Monday, October 26, 2009

The Eagle is Slowly Rising

I was strolling through the rotonda of the National Gallery of Art when a gloriously gilded painting caught my eye.  The beautiful triptych was obviously Italian from the Medieval period.  I went to take a closer look and discovered why the altarpiece struck me as familiar; it had been housed in the Castello Spagnolo in L'Aquila, and was brought to the US as a gesture of gratitude for American aid and for safe-keeping during the fortress's reconstruction.

It has been more than six months since the devastating and deadly earthquake shattered the peace and destroyed the homes of tens of thousands in Abruzzo.  After the much-hyped G8 summit in L'Aquila in July, the region and its struggles in the aftermath seem to have disappeared from the news. 

I have wondered often how many people are still in tents, how many Abruzzesi have left the region to find work and housing elsewhere.  Whatever happened with Berlusconi's boisterous declaration that some of the displaced could live in his several vacation homes?  Did he actually open the doors to them, or was it just more newsbyte fluff?  I have been trying to find out what progress has been made, but it is has proved a difficult task. 

Many of the aid organizations are (understandably) busy with other recent tragedies and haven't updated their websites.  The Protezione Civile site has a news section, mostly to inform the area citizens about new services or office hours.  The latest newletter proudly hailed the opening of a new sportello per il pubblico, a type of public affairs office that will "provide information and a place for citizens to ask questions about the rules and procedures for repairs and reconstruction, temporary housing, or financial assistance.  They will give information about schools and transportation, tax breaks and work projects."  Sounds great, but it goes on to say that "the clerks won't be able to solve many of the problems" but that they can take requests and call people with answers.  (Word to the wise: when a bureaucrat says they will call you back, don't count on it.)

The initial plan was to build apartments and assemble pre-fabbricated buildings so that everyone could be housed before winter, but as the first snowfall arrived on October 19, there were still almost 1,800 people living in tents.  Some have nowhere else to go; others refuse to leave, fearing that if they go to another area they will miss out on the apartments when they do become available.  Most want to remain in their birthplace, close to their families and jobs.

The National Italian American Foundation has made sizable contributions, and continues its fund-raising efforts.  Their newest initiative is help L'Aquila college students continue their studies.  To that end, they have inistituted an "Adopt a Student" program.  NIAF has been offered some tuition scholarships from several American universities, including my alma mater, the University of New Mexico, but money is needed for housing costs, transportation, books, and fees.

Caritas has the most informative updates on their projects, with a breakdown showing that they have spent 1.3 million Euro for their "first response" of tents, medical aid, food, necessities, and initial reconstructions.  They have other projects underway that total 18 million euro.  Caritas sent out 2,400 volunteers from April through August, 2009, and they continue to coordinate a continual presence of volunteer workers. 

The news about reconstruction is scarse but not dismal.  It takes time to rebuild, especially when damage was so extensive, but things are moving forward little by little.  Churches are being stabilized, artworks have been taken for restoration and repairs, debris has been cleared, and - brick by brick - a city is trying to reform itself.  L'Aquila, which means "eagle," is rebuilding its nest.  While it's not ready to fly again, it is healing its wings.

Related Past Articles:

How To Help - Where and How to Contribute

Rome Trembled - Our Experience of the Tremor

Watch a video of the wonderful song, Domani, by Artisti Uniti per l'Abruzzo

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Last Mule of Anzi

A friend told me the story of her father-in-law’s emigration from Italy. He left Lucca at age 17 for California, like so many others, in search of opportunity and riches in the New World.  His wife and her family had likewise come from Lucca, but he had long shunned the idea of returning to Italy, despite his kids’ pleadings. Finally, after much insistence that Italy had changed in the forty years of his absence, he agreed to travel there to show them his birthplace and introduce them to his long-lost family members. It was the early 1980s.

As they drove through the cultivated plains to reach Lucca they passed an old man along the country lane accompanied by his donkey, laden with wood. “That does it!” yelled the father. “Turn around and take me back to Roma! The last thing I saw when I left Lucca forty years ago was a man with a donkey; today I return and the first thing I see is a man with a donkey! Nothing has changed here. Take me home to America.”

To him, the donkey symbolized backwardness. He was sure everything was as it always had been, including the poverty he had grown up with, and he didn’t want to relive any of it. He was unconvinced that Italy had become a modern nation with an active economy during his absence.

The continuity of old traditions is something we find so appealing about Italy. Things have changed, that is certain, but many of the long-held customs and crafts are – at least for the moment – still alive.

Like my friend’s father-in-law, the first thing we saw when we visited my ancestral village for the first time was a man with a mule. Rather than see it as a symbol of poverty or backwardness like he did, we found it sweetly reassuring that, in a world where technology blitzes forward at a mind-boggling rate, some things are still left to tradition.

Through our many visits to Anzi we would see this man, striding along his clip-clopping mule, which was usually bundled with firewood. We would wave as we passed him, and exchanged buongiornos and polite chit-chat as he delivered wood to an old signora’s doorstep. In an ancient hamlet with leg-numbingly steep and narrow streets, the mule makes sense. How else are you going to get a load of heavy wood home?

All around town there are stone circles affixed to many buildings, placed there to tie up a mule. At one time, my cousin Michele told me, there were probably thirty working mules in Anzi. They would be utilized to haul tools and implements to the fields, tote grain sacks to the flour mill, and transport olives or grapes to be pressed. Now there is just one.

La panda e` ucciso il mulo,” Michele’s wife Melina stated flatly. The panda killed the mule? What?

“The Panda, the car by Fiat,” she said. It became the workhorse of rural towns like this because it was narrow enough to fit through many of the streets, had enough power to accelerate uphill to reach them, and came in a four-wheel drive version that could be taken to the fields. It was also economical, didn’t require feed, a stall, or pooper-scooper clean-up.

Completely logical. It was only then that we took notice of just how many older model Pandas were still in use in Basilicata, and now understood why. The newer Panda is much larger and less desirable in towns like this; old ones are greatly in demand.

Yet the mule guy continues unfazed. The Panda, after all, cannot climb steps.  His customers are mostly anziani, elderly folks, but he can be seen around town every day guiding the mule up the stepped, inclined alleyways with bundles of wood to fuel their stoves and fireplaces. It is an old-world tradition that will likely die when he does, but for now he and his mule carry on.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Home Food

In my last post I reported on a "home cooking" trend in the US.  As you might expect, Italy takes the concept of home cooking to a different level. 

The organization Home Food was started to preserve and showcase the special and unique regional dishes and food products of each area.  "Typical", "traditional" and "regional" are the buzzwords they live and cook by.  They even wax poetic: "Food is Man and typical foods are his roots." 

Whether you find food to be poetry or not, the simple aim of the organization is to maintain and share the foods that have been passed down to them through the generations, to keep them alive and appreciated by their own generation and the one below them.  They do this by hosting dinners and cooking the local, seasonal cuisine that their grandmothers and mothers taught them...and they invite you and me into their homes to enjoy it.

That's right - you can be a guest at one of their tables!  They encourage you to "Taste typical Italian food in an Italian home."  While the majority of the guests are traveling Italians eager to taste the specialties of another region, more and more foreign travelers are discovering the opportunity to live - or at least eat - like a Roman (or a Pugliese, or a Tuscan).  It provides a unique chance to dine with an Italian family and learn first-hand about their culinary culture.  And since nothing brings about bonding quite so fast as food, you're bound to leave with new friends in hand.

To participate you must become a member of Home Food.  An annual membership costs €35, but travelers who want to join in on the fun can sign up for a one-month temporary membership for just €3.50.  Registration can be made online. 

Once you're a member you can peruse the calendar and events to find a dinner in a location that suits you.  Never mind the often comical English translations; there is nothing silly about the menus.  You can enjoy fresh-made pici and drunken pork on a farm in Chianti; orecchiete with rapini and richly-stuffed foccacia in the heart of Puglia; or a well-rounded menu of Artusi classics in the historical center of Bologna.  There are dinners slated in several regions every month.  Each carefully planned and home-cooked menu costs between €35-40 per person. 

Home Food also organizes occasional cooking classes and interesting special events, such as the Food in Film festival, or a weekend of culinary bliss in Bologna, a package that includes hotel for two nights, two meals at different homes, a cooking class, and a foodie tour of town.

Partaking in age-old traditions, tasting fresh regional fare that has been lovingly prepared...this is what I call home-cooking!

Monday, October 05, 2009

Cooking at Home...or Home Cooking?

Down the street from our house is a little shopping center.  Along with the handful of eateries and shops is a storefront business I'd never heard of before, called Let's Dish.  The window had a menu posted and a glance inside revealed a few stainless steel kitchen prep areas.  Curious, I went inside to inquire about the place.

I was told it is a "revolutionary concept" in home cooking.  A "great idea" for enjoying some gab-time while putting together "healthy and delicious meals" for my family.  The best new way for busy families to cook, I was told by the enthusiastic assistant.  Well...interesting.  I'm all for families cooking together, eating together, communing together.  But, uh, how does it work? I asked, looking around at the steel stations but not seeing any stoves or ovens.

Apparently, you reserve a time slot, go to the store, and choose which of the monthly offerings you want to "cook".  Maybe "prepare" would be a better word here.  The October menu boasts the likes of Greek Isle Chicken, Wine Country Meatloaf with Mashed Potatoes, Southwestern Pinto Burgers, and Crispy Herb Tilapia, for example.  If you want those four entrees, you grab a container and go to the assigned prep areas where ingredients are all chopped, grated, sliced, and waiting.  You follow the posted recipe to assemble the ingredients into the container, based on the number of servings you want.  Then you take it all home and freeze it, bringing it out to pop in the oven when desired.

Or, she bubbled, for really busy folks they offer a pre-done assembly, where you order your meals and they assemble them for you.  You just dash in and pick them up.  Freezers lined one wall where you also have the option to walk in and buy frozen pre-assembled ready-to-take entrees.

"This is so great!" she chirped.  "I never go to the grocery store anymore, except for milk and bread," she boasted.  Best of all, she proclaimed, echoing the company's website, "Back at home, you've got fresh and delicious, home-cooked meals whenever your family needs 'em."

The "home-cooked" part is what got me.  Is something home-cooked just because it is baked in your oven?  Is it really so hard to buy a few ingredients, chop and grate, and saute or bake them yourself?  This routine is certainly more costly than cooking at home.  The price per session is $25 per dish (serves 6), with a four dish minimum.  That's $100 to assemble four meals.  As far as I could tell, those are the main dishes you're assembling, not accompanying vegetable side dishes.

I walked out a little befuddled and shaking my head.  Obviously, the concept is lost on me.  I like to cook.  I enjoy getting into the kitchen at a certain time, chopping an onion, peeling some potatoes, or dicing tomatoes in readiness for the soup or sauce I will be making.  I find it rhythmic and relaxing (most days, at least!).  As you know, all my family gatherings always seem to involve cooking together in some form.  Food is an important factor in the fabric of my family.  So the idea of merely assembling and baking just doesn't appeal to me; it seems too much like the "dump and stir" method of cooking that has become popular of late, but more expensive.

I understand that not everyone enjoys cooking; others really don't have much time.  This might be a better alternative to traditional take-out or fast food, certainly.  But I dunno, I'm still confused by the whole concept.  Is it really home cooking?