Thursday, April 8, 2010


Thornton Wildee called Rome the northernmost point in Africa. Tuscany is just a little north of Rome. It, too, is Africa when it comes to birds and summer heat.
For three springs now I've noticed the first feathered inkling of Africa, right around Easter, above the tiny pieve (chapel) marking the turn to the white road that leads to our property, sitting on a telephone wire as it's mate forages on the ground. It is the pushme-pullyou hammerhead of birds. Somewhat woodpeckerish, in low light you can't tell which way it is looking because it seems to sprout beaks from both sides of it's head.

It is a bird of habit and of place and reassuringly returns each year to this same little pocket of Africa at the northernmost edge of its range. It is the bellwether bird. And for 3 Tuscan springs I have known the good weather has arrived when I see the hoepoe perched on the line at the turn-off to Tana Lepre (Hare's Den). This morning, there they were -- the hoepoe and il bel tempo.

Tomorrow the bed arrives and I will nestle in!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Hunger Appetite Famine

It is Pasqua, Easter Sunday, and I am driving in a driving rain up into the hills over Lake Trasemino above the plain where Hannibal's army ambushed and slaughtered a legion in a humiliating defeat that ran the waters of the lake red with Roman blood. So I am thinking of history and food.

Chef and TED Prize winner Jamie Oliver says his big wish is that Americans teach their kids to have a real relationship to food. Real food.

Generalization: Most Italians have a different relationship to food than most Americans. Until sometime in the last 10 years, 80% of all Italians grew some of what they ate.

I remember my first trip to Italy in the mid-90's. On the train from Rome to Venice, I was amused by the little gardens tucked into every centimeter and inch of usable space along the tracks the entire way. In empty lots, in yards, in parking lots, on balconies, in tractor tires... you get the idea. Now you see less of this, but not much. This is not something you see in the States. Not yet.

Try to explain the Easter Bunny to an Italian and he'll smack his lips and dream of stewing it in wine, wild garlic and mushrooms. It's not cute, it's food. Many in our area over the age of 70, and there are many around here over 70, can remember something else few Americans can relate to -- "the famine" of the fascist years.

I've always had a good appetite, and the only true gnawing hunger I've known was as a kid. Once, I was rifling through a dumpster bin at a rest stop in the Sierra Nevada's near Mount Shasta after my car broke down near the end of a cross country trip. I was 17. I hadn't eaten anything but coffee in over 24 hours. I'd found a bread bag with a crust in it, a cereal box with a few corn flakes left, and a peanut butter jar with two finger's worth of goo. I'd caught a crawfish in the little mountain stream burbling behind the parking lot in a coffee can and was contemplating eating it raw like Richard Harris did in the movie A Man Called Horse. And of course this was before sushi had become an American household word.

As I was rifling some more, a girl about 12-years-old tapped me on the shoulder. She was holding a paper plate with a big piece of chocolate cake on it. She had a sandwich bag with a tuna sandwich in it. She had a can of cold orange soda fresh out of the family cooler. She held them out to me with stiff arms. "My mother thought you should have this." I looked over at the picnic table where her family sat. They were gawking, but not impolitely.

I accepted the gifts and sat down at the far end of their picnic table where I devoured them. I showed the girl the crawfish in the can. Then we both let it go. I thanked the mother and the very quiet father and the girl. And I've always remembered how my discomfort -- not just this once, but many times over the years -- was eased by the easy generosity of strangers. What happened for my stomach that day wasn't as profound as what happened for my sense of humanity.

This is how, as I drive through this verdant farmland to Easter supper with friends in Umbria, I contemplate the deeper meaning of today's feast, here in Italy, and in my life. Perhaps it is something we should all do a little more of.

Buona Pasqua and buon apetito!