Recipe # 18: polenta
Luca is fascinated with Google Earth and explores our planet via the screen on my iPhone whenever I allow it, which is not often. He likes typing in a city or mountain range and then seeing the earth whirl around at eye level, the eye of the camera passing over the ice of Antarctica before landing on Buenos Aires, say, or skimming the Pacific Ocean in search of Cabo San Lucas where you can actually see palm trees and hotels. What kind of magic must it seem to him (and to me), this tiny screen that holds a living globe, one that literally flies you from your suburban street marked by a throbbing pin to wherever on Earth you want to go.
A few days ago he went to Lucca, Italy via Google Earth, a place that appeals to him because he shares its name (give or take a “c”) and also because we tell him the story of taking him there when he was eighteen months old. It was at a place called Trattoria Da Leo that we had the very meal to which we attribute Luca’s culinary adventurousness and that also happened to be the most fun lunch we have ever had in our lives. We think it is because of this lunch that Luca likes nothing more than to sit down to a meal with friends and that if an afternoon playdate does not evolve into a shared dinner, he is invariably disappointed. He likes to entertain, to light candles and sit around the table for hours eating and talking.
At Trattoria Da Leo every dish was a surprise and a celebration. The place was packed and buzzing with people eating and drinking and laughing their way through their weekday lunch (it was Tuesday!). For upwards of three hours we gorged on braised pork belly, stewed veal with olives and polenta, homemade ravioli with pine nuts and basil. It went on and on. The wine was cheaper than the bottled water and so we drank happily. The waiters stopped every now and then in the midst of all the chaos to pick Luca up and toss him around a little. The rest of the time Luca sat almost without moving, his interest held by the parade of taste sensations and the sheer joy that real and unpretentious food can bring to a roomful of strangers.
Luca was teething at the time and had painful gums. I had heard somewhere that a little wine on the fingertip could help numb baby’s sore gums so I dipped my pinkie finger into my glass of Chianti and rubbed it on Luca’s emerging tooth. At the taste of red wine, a light went off in him. I have never seen him leap so fast for anything in his life as he did for my glass of wine that day. He wanted the whole package; primi, secondi e vino.
When Jim and I decided on the name Luca for our new baby, neither of us had never been to the city of Lucca and nor had we any concrete plans to go there. Although we had been to Italy many times between us including on our honeymoon, Lucca had not made it onto the itinerary. So naming our son had nothing to do with the city, and everything to do with our love of Italy and its culture of beauty and food and wine. Being one quarter Italian myself, it was also a way of honoring my ancestry, even though my own connection to it had been severed way before I was born. My father has never acknowledged his Italian roots and has spent considerable energy in pursuit of a pseudo-Anglo identity inclusive of a fetish for busts of Admiral Nelson and a love of Wonder Bread. It was his father before him who changed his surname from Latima to Lathem when he arrived in this country even though no customs official compelled him to do so. My father left our family when I was eight years old, but still, I don’t remember any pictures or stories about Italian relatives or the mention of any towns in the old country where the Latimas might be found. It is remarkable how completely the line was cut. On the Italian side, the family tree remains bare.
I suppose a psychoanalyst might have a thing or two to say about the fact that when pregnant with my son, I chose to give him a name as Italian as any in existence (the name Luca is like Joe in Italy). Was I intentionally defying the father with whom I share such a pained history? Was it an attempt to make whole a family broken by so many inexplicable sadnesses and cruelties, not the least of which is a two-generation legacy of denying an Italian identity? Was I trying to reconnect the broken line to the Latimas? Maybe. But it was also a way of claiming for myself a part of my history that had been denied to me, one that Jim and I had our own tradition of taking pleasure in. We love Italy, the place, the food, the language… and the name Luca. It means “bringer of light.”
When Luca made polenta last week, I couldn’t help wondering about its humble origins in the land of our ancestors. Corn meal boiled with salt until it is soft and somehow deeply comforting, it is the simplest of foods made interesting only by what goes on top of it. It is peasant food, so defined by easy-to-come-by ingredients such as carbohydrates and vegetables. In contrast to modern times, meat used to be much more scarce and considered a luxury. Now time is the luxurious commodity and, to the detriment of the environment, meat has been made cheap. Today’s working class person is more likely to work three jobs and make do with fast-food hamburgers than to work the land and have an hour to spare at the end of the day for a stovetop risotto.
Still I wonder where the peasants got the time, between plowing the fields and tending the children, to stand over a pot of polenta for a half an hour. Cassoulets, bread, risotto and polenta, “peasant food” takes time and care. It is also the kind of food I love the most, rich stews and braises as well as homey dishes with only two or three ingredients and a heavy reliance on fresh herbs. I like food that makes a big sloppy mess on the plate and am less likely to be tempted by a towering architecture of foams and emulsifications or any dish requiring the use of a syringe and a laboratory. I most enjoyed polenta the time it was served to a table of guests on a plywood board along with sausages and tomatoes, a presentation that would have made my father and grandfather turn away in disgust. More often, though, polenta is a little dull. You can add the same sauce to a bowl of pasta in half the time and it will taste just as good.
Luca stirred the polenta in the pot. “It looks like lumpy applesauce. With rice,” he said. I agreed. He was bored as he stirred. We worked at getting the lumps out but nothing special was happening in the pot. There were no enticing smells or great transformations. The best you could say about it was that it was fortifying. I assumed Luca wouldn’t like it much, that the texture would put him off. As a way to forestall his inevitable dislike, I pointed out that Fanny at Chez Panisse mentions the option of letting the polenta cool in a pan and then cutting it into squares to fry in olive oil. Luca wanted to try it so when it was ready we poured some into a pan for later. Then we put the rest onto our plates, piping hot piles of it topped with sausages sautéed with beet greens, garlic and olive oil.
Luca’s eyes rolled back. “Ooh, yum,” he said. “I love polenta.”
Someday we will take him back to the walled city of Lucca and to Trattoria Da Leo where we will once again see what it is to eat with the joy of our Italian forebears.
But for now there is polenta and its power to sustain us through the ages. Here is the line unbroken.