Mar 2010


dry goods

A friend recently sent me a delightful story from the New Yorker magazine that made him think of me. That’s nice. The story,
Pilgrims’ Progress written by American author and journalist Jane Kramer, was about the power of the turkey and that most classic American holiday, Thanksgiving, on her many foreign contacts. Indeed there is nothing, at least to the Italians I know, quite so mesmerizing as the sight of a whole turkey, even after my having roasted up several by now. The bird is a crowd pleaser.

I was momentarily annoyed by her mention of her house in Umbria “where we write in the summer” which sounds just a little bit pretentious. We picture a sun-washed house on a hill, music is playing, a wooden table in the garden is laden with fresh, simple local foods, a warm breeze moves a crisp white curtain against an ancient stone sill… It sounds so---
Italian. Meanwhile, here in Mareno I remove yet another turd left by an Italian cat in my Italian garden, I have to pay yet another tax on my car and the recyclers again failed to pick up the huge bag of plastic that I dragged through the rain out to the curb from the school, and now I have to drag it back inside…and up the damn Italian stairs. Wouldn’t we all like to be able to summer in Umbria? Then it hits me that Luciano and I actually do “summer” in Berkeley…where I can only hope to write. So I will give her that house in Umbria.

Ms Kramer, however, achieved in her story what I think all good writers should be able to do - jar a memory. For me, it was her search for ingredients for a familiar dish in a foreign land.

I came to Italy a relatively short time ago, but that sweltering summer during which I roamed the aisles at the supermarkets studying the shelves in anonymity, absorbing the unfamiliar and the air conditioning seems like a different life. It was all fun and games when I was trying out new things, but quite suddenly I wanted to find the familiar.

“What is buttermilk in Italian?” I wanted to make cornbread.

“We don’t have it.”

What do you mean?

It doesn’t exist?

“Luciano, do you know what buttermilk is?


“So how can you say it doesn’t exist?”

“You are right. What is it?”

At this point I stopped. How could I insist on something that I could not explain? There is no butter in buttermilk and, despite the name, contains less fat than milk or butter. But I could not find it…so I solved the problem with a mixture of half milk and half plain yogurt.

I got strange looks at Mio Market when I asked for corn syrup, brown sugar or cream of tarter. Asking at all, of course was a huge step for me, confidence-wise, but it got me nowhere gastronomically. Ingredients that were a staple for my Berkeley kitchen seemed unattainable here or at least very expensive. In my early searches I found that walnuts were sold in the shell only. If I wanted shelled walnuts, I needed to buy them in tiny packets at an exorbitant price or pull out the nut cracker. The same for almonds. The final insult is that they all come from California.

Before moving here I bought a book titled
Living, Studying and Working in Italy. I wanted to be prepared, you know, be informed. Predictably Luciano and his friends roared with laughter at the advice on how to deal with Italians. But one tip stood out for me: the authors insisted that it was impossible to find muffin tins and baking powder in Italy. Not really thinking that through, I packed up several containers of baking powder to bring with me. But really, how does one imagine that cakes rise in this country without it?

After also discovering the lack of shelled walnuts, pecans, brown sugar, corn syrup, Tabasco and molasses, I stocked up at Costco on my summer trips to Berkeley. Seemingly prepared to make a spicy pecan pie, I also purchased reams of heavy duty tin foil and re-sealable plastic bags. The Italian tin foil is like tissue paper and plastic bags are stuck in the 70’s, with twist ties. It is a wonder I passed through customs with such odd suitcase contents. Perhaps they are distracted by my other possessions. I have so far not had any trouble getting through despite the cocaine-like baking powder. There is a four year old Sequoia sapling growing in Conegliano as testament to that.

Armed with my exotic American ingredients I felt more powerful…cool even, rationing myself carefully in order to make it all last until next summer. But then, as my search widened here, I found huge bags of shelled walnuts, almonds, Tabasco, brown sugar and yes, even baking powder which of course exists. It is
lievito in polvere which is in fact an exact translation. Now I feel a little silly to have dragged a five pound bag of nuts across the Atlantic when there are people who will do that for me, for much less trouble. And muffin tins are everywhere.

But I am still out ahead with the tin foil and Ziplock bags. Knowing that I truly have to wait for a trip to California to restock, I wash and reuse it all. Anna Maria, after getting several uses out of the heavy duty foil wrapped around a chunk of turkey that I brought her, asked if she could have another piece of it. I brought her the end of a roll that I had made last two years. I have another one. And anyone visiting Anna Maria will forever be in her good books if you come bearing re-sealable plastic bags, the large size. All the better to store that magical of all foods: leftover turkey.