Food, Art and Coming Home

recipes 24 & 25; quesadillas (again) and Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf

That the measure of a great trip is how happy you are to return home was never more clear to me than two weeks ago when Jim, Luca and I returned from Italy and Spain. After a grueling trip home, that because we were using our frequent flier miles, involved a twelve hour flight from Madrid to Mexico City on a flight packed with Mexican football fans returning from Mexico’s elimination in the World Cup, and an overnight in a shabby airport hotel, we landed at LAX at 9:30 in the morning. Weirdly energized by jetlag and the luck of it being Wednesday I was at the Farmer’s Market by 11AM loading up on summer’s bounty: apricots, peaches, green beans and zucchini. When I got home, Luca was at the stove making his beloved quesadilla. I made a salad of fresh greens and we all dug in. After two weeks of a diet that consisted mostly of cheese, wine, pasta and just about every possible kind of pig meat, we were too excited about eating our own food to think about the sleep we so desperately needed.

Normal people plan their trips around museums and famous basilicas. We scour Chowhound.com and other foodie sites for places to eat like locals. In much of Italy this advance research isn’t necessary as you can eat well just about anywhere, including as Jim and I found out once, in the Autostrada rest stops where we had great coffee and sandwiches. But we knew from previous experience that you can eat very badly in Venice and spend a lot of money while you’re at it. So armed with a trusty list of off-the-beaten-track restaurants, and no plans to enter a basilica of any kind, the three of us set out to walk the world’s most beautiful city.

A quiet corner of Venice

Because Luca is Luca, he had no trouble planning the day around the best pizza in Venice (Il Refolo) or a nice plate of fritti misti (Il Vecchio Fritolin).

This seafood fritti misti with polenta was so delicious I forgot to snap a photo until it was all gone.

When Luca was a toddler we traveled all over Europe and found that, though he happily sat still for a three hour lunch, he howled in agony upon crossing the threshold of a museum, no matter what kind. We planned museum visits around his naptime and then had to keep him moving in the stroller, doing absurd figure eights through the galleries lest he should wake up and find himself in front of the Mona Lisa and start screaming.

This time around he’d have to suck it up. As an eight year old, he’d have to walk on his own two feet and keep his irritation to himself. The truth is that I don’t have much more tolerance for museums than he does, and this is especially true of big important museums stuffed with religious paintings. I think we learn as much from food as from art, and whatever it says about me, treating museums as stopovers on the way to great food works for me as much as for my eight-year old kid. We got off to a good start in Milan at the Leonardo Da Vinci Museum of Science and Technology where they have constructed wooden models of Leonardo’s technological drawings; bridges, flying machines, weaving looms. But at the Galleria Accademia in Venice Luca’s shoulders slumped almost immediately and he began to moan that he was bored and hungry after only a few minutes. I couldn’t blame him. Nor could I explain the significance in wall after wall of the Madonna and Child or the gruesome depictions of saints being tortured. Luca stopped in front of a particularly grisly portrait of a saint having the thigh muscle cut off by several knife-wielding unbelievers intent on their business. Momentarily absorbed, he wanted answers. “I don’t get it. Why is there so much torture?”

“I don’t know,” I answered lamely and pulled out the list of restaurants and a map. The painting may have been a Tintoretto but it was oppressive enough that three minutes later we were bounding across bridges on our way to the Venice fish market.

Having no place to cook, we bought no fish but, while Luca watched the garbage boat loading, we bought some lovely apricots at the next-door fruit market. For some reason the sight of the garbage boat with its little crane lifting and placing garbage made Luca laugh, so we stood there a while eating apricots while Luca giggled at the garbage boat.

Venice fruit market

Luca did better at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, where, with a steady, lashing rain beginning to pour, we had fun looking at the photos of Peggy in these very rooms with these very works of art surrounding her. It was a relief after the heaviness of the Galleria Accademia, imagining what it must have been like to live here on the Grand Canal with your very own gondola at the front door and with playful works by Picasso and Brancusi hanging in your dining room and, in the bedroom, a silver headboard made by Calder (I have read that this last caused some uncomfortable moments during Peggy’s many romantic encounters).  Luca was especially enchanted by the blue glass sculptures made from Picasso’s drawings that sit in a window through which you can watch the traffic of the vaporettos and delivery boats on the Grand Canal.

We squeezed in visits to the Ca’ D’Oro and the Palazzo Ducale between meals at San Trovaso where we ate squid ink pasta with big tender hunks of squid, and Alla Vedova where we ate our freshest meal of chicchetti; white beans and onions, sarde en saor, vegetable antipasti, and their famed meatballs.

Aside from some 12th Century bronzes, the Ca D’Oro was a trial for Luca that no amount of enthusiasm on my part could alleviate. He managed to amuse himself by sitting on the loggia overlooking the considerable action on the Grand Canal, mostly unchanged since the 13th century when other little boys, bored by the goings on in the palace itself, might have been enchanted by the same view.

In the Ca' D'Oro looking out

The Palazzo Ducale was a lot more fun, part museum and part living-history playground for Luca. With a belly full of a rich béchamel and porcini lasagne he spent the better part of a rainy afternoon in the armory picking out his weapons of choice (crossbow and sling), and in the dank prison cells where he alternately pretended to be a guard and a prisoner.

Blaming it on the long line snaking through the Piazza San Marco in the rain, we skipped the Basilica.

With the World Cup heating up, we watched Cameroon play Denmark in the Campo Santa Margherita where a small crowd huddled under awnings to stay out of the rain while sipping on beer or the incredibly refreshing Venetian spritz made with Prosecco, campari and soda water. The next night, with the rain still pouring, we had the luck to run into a little snack bar draped in Brazilian flags and offering caipirinhas. The place was cozy and dry so we stayed to watch Brazil beat Ivory Coast and made a dinner of tiny sandwiches and their version of the spritz made with Aperol and vodka.

It is said that no visit to Venice is complete without getting utterly and hopelessly lost and that night our visit was made complete as we traipsed through a bleak and eerie part of the Dorsoduro in the rain. Glimpses of the lights of cruise ships only disoriented us further until we found ourselves, blocks from our hotel, in a deserted courtyard of a police station with an armada of smart little police boats bobbing at the docks.

Beautiful food shop in Verona where we bought picnic fixin's.

In Verona, we avoided the local specialty of horsemeat stew and had a picnic of cheese, salami, bread, wine and artichokes on the banks of the Adige River. In the distance was the 12th century Castelvecchio where Luca had passed the morning shooting imaginary crossbows off turrets at the enemy advancing from the river.

Castelvecchio

Then it was off to the much hotter and drier Madrid. We checked into our hotel and immediately went out to find Luca’s beloved and much-anticipated giant pile of chorizo.

Oh beloved!

At the Reina Sofia Museum Luca learned about the horrors or the Spanish Civil War through works by Picasso with titles such as “Mother With Dead Child,” and his giant “Guernika.” Interspersed throughout the galleries were flat screen TV’s on which were shown odd little early experimental films and, to the delight of the loudly guffawing Luca, a 22 minute Buster Keaton short called “The Week.” While I tried to interest Luca in wondrous portraits by Miro he became engrossed in a documentary film about the war. Arguing about why he should be allowed to watch it for the third straight time, he said emphatically: “Mommy, this is history. It’s real. This,” he said with a sweeping gesture encompassing all the great works hanging on the walls, “is not.” I tried explaining that history is understood through art as much as through the so-called “facts,” but Luca’s eyes were glued to the screen where grainy images of dead children flickered. When did he become so literal?

That night we ate at El Mollete, a tapas restaurant in an old charcoal cellar so tiny that there are little luggage racks above the tables. We had an avocado salad that came wrapped in smoked salmon, a plate of tender, spicy pulpo, pork stuffed with cherries and blackberries, and best of all, fiilo dough saquetes of goat cheese drizzled with honey.

Goat cheese saquetes at El Mollete

The next day we were joined by our good friends from London; Nina (one half of the brilliant tropical/rock/pop band Zeep), and her son Johan who was a great pal of Luca’s when we lived in London. Fellow Brasil supporters, Nina and Johan arrived with a suitcase full of carnival paraphernalia and just in time to watch the match between Brasil and Portugal in the Plaza Santa Ana. In contrast to the more staid piazzas in Venice and Verona, the Plaza Santa Ana was hot, loud and smoky and, though less beautiful, a lot more fun.

Viva Brasil!

Sitting on the Plaza we noticed a small but steady stream of people in yellow and green heading to a little bar on the corner and a couple of minutes later we were speaking Portuguese and enjoying a nice plate of paella accompanied by a delightfully chilled light red wine. Brasil won the match 3-1 and just then it would have been hard to improve upon our mood.

Where we watched Brasil

The boys braved a walk in the 90 degree heat to the Parque Retiro where they had ride on the lake in a rowboat. Afterwards they played soccer in the rain and it was off for another tapas meal;  jamon iberico and cheese. Walking with the boys in the heat, it turned out, required regular stops for ice cream and “Fanta Naranja” which in Italy Luca discovered by the name of “Aranciata.”

Fuel for walking

The last museum of the trip turned out to be the most trying for me and, surprisingly,  the least so for Luca. On the way to the Prado, Luca and Jim peeled off to fix a shoe problem of Luca’s and I went into the museum with Nina and Johan. Johan, who is incredibly easy-going and quiet, began to squirm the minute we joined the line for tickets. As I watched Johan in silent tears, literally wringing his little body away from the gloomy paintings on the wall, I wondered how Luca was faring, if he was being tortured as Johan now was, very like the victims portrayed in Goya’s dark works.

We lasted about an hour before we desperately fumbled for an exit, an hour that was a testament to Johan’s forbearance. Luca who is much more vocal would have complained so loudly that it would have been impossible to stay more than a few minutes.

Nina, Johan and I ended up waiting for over an hour outside the Prado for Jim and Luca to emerge, an hour I spent worrying for Luca’s mental health in the face of the monstrous faces of Goya’s masses and the firing squads. When I finally saw Luca bounding towards me across the expanse of the museum’s entrance, he was smiling and saying: “that was my favorite museum, Mommy!”

Then we were off to El Mollete again, this time with friends in tow. When the waiters saw us for the second time in two days, they sat down and shook our hands like we were old friends. We ate well, too well, and then took a long walk through the neighborhoods of La Latina and Lavpies which were deserted in the afternoon heat.

That night Jim watched the boys – and a match between USA and Ghana – while Nina and I went out to see Flamenco at Casa Patas (which turns out to be the best place in Madrid for Flamenco). I had never seen Flamenco and didn’t know what to expect. It didn’t take more than a couple of minutes for me to be completely enraptured with the clapping and percussive foot stamps of the melancholy, mournful singers. The guitar playing was extraordinary, brilliant really, and the dancing was jaw dropping. Everything was sexy and dynamic and musically rich and Nina and I wanted more of all of the performers, the whole gorgeous sextet of them.

High on great music and dancing, we went back to the Brazilian place on Santa Ana and drank a bottle of wine and ate an enormous plate of ham while we watched the thick parade of people walking by the windows. At one point we noticed that the people in the streets, though it was nearing 1AM, were not drunk in the least. They were merely enjoying the night, eating and drinking and, because this was Spain they were of course, smoking. We also observed the way in which the hipness of modern Spain has embraced traditional Spanish culture rather than casting it aside. The big hams hanging in the bars, the wine, the midday siesta which is no longer a siesta of course but which the Spaniards cling to nevertheless, even Flamenco; all of these are part of the new modern here.

Ham and breadsticks

The day after Nina and Johan returned to London, Luca, Jim and I took the train to Segovia. There we had a drink and an ice cream under the perfectly intact Roman Aqueduct and then walked across town to the Alcazar, a 12th century castle built in the shape of a ship’s prow on the confluence of two rivers.

Roman aqueduct in Segovia

This castle was mostly left as as is, and not unlike in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection, it was easy to imagine life as it must have been when people actually lived here. The Fireplace room had its original dining table and chairs, the bedroom had what seemed like a strangely modest bed, and there was even a real throne in the Throne room. Luca examined the weapons in the armory before climbing the 152 circular steps of the Torre San Juan II, and at the top he fought another valiant battle against encroaching enemy forces using (I think) a canon and crossbows.

The throne room in the Alcazar

By this point in our journey my stomach was on strike so we bypassed the whole suckling pig that Segovia is famous for and had a little snack of cheese and bread before heading to the train station. This was our last day in Spain and we spent it by turns arguing with officious train station clerks and watching the rain fall on the Spanish plain from the top of a medieval castle.

Two days later we are home and, by noon, all settled down at the table to eat Luca’s quesadillas and greens from the Farmer’s Market.  “Mmmmm,” I said. “Fresh California salad.”

“I want some Fresh California salad!” Luca said as though this were its name. I heaped a mound of it on his plate and the colors were various hues of almost fluorescent green. He ate a big bite and then dug back into his beloved quesadilla. Less than an hour after landing at LAX, he had been at the stove reuniting with the familiar flavors of home.

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Halibut in fig leaves ready for the oven

By the way, for Mother’s Day Luca finally made the much-anticipated Halibut Baked on a Fig Leaf. I have had fish wrapped in all kinds of things and usually I can’t see what the fuss is about. But this was different, another example of Alice Waters’ genius for making the simplest foods indescribably delicious. The fig leaves (harvested from our friend’s tree) gave the fish a slightly nutty taste and the halibut itself was so tender it melted in my mouth. Luca had wanted to make all three meals that day for me including breakfast in bed, but I convinced him that one meal was enough. And it was!

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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.

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