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Exercise #18: Food That Defines a Place

Note: I wrote the following exercise at the end of a long day when I didn’t have much energy or imagination left for writing. I’m only posting it on my blog because I don’t want to upset my loyal readers by leaving a gap at Exercise #18 in the series of exercises on which I’ve been chipping away. I don’t usually inflict the raw, unfiltered stream-of-consciousness emanations of my tortured brain on anyone else—except my friend Jo. So unless you’re reeeeally bored—or one of the aforementioned loyal readers—I’d skip this one if I were you. (No, really.)

It’s very late, and I’ve had a long day. I was up early without very much sleep, and I had a mountain of work to get done before a meeting with a new client, and then I had an event to go to in the evening, so I was blowin’ and goin’ pretty much all day, and so I haven’t taken any time to write to the 50/50 prompt yet. My usual routine is to write in 25-minute “episodes,” but the 50/50 prompts usually take me a little longer than that. I’m also still working on my “3,000-Word Initiative”—trying to write 3,000 words a day. And a lot of what I do for the 3kWI is stream-of-consciousness stuff. When I write stream-of-consciousness, I can crank out about 1,500 words in 25 minutes. But when I write to the 50/50 prompts, I tend to be more careful and deliberate, because, after all, someone else is going to be reading them, even if it’s just my captive audience of one. But tonight I’m in a hurry. I’m sleep-deprived, I’m exhausted, and I still have a full day of activities to get through tomorrow before I can call it a weekend. So I’m going to try to kill two birds with one stone and write stream-of-consciousness to the 50/50 prompt, no matter how rough it is, no matter how run-on my sentences may grow, and no matter how many digressions about men and sex and any other topic off the top of my head might pop up.

So the prompt is about food, food and place, foods that remind me of something, and so forth. The thing that I thought of first is probably the best approach on this one, and that was to talk about Rome. Of course it’s about Rome! My favorite topic. And the food in question is antipasto. Antipasto in the United States has come to have a fairly conventional definition—some cold cuts, a few slices of cheese, maybe some olives or a little fresh fruit. Nine out of 10 Italian restaurants will give you some variation on that theme. But those are only a few from among the many things that Italians would serve as antipasti.

Antipasti is the plural of antipasto. And as long as we’re talking about language, here’s what’s wrong the American idea of antipasto: all that the word means is “before the pasta.” And you can serve all kinds of things before the pasta. Sure, cold cuts are an option. Italian cuisine is full of wonderful cured meats—salami, mortadella (what we call “bologna”), prosciutto—and they frequently turn up on antipasto plates. And cheese turns up, too. And not just mozzarella. In Italy, restaurants will serve whatever they have, or whatever was good that day at the market. That’s really the only guideline for putting together antipasto—you serve what you feel like serving, based on what looked good at the market and what you felt like cooking—which is probably guided, at least in some cases, by what the cook felt like eating that day.

I’ve had antipasti that included assortments of freshly pickled vegetables—carrots, eggplant, cucumbers, olives—or roasted vegetables, or breaded and fried vegetables. My all-time favorite in nearly any form in which they care to serve it to me: artichoke hearts. The artichoke is king in Rome. It’s the centerpiece of Roman cuisine from the first harvesting of small, delicate buds in March all the way through the summer and into the late fall, when the last huge heads are served braised or stuffed and roasted. And speaking of blossoms, zucchini blossoms are another thing you’ll find on an antipasto place, usually stuffed with some kind of mild or soft cheese spiced with nutmeg and herbs.

The antipasto experience is typical of the Italian outlook on life. It’s not about blowing you away with the most expensive ingredients or an elaborate technique. It’s about taking things as they come and then finding ways to savor them. I’ve had antipasto plates that are a simple as a pile of olives drizzled with lemon juice and olive oil and served with thick chunks of rustic bread.

Okay, that’s all I’ve got for tonight. Out of gas.

Note: I warned you, didn’t I?

© 2009 Edward F. Gumnick

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