My neighbor loves his flowers and the season that brings them. He’s in his eighties. We don’t see much of him in winter aside from when he blows the snow from his narrow driveway, covered in vibrant ski-wear, pelting our wall and windows. I expect to see him soon, though, shuffling the edges of his small yard, hands locked behind his back. He’ll uncover the areas he’s wrapped and caged, protected with wood and tape against the winter winds. He moves slower every year. He’s sick. His wife, Flora, has to help him. She calls out his name, worriedly, more and more. She frets. He has problems with his lungs, the kind that don’t get better. But when I see the tiny blue wild flowers pushing through the snow, when I dare to ponder the awakenings of Springtime, I think of sharing figs with this neighbor once more, and how he gives Nina tools he no longer uses. How he asks us to water his flowers when he goes away. How he’s also gruff. He hasn’t many seasons left because you only get so many and he’s already had a lot. He says the things old and sick people say, like: every day is a gift, and he seems to mean them. Once, when small child neighbors made a terrible racket, he said something that will live forever in my heart, and hopefully even light the way for me. The sound of young people having fun. He said it out loud, and he smiled into his summer drink.
[Painting: Bulb Fields by Vincent Van Gogh, 1883]
Cook a good chorizo sausage hard in a pan with a few drops of olive oil. Fat pours through rips in the skin. The oil and the pork fat mix to make a liquid that runs like blood. It’s red-yellow, flavored with the spices inside – garlic, smoked paprika, hot pepper. There’s no better alchemy in my kitchen than the creation of this perfect grease. You can fry an egg in it, or wipe it clean from the plate with a piece of bread. Drizzle it over potatoes or into a tortilla with eggs and potatoes. Fry bread in it. Fry anything in it.
When I was a kid we only had chorizo when my father’s parents, my Abuela and Abuelo, came for visits from New York City. The Z in chorizo was pronounced like a TH. The sausages were tied together in a chain. They were dramatic, a dark dusk red, not the gray and pink links I knew from my mother’s side. My father was from Spain and it stuck me out among my peers, only being half Italian. No one else had Spanish blood and all my full dago mates called me spic for kicks. That oil, the spice of it in my nose, sizzling and bending in the pan. The corners and bits of sausage burning to a black char, that is my Abuela’s kitchen. The round table. The view of bricks through the window. The way she walked, chin up, hands locked behind her back, through the foulest hardships of life.
[Photo: Chorizo oil with roasted red pepper puree. The slices of sausage are gone, run through the oil and happily in my belly on this Fat Tuesday.]
You end up dirty when you clean a house right. When you pull wet tangles of hair and grime from dark kitchen corners, from under ancient peeling radiators. Some of it gets on you, on your knees and under your fingernails. You know where you are and what you’ll put up with. You make decisions about how terrible or disorganized or unhealthy you allow your life to become. You don’t have a home if you don’t clean your house. There are exceptions: the very old and the ill and weak. You tried as long as you could, but you can’t anymore – of course. You can’t have a meaningful relationship with anything that’s easy and pleasant and the same pretty shining way all the time. The disgusting corners are important. The dead gray-black of the mop water is too. The foulness on the underside of the toilet seat matters. So does the way bleach pinches after drying on your skin. You must face it. How can your world be clean without any effort, or without getting you dirty? If it does, you live inside a collection of walls. You live in a hotel room.
[Image: Mop Painting by Jinny Yu. Oil on Aluminum, 2010]
Beans were on offer, day after day. Only the white beans of Tuscany. If you didn’t eat them, you went hungry. It became too much for my Nonna, my grandmother, then a young and excitable girl who wanted something else, anything else. Bring on death, she announced, turning her bowl over on the table, refusing another ladle’s full of thick pasta e fagioli. Later that night an uncle, a favorite uncle with a dark beard, snuck into the house. He came through the kitchen door like a breeze in a flat cloth cap, bringing his small niece a secret egg. A precious item, rare in those days of pain and want. I dream that he wriggled loose a nail from a rich man’s coop and slid it, still warm, into his coat pocket. He put a finger to his lips when he gave the little girl her egg. She poked a hole in the bottom with her thumbnail and sucked out the insides. Raw.
[Photo: Small Piazza with Olive Tree in Bientina, the town where my grandmother grew up. Credit: Nina MacLaughlin aka the Carpentrix 2014.]
Once I told a fib. I said my favorite dessert was pears and cheese. The reply, from someone much younger, was perfection. Bullshit she said, a stress on the bull. She laughed at me and I laughed at myself. It was bullshit. I was posturing, and I didn’t even believe it. I also say that I don’t like ice cream and dogs, but I do. I really do. What drives me to such deceptions, I’ll never know. I do, however, love the soft pears of winter with good Parmigiano cheese, the kind from the big wheel with bits of crystal that pop between my teeth.
In this world, even as children, we must accustom ourselves to eat of everything, for we never know what life may have in store for us.
Geppetto scolds Pinocchio after the wooden boy refuses his offer of three pears. Near dead from hunger, Pinocchio insists the old man peel the skins away from the fruit first.
Red-nosed Geppetto is poor and prone to fits of anger and physical violence. His nickname is Pollendina (corn-meal mush) in Carlo Collodi’s Italian children’s classic The Adventures of Pinocchio. The pears he keeps in his pocket are all he has to eat for the day. But his love for his boy is great, so he peels the skins and gives them over. Pinocchio, terrible in so many ways, comes to appreciate his own hunger and Geppetto’s lesson, and eventually eats the peels and the cores too.
Collodi’s turn-of-the-twentieth century novel is a million miles from the goofball sentimentality of the 1940 Disney movie we’ve all seen. The Italian original is chaotic and dangerous, a novel full of threats and torture. Pinocchio himself is cold and uncaring. He has no compassion or common sense. The threat of starvation and violent death are frequent.
Eat what is offered, Geppetto insists to the boy, his accidental son and his only family. You may have nothing someday, and what’s offered may have come at a great cost. This is a lesson worth learning, and I have yet to meet an Italian who refuses food because they don’t like it. I know so many here in the States, where I was born and raised, who openly declare that they don’t or won’t eat something. Eggs? Asparagus? Bread? Tripe? Corn? Fish? Meat? Wheat? What won’t you eat if offered?