After my second year of college I decided to take time off studies and moved to Italy. In short, I had an epiphany while on a mushroom-induced psychedelic trip.
It was a perfect sunny spring weekend and while most of the other students were wasted on cheap beer, I was blissfully prancing through Brown’s ivy-clad campus and many other of the whimsical corners of the east side of Providence with my roommate. I think it was in a museum garden when the epiphany took form. It became incredibly clear to me that I needed to write about life and love, which needed to be learned from experience itself, that is, not from academia alone.
Knowing that I was going to live in a foreign country without the financial aid of my parents was understood as part of the schema. I would set out with the few thousand dollars I had saved up from a summer working for my dad’s carpet business and the bat-mitzvah money I had received from family and friends when I was 13. I would find work to further support myself for the year.
I assumed I’d go to Mexico as I had spent several summers as a supervisor of community health projects there. But the day after I told my parents, and hence the day after my mother’s reactionary conniption, my mom had a fateful chance encounter that informed her of a live-work opportunity for an English speaking student- in Rome.
Italy was not even on my radar. That I had been studying Italian language for two years did not even factor into my destination-daydreaming. I thought all Italians dressed in Armani and drove Ferraris- a clear contradiction to my sloppy 20-year-old self.
At the beginning of this sojourn, and only because everything I had planned had totally crumbled as soon as I got there, I found myself for one month in the farmhouse villa of a high school friend’s family. Good thing I went to boarding school where people’s families just happened to have villas in Tuscany or I would not have had the following food experience that changed the course of my life.
I was there all alone in the huge cold stone main house. The caretakers Maria and Roberto had their own separate apartment and Maria often came in to check on me, wanting to make me food. I kindly refused.
The kitchen was superb and I couldn’t wait to play in there. A huge antique wood table topped with marble in the center. Dark Italian wood cupboards. Completely modern appliances and a view from the windows of the expansive Chianti vineyards and cypress lined dirt road leading to the house. I had never had a kitchen all to myself and I didn’t even really know how to cook. I had been eating in school dining halls for the last 5 years and in my house, growing up, if you wanted to eat you had to fend for yourself with Stouffer’s frozen mac n’ cheese and Lean Cuisine chicken in a bag. My specialty was corn tortilla pizza with a spoonful of canned spaghetti sauce and a slice of muenster cheese bubbled to perfection in the toaster oven.
However in Geggianello, the name of the estate, cooking was pure alchemy of the gods. Every single thing I made was the most amazing thing I had ever eaten. The ingredients were naturally so good that in all honesty it was impossible to mess them up. It didn’t matter what I did, perfection was inevitable. Each tomato was so sweet that my pasta sauce embodied such a sumptuousness that I couldn’t help but drink half of it before the pasta was even cooked. I made a dessert by cutting up a pear, cooking it in just a little water and a small handful of the dark purple chianti grapes I picked directly off the vine. I don’t have words to describe the taste itself, but the image of the velvety purple juices bleeding their way down the pears is forever etched in my memory. I don’t know what else I made in there, but I am telling you, God left me in that kitchen for a purpose. And, almost fifteen years later, that purpose is now being shared with many others in Los Angeles and around the world.
In order to learn how to cook well, you must first eat well. And when Jen’s parents’ Irene and Malcolm came into town, everything changed. I was now sharing the house with its rightful owners. Even though I barely knew them previously, I was actually very happy to have the company. Dark nights in a stone house can be lonely and I did break out in tears a few times. Roberto had to drive me one night to a payphone in front of the dinky bar in Ponte a Bozzone to call my mom in the States because the phone lines were dead and in 1995 Italy that’s like a three week process to fix, if you’re lucky.
My access to the kitchen was curtailed as Maria now cooked three meals a day for us. I was sad about that for about an hour. Everything Maria made was and is still the best thing I have ever eaten. I know I said that about my experiments before, and that was true...until I started eating Maria’s food. My food was nothing in comparison. She knew how to use these ingredients and make them all sing the same chord. Ribollita (Tuscan vegetable soup baked in the oven over day old bread), vegetable puddings, these little nouvelle potatoes with rosemary (she swears that only potatoes, olive oil, rosemary and salt are in them and yet I have never been able to make them nearly as good), spaghetti with a simple tomato sauce that she preserves before summer’s end and a meat sauce that will make every nerve of your body dance. Her chicken liver crostini al vin santo is the basis for my definition of good food: It makes you want to roll on the floor shouting MAMMMMMMMMAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!
Maria’s food became the standard by which I still aspire to make all food. I am not there yet. In all fairness, she’s working with ingredients grown in Tuscany and I am doing the best I can with what can be found in the U.S. With some money, you can find better ingredients, but nothing can buy the rich mineral dirt that produces the stuff Italian food is made of. Furthermore, Maria was close to 60 when I met her at Geggianello. So she has a lot of years on me; she has had more time in the kitchen.
But most importantly, she can hear the ingredients better than I can. Her mother and her mother’s mother and her mother’s mother’s mother all cooked with these same ingredients. She was born eating food made from Tuscan ingredients and grew up intimately getting to know their flavors, their textures, and their moods, unlike me who grew up thinking American Cheese was actually cheese.
I now dedicate my life to teaching women of different generations to cook like Maria. Specifically, I am referring to the way Maria adds love to her food so that it is not only tasted, but felt. It is my belief that cooking in this way can bring significant healing to our society at large. Food is a primal need and a channel that we must open in order to cultivate peace, consciousness and wellbeing. What I learned in Italy is that cooking is not a step by step process of putting one food with another. It is an integration of the senses, the emotions, the body and soul, as well as a connection to history and family. All food should bring us back “home.”
For those wondering, that was my only mushroom trip. I never touched them again. Not because I didn’t have a blast and value the epiphany, but rather because the message was so powerful I fear taking it for granted. That wondrous day led me to the literal and figurative Mamma Italia which in turn led me to a lifetime of work and experiences that are still unfolding.
Want to take cooking classes with Elana in Los Angeles? Go to mealandaspiel.com.