On eating. in situ. (Conroy).
Somehow there is nothing more seductive than a novelist writing about food; it is like reading something a poet wrote about his beloved. I have never read much Pat Conroy, except for The Prince of Tides (and of which I remember nothing except for a scene in which the main character threatens to drop another man's priceless violin out the window), but something in my heart rejoices when I find his words in the pages of Gourmet magazine. The other night I found Endless Feasts: Sixty Years of Writing from Gourmet, and it had one of his essays that I had dimly remembered reading years before.
Conroy and his new wife, the beautiful woman with a voice 'sugared with her deep Alabama accent,' have embarked on what Samuel Johnson called 'the triumph of hope over experience,' the second (or third or fourth) marriage. A honeymoon in Italy. It has a ring to it, southern boy, his wife says to him, having never traveled to that country, where Conroy lived in the 80's, after which he felt that his 'own heart [was] shaped like a boot since [he] lived in the city of Rome for three years.' So the two of them head to Umbria. On the way, he is filled with self-doubt, wondering aloud why he did not take her to Venice or Rome or Florence or Siena or Lake Como, until he relaxes and puts his 'trust in the simple mystery that Italy has never let [him] down, never refused to lay its dazzling treasures at [his] feet.'
I have never been to Umbria, but my own heart has been shaped like a boot since I was fourteen years old and visited Italy for the first time. (Actually, I think it goes back farther than that, to when I first read A Room With a View and Enchanted April, watched old Fellini movies and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday). There are few places on earth that I love as much as I love the sunbaked earth of Italy, criss-crossed with endless rows of grapevines and gnarled olive trees over rolling hills. I went back again last summer and found myself even more deeply in love than I ever thought possible. The Florence of my memory intoxicated me all over again; new places like the wild Abruzzi and the windswept Cinque Terre were discovered and loved. I will go back again and again and know that, as for Conroy, this country will never let me down, will never cease to dazzle me.
It was Italy that taught me that cuisine is part of the place that it comes from and therefore must be consumed in situ to have meaning. (Likewise it took me years to make my parents understand that it wasn't Chinese food I didn't like, but Chinese food in America). That zuppe di pesce at a restaurant on Capri will never be as good anywhere else; it is part of a lost time and can only remain a distant, brilliant memory, fresh sweet fish in a tomato broth scented with saffron and served with crisp garlic-rubbed croutons. Last July in a tiny town whose name I cannot remember, in a tiny restaurant where there were few other customers (there certainly were no other foreign tourists), we ate fresh ricotta spread on slices of crusty bread. I have not tried this at home, because I know it will not be the same, cannot be.
The other night at dinner my father mentioned how he was always searching for the perfect spaghetti alle vongole, spaghetti in white clam sauce. I have only had one that fit that description. It was a summer evening, our last evening in Italy (the first time); we were in the town of Formia, where our friend's mother lived. We had dinner outside on the terrace of a restaurant that A. and her family knew well, under a canopy of twinkling lights. I remember the pasta with clams that tasted of the sea, a cool white wine that was like drinking the sunlight of a summer day. We took a bottle back home with us, opened it on another summer night. But the magic was gone, and it was now merely an ordinary white wine, although a very good one; what made it special was the atmosphere, the feel of that summer evening in Italy under the stars, a moment that will never be recreated...