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He’s the doctor. You’re the engineer. They are the masters. She’s a conductor. And on it goes.
You could call it a ‘tendency’ but ‘fixation’ is closer to it, this preoccupation here in Italy with titles: It’s not uncommon to witness long and rambling conversations between adults, without the single use of a proper name. ‘Isn’t that right Doctor?’ Yes, it certainly is Engineer. Wouldn’t you agree, professor?, it’s like a vocational costume party, just everyone forgot to dress theirs parts.
Which is why il barone stands out, as he would never dream of introducing himself as one. Or as a professor of law, which he is as well. Nor would he mention that his ancestral home takes up a quarter of the city. Nor that he’s one of the most traditional Salentine cooks I know, one of the highest compliments I can think of.
When we cook together, the process is always the same: I’ll ask him to teach me a dish that he remembers from his grandmother’s cooking.
We’ll open some wine.
Something will go into a pan, say, some onions, or garlic or some homemade tomato sauce- and we’ll start talking until we smell the scorching. We’ll turn it off, drop the pan into the sink and start again, without ever mentioning the scorched pan, nor breaking the flow of the conversation. We talk for hours, each time starting from scratch, neither of us phased.
‘When I was growing up, what we ate varied very little from what poorer folks were eating’, he says. ‘Legumes. Boiled chicory. Brown pastas. We’d have rabbit every once in a while. Wine was always red. I remember my aunt, who had a knack for making a certain dish…..’
Usually this is when we’ll smell the new pan burning, one of us will pick it up and place it in the sink and then we’ll start a new one, the conversation uninterrupted, a faucet’s water droplets spitting in rhythmic drips. ‘So she had this husband who loved her version of this dish called……’, he’ll continue, pulling down the next pan.
And sometimes I’ll take notes as we eat together, his food memories turning from a reserved trickle into a gentle and generous flow. Slowly as we talk, his proper Italian will begin to give away, surrendering to the unmistakable ‘u’ based, Greek-leaning local dialect of his childhood. Sometimes his eyes will well up as recalls the poverty, not as a individual who went without, but as a part of community when Southern Italy had so very little, least of all, options of changing anything, regardless of hard work and never ending familial sacrifice.
Yet one distinct red and throbbing vein runs through all of tales of the Salento’s past, and it’s the food and the almost pathological need to share it, both with family and the larger community. ‘Yes, we were all poor’. ‘Yes, we all ate the same things’. ‘Yes, this told us who we were’, it runs through each of his stories, each of his recipes. It can’t be separated from his past, anymore than you can remove ‘blue’ from the colour of the sea.
Back in Lecce my door bell will ring and there he’ll be with a bottle of champagne or a jar of his wife’s homemade preserves, the very act a quiet reminder that the simple sharing of food is one of the most civilizing things we do, the tiny invisible droplets of super glue that binds us all together.
Not long ago our school was featured here in the national press, a very flattering article to say the least. Coming down the stairs into il barone‘s kitchen one day shortly afterward, I saw him hanging the framed article on the wall, next to the others about our school that he’s framed over the years. A delivery man was there with him, needing his signature. ‘Is that your son’, the deliver man asked. Il barone lovingly reexamined the articles once again as if for the first time and just beamed. That one single pure and perfect moment, of the smile on his face as he peered up through his eyeglasses as he lovingly straightened the frame, well, it’s not something that will ever leave me.