Despite the many Italian traditions I’ve recounted here in BBTK, the fact is that I’m American. Even my straight-off-the-boat parents became American over time. I don’t mean by becoming citizens, although they both did that. I mean that they became American slowly, over time and experience, the change not discernible while it was happening, but only in hindsight. Like the hands of a clock their habits and actions transformed slowly, going unnoticed until change struck. Many of our Italian ways and customs were watered down to fit an American lifestyle, and they have become for us the new Italian. I guess I’ve always known this, but it truly came to light one Friday evening as my dear friend Elisa taught me a new twist on some very basic dishes that I can’t wait to share with you here. Elisa, my Italian friend, straight from Italy who hasn’t been in this country all that long, reminded me just how American I am, but how Italian my roots are. When I have a meal at Elisa’s place, nothing is new or foreign to me, in fact it feels like home or maybe my aunt’s home in Italy. It’s not different, but it is not quite the same as my new version of Italian. It pains me a little bit to admit it.
Recently, I had the pleasure of cooking a meal with Elisa, my dear Italian, New York friend. The plan was for us to cook a delicious meal in the brand new kitchen of our friend Gwen’s brand new apartment, for a group of our friends. There was talk of dining on the rooftop so the theme became summer picnic, light and refreshing with plenty of vegetables and fresh herbs. As we talked through the meal, we began questioning the unknown kitchen. Sure it was pretty sizable with brand new appliances, but would it have olive oil? Would it have plenty of cutting boards and proper knives? Most importantly would it have a scolapasta (you know, the thing you use to strain pasta) and would Gwen even know that word? Well, that was one Italian custom still properly intact. We doubted the non-Italian kitchen with its non-Italian named tools.
Resigned to our doubt, we quickly decided to cook in a much smaller kitchen, the BBTK kitchen! After all, this was an important night. We couldn’t leave anything to chance. It had to be perfect for our very special friend, Gwen. It’s not easy to elbow Mike out of the cooking process, but he seemed to step aside willingly for Elisa, eager to uncover some secret imported cooking skill and happy to support our efforts, attending to all the important details for us. Within seconds the big heavy cutting board, usually hiding between the wall and a piece of furniture was washed and placed over the dining table, extending our tiny kitchen clear into the living room as any enthusiastic cook must do in a tiny NYC apartment. He then set the mood with just the right music and of course cocktails. Going straight into bartender mode, Mike served up the perfect Negroni. We sipped and sang as we chopped and grilled, excited to share a meal that would delight our friends as we celebrated Gwen’s impressive achievement, her very own apartment that we would help make her home!
Despite the limiting size of the kitchen, it was so easy to cook with Elisa. She has recounted to me several times how completely at home she is with me and Mike in our apartment. So when we began prepping for our summer feast, we were so in sync. We didn’t require a lot of dialogue or explaining to get things done. We came up with a few simple ideas and we both knew instinctively what was needed to turn our ideas into a delicious summer meal. Even still, when Elisa began grilling the red peppers directly on the burner, I paused. It was like hearing the name of an old childhood friend that you can’t quite place. Immediately the name is familiar but there is no face to put with it, until eventually, the picture becomes complete in your mind. Likewise, the peppers turning black atop the open flame of the burners confused me at first until eventually, I could picture my mom doing the same thing in our kitchen when I was just a kid. It was completely familiar but entirely out of practice, not finding a place in our new Italian. Whereas Elisa looked as though she did this every week. She probably does.
The menu of grilled vegetables, farfalle (bow ties) with pesto and cherry tomatoes, peppers and a green salad with grilled chicken hardly sounds particularly Italian or American, but that night, it was both. Because of my influence, Elisa’s would-be Italian feast skewed patriotic, and thanks to Elisa my new Italian was a bit more authentic. Italian, American or something in between, our special group of friends had a wonderful time that evening sharing a meal and being together. After all, customs and traditions aside, that is the real lesson and the best tradition that my parents ever cared to hand down to us, and it fits every background and every culture. So that night, I learned something about the home I came from, Elisa enjoyed a home away from home and collectively we all gained a new home. And it turns out, Gwen’s kitchen was perfectly equipped for our Italian picnic, but I’m still glad we didn’t attempt to grill red peppers directly on the brand new burners of her shiny brand new stove.