"Open my heart and you will see, Graved inside of it, Italy."
Robert Browning, British poet
Andiamo a fare una passeggiata, my Nonna would often say to me, Let's go for a walk. Those walks are the reason why Verona -- and indeed, all the boot that is Italy -- holds a special place in my heart. I've visited the big cities (Rome, Venice, Florence, Naples), driven along the winding roads of the Amalfi Coast, hiked through the Dolomites, and sailed to Capri. I've watched the sun rise and set behind a row of Cypress tress and heard the rain spattering on ancient cobblestone streets.
This past Saturday, I spoke at the Sacred Heart Garden Festival and invited my listeners to accompany me on a different passeggiata as we explored the mystique that is Italy and delved into the reasons why so many non-Italians have fallen in love with the country.
Ultimately, Italians have been shaped by land, climate, history, food ... and when you throw in the quintessential Italian attitude and passion ... there isn't a single (or simple!) reason that can adequately explain why people are so drawn to the country. Like the people themselves, it's complicated; however, just as all ancient roads led back to Rome, part of the answer of discovering Italy's charm somehow seems to always circle back to food.
Italian food and Italian people are inseparable, and their love affair with food spills over into lifestyle. Robin Leach once said, "In Italy, they add work and life on to food and wine," and there is an element of truth to his words. The food makes the people and the people make the food, and this marriage translates into all areas of life: how they entertain, socialize, do business, and celebrate life.
To begin our passeggiata, I quoted the opening lines of Carlo Collodi's book, Pinocchio: "Once upon a time there was ... 'A king!' my young readers will instantly exclaim. But no, children, that's where you're wrong. Once upon a time there was a piece of wood."
Once upon a time there was a piece of wood. Not a wood carver named Geppetto, not a puppet named Pinocchio, but a block of wood. Ultimately, the author is reminding his readers to go back to the origins of the story, to the essence of what is. The block of wood represents the roots of our humanity.
And so our passeggiata began at the hearth of the Peasant Kitchen, where most of the foods we know and love today found their origins. From there we moved forward in history to 1986 with the grand opening of the first McDonald's restaurant in Italy ... an event that threatened not only Italian food, but contemporary Italian lifestyle and culture. As a result, the Slow Food Movement was founded as a way to preserve a way of life which revolves around producing and eating great food in a relaxed, sociable way.
Our passeggiata ended with an invitation to a garden party in which I demonstrated how to incorporate concepts from the Peasant Kitchen and the Slow Food Movement into our lives here, in Augusta, Georgia. Some of those concepts included simplicity (simple does not mean easy!), the magic of dining al fresco, the importance of embracing the seasons, a reminder to slow down, and how the company around the dinner table is an ingredient in and of itself.
Of course, this is just a synopsis of my presentation. I actually spoke for almost 50 minutes, during which I told stories, passed out recipes, and used a beautiful farm table to create several tablescapes that corresponded to various stopping points along our passeggiata.
It was a beautiful and fun way to spend a Saturday, and the Sacred Heart Garden Festival is one of the most beautiful events our city has to offer. I want to thank Mary Louise for taking a chance and inviting a pretend gardener (me) to come speak; all the wonderful organizers at the festival for making me feel welcome; my friends who, despite a ridiculously busy Saturday (can we say prom?), came to listen to my presentation; and finally to Joe, Jonathan and Timothy who lugged that farm table from antique store, all the way home, to the festival, and back again.
"One of the very nicest things about life
is the way we must regularly stop whatever
it is we are doing and devote our
attention to eating."
-Luciano Pavarotti, opera singer