Maria’s birthday party
Maria turned four two months ago but today is her birthday party. There are balloons bobbing on the chain link fence and semis and trailers line the property. This must be the place. Young, clean-cut güeys started drinking hours ago and banda blasts from car stereos. They refill their plastic cups with Coke and bottles kept in bags and everywhere kids are running: costumed Annas and Tinkerbells and Spidermans, so many bouncing in the pink princess castle that I wonder who is going to get hurt. The neighbour’s ostriches are loitering by the fence, ruffling their feathers like they don’t know what’s happening. I don’t know why they keep ostriches here in cattle country. We don’t know anyone, I’m not sure why we’re invited. Maria looks shy and confused most of the time but smiles when anyone compliments her dress. On the terrace with the tables and chairs, there’s an ostrich, stuffed, squatting on the counter, its huge claws stretching out in front. Its head is twisted backwards looking at the ceiling over its back, and it was probably done by the local vet who moonlights as a taxidermist and is remarkably cheap and mediocre at both. The same vet once gave me a fully-grown, white-eyed Alaskan Malamute named Nicky whose previous owner had paid 15,000 pesos for him but couldn’t keep him anymore because they tore down the house where Nicky had lived on the rooftop. We eat carnitas and frijoles guisados. The warm tortillas wrapped in tinfoil are next to the plate with chopped cilantro and onion, quartered limes and habanero slices. A young guy tips more tequila in his cup and leans over to tell us that one of the ostriches could be ridden. You just have to pat it on the head and it squats down. “I don’t know, or maybe it was that one,” he says nodding at the stuffed bird, before adding, “The dogs killed it.” Kids ravage the piñatas but the drinkers and other teenage moms snatch the candy because they’re taller and faster than the kids. I watch Maria open presents of cheap Barbie knock-offs and a China-made kiddie make-up kit with bright pink powders and chemical red lipsticks. I give Maria some picture books, like I do on all her birthdays and at Christmas, and I hope that we get invited every year. And like it or not she’ll be a kid with stories.
In Italy, cooking & life
My first year at university was a culinary nightmare.
I learned to cook by heating up microwave meals
or anything one-step and fast and easy,
squeezed in between work and classes and pub
nights with friends or court times for squash,
before falling exhausted into a bed piled high with unfolded laundry.
And then I spent a year in southern Italy.
The stove was no longer a beast to be feared
and I discovered the Italian way of eating
was as much about the process as the consumption.
It seemed the Italian approach to the Italian meal
lives within the divine inspiration of the Italian kitchen.
For every recipe, there may be a different process—
a generational secret method, really, which varies
from house to house, and even if the end result
of the meal seems to be the same, the family members will swear
their mamma makes it come Dio comanda.
And, Sundays were meant for eating.
Cracking open a bottle of local red wine,
our Sunday lunch started with an antipasto:
Cherry tomatoes on the vine from the outdoor market,
still smelling sweet and earthy from the garden
they had come from just the day before.
Cutting tomatoes into chunks, toasting the
day old bread in the ancient creaky oven;
finely dicing garlic and spicy sweet basil,
and a drop of salt, and loading it all on the toast.
Gently spooning extra-virgin cold-pressed olive oil
(preferably made by the old man who lives down the street
and has the orchard at the end of town where the salt flats
of Margherita di Savoia run towards Trinitapoli but any
Italian olive oil will do in a pinch), drizzle it
over the whole thing. Put the tray in the oven
for a few more minutes until it is warm and sit down
with another glass of red wine. The main course is pasta
or risotto and the weeks we are poor, it is only
a simple tomato sauce; on more ambitious days
we will make a zucchini frittata or saffron risotto or
homemade pizza with sfolgia pastry.
The secondo piatto is next, always served
on separate plates, and we prepare fish
or whatever vegetable is in season and is cheap.
Everything is sopped up with scarpette—
the little ‘shoes’ of bread, and each course
is accompanied with wine. On special days
we would buy the special dolci for dessert.
Then a fruit plate. Then a fine little espresso
coffee from the stovetop moka. And then,
on occasion, someone would make a run
down to Bar Francesco across the street
to buy little cups of digestivi, a limoncello
or Strega. A Sunday meal takes all day.
At first my North American upbringing chafed
at the unhurried pace and I had to struggle to find
ways to fill my time—that rankling feeling,
needing to do something, or be entertained somehow.
Finally, when there was nothing to do but to surrender
to the sweet-slow, the afternoon would pass,
lazy and dreamy and gentle, sitting on the balcony
to read or watch the quiet afternoon traffic—
the man and his donkey cart loaded with watermelons,
and as the afternoon sun faded before a new work week,
we’d drink wine on the roof terrace and watch
the Adriatic darken, grey to indigo to black.