The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Be Grateful for Your Food

Pasta Waits for No One

Let's talk for a moment about gratitude. There doesn't seem to be a lot of it going around anymore, especially when it comes to food.

To me, one of the most egregious examples of ingratitude is the all too common practice of “wait a minute.” Italians have an old saying: “Pasta waits for no one.” In an Italian household, when the call to the table is given, you drop what you are doing and respond. There is no “wait a minute,” or “I'll be right there.” Such would be considered a dismissal of the cook's efforts. Cooking is love. Food is a gift. To say something to the effect of “what you've done for me isn't as important as what I'm doing right now, so I'll be there when I'm good and ready” repudiates the love and rejects the gift. The only thing that might be more rude than saying that to me is what I'll likely say to you in return. You come to my table ready to eat when I call you, or you can go eat cold leftovers in the garage.

As I said, the art of preparing good food – Italian or otherwise – is an act of love. The cook – the good cook, anyway – does more than just throw a few ingredients into a pot. There is an outpouring of creative energy, of time spent planning and preparing. There is a thoughtfulness and care that goes on each and every plate. A well-prepared meal set on a well-prepared table is the ultimate act of love expressed by the cook toward the family and friends – or even complete strangers – for whom the meal is prepared and the table set. It is an expression of an artist's soul. And you're gonna tell me, “just a minute?” You're gonna tell me that my time and effort and love are worth less than your watching some damn TV show or something? Not in my world.

In my world, as in the Italian world in general, the call to the dinner table is inviolate. It's like a call to prayer. It's an invitation to come together as a family and share the dance of life. When the pasta hits the table, the butts hit the chairs and the dance begins. To say something like, “I'll be there in a minute” is the ultimate insult. It is a rude, classless way of saying, “I don't care about the time you put in or the money you spent. I don't care about your effort or your feelings. I don't care about being a part of the whole. I've got more important things to do.” It's not done in an Italian family and it shouldn't be tolerated in any family.

It used to be tolerated in my wife's family......until I came along. Her brother was one of the worst offenders. Seems like he always had something else to do or one more thing to finish up when the food was served. “Okay. I'll be right there.” Then he'd saunter in when he was ready, meaning the meal was being held in the meantime and everything was getting cold. When I was cooking on his turf, i.e. his parents' house, there wasn't much I could do other than fume. But he made that mistake once when he visited my wife and me at our home. And I do mean “once.” I didn't go all pazzo on him, but I did explain quite emphatically all the things I outlined in the previous paragraphs – love, respect, family, etc. And guess what? It worked. He apologized and explained that nobody had ever laid it out that way for him before. He not only got the concept, he passed it along to his kids and now everybody shows up at the table, ready to partake of the food and the shared family experience.

According to the dictionary, to be grateful means to be “warmly or deeply appreciative of kindness or benefits received; to be thankful.” This, of course, is the diametric opposite of being entitled, an attitude I find far more prevalent these days.

People who walk through life with an ineffable sense of entitlement generally feel that everything is due them simply because they exist. It is we who should be grateful to them merely for gracing us with their presence. I know people like this and I suspect you do as well. And it's loads of fun trying to cook for them. I have been feeding such a person at holidays and on other occasions for the better part of two decades and I have yet to receive as much as a simple “thank you” for my efforts. Oh, the guy is quick enough to sit down and chow down, often going back for seconds and thirds. But, far from warm or deep appreciation, I have yet to experience even superficial acknowledgment. It's like I'm expected to feed him just because he's there.

By the definition previously alluded to, cooking is an act of kindness that provides a benefit. Therefore, it is something for which the recipient should be “warmly or deeply appreciative.” It is a gift. And what did your mother teach you to say when you were given a gift? “Thank you.”

The traditional Catholic blessing before a meal includes the words, “Bless us, oh Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.” Whether from the Lord's bounty or simply from your mom's kitchen, food is, indeed, a gift. Most Protestants go a step further in their invocations, expressing thankfulness not only for the food, but generally including an exhortation to “bless the hands that prepared it.” Both are indicative of a feeling of warm or deep appreciation for our food, although I must admit a slight bias for the one in which the cook gets a little credit.

Recently I read an article in which the writer espoused the theory that the reason many people don't like to cook anymore is because of a lack of appreciation for their efforts. They look upon cooking as a chore and a thankless task because.........well, because they don't get any thanks. Having some experience along those lines, I concur that it can be difficult to muster any enthusiasm to cook for someone who plants his face in whatever you've prepared without ever giving you the slightest indication of approbation. The writer further opined that whiners and complainers are even worse, the thought being that it might be better to have somebody stuff their face in silence than to have them nitpick every morsel that goes down their ungrateful gullet. Here, too, I agree, because the individual I referenced earlier, although incapable of compliment, is quick enough to complain.

I am fortunate to come from a family of good cooks. Generations of my family have been involved in the food service industry. Even those who never set foot in a professional kitchen were outstanding home cooks. To us, food has never been something to be slapped on a plate and thrown on a table to meet a basic biological need. From choosing the finest ingredients to employing the best cooking techniques to plating and serving in the most attractive manner, food has been important to us. Whether a big holiday feast or a simple weekend breakfast, food has been our gift to one another and to those whom we have served. And it is a gift that works both ways. Surely you've heard “it is more blessed to give than to receive.” Family, friends, and other guests are always telling me, “you didn't have to do that” or “you didn't have to go to all that trouble.” And they're right; I didn't have to. I chose to because of the joy and fulfillment it brings me. And the only thing I ever ask in return is for the recipient of my gift to be “warmly and deeply appreciative.” Not necessarily effusively or demonstratively. I don't need people to go into paroxysms of praise over my pasta or to wax poetic about my pizza. A clean plate and a “thanks, that was good” is all any cook ever really needs.

So next time you ask, “Give us this day our daily bread”..........remember also to be grateful for it. And for the hands that prepared it.

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