As an expatriate living in Italy, I often find myself in the awkward position of defending American customs. Tonight’s dinner party will be no different.
My partner Diego and I are enjoying spaghetti allo scoglio with shrimp, mussels, fresh tomato and garlic, at the home of friends Laura and Franco. We’re washing it down with a crisp white Corvo from Sicily. The supermarket wine we brought has been diplomatically stowed away.
We talk about the Venice film festival, the books we’ve read recently and the absurdity of Italian politics. I try to steer away from certain subjects—religion, globalization, socialized medicine—but dinner conversations have a mind of their own.
“So how were the summer holidays?” Franco says.
I take a deep breath. “Fine.” Everybody knows we go to the States in the summer.
He clears his throat. “Tell me something,” he says studying the wine swirling in his glass. “What would you say is a typical dish from your region?” Forks in mid-air, all eyes are on me.
Coastal Carolina. Seafood comes to mind.
“Hmm. Seafood,” Franco says. “How is it prepared? Baked? Grilled? With pasta?”
His wife Laura picks up where he left off. “Risotto, bisque, chowder…”
“Fried?” they sing in unison.
Yes, fried. In Italy, frying seafood is a crime against nature.
Franco snickers. “Anything else?”
Chicken, I start to say, but that’s usually fried, too. A bead of sweat creeps over my ribs. Ham? But how will a Virginia pork hindquarter measure up to the noble prosciutto and ilk?
Moon Pie? Vienna sausage? Streak-o-lean?
Laura moves in for the kill and suggests thinking of a national dish, in lieu of a regional one. Last dinner party, she asked me if Americans knew who Alexandre Dumas was.
National. Of course! Turkey. How many movies had they seen with American families proudly carving a bird the size of a third grader and gorging on Day-Glo peas and carrots? That will shut them up for at least five minutes. Until Thanksgiving, Native Americans and genocide creep into the conversation.
Why am I doing this? Why not send up the epicurean white flag with, “you know, hot dogs and hamburgers,” and see their faces light up. It’s what they want to hear anyway.
Franco says, “I was watching a documentary on obesity in the United States recently. Do you know they actually eat canned pasta there?” After the collective gasp, he adds, “in tomato sauce!”
Everyone is staring at me. I could feign ignorance, but my crimson cheeks would give me away. If they ever find about those 1970s soups with miniature sirloin burgers, I’ll have to leave the country. But I won’t have to go to any more of these dinner parties.
* * *
You’re standing in Pontida Square in the heart of Bergamo, the city where I live. Merchants have sold goods for at least seven centuries beneath these medieval arches. As you can see, nothing has changed. Whether a girdle or an antique radio, these shops have anything your heart desires.
Take Macelleria da Antonio—Antonio’s Fresh Meats—for instance. That bruise-colored organ in the window tipping the scales at four pounds is an ox tongue. And it comes in two mouthwatering flavors: regular and corned. Shall we go inside? Buon giorno, Signor Antonio. See those purplish bodies lined up on that tray? They’re quails. And the speckled miniature ping-pong balls, their eggs.
Let’s move on to the spare parts counter. Need a kidney? A shinbone? A lower intestine? Could a stewed cow’s tail be just the dish to brighten your next dinner party? Or perhaps you would like a heaping plate of boiled chicken entrails—Diego’s favorite. If you’re lucky, it will be a hen, complete with ovarian tract and unformed egg.
The last time I set foot in a butcher shop was at one of the Alpine lakes nearby. I needed a chicken for roasting. The counter was empty. The butcher said, “Come back in an hour.” I did. I picked up my carefully wrapped parcel. It was still warm. The butcher had kindly thought to leave on the bird’s head and its rust-colored feathers as proof of freshness.
I am a hypocrite, but I want meat products sitting on a white styrofoam tray with plastic wrap and a best by date. I do not need to be reminded that just hours ago, my dinner was clucking around on a garbage heap with a bird’s-eye view of Lake Iseo.
* * *
Another dinner party. My friend Susanna is from the Valle d’Aosta area, known for its pristine mountains and gastronomic heritage. Like me, she is still attached to her native land, so she invited me over for some specialties from that region.
We had wild porcini preserved in oil and spices, thinly sliced ham with local honey over slabs of crusty bread, sanguinaccio blood salami made with beets and potatoes, fresh tomino cheese, a salad of arugula, apple slices and walnuts, topped off with a fondue of milk, eggs and fontina cheese, and glasses brimming with regional wine in the warmth of her gorgeous 17th century home.
Amidst a chorus of oohs and aahs, my taste buds covertly craved a plate of tangy Southern barbecue. It is not an acquired taste. You must learn to love it at an early age. Otherwise, what adult in their right mind would ever touch this gray pork product?
While we’re at it, make mine a combo plate with barbecued pork and fried chicken. Since too much protein is bad for you, I’ll have a side of cole slaw to cut the grease. And how about a deep-fried hushpuppy or six for healthy hair, skin and nails? Drown all of this in buckets of ice tea so sweet my dentist will name his private island in the Maldives after me. As a culinary coup de grâce, let’s indulge in a dish of banana pudding. Is there one soul on the Italian peninsula brave enough to touch this warm creation of wet vanilla wafers and baked bananas?
When I am called to meet my Maker, all I ask is that a combo plate be buried with me to ensure safe passage into the afterlife. Hopefully there will be a barbecue joint up there where I can enjoy this meal in the company of fellow Southerners with ample waves of body fat. We will sit at tables with woodgrain tops and ladder-back chairs, and prop our elbows on paper placemats decorated with Carolina lighthouses. I will stand for nothing less than empty Texas Pete bottles filled with toothpicks, ruby-colored plastic tumblers for ice water and silverware tightly rolled in a paper napkin, all basking in the celestial glow of fluorescent lighting.
Who knows? Maybe I’ll bump into Franco and Laura, just as they are sitting down to a lavish feast of Manhandler soup, supermarket wine and banana pudding. Then we can all enjoy our just deserts together.