In looking at the fundamentals of Italian cooking there are so many things to consider. To me it all seems to start and end with emotion, memory, and taste. Not classically trained in the culinary arts, I launched into Italian cooking via my emotions, memory, and tastes. It seems that most of us fall into this category. To this day I remember the first thing I made from my first Italian cookbook, Marcella Hazan’s infamous tomato sauce with onion and butter. The first taste blew me away and took me back to Italy. It sealed the deal for me. I had found what I was looking for… an avenue to create wonderful emotions, memories, flavors, and aromas for my family, friends, and strangers. By providence alone I stumbled upon this passion of mine, and I set off to learn Italian cooking.
It all started two years ago when I left our little town on Whidbey Island and moved to the mainland of Washington. The town of Coupeville, WA had a wonderful Neapolitan pizzeria called Ciao. My family and I dined there weekly and enjoyed the flavors and aromas of Italy being recreated in this small restaurant. The place was run by a warm and generous gentleman that attempted to create in America a real Neapolitan pizza joint (he was trained in Italy and even had his cooks trained there). The center of interest of course was the forno. The pizzas that came out of it were authentic. They elicited all of my fondest emotions, memories, and tastes from my travels to Italy. Eating there triggered memories of my mid-day quests for Italian pizza walking the streets of Roma, Firenze, Milano, Elba, and so on. When we relocated to Bellingham, I went in search of a comparable pizza. There were many fine pizza places that the locals raved about, but for me they fell short of evoking old memories, emotions, and tastes of real Italian pizza. I mourned the absence of what I experienced at Ciao and found myself making the near 2 hour trip back there just to get my fix. To overcome the commute, I took on the challenge of trying to recreate this gem in my own kitchen with a desire to create some lasting emotional memories for my girls.
A favorite of mine in the culinary world is Patricia Gray; her writing is something I can get my teeth into emotionally. She is a lovely story teller of traditional Italian cooking that is filled with the raw emotion of the land, ingredients, and dishes. She says, in regards to the cooking of a traditional Italian meal, that ‘An emotional element is involved’– all the way from the hunting or gathering to the prepping, cooking, and serving of the meal- it is an emotional experience.
A meal really is an emotional experience. In the end, you and your family will either like a dish, a meal, or a restaurant based upon emotion. This includes your experience with the food, the service, the environment, and so on. The emotion that is related to that dish will remain! Just ask my kids… they still fault me for serving some 3 day old white fish that we all spit out on the first bite. To this day they are not too fond of white fish.
Yes, cooking certainly involves science and intellectualism. One should take time to learn and understand this side of cooking. However, science and intellectualism alone will only take you so far in the culinary world. One needs to move into the deeper realms of their psyche to explore the emotions related to food they are preparing. Otherwise, there is the risk that the dish may come out wrong, lacking, or worse yet, too ‘perfect’. Marcella Hazan said it best when she said that cooking must be more than just technique ‘because technique alone does not communicate anything.‘
Just think back to your favorite childhood dish, dinner, or holiday meal, and immediately your senses are flooded with memories and emotions. For me it will always be autumn when our small apple orchard was ripe for picking and my mom baked apple pies and strudels, and my family pressed homemade apple cider. Those memories, emotions, and tastes are locked away in my nostalgic memory bank. I can still smell the ripeness of the apples in the kitchen, the mixing of the dough, and the freshly baked pies cooling on the counter. I will always connect apples and apple pies with emotions of happiness, love, tenderness, and memories of me and my brothers devouring all of our mom’s hard work in mere minutes! Thanksgiving and Christmas meals and all of their fare were also deeply impressionable for me. What are your memories? Take some time and explore them. I would love to hear about them.
I love the word nostalgia when it comes to cooking, and think the two are always interconnected. Its definition is, a longing for things, persons, or situations that are not present (think holidays, birthdays, summer BBQ); and an even simpler definition, homesickness! It comes from a Greek word, nostos, meaning a return home. That is why nostalgia plays such an important role in cooking – it is in our genes, blood, psyche, and so on – humans have returned home each day to gather together and eat food.
There was even a scientific study that showed the power of cooking and memory by Baker, Karrer, and Veeck, in which they identified the ‘three nostalgia-related associations connected to recipes’:
- Recipes as part of ritual (holidays, sagras, healing)
- Recipes as part of family construction and continuity (generational passing down of family recipes, heirlooms, and bringing family together each night)
- Recipes as part of self (happy or memorable events from your childhood) and social/ethnic groups (Italian, Hispanic, Jewish)
So often, I find myself in the kitchen pondering what I should make this evening, and I seem to always find myself going to my memory bank looking for ideas I saw online or in a new book, things I tasted before at other restaurants, foods from a distant past when I last traveled to Italy, or even pulling on ideas from deep in the world’s sub-conscious. It is in the memory storehouse that I can pull forth the richness and history of a recipe, be it something I know by heart or something that is new.
Take for example, ragu alla bolognese. It originated from Bologna, Italy and the first documented recipe dates back to 1891. This dish is known throughout the world and evokes in almost everyone who has tasted it in its purest form such blissful memories of tagliatelle al ragu or lasagne alla bolognese. The cool thing about this dish is it has so much NOSTALGIA linked to it: it has been served at family gatherings and events for centuries, it has a myriad of different family recipes past down from generation to generation, and it is packed with an infinite amount of memorable memories across the world. That is a lot of nostalgia, in one simple dish that a cook can tap into and access if he or she is willing to!
I remember clearly making my first lasagne alla bolognese. I was in the kitchen almost the entire day making from scratch the ragu, béchamel sauce, and noodles. The pure joy of serving something that I reached deep into to try and pull forth its long nostalgic past was exhilarating. Then when I heard my wife exclaim it is exactly how she remembers it being cooked by one of her old Italian boyfriend’s mother, I was elated. I had not only followed exactly the long detailed recipe of this dish, but I had brought forth a dish that evoked in someone the emotions, memories, and taste of something from the past.
Your taste buds are an expansive and powerful storehouse that once awakened, or utilized, will be one of your strongest allies in your kitchen. They can inform you immediately if something is fresh, good, off, old, stale, or even poisonous. When you taste something you are actually ‘touching’ with both your sense of taste and smell; and your sense of smell plays a very large role in your emotional realm of tasting and remembering. Try plugging your nose next time you go to taste something you are cooking- you may be surprised how lacking it is! Taste may trump everything you do in the kitchen and it is worth it to work at developing it- just don’t taste with your mouth though- SMELL everything, at every stage of its development. Give it some time and you will find your sense of taste/smell helping you out more and more. Finally, something to ponder upon: if taste is not one of the most important things in cooking, why does every recipe in the world state: salt to taste?