Overwhelmed. That’s what I am. Emotionally frail, trembling with thoughts of the past, dazed by images too fragile and tender to sustain my gaze. And all I’m doing is write a cookbook. The sauce is gurgling on the stove, brilliantly red with the fire of tomatoes, featuring the earthy green of fresh basil leaves, loosely shredded into a fluffy chiffonade. I sit at the computer in my ‘studio’ (i.e., a corner of the enclosed front porch), typing away and dashing back and forth to the kitchen to check on my sugo (I’m wearing an apron acquired on the market street of Portici for one Euro). And the aroma is a wall that I must touch and cross through. Good God, it’s my mother’s yellow kitchen in Portici. The sun streaming unevenly through the bead curtain, the languid lull of an afternoon about to begin, families sitting at the table for the pranzo, the radio tuned to ‘Hit Parade’, waiting for my favorite song to pierce my heart (Battisti anyone?). Suddenly, the surrounding sounds are not today’s familiar ones (over thirty years in the USA), but the ones from the life that formed me and still grasps my mind with the impact of a tattoo. It shouldn’t be so disquieting to type up a collection of recipes. But it is faces and scents and sensations that grip my soul, and I’m only a pawn in their power. Wish I were stronger. Wish I were able to calmly fill up my blank ‘Word’ screen, impervious to emotions that have no business being here. I see her, my mother, stirring the sauce, eyeing the aromatic, nutty, ivory chunk of parmigiano that needed to be grated (‘lo grattugi tu?’ she says, will you grate it?). The old dented aluminum pasta pot is steaming, clamoring for the usual fistful of coarse sea salt that will tame it to a gentler bubbling for a few seconds. “Butto la pasta!”, my mother announces, ready to throw in the carefully weighed 300 gr. of rigatoni, zite orfarfalle.
The New York sky is cheery today, the clouds non-threatening, gliding slowly over the sun, shrouding it for a moment, then unveiling it again, it’s yours, they say, just like the one you remember. Sort of. The one I remember burned my skin, raw, fierce, carrying the scent of wisteria and tar. Growing up in Naples, where all smells are exaggerated. And also the passions. And the scars left by such intense sentiments are forever etched on my soul.
But I’m cooking a sauce, stirring sizzling onions to transparency, not to caramelized brown. Focus, okay? Okay: a medium onion, diced. Cover the bottom of pan with a generous amount of extra-virgin olive oil. I’m measuring, translating, jotting down. No time to reminisce. Just add that handful of basil and simmer another five minutes.