Home Cook­ing

Look­ing to ex­plore the in­ter­sec­tion of food and fam­ily, Jan Wong heads to Italy with her son

Reader's Digest (Canada) - - Contents - FROM APRON STRINGS

Look­ing to ex­plore the in­ter­sec­tion of food and fam­ily, Jan Wong heads to Italy with her son.

I couldn’t be­lieve my luck. As our train slid through the Alps on a win­ter morn­ing in 2016, I re­garded my son with won­der. Some­how, I had man­aged to con­vince Sam, 22, to join me on a jour­ney to learn home cook­ing with com­plete strangers in my three favourite foodie coun­tries: Italy, France and China.

At first, my youngest son had hes­i­tated. “Um,” he said when I broached the idea, his face scruffy with day­old stub­ble. He was in our kitchen in Toronto, gulp­ing a glass of or­ange juice be­fore he cy­cled off to his job mak­ing sal­ads and deep-fry­ing minidough­nuts at a neigh­bour­hood BBQ joint. The end­less hours with me were a con­cern. Would we get along?

Af­ter he left for work, I pon­dered the “um.” It wasn’t a flat re­jec­tion, but his body lan­guage had not been en­cour­ag­ing—shoul­ders hunched, eyes dart­ing side­ways, knees jig­gling.

I am a jour­nal­ist turned jour­nal­ism pro­fes­sor. Now, I get sab­bat­i­cals. My first six-month sab­bat­i­cal be­stowed that biggest lux­ury of all for a jour­nal­ist: time. Time to write an­other book. About food. About travel. Maybe about Sam?

I’ve al­ways been a foodie. I’m the grand­daugh­ter and daugh­ter of restau­ra­teurs. In the 1930s, my ma­ter­nal grand­mother ran a restau­rant in the small On­tario town of Wood­stock. My fa­ther’s flag­ship restau­rant, Bill Wong’s, was a Mon­treal land­mark. In the ’50s, Dad had opened the first Chi­nese restau­rant out­side the safe con­fines of Chi­na­town in what was then Canada’s largest city. An en­gi­neer by pro­fes­sion, my fa­ther couldn’t cook to save his life, but he was a savvy busi­ness­man who hired the

best chef he could find from our an­ces­tral vil­lage back in China and, cru­cially, made him a part­ner. Dad even­tu­ally owned five restau­rants.

I PON­DERED WHAT shape the book should take and how to re­search it. I spoke French and Man­darin. I told my­self I could en­roll in a crash course in Ital­ian at my uni­ver­sity. I con­sid­ered cook­ing schools but quickly dis­carded the idea. The cui­sine pro­gram at Cor­don Bleu in Paris took nine months and cost $44,000. In con­trast, in Tus­cany, many courses lasted only four or five days and seemed de­signed and priced for rich Amer­i­can tourists.

I wanted to learn home cook­ing. I wanted to know how reg­u­lar peo­ple made din­ner and if, in this times­tarved world, they were still sit­ting down to eat with their fam­i­lies. I wanted to know how the pol­i­tics and eco­nomics of glob­al­iza­tion had af­fected what they ate. Un­like cook­ing schools, you can’t Google “or­di­nary fam­ily” and find some­one who loves to cook and is will­ing to take in a to­tal stranger.

So, ever the jour­nal­ist, I worked my con­tacts. A Chi­nese friend who lived in Shang­hai said she could set me up with rich pals and I could cook with their maids. A Bri­tish friend who owned a coun­try home in Italy rec­om­mended his neigh­bour. That left France, where my older son, Ben, con­nected us with a fam­ily he’d stayed with while study­ing in Lyon.

This was go­ing to be a long trip, and I hoped Sam would be my com­pan­ion. He was flu­ent in French and

YOU CAN’T JUST GOOGLE “OR­DI­NARY FAM­ILY” AND FIND SOME­ONE WHO LOVES TO COOK AND IS WILL­ING TO TAKE YOU IN.

had a work­ing knowl­edge of Man­darin af­ter spend­ing his third year of uni­ver­sity in Tai­wan. More im­por­tant, he was ob­sessed with food.

As a tod­dler, Sam liked hang­ing around the kitchen. As soon as he and Ben were out of strollers, my hus­band, Nor­man, and I would take them on fam­ily trips to France and Italy, where the biggest tourist at­trac­tion was usu­ally lunch. Sam had worked in restau­rants that ranged from a hole-in-the-wall café to a French bistro to a pri­vate golf club to re­mote fire­fight­ing camps in north­ern Al­berta. He could carve

roasts, prep sal­ads, slow-cook ribs, make pizza and whip up as­para­gus risotto for 100 wed­ding guests. Now he was grad­u­at­ing from uni­ver­sity with a de­gree in phi­los­o­phy, quite sure he never wanted to spend an­other day in a classroom. Sam wanted to be a cook.

To be hon­est, the real rea­son for the project was so I could spend more time with Sam. When he was a small child, he would lit­er­ally jump for joy when I re­turned home from work. As I watched him grow into an in­de­pen­dent adult, I sensed our mother-son bond evolv­ing, stretch­ing, even thin­ning out. He was cur­rently un­at­tached, with­out a steady job or ro­man­tic part­ner. It seemed pos­si­ble that this might be my last chance to cook with Sam, to ride next to him on planes, trains and au­to­mo­biles, to eat hun­dreds of con­sec­u­tive meals to­gether.

Sam even­tu­ally agreed to the trip. Though he was ner­vous about be­ing in­volved in one of my writ­ing projects, his friends told him he would be crazy to turn the op­por­tu­nity down. WHEN SAM AND I ar­rived in Turin, the cap­i­tal of the Pied­mont re­gion in north­ern Italy, we wan­dered around the train sta­tion hunt­ing for our car-rental agency. Ev­ery­thing had closed for lunch. Down a de­serted side street, we spot­ted a po­lice sta­tion. When I ap­proached the sen­try, he did not smile. “Parli italiano?” he snapped. I could tell what he was think­ing: Of course you don’t, you stupid tourists.

“Un poco,” I said.

Sud­denly he smiled and rat­tled off the di­rec­tions. A de­stra, a sin­is­tra. Thanks to the be­gin­ner’s Ital­ian course I had taken (and to high­school Latin), I un­der­stood! To the right, to the left.

At the agency, we chose a Smart Car and rented a GPS—a wise move be­cause we had to find our way from down­town Turin, a city of 4.4 mil­lion peo­ple, to Repergo, a dot of a ham­let.

Repergo was an hour’s drive south on the au­toroute, but we weren’t sup­posed to ar­rive at our rental farm­house un­til later in the af­ter­noon. I pro­posed we use the ex­tra time and

THE SU­PER­MAR­KET LOOKED OR­DI­NARY BUT WAS BET­TER THAN THE FAN­CI­EST

GOURMET SHOP IN NEW YORK.

take the scenic route. We could stop for lunch at some quaint trat­to­ria along the way.

The sky was a bril­liant blue. The old high­way passed through town af­ter town. Fi­nally, at 3 p.m., we stopped at a road­side pizze­ria as it was shut­ting down—just like ev­ery other place in sight. We had just missed the na­tional 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Ital­ian lunch “hour.”

“We’d bet­ter get gro­ceries,” Sam said, think­ing ahead. “There might not be any place to eat in Repergo.”

He pulled into a su­per­me­r­cato off the high­way that looked or­di­nary from the out­side but was bet­ter than the fan­ci­est gourmet shop in New York. The su­per­mar­ket sold a dozen kinds of ar­ti­sanal but­ter, five va­ri­eties of ar­ti­chokes and about 30 types of olives. I chose a small block of but­ter wrapped in parch­ment paper and sealed with me­tal grom­mets. We bought the orig­i­nal bologna, gen­uine mor­tadella from Bologna. In­tensely yel­low lemons, from the Amalfi coast, came with shiny green leaves in­tact. At the deli counter, Sam or­dered pick­led red onions and mar­i­nated eel from Naples. Next we se­lected a bunch of dewy fresh puntarelle, a kind of over­grown arugula. We also stocked up on wine, spicy an­tipasti, crusty bread, her­itage toma­toes, dried spaghetti and a jar of pas­sata, the strained raw toma­toes that are the base of many pasta sauces. PIED­MONT, ON THE frilly top left of the Ital­ian boot, was the spring­board for Italy’s uni­fi­ca­tion in the 19th cen­tury. Af­ter Si­cily, it was the sec­ond largest of Italy’s 20 dis­tinct re­gions. Fa­mous for its white truf­fles and bold red wines, such as Barolo, Bar­baresco and Bar­bera, the re­gion was also the epi­cen­tre of Italy’s famed slow food move­ment. Launched in the late 1980s, its avowed mis­sion is to pre­serve tra­di­tional cui­sine, a call to arms sparked by the open­ing of Italy’s first McDon­ald’s.

Maria Rosa, the neigh­bour of my Bri­tish friend Ash­ley, at first had flatly re­fused his sug­ges­tion that she teach Sam and me. Aside from the bother, she wor­ried that she wasn’t a good enough cook. Ash­ley, a former diplo­mat, was re­lent­less, and Maria Rosa even­tu­ally caved. That af­ter­noon, with the help of the GPS, Sam drove through the steep, twist­ing hills of Pied­mont to Maria Rosa’s vil­lage of Repergo.

“This is just like a video game,” he en­thused as he whipped around a hair­pin turn. “Do you know what they call this?” I didn’t. “God’s race­track.” I closed my eyes. Then I opened them be­cause I didn’t want to miss the scenery—the fa­mous vine­yards of Neb­bi­olo grapes. The wind­ing roads ended abruptly as we de­scended into a gen­tle val­ley and drove past farm fields and more vine­yards. At 4 p.m. we ar­rived at Vigneti Brichet,

the win­ery owned and op­er­ated by Maria Rosa’s cousin Mirella. She and her hus­band, Beppe, were rent­ing us a farm­house.

I rang the bell out­side a tall wrought-iron fence. Af­ter a mo­ment, the elec­tronic gate swung open. We drove into an empty park­ing lot big enough for 20 cars. A slim young man with a shock of dark hair in­vited us into the fer­men­ta­tion work­shop and of­fered us espresso, which we grate­fully ac­cepted. He was Alessan­dro, Mirella and Beppe’s 29-year-old son. As we sipped our espresso, his aunt, Maria Rosa, sud­denly ap­peared. Al­though we’d met only over Skype, she gave Sam and me warm hugs and an­nounced we would be cook­ing din­ner at her house shortly.

But first Alessan­dro led us to the farm­house, a short walk down the road. In Eng­lish, he ex­plained that he lived on the main floor and that we had the en­tire top floor. From a small bal­cony, I could see me­dieval hill­side vil­lages. Be­low were gnarly leaf­less grapevines, dark as coal. To my right, I could touch an al­mond tree.

MARIA ROSA LIVED a five-minute walk away. The ad­vent of su­per­high­ways and su­per­me­r­cati had drained the lifeblood of Repergo (pop­u­la­tion 201). Aside from Alessan­dro’s fam­ily win­ery, the only busi­ness in the vil­lage was a butcher store. There was nowhere to buy milk or bread. There was no post of­fice or phar­macy or espresso bar. The last pizze­ria was gone. The lo­cal el­e­men­tary school had shut down 20 years ear­lier. Repergo ex­em­pli­fied Italy’s de­clin­ing birth rate, among the low­est in the world. One in 10 Repergh­ese was a widow or wi­d­ower.

Maria Rosa’s fa­ther, Giuseppe, was one of them. A re­tired au­toworker, he was 79 and in poor health. Stoop­shoul­dered and di­a­betic, he used a walker. While he seemed dod­der­ing, he was sharp as a tack, ever on the alert against bur­glars and thieves. In sum­mer, he would sit on the warm ter­race be­side the gar­den. In win­ter, he sat in the bright sun­light by a win­dow over­look­ing the gar­den.

Ev­ery­one re­spect­fully called Giuseppe “Nonno” (grand­fa­ther). He owned the house, a large 19th­cen­tury yel­low stucco build­ing with a Juliet bal­cony, 12 rooms on three storeys and grey ter­razzo floors. To me, the house was lovely, but Maria Rosa dis­liked it. She and her hus­band owned a mod­ern apart­ment in Mon­te­grosso d’Asti, a nearby town. They had moved here with their daugh­ter, Chiara, to care for Nonno af­ter he broke his fe­mur in a fall.

How long ago was that? “Nine years,” said Maria Rosa, sigh­ing and look­ing heav­en­ward. At 48, she wore no makeup and dressed ca­su­ally in a puffy black jacket, V-neck sweater and jeans. Nonno had cut his fin­ger ear­lier

that day while slic­ing some stale fo­cac­cia. “He was greedy,” said Chiara, laugh­ing. Nonno gave an ex­ag­ger­ated good-na­tured shrug. When Maria Rosa, a nurse, had got­ten home from work that af­ter­noon, she’d taken one look at his bleed­ing fin­ger and called ahead to her col­leagues in the emer­gency room. She drove back to her hospi­tal in Asti, 20 min­utes away. Nonno had re­ceived three stitches and now waited pa­tiently for din­ner, his fin­ger swathed in white gauze.

Nonno’s house bor­dered Via Repergo, the main street, with­out even a strip of side­walk to sep­a­rate it from the oc­ca­sional car. Decades ago, his fa­ther, a builder and a farmer, had taken ad­van­tage of the prime lo­ca­tion to op­er­ate a small con­ve­nience store from the kitchen win­dow. Passersby had only to shout, and some­one in the fam­ily would fling open the wooden shut­ters, lean out and sell a pack­age of to­bacco or some sugar. The kitchen it­self was small and nar­row, open­ing onto a large room that in Canada would have been a com­bi­na­tion liv­ing and din­ing room. In Italy, it was solely ded­i­cated to the art of eat­ing. There was a sofa on which no one sat. In­stead, fam­ily and friends al­ways gath­ered around a square ta­ble that sat six com­fort­ably but could be ex­panded to ac­com­mo­date twice that num­ber by push­ing to­gether an as­sort­ment of old desks and smaller ta­bles un­til they formed one giant rec­tan­gle.

Chiara, a wil­lowy beauty who had just turned 17, stud­ied Eng­lish at school. She shyly in­sisted she could not speak a word—un­til she re­al­ized

WHAT KIND OF MEAT WAS IN THE SAUCE? “ASINO,” CHIARA RE­PEATED. THEN SHE

AND HER MOTHER BE­GAN BRAY­ING.

I’d had only one term of Ital­ian, and Sam none at all. She plucked up her courage to speak oc­ca­sional words and then whole phrases in Eng­lish. Luck­ily Sam picked up new words at light­ning speed. By the end of our first evening, we man­aged to com­mu­ni­cate. Maria Rosa planned to teach us Pied­mont’s most fa­mous dishes, in­clud­ing bagna càuda (a fon­due of gar­lic, an­chovies and olive oil in which veg­eta­bles are dipped) and carne cruda (the French em­brace it as steak tartare). But be­cause she had worked all day and then took Nonno to get stitches, that first evening we

pre­pared a less labour-in­ten­sive meal. As she ex­plained the or­der of the courses, I re­al­ized that Italy was gov­erned by food rules. Our first din­ner would un­fold in a tra­di­tional se­quence: an­tipasti, a pasta, a sec­ondo of meat (which was re­ally the third course, if you counted the ap­pe­tizer as a first), dolce, fresh fruit and caffè (al­ways espresso—and not de­caf ).

The an­tipasti would be cheese, olives and taralli pugliesi, a bread made with white wine, flour, olive oil and salt. The pasta would be ag­nolotti di Cal­liano, a Pied­mont spe­cialty of ravi­oli in a meat sauce. The sec­ondo would be in­vol­tini di coniglio, a ham-stuffed roll of rab­bit from the only butcher in Repergo and braised with white wine, car­rots, onions, celery, rose­mary and a fresh bay leaf from the gar­den. What kind of meat was in the ravi­oli sauce? “Asino,” said Maria Rosa. I looked at Sam. He shrugged. “Asino,” Chiara re­peated. When I still didn’t un­der­stand, she and her mother be­gan bray­ing: EE-oo! EE-oo!

We were hav­ing don­key. Ravi­oli with ass sauce didn’t taste like chicken. It tasted like veni­son.

THE NEXT MORN­ING, Maria Rosa’s hus­band, Fiorenzo, took us to Mon­te­grosso d’Asti, where they owned the flat. First, Fiorenzo ex­plained, we would have cof­fee at his favourite hang­out. Then we would visit the farm­ers’ mar­ket, af­ter which we would cook with cousin Mirella at her house. I had as­sumed we would be taught ex­clu­sively by Maria Rosa, but I grad­u­ally came to un­der­stand that she couldn’t man­age us ev­ery day and had dep­u­tized friends and fam­ily.

Once back at the win­ery, I proudly thrust a bag of clams and baby squid pur­chased at the mar­ket in Mirella’s di­rec­tion. She paused. She sighed. A beat later, I re­al­ized that she had al­ready planned her din­ner menu. “Al­lora,” she said, smil­ing broadly. Well, then. “Next time we’ll make pasta e fa­gi­oli. Tonight: spaghetti alle von­gole e sep­pi­o­line” (spaghetti with fresh clams and baby squid). I felt a twinge. I loved pasta e fa­gi­oli, too, and had al­ways wanted to learn how to make the thick pasta-and-bean soup. I apol­o­gized for rudely hi­jack­ing my host’s menu, but Mirella said it was no prob­lem.

Mirella handed her shop­ping list to her hus­band. Beppe was 57, the same age as Fiorenzo. He was a tall, sun­burned man with fin­gers stained grape-pur­ple. Un­like Fiorenzo, Beppe spoke no Eng­lish at all and mo­tioned for us to get in his SUV like we were hear­ing im­paired. In Asti, Beppe led the way to the city’s fa­mous in­door food mar­ket. He halted in front of his favourite butcher, owned by the Mas­sano broth­ers. “This is the best ma­cel­le­ria in Asti,” said Beppe. “It sells only Pied­mont meat.”

The word ma­cel­le­ria de­rived from the Latin word for butcher and slaugh­ter­house. Ma­cel­le­ria Oro Rosso sold rab­bit, beef, free-range chicken, liver, beef tripe, sa­lumi, fresh sausage, meat­balls and hand-shaped pat­ties with herbs and cheese. For our lunch later, Sam and I bought two flower-shaped burg­ers draped with translu­cent slices of lardo, the fa­mous Ital­ian cured fat­back that can be eaten raw.

Beppe or­dered a kilo of minced beef filet from Paolo Mas­sano, who care­fully trimmed the glis­ten­ing sil­ver skin, the shiny mem­brane that doesn’t break down when cooked, and then ground the filet by hand. Mirella was mak­ing carne cruda, a Pied­mont spe­cialty that in 1950 in­spired Giuseppe Cipri­ani of Harry’s Bar in Venice to cre­ate carpac­cio, paper-thin slices of raw beef served with le­mon, olive oil, shaved Parme­san and, some­times, white truf­fles. Cipri­ani named the dish af­ter the Vene­tian artist Vit­tore Carpac­cio, fa­mous for the blood-red hues in his Re­nais­sance paint­ings.

Our host herded us back to his SUV and drove at break­neck speed to a gi­gan­tic sub­ur­ban su­per­me­r­cato. Beppe raced through the su­per­mar­ket the way he drove. We trailed in his wake, lis­ten­ing while he phoned Mirella at least three times to find out ex­actly which type of sweet pep­pers she wanted, what kind of flour, what size of ca­pers. She also asked him to buy three tiny tins of tuna packed in olive oil, which were ex­pen­sive but sig­nif­i­cantly richer tast­ing than the wa­ter­packed stuff I usu­ally ate in Canada.

For lunch back at our apart­ment, Sam pan-seared the burg­ers so that the lardo melted, con­tribut­ing a rich umami flavour. We steamed ar­ti­chokes and made a green salad. When we fin­ished eat­ing and had washed the dishes, it was time to walk over in the rain to start cook­ing din­ner with Mirella.

BEPPE’S GRAND­FA­THER founded Vigneti Brichet di Mas­sasso e Figli in 1920. It grew a dozen va­ri­eties of grapes, in­clud­ing Mer­lot, Caber­net and Moscato, pro­duc­ing white, rosé and ruby-red Bar­bera wines. Beppe be­gan work­ing in the busi­ness when he was 18. At 25, he mar­ried Mirella, the girl next door, and they had two sons. Alessan­dro, the el­der son, helped him har­vest and fer­ment the grapes and bot­tle the wine. Ste­fano, the younger son, worked in Syd­ney as a som­me­lier and had an im­port li­cence to sell Mas­sasso wines in Aus­tralia.

Mirella was a con­fi­dent, am­ple woman of 48, with nape-length dyed auburn hair. She han­dled all the book­keep­ing and ship­ping and cooked the 10-course wine-tast­ing din­ners for 50 guests dur­ing the fall har­vest and spring bot­tling sea­sons. Decades ear­lier the win­ery had stopped sell­ing

to the pub­lic and sold only to a pri­vate ros­ter of cus­tomers. Beppe de­liv­ered cases of wine all over north­ern Italy, and Mirella couri­ered the rest to clients fur­ther afield, in cen­tral and south­ern parts of the coun­try.

They lived above the shop in a large, well-ap­pointed apart­ment with high ceil­ings and win­dows over­look­ing the vine­yard. Beppe’s par­ents had once lived here. When he took over the busi­ness, they swapped homes and the par­ents now lived down the road. Mirella knocked down in­te­rior walls, repo­si­tioned the prin­ci­pal rooms, and built her dream kitchen, even though the win­ery be­low was equipped with a pro­fes­sional one.

Mirella’s kitchen was spot­less and hy­per-or­ga­nized. Sam had in­stant gad­get envy when he saw Mirella’s pro­fes­sional meat slicer. Hers was also the only home we worked in that had an espresso ma­chine. Ev­ery­where else we went, peo­ple used the two-piece stove­top cof­fee pot called la moka.

“Food is a con­cen­trated mes­sen­ger of a cul­ture,” noted Bill Bu­ford in his 2006 book Heat. To me, kitchens re­in­force that cul­tural mes­sage. The Ital­ian kitchens we vis­ited, no mat­ter their size, al­ways had two im­por­tant pieces of fur­ni­ture: a large cen­tral ta­ble and a comfy sofa. Al­though I rarely saw any­one sit on the sofa, it seemed essen­tial be­cause the kitchen was the place fam­ily and friends con­gre­gated. (Per­haps it was also a sub­con­scious nod to an­cient Rome, where the wealthy re­clined to dine.) As for the ta­ble, it wasn’t merely a place to eat but a key workspace. In the 19th and early 20th cen­turies, Ital­ian kitchens typ­i­cally had a stove and, per­haps, a sink, but no coun­ters. To roll out and cut fresh pasta, housewives placed a cus­tom-made board on top of the ta­ble. When the meal was ready, they re­moved the board and ev­ery­one gath­ered around the ta­ble.

“The life of an Ital­ian fam­ily is only at the ta­ble,” Mirella said.

DUR­ING THE 15 DAYS that Sam and I were in Pied­mont, we learned how to make proper spaghetti alle von­gole,

FRIENDS OF FRIENDS OF FRIENDS IN­VITED US INTO THEIR HOMES AND LET US IN­VADE THEIR KITCHENS.

two-stir risotto, yo­gurt cake, gnoc­chi alla bava (“drool­ing gnoc­chi,” so named be­cause of a de­li­cious pale sauce that sup­pos­edly looks like saliva), spaghetti car­bonara and so much more. The gen­eros­ity of strangers—Maria Rosa’s hospi­tal col­leagues, for in­stance—con­tin­ued to amaze me as peo­ple who only knew Sam and me as friends of friends of friends in­vited us into their homes and let us in­vade their kitchens. Why did they go to this trou­ble?

The an­swers are both sim­ple and pro­found. Ital­ians are fiercely proud of their re­gional cui­sine. This is a coun­try where peo­ple still speak in di­alect and eat the food of their grand­par­ents. But the deeper rea­son has to do with fam­ily. In at­om­ized so­ci­eties like Canada and the United States, peo­ple move from job to job and from city to city. In Italy, with the ex­cep­tion of those who are forced to leave to find work, peo­ple stay close to home, lit­er­ally. Maria Rosa is liv­ing in her fa­ther’s home. Mirella swapped houses with her in-laws. Those who wel­comed us into their homes all have chil­dren, some­times adult chil­dren, with whom they eat din­ner nightly. Ev­ery­one has kitchen ta­bles that ex­pand to seat a dozen peo­ple. So­cial net­works are ro­bust. A friend of a friend is your friend, too, some­one you would go out of your way to help.

ON ONE OF OUR fi­nal days in Repergo, Sam and I ar­rived at Maria Rosa’s shortly past noon. Maria Rosa pre­sented me with a box gor­geously

I HAD EN­VI­SIONED PAY­ING A LUMP SUM TO THE FAM­I­LIES FOR THEIR TROU­BLE. THEY ADAMANTLY RE­FUSED.

wrapped with flow­ered paper and a wide or­ange gros­grain rib­bon. Ital­ians are preter­nat­u­rally tal­ented at creat­ing beauty. In the land of Michelan­gelo, la bella figura in­deli­bly shaped the psy­che. Ev­ery­one dresses with care—all the women, in­clud­ing fish­mon­gers, are el­e­gantly coiffed—and no one ca­su­ally tosses a present into a dol­lar-store bag with a pouf of match­ing tis­sue on top.

I opened the gift. It was a gleam­ing white-enam­elled moka by Bialetti, the best stove­top espresso maker in Italy. Maria Rosa said the six-cup pot was for Nor­man, be­cause she had

heard that North Amer­i­cans drank vast amounts of cof­fee. It would work on any stove—gas, elec­tric, ce­ramic, even an in­duc­tion cook­top. She pointed out its heat-proof sil­i­cone-coated han­dle. Her own moka pots were bat­tered alu­minum with han­dles that be­came dan­ger­ously hot.

On this ad­ven­ture, I had en­vi­sioned pay­ing a lump sum to the fam­i­lies for their trou­ble, plus gro­ceries, gas and as­sorted ex­penses. How­ever, Maria Rosa and Fiorenzo adamantly re­fused to ac­cept any money. Mirella also de­clined, but at least I was rent­ing her farm­house. Flum­moxed, I emailed Ash­ley. As a former diplo­mat, I rea­soned, he ought to have a so­lu­tion. He fig­u­ra­tively threw his hands in the air and passed me on to his Ital­ian-born wife, Sil­via, who sug­gested I could buy Maria Rosa a trendy Ital­ian-de­signed bag— be­cause Maria Rosa had once bought one for Sil­via. That wasn’t re­motely ad­e­quate, yet the only way I even con­vinced Maria Rosa to ac­cept the bag was by say­ing it was for Chiara (a dirty trick be­cause I lured them both to the purse store and the 17-year-old in­stantly swooned).

Of course, then Maria Rosa had gone out and bought me la moka, say­ing it was for Nor­man.

EDI­TORS’ CHOICE

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