Final Fruit

The plums come from the tree in back of the house here. They were green when we arrived and now, on our last day, they are ripe and ready to eat. I am sorry that we won’t be here to enjoy them further; the sight of them makes me want to dig through old cookbooks in search of recipes for plum preserves, tarts, and succulent meat dishes. Rarely does such a quantity of fresh fruit fall into my hands, and these are all the more tantalizing because I cannot use them. They must be left here, perfect in their ripeness, while we leave and begin our lives again elsewhere.

There have been reports in the news for some months now of the global food crisis, and corresponding stories of individual Americans taking matters into their own hands, plantingneo-Victory gardens to cut their grocery costs, just as others trade cars for bikes as fuel costs also rise. I have never lived in a house with fruit trees before, just as I have never kept a garden and will likely never have one in New York City. So I am amazed and grateful to have watched this tree come to fruition, to feel its juice on my tongue, and to be reminded of the larger cycles that surround us.

One summer, during college, I spent weekends on a small farm near Minneapolis. My parents had bought a share of the farm’s vegetables through a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program, and as a requirement of membership we were asked to help out on the farm on occasion. I went back again and again after harvest day, and cajoled the small farm team to let me help them with whatever they were doing. One woman there was a chef at Lucia’s Restaurant who told me that she was working on the farm for a season in order to understand more about where food came from. This seemed like a novel idea to me at the time, and it struck my fancy that the act of eating might be linked to agriculture and land use and soil types and plant varietals, not just to fat and calories and oh-do-I-look-better-now-than-before concerns. I find it significant that I happened to visit this farm in the throes of an eating disorder, and wonder if these visits had anything to do with the new direction that food has come to have in my life since then. Looking back, I see that as my eating disorder waned, my interest in the broader aspects of food -- its origin, history, purpose, production -- increased.

I now feel that I straddle the twin worlds of the foodies and the recovered folks, equally interested in exquisite cuisine and body politics, but not quite reconciled to the fact that neither group seems to be talking to the other. Some psychologists feel that, to be recovered from an eating disorder, food should no longer play a central place in one’s life -- a stance which I disagree with, preferring to face food straight-on and thus dislodge it from its exceptional place in my imagination. On the other side, food writers rarely address the fact that millions of Americans cannot fully enjoy the food so lauded about in the food media because of their own preoccupations with weight and body image. (When I searched for the terms “eating disorder,” “anorexia” and “bulimia” on gourmet.com and bonappetit.com, for example, I found only one result -- a 2002 article in Gourmet about one woman's childhood experience in fat camp. "Obesity" turned up a few more hits, however.) But these issues are two sides of the same coin -- we can love food, but only so much; our bodies and minds will only stand so much food lust, and we must ultimately be satisfied with just enough. And, lest we forget, food has its times and places: there’s a season for plums and another for olives, a moment for birth and a death-hour. Modern grocery-store miracles aside, asparagus and fresh truffles can’t share shelf space.

For now, plums and vin santo; soft light over the patio; eggs being cracked in the kitchen; a good-bye to Italy and a hello to Spain.
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Tomorrow I leave Italy, and I am already one foot here, one foot out of this place.

I recognized my feelings of melancholy this morning for what they were -- sadness at leaving here. The sadness descended suddenly upon me, and at first I could not place it. What was there to be sad about? I have just spent five marvelous weeks in Italy, and I have more travels ahead of me. But transitions have never been easy for me; even as I look ahead to the next thing in front of me, I hate to let go. I'd like to stay here for another five weeks, then add another, until I was sure that this was my life, these happy day, and not those, then.

was this spring, when I juggled work and school, and the decisions of where to go next and how to keep the person I love at my side while designing my own life.

Now is central Italy, golden fields, Medieval hill towns, dusty roads, the Italian table, fiber between my fingers and potato peels at my feet.

I tell myself that I will have this again -- leaving happy places does not mean leaving happiness behind -- but for now I am sad to see it go. Which is more real -- the hardships of cold spring, or the delights of summer? How much there is to live and feel in just this one life!



I keep thinking about hunger, and want to write more (always more! -- that's what hunger is about, isn't it?). But for today, I'll focus on moderation, which caught the attention of the ancient Greeks and the Buddha, who both spoke of the value of moderation, or the middle path, for one's health and happiness and the practice of the good life.

The Buddha also said (and I don't know about the Greeks on this point) that his students shouldn't take his word for everything, and he encouraged them to try out his teachings for themselves, to see if they were valid. And so I have, in a sense.

These last four years have been an exercise for me in moderation of appetite. A rather successful experiment, by the look of things.

If hunger makes food taste all the better, then it has been the act of allowing hunger back into my life -- of not fearing an empty belly, of contenting myself with less -- that has allowed me to become an eater. I take more pleasure in food now than I ever did when I was worried about fat and calories and my size, and it's not because I've managed to pull a fast one on my own nervous mind to convince myself that those things don't matter. They still do matter, to some extent, but they matter less and less as I find other things to take their place.

Ironically, one thing that does take the place of food worries is learning to eat well. I cannot stuff myself silly if I have just spent three hours cooking a meal for my husband and friends. Nor can I wantonly waste food if I know how hard it was to procure and prepare, having done so myself. Putting more effort into my food and more attention, instead of less, has made all the difference for me.

Though all of these efforts around food (it's just food, after all) might seem immoderate, I think it is quite natural to spend our time worrying about the next meal. After all, it is what our ancestors spent most of their time doing. I am reminded of this point here in Italy, where almost every tree in our valley has been planted for food cultivation. Down any lane you'll find grape vines, olive trees, and any number of fruiting trees, such as apricots, plums, figs, and cherries. No tree seems ornamental or accidental -- every one has a purpose, and nine times out of ten that purpose is to produce food for humans. It surprised me at first to discover that trees here weren't just oversize hedgerows, but in fact occupy an important role in the local food economy and culture. Now it seems eminently sensible: keep your food near you, and you'll never have to depend on others for your daily bread.

I am from one of the world's great food-producing regions -- the corn belt of the U.S., where the abundant loam of the prairies has been turned into rich soil for the U.S. agro-economy. Yet this notion of a "farm" is so different from the Italian azienda as for them to be almost mutually unrecognizable. In Umbria, a farm isn't something that happens "out there," where the exurbs end: instead, fields and houses intermingle, and to surprisingly good effect. For example, we can't overlook our dinner when it comes from right beyond the door, as our chard and tomatoes did last night. Nor can we forget that there's a season to all things when we learn that yesterday's cherries won't be back for another year. Where's the immoderation in that? There's no excess here, only the simple acknowledgment that real food comes with an expiration date, and obeys greater cycles than those determined by the supermarket aisle.

It has only been in the last one hundred years, in the wealthier countries of the world, that people have had the luxury to devote most of their waking hours to activities not consisting of food gathering or food preparation. But is it really such a luxury, I ask, to be able to ignore one's food? If food is one of life's greatest pleasures, then might we not deny ourselves some aspect of that pleasure by outsourcing our food preparation to others? I am thinking, again, of the sort of pleasure that can be had from the crafts of cooking, hunting, gathering, and gardening, and moreover, the satisfaction to be found in these activities beyond the products that they bring to us. This is real work, with immediate and substantial effects that we can judge for ourselves and be proud of.

I venture a guess that, in isolating ourselves from this kind of work, we make it hard for ourselves to take any satisfaction in food that is not degustatory, and thus we set ourselves up for thinking that act of eating food -- and not its provenance or its purpose -- is the only thing that matters. I strive to tip the scale in the other direction, away from the act of eating and towards the acts of finding and preparing food. Oh, how much pleasure there is to be had in knowing that an olive tree can produce oil! -- or seeing one's beans boil away contentedly on the stove, or planning next week's supper before it even occurs. For me, these are the paths towards alimentary moderation.


Hunger: The other side of the coin

Let's talk about hunger, shall we?

As a nation, Americans certainly spend enough time talking about food, about diets, about sizes. What about hunger?

I find it interesting that the "food community" -- those magazines, books, blogs and television shows devoted to producing and consuming food -- says so little about hunger, ostensibly the drive behind it all. What would a food article look like, I wonder, if we rated the experience of eating the same meal while ravenous versus only pleasantly peaked? Would a meal at Per Se when one is only mildly hungry still be rated above a scrappy meal-from-a-can consumed by one who is starving? The context of what and how we eat changes our experience of that meal -- and by this I am not referring to ambiance, or the color of the tablecloth, or the lighting, or the manners of one's waiter, or the rarity of the vintage. More than these things, hunger can determine how we experience a meal. And I'm not just talking about "big-time" hunger, the kind studied by epidemiologists, economists, and doctors: protein-energy malnutrition (PEM), though that certainly has a place in our consciousness (albeit most Americans would have to go back a few generations to understand that kind of hunger). I'm also referring to the bodily hunger that we feel in the hour before dinner, when we refrain from nibbling on leftovers because we know that food is coming, and will taste all the better when our hunger has some edge to it. This daily hunger accompanies our daily bread, or should, because without it food becomes a mere accoutrement, a sign of virtuous intentions or fashion sense. Hunger signals our bodily connection to our food, to the fact that food is, on some deep, intrinsic level, about fuel. Food = fuel = life. Our lives. What would they be without food? Without hunger to remind us to eat? Without desire and fullness and knowing when to stop?

A re-released segment that I recently heard on The Splendid Table glanced on some of these issues when Lynn Rossetto Kaspar interviewed David Plotnikoff, a reporter who hiked the Pacific Coast Trail and wrote an article about eating on the trail for Saveur in July 2007 (unfortunately, his article is not available online). The daily task of hiking 20 or so miles had inspired in him a devout appreciation for food that he had never felt before, Plotnikoff said in his radio interview. I admire Saveur's publication of this kind of article about food-for-fuel's sake, because the foodie world seems to only grudgingly, and on rare occasion, admit to our raw physical need for food -- our hunger. This reluctance to talk about hunger may be a throwback to the table manners of our grandparents, to a time when showing too much eagerness to eat was considered gauche.

Interestingly, if one cannot be bothered to put a napkin on one's lap, it might be because other concerns -- such as the act of consuming the food itself -- may take greater priority. Hunger thus becomes something shameful, a sign of poverty manifested in too great an eagerness for food. Seen in this light, just as the bourgeouis sought a pale complexion in contrast with a worker's hearty tan, so restraint at the table, and attention to proper rituals, might have been seen in earlier times as a sign of ascension in the world. To have enough food to be able to devote one's time at the table to observing social graces must surely be evidence of social superiority, ne c'est pas? And so we set up a dichotomy between the hunger of workers and the feasts of kings and burgers -- to great ironic effect.

What use has a feast without the spice of hunger? And what purpose does hunger serve, if not to remind us to eat? In this light, food and hunger seem inseperable, and yet they are so rarely addressed together, at least by the above-mentioned "food community". Conversely, I could also point to the "hunger community" of dieters and people with eating disorders, so obsessed by the impossibility of ending their own hunger that they cannot take any joy in food or its creation. It seems that these two groups might have much to say to each other, but I know of few places where such dialogues are taking place.

I want this blog to be such a place, where I can jump-start some conversations about food and hunger -- and, most importantly, to consider the hours that we spend when we're not thinking about food or hoping to quell our hunger. Those are the times that, ultimately, we need to live for, the moments that give meaning to our lives beyond our bellies and our waistlines.



I love the way this summer is turning into a season of knitting and cooking.

Even as a small child I knew that I loved to create things: I sewed wall quilts and knitted woolen mittens, drew paper-dolls and followed the American Girls Handy Book for further inspiration. It didn't trouble me then, as it sometimes does now, that most of my crafts were of a decidedly feminine nature -- that I was reproducing, in the late 20th century, the same tasks that my great-grandmother would have learned as a girl in the late 1800s.

Now, I can point to any number of theories of gender role development to explain why I was drawn to knitting and cooking instead of heavy machinery and archery; why I still take more pleasure in the so-called domestic arts, and would rather not think too much about my computer's specs or my bike's components. Yet, whatever form it takes, I know that I am following an older desire to create that women and men have equal share in. I am speaking of the pleasure in one's craft, and of the delight of adhering to a technique so well as to be able to improvise from it. I am also speaking of a sort of physical act that cannot be replicated by what I am doing here, at my screen, typing and pushing words and images around. I yearn for the tactile, the colored, the savory and fragrant. And so my knitting -- ah, fiber! -- and puttering around the kitchen here, and hikes to find wildflowers, and trips to the market.

The yellow of this lace shawl echoes the evening sunlight here in Umbria, the fuzzy bodies of bees and wasps, and the inside of the bell peppers that we stuffed for dinner the other night. Half-finished, the shawl is still caught up in its creation, still evolving and revealing itself -- not unlike this season, these days of summer's peak.

I want to dedicate this summer, half-fled, to creation in all its forms. I want to roll in the grass with pagan delight and visit old Roman temples without a tour book. I want to taste sweet new wine and discover new ways to wind a ball of yarn. I want to dance to samba music and plan long expeditions in the hills. I want to live.

Here's to summer and to yellow lace and to all of the jubilant acts of creation which the season inspires in us!


Satisfaction and satiety

Often, after a long and wonderful meal, I wish that I could just keep eating -- that fullness would never overtake me, that my hunger would last and last. But alas, my belly swells, satiety looms, and I retire for bed, satisfied and yet not so, wishing that I could have sampled another flavor or pioneered another combination of wine and food.

This is something of how I feel, too, when I look on a beautiful sunset over the ocean, or listen to Maria Callas arias, as we did in the car this afternoon, or get lost in the rhythm of my knitting or the spell of a good book. What is this desire to lose myself in such fullness, while fearing the consequent satiety? Why do I want to always leave some room left for more -- more colors, more tastes, more sunlight hours? Where does my satisfaction lie, if not in the present?

These desires for more have gotten me into trouble at times, but even when tamed, I'm not wholly ashamed of them, for they signal to something of the searcher in me, the restless malcontent who, in failing to find satisfaction in the everyday, will necessarily seek out the exotic, the inexpressible, the divine. As a result, I have learned new languages and lived in far-off places, toured the highest mountains and the ends of the earth, and come back to tell of it. I won't give up these urges for more, yet still they trouble me when my searches take on less concrete forms, and emerge as a kind of irreconcilable longing for possession and consumption at the same time -- but I can't have my cake and eat it too, I know.

The sacred appears to me as the limit to my searching: that which I cannot contain, the absolute beyond any notion of what I might consider as absolute. Against that limit, I must stop, surrender myself, and be resigned my small satisfactions. The bounds of my body, my arms gathered in meditative union, are other sites of slight contentment against the urges of the hungry mind. Sitting, breathing, my desire is not extinguished, but recognized -- and thus stilled, at least temporarily.

Last week we visited this pre-Christian temple in Perugia, pictured above: circular in form, illuminated by skylights overhead, it became a giant womb and holding-space for all my inquietudes, longings, and endless puzzling over what next. I want to keep this place within me, to preserve its still image on my computer screen and within my imagination as a refuge in hurried times. Here, if anywhere, this is just this, and enough is enough.




About Venice, writes Henry James in Italian Hours, "There is notoriously nothing more to be said about the subject." Yet he, like I, find that even the most exhausted topic, the most-written about city of the world, can be added to.

Yes, Venice has been visited before, and written about before. But I am not so jaded a traveler as to believe that a place is not worth visiting -- or writing about -- if it has already been "discovered" by others. I have tried that kind of travel before, as when I sought out abandoned Jesuit missions in northern Argentina, or found someone to take me to the Chilean altiplano to see the peaks of the high cordillera. There are thrills to be had in ordinary, plain-Jane travel as much as in those kinds of adventure, although they may be more exotic and breath-taking.

One doesn't have to visit Venice. One chooses to visit Venice and one visits Venice for pleasure -- as we did in these last few days -- not for duty. And so Venice became a city for just the two of us, for my husband and I, a breathless interlude between one Tuscan day and another -- Venice! There could not be a place in Italy more different from the Tuscan hill towns that we have frequented as of late, with their somber stone citadels overlooking olive groves and hay fields. Venice is baroque, extravagant, a wedding-cake of a metropolis, decadent and in decay.

Like Rio de Janeiro or Hong Kong, Venice is so spectacularly situated between land and sky that this would be enough to call attention to itself, even if Venice were not full of Medieval and Renaissance palaces, charming gondoliers, and hidden passageways. We spent our days divided between exploring the city on foot, and cruising the canals and ports of Venice and its neighboring islands by vaporetti, Venetian ferries. I cannot think of a more delightful way to spend a summer afternoon than to board a vaporetto and make one's way to Burano, Murano, and Torcello, the outer islands. This was our itinerary for one day and, despite getting a bad sunburn, I preferred the sea air and the sun to the city's many churches and museums, which run together in my memory.
Venice is still here, but the seas are rising, and it is uncertain how much longer the city will be able to withstand the tides. More than anything, the knowledge of the city's possible demise, and its current state as a living museum, make Venice a city of double losses: the geopolitical decline of the maritime republic (a loss which has already occurred) and the destruction of the physical city to the waves and salt (a future loss). Caught between such images of the fall, is it any wonder than Venice is somewhat melancholy, somewhat tawdry in its shine and gloss?

I would return to Venice again, if it were possible for the same person to visit the same city twice (Heroclitus), but I suspect that Venice is better once-visited, as a young bride, than left for future comparisons, for who is to say that both the city and I won't be worse for the wear?


The good life

Today I spent nearly the entire afternoon sitting in the shade under the wisteria arbor, listening to a LibriVox recording of Moll Flanders, knitting various pieces, and reveling in the rare opportunity to do exactly as I pleased.

Yet I know that if I let too many days pass this way -- long lunches followed by a nap and knitting -- I'll soon feel restless. The voices in my head, perhaps some remnant of Puritan duty, will scold me for enjoying myself too much, as if there should be a limit to pleasure. Should there be?-- when my pleasure consists of such simple, honest things, like books and music and fiber and food and, lastly, bicycles? Where is the wrong in these things? Where else should my duty lie, in these fallow moments, if not in seeking such pleasures, the better now than later, when more somber responsibilities might indeed call?

I began this web-log to write about the things that make me happy; to write about my avid and eager search for happiness in the face of external burdens that, at times, made life almost unbearable this spring. Yet, now relieved of some of these concerns, I feel almost guilty in taking my pleasure today, as if I only deserved it when there was real hardship in other areas of my life.

Perhaps the guilt that I feel is the only truly Puritan part of this dilemma, for ancient philosophers had something to say on the matter of happiness as well. Aristotle, for example, believed that though the end of life was happiness, happiness did not come from the possession of material goods (as is so often presumed), but from living a life of virtue, and practicing moderation in all things. This notion is sometimes referred to as "the good life," and was a principal concern of Thomas Jefferson as well, who made sure to write it into the Declaration of Independence, changing John Locke's right to "life, liberty, and property" into the inalienable right to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."Gautama Buddha talked more of ending suffering than of finding happiness, but what is the path to enlightenment if not a middle road between the two, another way of stating Aristotle's principle of moderation?

I already know that I am not after money or property in my pursuit of the good life. I also know that, having seen more than my share of suffering in these short 25 years, and having emerged from my sorrows mostly unscathed, I wish to help others out of theirs. But still I am searching for that "happy medium" in my own life, a way to balance the good with the bad, the joy with the pain, and to not err too much towards excess in any direction. Thus, this space, these words. Avid happiness, happy life: A V I D A L E G R I A.


Stone fruit

I cannot get enough of the fruit here in Italy. Especially the stone fruit, like the melange of peaches, plums, and apricots that I have stuffed with Acacia honey and fresh ricotta and baked under the broiler for an after-lunch dessert.

I rarely bother to buy these fruits in the U.S. There have been too many supermarket disappointments for me to waste my money on rock-hard apricots and mealy peaches. But here in Umbria, I cannot devise enough ways to eat these fruits; fresh they are delicious, but cooked and stewed they become something else altogether, an elixir of summer.

This morning we took a walk through the countryside near the house where we're staying. We saw groves of olive trees, vineyards, tomatoes on trellises, ducks in a duck-house, and rabbits in cages. One neighbor had a small orchard in his yard whose trees were laden with red peaches and green pears; we walked by with longing, but bought our fruit in town. It was probably picked this morning or yesterday, in a valley north of here, where most of the produce that we eat comes from.

Lunch today will be pork sides stewed in porcini and tomato broth; pasta; a green salad; and Umbrian wine. We may visit Cortona later today, after siesta -- Cortona is the city made famous by Frances Maye's Under the Tuscan Sun, and apparently somewhat ruined as a result of the publicity that she brought to the town. I will see if the place's charm comes through despite the nick nack shops and the gaggle of American tourists. And maybe I'll read the book, too, just to see what all the fuss is about!


Gelati per tutti

I love how Italian gelati are arranged in such a harmonious way, colorwise. They are so very tempting! -- but I'm beginning to think that gelati looks better than it tastes, for I've yet to find a cone that I've been truly satisfied with here. I don't know if I should attribute this to the fact that we're staying far from Italy's major cities, but in the meanwhile there's only one solution: to eat gelati in every city we visit, in search of that perfect cone.

Even with cone in hand, it's hard not to contemplate the next one:



When I spotted these beans in their long, pink-and-white pods at the market the other day, I immediately knew that I wanted to do something with them.

Borlotti, or cranberry beans, are common in Italian cooking, especially in Umbria, where the people are jokingly called mangiafagioli, or "bean-eaters."

I usually make thick, hearty, vegetable-strewn stews out of my beans, but these beans, fresh and fragrant, called for a technique to bring out the very earthiness of them. We cooked them simply, in fresh water with a little salt, then drained them and served them whole, with only olive oil, salt, and pepper as condiment.

I have never eaten beans like this before: so fresh and face-forward, unaccompanied by the usually cream, bacon, or herbs: beans alone -- what a revelation!



As a child, I loved the books of Scott O'Dell, which were, for the most part, compelling stories of Native American life before the coming of the Europeans, like his most famous book, Island of the Blue Dolphins. The historical fiction that I read as a child, more than anything, is what made me so interested in history as an adult, so willing to slip into other worlds and other times, as we did in Assisi yesterday.

In Assisi, I was reminded of another of O'Dell's great stories, The Road to Damietta, which, like all good children's books, is something that I would probably enjoy today, if I were able to get my hands on it (apparently it is now out-of-print). The Road to Damietta is about the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the man who made the city of Assisi famous and whose devotion and simple poverty inspired so many faithful Christians to emulate his lifestyle.

In Assisi today, with its lines of antique shops and its overwrought churches and basilicas, there seems to be little of that medieval devotion, though the city has plenty of charm, nonetheless. Chuan and I spent several very happy hours wandering up and down the streets of Assisi, until a thundercloud engulfed the city and we took refuge, quite literally, in the massive complex of the Church of St. Francis, to revel in its frescoes (supposedly Giotto's) and explore its crypt while we waited out the storm.

It rained on and on, so we said "What the heck," and set out again through the stormy city, touched upon two more churches (Santa Chiara and San Nicolo), and hailed the first bus we could back to the train station. When we arrived our train was just pulling in and we raced off the bus, through the tabacchi store in the station, out to the platform and on to the train -- drenched, but in good time. I've never been so close to missing a train.

When we arrived in our town again, just a few valleys over, the sun was shining as if rain had never seen Umbria, and it was a long trek up and through the town to get back to the house again. Gelati made a fitting end to our pilgrimage: