‘Soprapeso’, said the counteragent, without even looking up from reading my ticket. ‘Overweight’. My cheeks started to sting with embarrassment, as I had indeed packed it on while travelling over the holidays. And then I realised that she was referring to my four oversized bags, each bulging at its zippers.
When I first started the research for our new The Jewish Cooking of Southern Italy course, I thought that it would have been much more like my other research, which often involves talking to grandmothers in tiny kitchens, my pen halted on the notebook page, ready for the goods that almost never seem to come. (How seductive it is to think of grandmothers as fountains of cooking knowledge: seductive, and yet very rarely true).
I started to call around, book stores in Southern Italy that specialize in old cookery books, the kind of shops that smell like mildew and old pipe tobacco. I called the far coast of Sicily. The hinterland of Basilicata. I called a female rabbi in Calabria and followed up on each of her leads. I decided to cast a larger net and bought all the Italian-language books on the subject on Amazon.it, the Italian version of the site.
And then, thinking of Simon Schama and Stephen Fry, I checked out the British.co.uk and found more (but in English). It wasn’t until but I searched the .com (American Amazon) that I struck the goldmine. I was already going to be in NYC for New Year’s anyway, I could pick up the books then, and the next thing you know I was being seemingly insulted by an underfed, snooty baggage-handlers named ‘Maria Grazia’.
Back in Lecce, as I work my way down the stack of books, I’m struck by each author’s inevitable warping and distortion of the narrative. There are the NY or San Francisco-based Ashkenazi Jews, that purr about Southern Italy with the 180 watt glow of enraptured tourists. There are the London-based, North African Jews that wallow in reminiscing about the food of their youth. The Italian language books are inevitably Roman or Neopolitan and most often represent the opposite: entrenched in the culture but with very little based on any actual research or even interregional travel. By own distortion will certainly be based on the fact that I’m not Jewish, neither in cultural heritage nor theology.
Like most here in Italy, I can easily eat bread without any association of the Christian church’s symbolic cannibalism. My Easter lamb is a dish, not a metaphor. I prefer fish on Fridays, but no more so than legumes on Monday (the second secular in origin). What interests me most as a teacher is where the Jewish cooking of the South makes Italian food and wine wider and richer, a formerly invisible wavelength only recently appreciated on the national spectrum. How did the wives and mothers work around poverty AND a restricted diet? (One of the oddest elements of Christianity certainly must be the Divine permission to eat so widely).
In a few weeks I’ll begin a series of short films on the Jewish Cooking of Southern Italy. You can see them here. And I’ll be posting the research as it transforms itself into curriculum. Please tell us what you think.
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