Tough Times Sourdough

recipe #21: Vanilla  Snow

There has been a lot of bread baking in our house recently. I tell myself it’s because homemade bread is so much more delicious than store-bought, but really it is because of the recession. In answer to the almost daily barrage of bad news – friends losing jobs, promising projects being canceled and the music program in Luca’s school on the chopping block – I roll up my sleeves and feed my homemade sourdough bread starter.

I spent fourteen days following Nancy Silverton’s instructions on how to make a starter from scratch, discovering along the way that following Nancy Silverton’s recipe for anything is to become a sort of crazed disciple. There are no half measures or shortcuts. Other bakers will tell you it takes three days to make a decent starter and that you need only stir in a cup of flour and a cup of water every day. Nancy says to feed the starter three times daily to the tune of seven cups of flour a day, and to adhere to precise measurements of weight and temperature. She says, apparently without a trace of irony, “Care for your starter as you would a newborn! Don’t miss a feeding!” In other less dire times, I might have read the fourteen page recipe for starter in the Breads of the La Brea Bakery book and laughed out loud. But because the world is in an apparent state of collapse, I am happy to follow her exacting instruction.

starter with grapes

I bought the equipment required for the starter and calculated that I would have to bake at least thirty loaves of bread to make back the money I had just spent. This did not include the price of all the flour that goes into keeping the starter alive and the hours I would have to spend burning off all the cakes and muffins and pizzas I would have no choice but to make. As my starter grew, I became obsessed with the mass of bubbles growing on my kitchen counter and read everything I could find online about starter consistency (it varies), what to do about mold (scrape it off and hope it doesn’t return), what it should smell like (yeasty, beery, bready). For weeks, I took Silverton’s Breads of La Brea Bakery to bed with me and curled up with it like a favorite novel.

I gave away gallons of the painstakingly acquired starter rather than throw it away. As though trying to find a home for a stray animal, I called and emailed all my friends and begged them to take some. “Think of the pancakes! The fresh pizza dough!” I implored. One friend told me that she had a hundred-year old starter given to her by her mother-in-law and that she purposely killed it off as a way to work out family resentments. I had no idea that bread starter could be so loaded with emotional baggage.

pancake or alien creature?

Waiting to find homes for all the containers of starter meant feeding them all according to Nancy’s rigorous schedule and keeping them warmly wrapped in blankets under a warm lamp. Within a few days my kitchen counter was covered with containers of bubbling starter, scales, thermometers and cups of flour. Jim tried making space at the counter and gingerly asked how long this was going to go on.

“She says to feed it for three more days,” I said.

“She who?”

“Nancy,” I replied. The voice in my head.

Jim looked at me as though wondering whether to seek professional help. But I had no time for his worries. My first pizza dough was looking a little blotchy and it was impossible to tell if it was rising properly because I was checking it every five minutes. I knew what was happening, that I was filling a creative void with bread, but I didn’t care. I told myself it was better than Facebooking or any other thing that shouldn’t be a verb but somehow is one. At least you can eat bread, a fact that makes the whole enterprise not only compatible with our tough economic times but deeply satisfying.

When it came time to actually bake bread, I made the mistake of following a much easier recipe than Nancy’s two-day recipe for Country White. Suffice it to say that I learned the hard way that if you are going to bother with any kind of bread baking you should just roll up your sleeves and do it Nancy’s way. Her recipe for Country White is sixteen pages long! Have you ever in your life seen a recipe for anything that is sixteen pages long? Admittedly, she explains the science of bread baking as she goes along and also tries, as anyone might who has reached absolute genius status in her field, what the dough is supposed to feel like at various points in the process, describing it as “flabby,” “soft,” “alive,” “shiny” and “like a baby’s bottom.” There are several baby analogies in her bread book. You can tell she loves babies and children (I actually met her once when carrying baby Luca in my arms and she stopped to admire and coo at him). But you have the feeling it’s possible she loves bread more.

boule ready for the oven

By the time I was successfully baking two of Nancy’s Country White boules another local arts organization had gone under and I was talking to the dough, saying things like, “There you go. Stay warm in there and I’ll see you in a few hours.” Or, “Are you a little too dry? Yes, maybe a little. Let’s give you some warm water and see how you do.” Jim, throwing me sidelong glances, stayed out of the kitchen.

The only person in my life who is not alarmed by the depth of my new obsession is Luca. Unlike me, he doesn’t see it as a sad reflection of how little is going on in my work life. No matter how dire things seem to me, Luca sees only my accomplishments. He doesn’t want me to get a job. He wants me to keep making sourdough pancakes and pizza dough, which he tells me greatly improved with the purchase of a proper pizza stone. He compares one loaf of bread to another, loaves that turn out to have a golden crust and a chewy interior full of fermentation holes and a slightly salty, tangy flavor. This is why you follow Nancy Silverton to the limits of your endurance. When the economy is going to hell in a hand basket and taking the schools and the arts with it, you want to be eating her Country White.

Nancy's incredible bread

When Luca asked to cook, I said there was too much going on in the kitchen. A couple of days later, he asked again and this time I felt guilty and said yes. He wanted to make Vanilla Snow from Fanny At Chez Panisse. Lucky for me it was raining and therefore easy to plan a meal that would put the bread at center stage; a variation of Tuscan white bean soup with kale and potatoes.

"All food is bread. The rest is accompaniment."

I bought a whole vanilla bean and Luca said it looked like a dried up worm. I cut it in half lengthwise and Luca scraped out the tiny grains from the inside. It occurred to me that I had never seen the inside of a vanilla bean before. Completely forgetting about the tiny black flecks that appear in good vanilla ice cream, I wondered if the grains were bitter tasting and tossed them. A minute later a panicked Luca read from the recipe: “Add the bean and scrapings to the milk mixture!” He calmed down when I showed him the other half of the vanilla bean and we started again.

Luca went to work on the egg whites and before long they were holding the shape of “soft peaks.” I started to explain how to “gently fold” the eggs into the milk mixture when he stopped me. “I know what ‘fold’ means,” he said. And then I watched him fold the eggs beautifully so as not to break the air bubbles in the egg, thinking how commonplace this moment will become for us; me looking on as Luca (cooking, solving math problems, solving social problems) stuns me with just how well he can do without me.

Luca admonished me to let him turn on the ice cream machine this time. Last time, forgetting the joy that turning an “on” switch can bring to anyone under the age of ten, I did it myself. He poured the mixture into the machine and turned it on. It loudly began turning the mixture round and round. We sat down and ate the soup and bread while the ice cream machine worked on dessert. Luca couldn’t get enough of the soup. “Mommy,” he said importantly. “This is the best soup ever.” He is like me this way. Whenever something is tasty, it is “the best ever.” When we love something or someone, we forget everything that has come before.

I’m not much for sweets and dessert. But there is nothing quite like eating a perfect meal knowing that a perfect dessert awaits. We filled our bowls and ate the Vanilla Snow. Not quite creamy enough to be ice cream, it was cold and lovely after the hot soup and the slightly sour bread. Best of all, Luca observed: “It tastes just like snow.” Once again, I had to admire the genius of Alice Waters. The name of this recipe caught Luca’s attention back in October, the promise of snow and vanilla together being something no child should be able to resist. And it did not disappoint. If there is no word for the taste equivalent of onomatopoeia we should invent one.

snow!

A few days later, I landed a project that will keep me too busy to bake much bread or to obsess about how much hydration to give my bread starter. But for now the snowy dessert had perfect, tiny flecks of black vanilla rescued from oblivion by Luca’s careful reading of the recipe. The rain drummed on the roof and inside we were warm and full and pleasantly accomplished.

Luca's bliss

The Two Tias

recipes #12 and #15 repeated; # 20 french toast (not from fanny at chez panisse)

On a recent Friday night, just as I was about to start making pasta aglio e olio, Luca asked for risotto instead. “If you want risotto, you have to make it yourself,” I responded, expecting this to put an end to the matter. Instead Luca’s eyes lit up. “This is my best Friday ever!” he said. Then he tied on his apron and got to work, all the while repeating the admonishment that he would make the risotto all by himself, except as it turned out, where the onions were concerned (not even swimming goggles helped the stinging and Luca was compelled to announce once again, “I am NEVER working with the onions!”).

Thus began a series of recipes in our house that end in “all by myself,” actually pronounced something more like “Aaaaaall By M’self.”  Luca’s risotto was not mushroom risotto, but “Mushroom Risotto All By Myself.” The next night he was moved to make “Cherry Tomato Pasta All By Myself,” and the next morning he made French Toast,” you guessed it, “All By Myself.”

Luca's second risotto

The weekend of Luca’s cooking spree, my sister, Lexi, and her partner, Art, had been with us for a few days before embarking on a bicycle trip down the coast from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. They live in Vermont where Art, who has cycled across the Himalayas several times, bicycles up a mountain to his job as a ski instructor during all kinds of weather. He will do anything not to get into a car and owns a T-shirt that says “Cars R Coffins.” When they travel to places like Newfoundland and Cuba Lexi and Art pack up their tandem, checking it into baggage in a box and then put it together in the airport before riding off with all their belongings in a trailer. I suppose the tandem has its practical purposes but I can’t get past the sheer adorableness of the two of them riding off into the Cuban countryside on a bicycle built for two.

The next time they come west, they plan on riding south into Baja, camping out and foraging for firewood on the beach. In a startling intra-family contrast to how Lexi lives and travels is my other sister, Fre, who spent her winter vacation in Baja as she does every winter. For Fre there is no question of foraging for firewood however, because the private beach outside her luxury hotel suite would have been pristine and empty except for the waiters shuffling across the sand to deliver 24-hour room service. It’s hard to imagine two people more different than my two sisters in personality and lifestyle. One lives on a farm where she raises lambs and grows her own food. She writes poetry and investigative journalism about environmental issues, owns no cell phone and tries to generate as little garbage as possible. The other lives in a Brentwood mansion, and drives her BMW to her private pilates lesson. She recently had three hundred tons of snow hauled onto her lawn for her daughter’s 18th birthday party, and is never more than a few inches from her Blackberry which emits a steady stream of blips and beeps. She also enjoys taking large groups of people out to very expensive dinners and when thanked will say something along the lines of: “We can afford it.” In other words she remembers where she came from.

I am the moderate in the family, or so I like to think. I ride my bicycle often and try to pick Luca up from school at least a couple of times a week on the bike with the tagalong attached. I would love a bicycle trip down the coast but instead of camping out, I’d probably prefer to spend the night in some small, family-run hotels. When I travel I find that the bigger the hotel, the greater the obstacle to contact with real people. So increasingly I try to arrange trips to places where I can stay with someone I know. I would not, however, turn up my nose at a private suite on the beach in Cabo San Lucas whereas Lexi would be miserable in such a place.

We often laugh about the extremes in our family; how unlikely it is that we should all get along as well as we do. The thing is that, aside from sharing a childhood of memories and an ironclad loyalty, we genuinely like each other. As we have unfortunately learned more than once, we come together rather uncannily in a crisis. But mostly we crack each other up. My sisters are the reason I sometimes get a pang that Luca is an only child; he will never have the sense that a person can be as different from him as night from day and still feel like an essential fifth limb. There are smells and jingles and bad jokes that bind my sisters and me. There is the memory of my mother’s French Toast, appearing miraculously as it did from the wasteland of our mostly unused kitchen.

Luca's welcome message to Art (note the trailer)

Luca has special names for my sisters, or “tias” as we have come to call aunts in our family. Fre is “Poopy Tia” because when Jim and I lived in London with two year-old Luca, Fre had the genius to lace every phone conversation with Luca with references to poop and farts and other bodily functions. If Luca said he took a bus that day, Fre would respond with: “Did you go poop on the bus?” If he said he did a drawing, she would ask if it was a poopy one. He would laugh until he turned red. Her master plan, of making him remember her despite the time and distance, of course worked brilliantly. She became forever more Poopy Tia. When Lexi found out about all this poop business, she was jealous. “Why didn’t I think of that?” she moaned. How could Luca maintain a clear picture of the quieter aunt who he sees much less often, who is more apt to make something beautiful out of origami than make poopy jokes?

It’s not a competition of course, but this is how: This is a photo from Lexi and Art’s farm, one they call Family Portrait.

Family Portrait

And then there is the fact that as Luca learns to play piano (on one given to him by Fre), Lexi travels with her sheet music and plays The Moonlight Sonata for us. She draws beautifully detailed drawings of fire trucks and, when making up names with Luca for Star Wars podracers, she came up with Muffin Detonator. I really think you have to be a poet to come up with Muffin Detonator. So while Lexi once was “Musical Tia,” she is now “Muffin Detonator Tia,” a mouthful to be sure. Luca is ridiculously lucky of course. While Fre takes him to Legoland for the weekend (staying at the Fours Seasons), Lexi gives Luca handcrafted little painted boxes from Cuba and all the best books (and this) he owns.

Luca cooking w/ step stool

It’s too bad that Muffin Detonator Tia missed Luca’s big weekend of cooking. She would have enjoyed eating his food and watching him up on his step stool working away with his apron on. For my part, I am loving the determination. It’s clear that he has a goal: total independence in the kitchen. How else to explain his insistence on going back to dishes he has already made rather than racing to the finish of Fanny at Chez Panisse as fast as possible? Yesterday as we were buying fish so he could make Lemon Sole Fried With Breadcrumbs All By Myself, he did remember about the Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf and said, “I thought we were doing everything in the book!” But mostly he seems intent on becoming fluent with the dishes he knows. Perhaps learning how to do this will help him with other pursuits. The next time he tries riding a bicycle without training wheels maybe he can be reminded of how in the kitchen he started out not knowing how to crack an egg and now his parents can sit around drinking cocktails while he whips up a nice risotto and fricasseed chicken with Jerusalem artichokes. Fantasy aside, it’s clear that he is driven to learn how to do this, and to do it well. Here, again, is the fire.

Or maybe he just likes to eat.

On the morning I taught Luca to make French Toast, I was reminded again of those certain Sunday mornings when my siblings and I would awaken to the smell of it and the sound of my mother singing in the kitchen; of the improbability of its arrival on the table in a house where TV dinners were eaten without the benefit of a working television and “ratatouille” was zucchini fried with canned tomato sauce. On such a morning my mother would make incredibly thin and delicate pancakes called palichinken which she learned how to make in Austria. She made scrambled eggs and bacon, loads of strong Puerto Rican coffee and the thick French Toast which was probably the only recipe she ever taught me. Such are the consequences of oral recipes that, because I never looked it up in a cookbook, it was only years later that I learned that vanilla extract was not my mother’s “secret ingredient” for French Toast.

Luca cracked two eggs into a bowl perfectly. Two months ago he had trouble with this task. Years from now it will be embedded in his physical memory, automatic and perhaps laden with associations. He added milk, cinnamon and then too much vanilla and soaked the bread in the mixture. Then he lobbed the wet bread onto the pan and the kitchen filled with the same cinnamon sizzle of eggy bread that transports me back to Brooklyn every time. Surrounded by my sisters, my brother and I, is the table laden with the fruits of my mother’s only happy labors in the kitchen; there is the smell of the impossibly strong coffee and the hours passing by eating and telling jokes and asking for more.

Luca's first French Toast

Next time Lexi and Art come to visit, maybe Luca will make French Toast for them before they head down to Mexico on their tandem. Lexi will no doubt find it delicious; it tastes just like our mother’s.

Forbidden Food

Recipe # 19: strawberry ice cream (not from Fanny at Chez Panisse)

When I was growing up no one ever told me what to eat. There was no notion of healthy or unhealthy foods, no one watching over my shoulder to make sure I ate my vegetables. A fried steak next to a pile of buttered spinach noodles was considered a balanced meal. There were no forbidden foods or foods that were considered “bad,” and no negotiations along the lines of having to finish your broccoli in order to get dessert.

My mother worked a full time office job and at the same time she produced a series of multi-media concerts at an East Village disco. Cooking for her four school-age children, whom she was raising on her own, was not her highest priority. Far more important than eating regular meals was having an understanding of why John Cage was important. As a result we could talk about the importance of accidental sounds in Cage’s work and the cupboards in our kitchen often didn’t contain much else besides Ritz crackers and peanut butter. I’d make lunch while standing in the open refrigerator door; a slice of Wonder Bread slathered with mayonnaise and covered with a slice of bologna. Sometimes when there was no bologna, I’d have just the bread and mayonnaise. No one ever said anything about having a carrot with my lunch.

pita bread

That we didn’t suffer from some sort of vitamin deficiency is most likely due to our regular dinners out at a local Lebanese place called Near East Restaurant. There were many Middle Eastern restaurants in our neighborhood near Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn but this was our favorite. We’d walk the bleak streets past the Brooklyn House of Detention to feast on unbelievably tasty kafta kababs and babaganough, hummous, tabouleh, fresh pita bread and stuffed grape leaves. The restaurant had a sign in the window that said “It Pays To Eat Well” and this became our name for the place because, after all, it did pay to eat well, even when sometimes the paying part was an exercise in humiliation. Cash was short, checks bounced, and even worse, the manager was always gracious and let my mother off the hook for the check. Still, every night at dinnertime I’d long to hear the words, “Come on kids, we’re going to It Pays To Eat Well.”

stuffed grape leaves

Luca has no food allergies but is highly allergic to dust mites and cats, and as a result he spends months at a time with very congested sinuses. Because Jim has suffered equally from the very same allergies (ain’t DNA grand?), he has insisted on limiting Luca’s dairy intake as a way to control the immense amount of mucus in Luca’s head. I only half-believe this will help and yet I have signed on because it seems like a reasonable attempt at alleviating Luca’s discomfort. Jim and I try to go at the problem with a sense of balance, with one eye on the state of Luca’s sinuses and another on his enjoyment of food and social gatherings.

At Luca’s preschool there was a mother who was a raw foodist. She enforced a strict vegan diet on her child and allowed her no sugar or wheat. When I brought cupcakes to school for Luca’s birthday, this child sat apart eating an apple while all the others got messy with the cupcakes. The raw foodist mother glared at me as though I had served up little toddler-size vials of crack instead of homemade, organic cupcakes, and a few weeks later she was rushed to the emergency room with an obstructed intestine. No wonder! I remember thinking. All that dietary austerity can really mess up a person’s digestive tract.

We mostly choose flexibility over isolation, and try for moderation rather than outright prohibition. In any case banning dairy altogether from the diet of an American child would require more policing on a daily basis than either Jim or I are willing to do. So our loose policy is to control the diet at home as much as possible and then let it go once he’s out the door. We put rice milk in Luca’s cereals and serve water at dinner. But once he is at a party or at movie night at his school where they serve pizza and hot dogs, he is off the leash. And he knows it. We watch him load his plate with pizza (often preferable, even loaded with cheese, to the wretched hot dogs) and nachos covered in a fluorescent cheese byproduct. He’ll steal a glance at me as though expecting me to stop him and relishing the fact that I don’t. It’s only when he goes for the third helping of pizza that I put the kibosh on his little cheese fest, reminding him that if he wants a donut sprinkled with blinding colors he has to have some bullet shaped carrots first.

who can resist homemade pizza?

I often think of the parents of children with severe food allergies to peanuts, eggs and wheat, of the vigilance and stress involved in keeping such ubiquitous foods off the plates of their kids for fear, not of a stuffy nose, but of the throat closing up. In comparison, we have it easy. And yet, when Luca cannot sleep well, complains of fatigue for weeks on end and partially loses his hearing due to impacted mucus, we wish he had inherited my tolerance for all things cheesey and creamy rather than Jim’s sensitivity to dust mites and Camembert.

Every culture throughout the ages has had its forbidden foods. In Biblical times, many of these likely developed as a result of health concerns. Animals that chew their cud are herbivores and possibly cleaner feeding and less likely to cause disease than other animals. Long ago, pigs were known to carry worms and therefore considered unclean. For Hindus, killing a cow for meat is impractical as the cow produces so much food; milk, ghee and curds. Plus they use the dung for cooking fuel. I have read that in ancient India, bulls were sacrificed for religious purposes and their meat was then eaten, but never milk-producing cows.

But what is the relationship between prohibition and temptation? Are we naturally inclined to crave that which we cannot have? It’s hard to imagine that to an Indian child the cow crossing the road could look yummy, and such a child will rarely, if ever, see a piece of cooked beef. I know some Jewish children who beg their parents for hot dogs, but there are beef alternatives and these are better anyway. To me there is almost nothing as tantalizing as the smell of bacon, but to my Muslim friends it smells literally filthy. For a seven-year old American child it’s almost impossible not to be tempted by dairy products on a daily basis. Having to forgo quesadillas alone is enough to make any food-loving person put up with any amount of congestion.

So how are we doing with our policy of considered balance with regards to Luca’s diet? Whether it is because of it or in spite of it, Luca is a total cheesehead. He is obsessed with cheeses of all kinds, no matter how sharp, aged or stinky. We have learned to put a cheese plate out for guests at the last minute so that he cannot devour it before they arrive. At the table he will carve a big hunk of aged Parmesan, pop it into his mouth and call it dessert. Who can blame him? A child after my own heart, he cries out “Is that Manchego?” before hacking off half of the wedge.

ice cream maker

We gave Luca an ice cream maker for Christmas. This was partly so that he could make the Vanilla Snow recipe in Fanny at Chez Panisse, and partly because it seems like a fun activity for a food-obsessed kid. Jim has recently given up all refined sugar (it is January after all), the exception being homemade desserts. This seems like a great policy to me, and since Jim is a chocoholic who works long hours, one that will inevitably result in eating less sugar and enjoying it more. So the new plan in our house, to the extent that we have one, goes something like this: better to eat forbidden foods at home where they are more likely to be as delicious as the strawberry ice cream Luca and I made last week. And if Luca should have a bad bout of allergies, the ice cream maker also makes sorbet and fun, slushy, summer drinks.

Following the recipe in the Cuisinart booklet that came with the ice cream maker, Luca and I hulled and sliced a pint of fresh strawberries. Luca noted that one particularly large strawberry looked like a butt crack and I had to agree.

We put the sliced strawberries in a bowl with lemon juice and sugar and left them to macerate for two hours. Luca did homework. I made risotto.

booty call

After dinner we reserved the strawberry juice that had pooled at the bottom of the bowl. It was incredibly, impossibly red. The recipe says to mash half the strawberries. This was harder than it sounds, so after a few tries with a potato masher and a fork, we gave up and left them in chunks.

macerated strawberries

Then Luca mixed the milk, sugar, heavy cream, and vanilla together. He poured in the strawberry juice and the mashed strawberries and we put them into the freezer bowl. Luca turned on the ice cream maker and it started to turn. We ate dinner and talked about Star Wars the Clone Wars. Or rather, Luca talked and I pretended to know the difference between a battle droid and a clone trooper.

After about twenty minutes, we added the rest of the strawberries and let it run for five more minutes. I’m not sure what happened here but the ice cream overflowed the freezer bowl and ended up all over the ice cream maker, the kitchen counter and, after I tried cleaning it up, my shoes, my clothes and the floor. Soon Luca and I were both covered in strawberry ice cream; me, because I was cleaning it up and Luca because he was licking it off of every surface he could find. He was in heaven, literally covered in forbidden deliciousness.

Finally, we put some ice cream into actual bowls and ate. It was more creamy than icey and much less sweet than the store bought stuff. The chunks of strawberries were cold and sour. Luca made comments between big frozen mouthfuls. “This is so yummy,” he said and spooned more in his mouth. “You can’t even taste the lemon juice!”

“I could get used to this,” I thought as I scraped my bowl with what I promised myself would be my last taste of ice cream for the night – or at least until Jim got home. Why didn’t the contradiction bother me, that we were still attempting to monitor Luca’s dairy intake while encouraging him to make huge buckets of ice cream at home? I suppose because he made it himself with love and fresh ingredients and no amount of prohibition could be healthier in the long run than such an intimate awareness of food. Also, Luca was more proud of his ice cream than of anything else he has made in the kitchen so far. But mostly it was just so damned delicious.

Luca said he had brain freeze and then ate his last spoonful. He put his face in the bowl to lick it. With a tiny dollop of ice cream on his nose, he said: “Wait until Daddy tastes this.”

Peasant Food

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.

Lucca

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.”

Luca (18 months) in another famous Tuscan city

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.

lumpy

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.

Buon appetito.

Close Call for Santa

recipes 16 & 17: roasted potatoes with garlic aioli

On the day Luca was planning to make roasted potatoes with garlic aioli from Fanny at Chez Panisse he cried in the car on the way home from school. “I had a really bad day!” he wailed. Apparently not only had he been excluded from a game by a couple of kids on the playground, but one of those same kids had told him that Santa Claus is a fake.

“I know that Santa Claus doesn’t buy the presents. The parents do,” Luca said looking at me as though daring me to give him his innocence back. He was bereft.

“Who told you that?” I demanded. I don’t know why it mattered who it was. What was I going to do to the little cynic? Beat him up? Complain to his parents?

“Santiago,” Luca said.

“Uh-huh,” I said feeling a surge of irrational animosity for Santiago. I was new to this, but it sprung to mind that there must exist a certain type of child who takes pleasure in bursting the Santa bubble. Since Santa Claus does not exist such a child is not actually doing anything wrong. And yet parents uniformly think it’s mean-spirited. Maybe it’s all the in intention. Some kids simply don’t believe in Santa and want to enlighten their friends. Other kids take pleasure in wielding the power of knowledge over their more gullible peers.

What struck me later was that even Santiago’s skepticism had its limits. The idea that Santa does not exist did not occur to either him or Luca. In the middle zone between believing and not believing, Santa was real. He just didn’t buy the presents.

Each year Luca has believed more fervently in Santa Claus, not less. Last year he was blinded with celebrity worship when he met “the real Santa,” so identified by his real white beard. “All the other Santas have fake beards,” he said. On Christmas Eve Luca left cookies for Santa along with a glass of milk, and that night after Luca went to bed Jim and I ate the cookies, making sure to leave a big crumby mess. Messy Santa was my sister’s idea and it was a great one. At the sight of the crumbs and spilled drops of milk on the table in the morning Luca’s eyes widened in delight. Santa was ravenous and sloppy, like a giant kid.

I don’t remember ever believing in Santa Claus. With three older siblings it would have been hard for me to maintain anything like this level of childlike ingenuousness. When Luca was a toddler I had mixed feelings about Santa Claus. I never told him that he existed one way or another and when his first encounter with Santa at age two left him in tears, I thought that settled the matter. I half expected Luca to grow up as I did, thinking that Santa was a harmless lie. Luca has come to his belief in Santa, just as he came to his disbelief in God, without any coaxing from his parents.

I suspect that Luca’s belief in Santa is really his way of attending to his own rituals. For every holiday he remembers everything we did the year before and wants the same events repeated to a T. Tradition is important to him, even if he makes them up as he goes along. As of two years ago Luca began insisting that we also celebrate Hannukah, which in our house consists entirely of lighting candles for the menorah which was given to us by a friend, and then hoping to get invited to a party with really good latkes. I think that Luca and I are not far apart in our notions of what constitutes holiday spirit: giving, eating good food and getting together with friends and family. But in the end it’s all about the candles. I light one or two at every opportunity, certainly with every nighttime meal (I roll my own from beeswax sheets), and doing so almost makes me mourn the coming of Spring when the need to light up the dark days wanes.

We once visited Copenhagen in December. Tickets from London were cheap because no one, especially not the British, wanted to go to Denmark in the darkest days of winter. Airline tickets were 99p each way (yes, the plane had wings and an engine but could have used a good cleaning). When we arrived we were struck by how many candles there were everywhere. Every shop window, every café, every house was lit up. Window displays filled with pastries and flowing fountains of chocolate glinted in candlelight. Here was a city that knew how to take advantage of its darkness and turn it into pure charm. Copenhagen was gorgeous (as were the people – within an hour of our arrival Jim and I were compelled to make a vow to remain attracted to each other no matter how many stunning Danes sailed past us on bicycles).

I pulled out the potatoes while Luca tied on his apron.

“How does Santiago know that Santa doesn’t buy the presents?” I pressed.

“Because one year he asked Santa for a car and he didn’t get one!” Luca said.

“Santa can’t get you something that is illegal for you to play with,” I countered. “Because it would get taken away from you and then it would be no fun.” This was obviously a desperate stab in the dark, and I had little hope that it would work. But miraculously, Luca perked up.

“He can’t get you a rocket ship!” he joined in.

“Or a 747 jet,” I said. It was working! Luca was coming in off the ledge. As the weight of not believing in Santa Claus lifted from him, his mood soared.

“Or an army base! Or a space station!” Now he was cracking himself up. My little boy was back. The belief in Santa Claus had suffered a terrifying blow, but it had been rescued. At least for the time being.

Luca cut each potato in half and then lined them face down in the baking pan. This precision is genetic. Jim is a detail-oriented film editor, a master suitcase packer and a thorough reader of instructions. He also has a very tidy underwear drawer. I am the opposite; impatient, impulsive, and imprecise. Where Jim measures out spices by the half teaspoon, I throw in pinches and handfuls and taste as I go. As a result we alternately admire each other and drive each other crazy and have learned to stay out of each other’s way in the kitchen.

When Luca’s potatoes were lined up like little soldiers, he chopped up some rosemary and sprinkled it on the potatoes. Then he drizzled olive oil and added salt and a few grinds of fresh pepper.

No longer afraid of putting things in the oven, Luca slid the potatoes in. I got out an egg for the aioli and then remembered that it was supposed to be room temperature. So while the egg warmed in the oven (probably a bad idea but I couldn’t figure out a better way) Luca measured out the olive oil.

When the egg was the right temperature, Luca wanted to separate it himself. I suggested that I do one and then he could do one afterwards. I cracked the egg and showed him how to transfer the yolk back and forth between the egg shell halves until all the whites were in the bowl. Then it was his turn. The egg fell apart and Luca dumped it in the bowl. Because it was too gooey and gross to resist, he shoved his hand in after it.

“OK,” I said. “Wash your hands.” Instead he dipped his other hand into the bowl and squeezed the yolk. If he was young enough to think this was fun, I thought, he was young enough to still believe in Santa Claus.

Then we took turns pouring the olive oil into the egg yolk “drop by drop” while the other whisked. The process proved to be quite suspenseful as we desperately tried to stave off the dreaded separation of oil and egg. Alice Waters states with frightening finality:  “Once they separate they cannot go back together.”  Because I am impatient and imprecise, I dribbled three drops at a time instead of one. Luca cried out “Mommy! Is it separating?!” It wasn’t. When it was his turn to dribble he slipped and dumped ten drops of oil in at once. He held his breath while I whisked and when it was clear that it was going to be OK, we both cheered.

This was my first time making aioli. I have heard too many stories of it going wrong. Even Jim with his precise measurements and strict adherence to instructions makes a chipotle mayonnaise that tastes delicious but is always way too thin. So far Luca’s was thickening up nicely.

We checked the level of the oil in the cup and it had not gone down one hair. This was going to take all night. “Mommy, I think it went up instead of down,” Luca said. I thought he was right.

We slapped each other five when we got to the point where we were allowed to add the oil in a “steady stream.” But now it started to thin out. I checked the recipe and there was nothing about thickening it, only remedies for thinning it. This is why I don’t make aioli.

Before Luca got a chance to say, “I don’t want to work with the garlic!” I showed him the mortar and pestle. “You don’t have to touch it. You just mash it.” Being a seven year-old boy, mashing was something he could relate to. He went at it, making a “purry” of the garlic.

He whisked the garlic into the oil/egg mixture and tried thickening it by whisking it some more. It didn’t work.

“It doesn’t matter. It’s going to taste great,” I said.

I lit some candles and we sat down to a meal of brussels sprouts with pancetta and breadcrumbs braised in balsamic, turkey soup made from Thanksgiving leftovers, and roasted potatoes with garlic aioli. Watching Luca dip his potatoes in the aioli one by one and pop them in his mouth I wondered if this the last year he will believe in Santa, the end of lining up to sit on Santa’s lap to ask for the outrageously huge toy that only his aunt will buy for him, and the end of Jim and I messily eating Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve.

When Luca finally knows that there is no Santa, I wonder if he will he mourn the loss as he did today. Or if he will be satisfied, happy even, with the tree and the cookies, the trip to the snow, the Venice Boat Parade the music of Bach and Handel… and the light.

The Fire

Thanksgiving; menu with links to recipes appear at the bottom of this post.

On Thanksgiving Day, Luca refused to make the biscuits that were such a huge success the first time around. Compared to past years, we were having a small gathering; my mother-in-law Christine who was visiting us from Cape Cod for the first time in six years, and a family of German/Bolivians; Wolf, Sandra and their two polyglot children who moved here from Berlin last year and are still discovering just how big a deal Thanksgiving is in this country. From the mad scramble to slog through airports across the country in rush-hour crowds to be with family; the obsession with turkey, a bird that leaves most non-Americans scratching their heads; and the almost heroic value we place on eating an obscene amount of food in one sitting, Thanksgiving is more than a little dumbfounding. For my part, I’m in it for the pies.

apple pie

most divine pumpkin/hazelnut pie

With cornbread-sausage stuffing, mashed potatoes and spicy roasted sweet potatoes on the menu, neither we, nor our arteries, actually needed biscuits made with heavy cream and dipped individually in butter. I just thought Luca would enjoy taking part in the creation of the meal. He kept going back and forth. First it was no. Then I reminded him of how delicious they were and how much our guests would enjoy them and he said yes he wanted to make them. But then Grandma turned the TV to the Thanksgiving Day Parade and once again the answer was no.

Until recently, Luca had three living grandparents and no relationship of any substance with any of them. Until he died in February, one grandfather was in a nursing home on Cape Cod and could barely remember the names of his own grown sons. To say that Luca’s other grandfather is estranged is a vast understatement; I have had little contact with my father throughout my life and he has never met Luca or acknowledged him in any way. That leaves Christine, Luca’s only living grandmother whom he visits maybe once a year and usually when his three cousins are there too. The kids have a blast but the chaos makes Grandma jumpy and forces her to turn up the TV volume to deafening levels.

Grandma

Luca has friends whose grandparents pick them up at school and take them for weekend-long sleepovers, and I think I can sense the envy in him when he sees all the love and attention that he is doing without. Or maybe it’s my own envy I am feeling whenever I hear that friends of ours are leaving the kids with the grandparents in order to enjoy a grownup weekend of wine tasting and sleeping late (remember morning sex, anyone?). With no grandparents able or willing to take Luca for a weekend, we take him with us when we go wine tasting, which is not often, and wake to the sounds of droid battles in the next bed.

Jim, Luca and I invent our family as we go, the definition of “family” being by necessity more fluid than it is for people with lots of blood relatives in close proximity. Luca gets as much love as the next kid, even with a fractured and spread out extended family. And yet, he craves loving contact with his grandmother, even if his notion of it is influenced as much by the Bearenstain Bears as by reality.

Having Grandma in our house for a week was an opportunity for Luca to have her all to himself. From the minute she entered the house, he was showing her things he has made, books he likes, even the Cat Piano iPhone app on my phone which she didn’t much like (the meowing made her jumpy).

chorizo and onions

I didn’t expect Luca to last long watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade since for me watching a parade, live or on television, is about as much fun as having hot pokers drilled through my eyeballs. I can’t for the life of me fathom the appeal of watching floats and marching bands move at a glacial pace down the street. When I worked as a waitress on the Upper West Side in New York City, the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving was one of the best nights at the restaurant. The place would be packed and outside, the floats were laid out on the street where people gathered with drinks in hand for a big street party. I figured the parade couldn’t get any better than that.

The only parade that has not left me in tears of boredom is the Carnaval in Sao Paulo. Within hours of arriving from New York and still jet lagged I found myself dressed as a record album, surrounded by three hundred percussionists, dancing in a School of Samba down the avenida. Fueled by terrible cognac and good cafezinho I stayed up for 36 hours straight and then fell down dead in a bed (what bed? I have no idea) for another 14 hours. That was fun.

brussels sprouts with chorizo

While I trimmed the Brussels sprouts, I expected Luca to come out ready to tie on his apron and get to work on the biscuits. Instead, with two ovens at 450 degrees and the heat outside climbing to an absurd 78 degrees (on Thanksgiving! Will I ever get used to Los Angeles?) I kept hearing these little whoops and exclamations of delight from the den. I sautéed chorizo to go with the brussels sprouts. I opened the doors and windows and sautéed the mushrooms for the stuffing. When I went to check on Luca and Grandma he was patiently explaining to her who Dora the Explorer was. And best of all she was listening with interest.

cornbread sausage stuffing

I have always viewed watching television as a solitary and anti-social activity and could never understand the idea of families watching TV together as a form of togetherness. But what do I know, I thought as I put the turkey in the oven. This might prove to be Luca’s happiest memory of his grandmother, the two of them watching the Thanksgiving Day parade with Mickey Mouse, Santa Claus and all.

The previous weekend Jim and I took Luca to the LA Philharmonic to see Gustavo Dudamel conduct. We sat in the best seats in the house, front row center behind the orchestra and facing Dudamel (although I have heard that the view from behind has its charms). Dudamel, who has been given rock star status in a city full of stars, did not disappoint. He was incredibly fun to watch; gently gliding his hands over the air and then pounding his fist skyward sending his curls flying in perfect time to the kettle drum. Other times, he’d appear to be conducting only with his eyebrows and a glint in his eye, giving an occasional nod to the woodwinds and a sexy come-hither motion to the strings. At one point all of us with a frontal view of Dudamel broke into unintended laughter. And the music was sublime; two Mozart symphonies and one by Alban Berg, a composer of twelve-tone music with a decidedly modern and more challenging sense of the melodic. Surprisingly, Luca was ansty during Mozart’s Prague Symphony and liked the Berg better (his non-living grandmother, my mother, was a student of Arnold Schoenberg and would have been thrilled). Luca also like the Jupiter Symphony but mostly he liked watching Dudamel. On the way home he said he wanted to be a conductor.

Dudamel and his curls

Later he said he liked watching Dudamel because he was funny and “kind of crazy” and he made a lot of faces.

“It’s because he has a fire in his mouth,” Luca said and then he ran out of the room.

I stopped what I was doing. I had no idea that he remembered ever making this comment about wanting a fire in his mouth. This was in reference to the desire for fire and spice in his food, a desire he claims not to have anymore though it seems to come and go with a randomness that is maddening even in a seven year old. He has no idea that I have given this blog this title – he is not much aware of the blog at all in fact – and here he was hitting the meaning right on its metaphorical head.

“What does that mean?” I yelled after Luca.

But I knew what he meant; a fire in the mouth is the heat we get from the things we love whether or not they themselves are fiery to begin with. It is the habanero salsa that brought tears to my eyes in Playa Del Carmen; it is twelve-tone music and the Jupiter symphony and the curls on top of Gustavo Dudamel’s head. It is the plain (always plain, no matter what we do with it) turkey bird eaten after a lazy day watching the Thanksgiving Day Parade with Grandma.

Wolf and Sandra arrived with mashed potatoes, wine and plenty of Prosecco to start. They knew enough to be a little apprehensive about the sheer volume of food they were about to consume. But they took a deep breath and jumped in with a game spirit, partaking not only of the uber-American tradition of overeating, but of the even more American one of sitting around afterwards in front of the television. In a slight deviation, instead of football, we watched Pixar’s “Up,” which Grandma pronounced “sad.” She went to bed after a while and the rest of us finished “Up” and then watched scenes from the Marx Brothers’ “Night at the Opera.” Wolf, Sandra and their kids had never seen it and we had to pause the final opera scene in order to explain what “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” is, another staple of Americana. I had seen this movie countless times as a child (it must have been a regular on the Million Dollar Movie) and it was fun watching it through the eyes of our friends for whom it was all new. It occurred to me that going back to the old traditions – parades, Marx Brothers, grandmothers on Thanksgiving – can be a kind of reinvention, and that reinvention is perhaps the most American tradition of all.

The kids were in hysterics watching Harpo hanging from the stage ropes, making a mess of the opera. Here again were the curls on top of the head, the fierce talent, and the unmistakable fire in the mouth.

——————————————————————————————

This is what we ate on Thanksgiving with links to recipes where available (asterisks denote especially delicious dishes):

Dry-brined roasted turkey.

Cornbread-sausage stuffing.

Gravy.

*Cranberry/tangerine relish (with and without jalapeno).

*Brussels sprouts with chorizo.

Mashed potatoes.

*Spicy sweet potato wedges.

Apple pie (from Silver Palate and with Trader Joe’s crust).

*Pumpkin/hazelnut pie – a combination of this and the variation at the end of this.

Whipped cream.

For Your Annoyment…

Recipe # 15: cherry tomato pasta

Recently Luca was reading the National Geographic magazine and misread a sign in a photo of a Western landscape. Instead of “for your enjoyment,” he read “for your annoyment.” When he realized his mistake he cracked up laughing and now he gets a big giggle out of saying “for your annoyment” whenever he can fit it into the conversation.

On the day he made the cherry tomato pasta from Fanny at Chez Panisse, Luca was suffering from a low grade, generalized annoyment and didn’t feel like cooking. I was tempted to make light of it by reminding him of his new favorite word, but he was in no mood.

He was constructing something out of Legos (a battle station? a droid planet?) and when I asked him if he wanted to go ahead with the recipe he had picked out, he snapped at me: “I’m doing something!” I assumed that things would only go downhill from here and that we’d be scrapping the idea of Luca making dinner. But then he came into the kitchen and, without a word, started chopping the tomatoes. He toiled away as though he were a child slave owned by a cruel, cherry tomato-eating giant who, instead of allowing Luca to go to school and play with his friends, forced him to chop tomatoes ten hours a day, seven days a week.

It was interesting watching him work through his irritation. Everything bothered him – the height of the counter relative to his step stool, the volume of tomatoes, anything and everything that came out of my mouth – and yet he kept going. The possibility occurred to me that maybe he wasn’t as annoyed as he seemed but was doing a really good imitation of me on the days I don’t feel like cooking but have no choice. I love to cook but there are days when I’d give anything not to be staring into the crisper trying to think of something exciting to do with the cauliflower. Luca, all of 11 recipes into his cooking life, was having a taste of how even a beloved activity can be a drudgery. I kept expecting him to give up on the tomatoes but he didn’t. He also didn’t whine which, due to my inability to tolerate it even in tiny doses, would have put an end to the whole thing. He just forged ahead making it clear from the wordless banging around of the utensils that he was not happy about it. I tried to stay out of his way and watched him, thinking that if he was playacting then how tired we adults must seem to him; tired of cooking, tired of tending to the needs of our families, just plain tired.

With Luca sometimes it’s hard to tell if he’s having an actual experience, or if he’s just a really good actor. When he dresses up as a scientist and does experiments, is it for the science or the make believe? When he cooks, the costume is half of it. Still he likes to eat more than almost anyone I know (a quality that also makes him one of the most fun people I know) so it’s hard to tell if he wants to learn how to cook or if he likes pretending to be a chef, or both. And does it matter anyway? Like most recovering actors, I live in mortal fear of my child following in my footsteps. I look for early signs of dramatic talent as though for a fatal genetic mutation, and wonder about the merits of brainwashing and interventions. Each big roll of Luca’s eyes, each dramatic exclamation and outsized expression of emotion send a jolt of terror straight to my bones.

When he was just under two years old, Luca became obsessed with the violin. We were living in London and had taken him to the WOMAD Festival, a three-day world music extravaganza on the outskirts of the city where among other acts we saw electric blues from Mali, a folk-singer-cellist from Ireland, and a children’s chorus from Tanzania that we were enjoying until we realized that the lyrics were in praise of the mine company that had funded their CD. (“Oh, Golden Pride mining company/We thank you for our social development/Without you we would have no schools, no roads, no hope for the future!”)

Luca’s thunderbolt moment came with Nigel Kennedy and Kroke, a hypnotic and danceable melding of electric classical violin and Polish klezmer music with hints of North African and gypsy rhythms. Luca couldn’t see over the heads of the people in front of us and only caught glimpses of the stage. At one point I looked down at him and he was swaying with his eyes closed and his hands clasped in front of him.

We bought the band’s CD, East Meets West, at the festival, and on the way back home to London, we listened to it in the car, not one or two times, but over and over through traffic on the awful M4 motorway. We crawled past Heathrow Airport and some of the dullest, grayest landscape anywhere in the world, a dreariness from which Luca, rocking in his car seat, was transported. When he pretended to play along with the music on an imaginary violin, Jim and shared a look. Where was this coming from?

For the next eight months we heard Nigel Kennedy and Kroke’s East Meets West at least six times every day. Luca would demand it first thing in the morning (he awoke in those days at five AM), and then several more times before lunch. He listened to it again after napping and before dinner. If we went somewhere in the car, we had to bring the CD with us. As he became more familiar with the intricacies of the music, he began to play air violin in time with every note on the CD, a trick that once moved his Hungarian babysitter to tears. If we were in a bookstore and he happened to spot a photograph of a violin, he would begin to shout and point: “Violin! Violin!”

The fact that my mother who died ten years before Luca was born had been a Juilliard-trained violinist added a supernatural spin to the whole thing. If you believed such things were possible you might think that her spirit were somehow coming back to pay us a visit. (That Luca and my mother share a birthday might send a further shiver down your spine.)  For about a year after my mother’s death, I had frequent dreams of spotting her on the street somewhere as she was getting on a bus or driving by in a car, always leaving me again. In the dreams, just like in life, she was supposed to be dead, and yet here she was getting on the bus and waving to me. Maybe this violin obsession of Luca’s was another little wave from my mother from the Great Beyond. After all, he had seen hundreds of instruments that weekend at WOMAD, and much more kid-friendly and eye-catching performances than Nigel Kennedy’s. So why the violin?

And yet, Jim and I often wondered whether it wasn’t really the violin that had captured Luca’s heart and soul. Maybe what he loved more than the music was pretending to play it. Maybe (oh, dread!) he was an actor in the making and all of this was just an elaborate form of mimicry like pretending to be a doctor after a visit to the pediatrician’s office. It’s amazing how much of mystery your own child can be. He is seven and I cannot for the life of me imagine the man he will one day become.

So as Luca sliced each cherry tomato in half, here I was again wondering if he was doing a dead-on imitation of an adult fed up with cooking, or if he was honestly sick of cutting the cherry tomatoes in half.

Since he had done most of these tasks before – chopping parsley, cutting tomatoes – we didn’t have to say much to each other. This suited Luca just fine. Small talk was out. There was only chopping.

He put the tomatoes into a bowl and then poured in the olive oil, or more accurately, he dumped it in. Then he added a little vinegar and the chopped parsley, added salt and pepper and stirred it all together. He slammed the spoon on the counter and said, “Is that all?” When I said it was, he sighed deeply and stomped off to his Lego planet.

Luca’s obsession with the violin lasted for over a year. When he turned three he begged us for violin lessons. We thought he was too young but we finally relented and then Luca spent a few months learning the unpleasant reality that, with anything worthwhile and difficult, you have to start at the bottom and work your way to expertise. Like cooking, good results often come only after a certain amount of tedium. “Different sound!” Luca had exclaimed in dismay the first time he held an actual violin under his chin. He expected the sound to come out just like Nigel Kennedy. When the frustration became too much he took a break from the violin and then later switched to piano which offered a fresh start and less demanding technique (or at least a bench to sit on).

Two years ago when my brother Niles was dying of cancer he gave Luca an old violin of my mother’s that had been in his basement for years. The violin was covered in bright green fuzz. It seemed impossible for something to have grown so moldy. I only didn’t chuck it because it was a gift from my brother and I knew he wouldn’t be around much longer.

Without much hope for its recovery, we had the violin restored and were surprised to learn that it is a somewhat special instrument; a concert stage-worthy, pre-War, handmade violin from Germany. We have no idea if Luca will ever play it, if his love for the violin will one day be reawakened. Maybe he will stick with the piano or take up the drum kit. Maybe he will forgo music altogether and never cut another tomato in half. Maybe someday he will say the dreaded words, “Mom? Dad? I’ve decided to give acting a shot.” There is no knowing. There is only cooking and eating and reading good stories and hopefully, through the intermittent tedium of daily practice, getting good at a few things. In the meantime, the violin, free of its green fuzz, waits in a corner.

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