Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Eating My Way Around Italy

Too often eating is a chore. I'm not one of those people who considers food fuel. I consider it art, inspiration, passion. It is, at its best, a sensual marriage of sight, scent and taste. I don't eat bread. First I inhale its scent—ah, wheat, rye, honey, maybe asiago cheese--(you can imagine how delighted my children are to eat with me in public). I nibble, like a mouse, hoping to stretctch out the experience as long as I possibly can (I learned that from living in a big family where you got one—count it one—helping and no more. So hurrying did you no good). Like a mouse, I nibble, just to make the experience last longer (another reason my chidlren just love to eat out with me). But sadly, most days it's impossible to dig up any enthusiasm for the fare. After all, it's one thing to go into raptures over Chateaubriand. It's quite another over cereal and yoghurt.

Which brings me to one of the reasons I've been counting down to Italy. I can't think of anyplace else in the world a meal is such a symphony. The French think that they rule with their sauces you can't pronounce that take three days to make and five minutes to eat. But for me, I'll take fresh pasta, a glass of red wine and the sun warming my shoulders as church bells chime the hours.

I always put recommendations on my website for any restaurant I've enjoyed. I may have to start an entirely new website for Italy. The truth of the matter is, I have never had a bad meal. I know they're possible. I read it all the time on Trip Advisor. But I've been lucky.

I wonder if it's because from the minute I sit down the waiter realizes that while I'm not an expert, I am certainly a devoted fan. For instance, I supped at Il Bottole in Matera. I ate alone. At first the waiter was a bit hesitant. But when he poured my wine (a Primitivo from Matera) (didn't I say that like I knew what I was talking about?) he saw that I approach wine like any other food. As if I'm courting it. Approach coyly, hold gently, savor with eyes closed the surprise, the delight, the mystery of its make-up. It doesn't have to be complex. It certainly doesn't have to be expensive. All I ask is that the chef is as delighted by his own work as I am.

So the waiter sees me light up like a saint hearing heavenly choirs, and he smiles. And it's a special smile, not one of those “I'll put up with her because it's my livelihood” smiles, but a smile of companionship, of superiority that we two can recognize beauty.

He asked if he could order for me. To me, a great compliment which I gladly accepted. After all, I know what the best regional food of St.Louis is (toasted ravioli and Ted Drewes's frozen custard), but I want to know what he feels proprietary toward in Matera.

Well, he had good taste. Of course I'm not organized enough to remember to write down names, but the first course was two offerings, a small tart of ricotta cheese and vegetables (and to tell you how much I loved it, I HATE carrots. Not in this), and aa variation on bruschetta with (I can't make this up) charred char, tomatoes and shaved ricotta. Enough to make saints weep.
My second course was a breaded cod cooked in olive oil with potatoes, olives and tomatoes. Yes, thank you. It was that good. I barely refrained from tilting the plate straight down my throat. Add to that the smooth complexion of that Primitivo wine, and I was having my version of holy communion (wow, can I hear my mom's voice chastising me for that one).

Even the Italian version of fast food, a cafe Americano and zucchini quiche seems to be more exotic, more flavorful, more satisfying. Maybe it's the sunlight. Maybe it's being away from my normal staple of sandwiches and salads. I'm not sure. All I know is thank heavens Italy is all uphill, or I'd never fit into my clothes again. Although it would certainly be in a worthy cause.
Now that I've become familiar with Matera, though, I need to find out whether the Amalfi cuisine measures up. Or if the Roman cuisine can compare. I hope you dont' mind following along. I promise I'll try and make it as palatable as I can (which, in Italy, really isn't that tough to do).

And Now, a Pause in Our Regularly Scheduled Programming

For the next three weeks, I'm going to be changing my blogging schedule, although it will serve much the same purpose. I'll still talk about my writing life. But I'm going to be couching it in terms of the trip I'm on. I'm writing this from Matera Italy, where I'm attending the Women's Fiction Festival. From here I'll be traveling to the Amalfi Coast, Rome, Tuscany and Venice with my family in what I call the Flying American Tour. I want to at least touch each place so I know what it feels, smells and tastes like(Matera feels like sunlight, smells like fresh bread and cappuccino, and tastes like olives). My family wants to see as much as they can. So we compromise.

What I will also be doing will be scouting for my books. Just like Mel Gibson's set decorator for Passion of the Christ did when he walked the streets of Matera's Sassi district, I hope to find inspiration, confirmation and serendipity. I hope that the ideas that are gelling in my head for a story set in Italy just after the Napoleonic Wars will fine a setting, a voice and a score. It certainly worked in India. I found three characters and four stories there.

So here in Italy I will report on my success or failure in achieving at least the same. The fact that my search will entail sipping wine on a balcony over the Mediterranean, strolling medieval walled cities and gliding along the canals of Venice just means that I am the damnest, luckiest girl alive to have this job. It sure beats the hell out of fighting my way through ER hallways without spilling the pan of urine in my hands.

And if I may be pardoned for it, I will also do just a tiny bit of gloating over the fact that I was able to organize a champagne tour on a beer budget. Because besides being an author, I'm also Queen of Internet Travel. And I take both positions very seriously.

Ciao! Ciao!

Friday, September 03, 2010

J.K. I'd Like to Buy You a Drink

I hope J.K. Rowling makes more money than God. Not just because I thought the Harry Potter series was seriously brilliant, beautifully innovative and clever as hell. Because J.K. Rowling seduced generations of kids into reading.

I admit. I came to Harry late. But then, my kids were already grown when he showed up. I didn't have anybody to take to the midnight parties or warn that if they didn't get their homework done, they couldn't read the next installment before their friends. I couldn't imagine what could cause such passion.

As I finally read the series though (in a two week period), I felt cheated, because I didn't have kids to discuss it with. Because it isn't enough to read the series, to root for Harry and Hermione and Ron, to hiss at Snape and the Malvoys, to wonder at the magic of Dumbledore, you felt compelled to discuss it, argue over it.

J.K. didn't just write an adventure story with kids, it's a guidebook for kids in how to live their lives. As I said to my cousin when she objected on the grounds that Harry is a wizard and must be evil, Harry Potter is yet another retelling of the Christ story. It can't be more obvious. And along the way, he teaches strong lessons on the power of love, honor, loyalty and faith. And, my favorite, that the power of a mother's love is stronger than any other force in either world.

I did lasso my grown kids and make them talk to me about the series. I'm going back in the next few weeks after my deadline and rereading the series again. And I've discussed with other authors at length the respect I have for Rowlings's work. I got to the end of that sixth book and couldn't imagine how she was going to pull it off. As an author and student of mythology, I knew exactly what she had to do. I just couldn't figure out how she was going to do it. I tip my cap. She did it beautifully.

But as an author who has been hearing dire predictions about the future of literature, I want to give money to J.K., because she hasn't just enticed kids to read books, she's enticed them to read good books. Books that teach. Books that open their imaginations and expand the world. I was in the coffee shop today and got into a conversation with a girl who was deep into the Rick Riordan series about Percy Jackson. She was enthusing about the ancient gods, which she knew about because that is the world of Percy Jackson. I've met a lot of other kids who went from Harry Potter to Frodo Baggins, who graduated from the wizarding world to the Mars of Bradbury, the earth of Isaac Asimov.

When my kids passed through those all-important years when reading is ingrained on a person's habits, they only had RL Stine and Fear Street. Exactly where do you go from there? It took my daughter ten years to find her way back to reading. If Harry had been there, I contend she never would have taken breath. I think of the great books she missed, and it makes me sad.
So, thank you, J.K. If we ever meet, I'll stand you to a drink. Because I contend that without you the future would have looked a lot more dim.