history of the property, in addition to tales of alcohol-fueled shenanigans from youth. Ben bumped against our knees under the table. Dario and Marie’s kids eagerly awaited dessert. Cesarina passed a question down the table about the recipe for the dough of my galette (spoiler: it was store-bought). Piero concluded that the best way to describe the Austrian rum served with the other digestivi as benzina (gasoline). It was in this way that the hours, all five of them, slipped by without much effort.
It wasn’t until my family and I departed that the veil of the afternoon lifted, and I was left with the sneaking suspicion that I had once again gained admittance to a top-secret club. Nothing inherently groundbreaking occurred, but there really is something about a meal split between language and circumstance. In my humble opinion, it’s the best way to cross paths with a stranger, because on the other end, you can’t really call yourselves that anymore.
Before we left, Piero’s mother pulled me aside to say goodbye. She gave me the customary air kisses on the cheek (first the right, then the left). Then, she said a few sentences, all with a big smile, before she moved on. I couldn’t tell you what she said verbatim, but I understood that she was glad that we came, and that we could share a meal together. And to be honest, I really couldn’t ask for anything more.