Saturday, November 26, 2005

Therapeutic benefits of cooking

When I immigrated to Italy I thought I knew how to cook. I could prepare just about any type of roast, mashed potatoes, various gravies, a mean potato salad, and my box cakes were moist and fluffy. One day my family was visiting my wife’s aunt and we prepared mayonnaise from eggs and oil for a Russian Salad (this is not really of Russian origin, just the name for a fresh vegetable salad mixed with mayonnaise). I always assumed that mayonnaise was an industrial concoction that could not be prepared at home. I thought I was a pretty smart kid, started University at 15, but had no clue of how to make mayonnaise! My mind was opened to a whole new world.

Perhaps, my favorite German Chocolate Cake could be prepared without buying a box mix. This was exciting because at that time there were no box mixes for cakes in Italy. Canned macaroni and cheese or frozen prepared foods just did not exist so I started to experiment with various dishes and at times it is what kept me going.

When my oldest daughter was about 4, I had this terrible craving for cinnamon roles however this is not a typical Italian sweet. The biscotti were fantastic as were the fresh pastries but I really wanted some hot cinnamon roles, you know, the kind you can buy in the cooler section of the dairy department at the grocery store. Remembering the mayonnaise, I thought that I could probably make the cinnamon roles at home.

In this period I was starting a new business so I did not spend much time at home but one Sunday morning I was in the kitchen at about 4:30. I had bought a Betty Crocker cookbook at one of the international bookstores in Milan. I found the recipe and prepared the dough. I did not have a mixer so I prepared everything by hand. Then I started kneading the dough. It was great; I found the physical activity relaxed me. My oldest daughter really liked the cinnamon roles and still talks about them today.

Needless to say I started making the cinnamon roles every weekend. Later to save money on wine, I found a farmer in Asti who produced his own Barbara. I started buying 55 liter damigiane directly from him and learned the ins and outs of bottling wine. I bought my own materials to bottle and cork the wine. That is truly an interesting experience.

At Christmas one year our neighbors invited us for Christmas eve dinner. They were from Southern Italy, had a large family and cooked very well. Mr. Pittori made his own pasta for the dinner. I watched with great interest and after tasting the pasta was sure this was something I needed to do. He had prepared and rolled the pasta by hand. We then cut large strips with metal wire and cooked the pasta with a seafood sauce.

I was off on another adventure, making pasta at home. This became my Saturday afternoon engagement. Business was becoming more and more hectic as the company grew. I saw less and less of my kids and this was a great opportunity to be with them. Fresh pasta was even more relaxing than the cinnamon roles. Good pasta comes from a thorough blending of the wet and dry ingredients and patience when rolling the pasta. The more you roll the pasta the better it maintains its consistency when cooking.

On the weekends I would prepare as much as possible for the week and put it in the freezer. My ex did not enjoy the kitchen and I found the change of pace and the physicality of the process to compensate for the ever growing demands of the company.

My mother made a spaghetti sauce and my oldest sister’s favorite meal was spaghetti with meat sauce or should I say meat sauce with a few spaghetti. I learned to make this 3 day sauce as a kid and started preparing large batches on the weekend. It is not a Bolognese although it is based on ground meat. I have modified the sauce over the years to give the balance that I am looking for when cooking.

Obviously the next step was lasagna. Great lasagna require besciamella, not ricotta cheese. I did not know how to make besciamella but learned quickly and Sunday afternoon became known among family and friends as lasagna time for anyone who showed up.

I later added many dishes and recipes became an opportunity for me to know my business partners and their families on a more personal level. This is something I have come to follow religiously in business, only do business with those you like. There are many people and organizations with money but the people are the basic part of the equation. No contract can protect you from bad people and investors whom are interested in the immediate gratification will very rarely be able to wait out a tough cycle and all businesses go through a tough cycle. So either your timing is perfect or you and your investors will lose money.

Even with this mentality it is still very difficult to be successful but you will have one step up on the rest of the world. So my rule has become, they can cook, they know wine, or they know food and most importantly I have to like them or I will not do business with them.

A great meal is in the preparation. Working together with people you like or in my case with my wonderful wife or our friends is relaxing, enjoyable and helps me remember the things that are most important. For me that is creating something that people want to wolf down, even over indulge themselves, chatting with our family and friends, and drinking some good wine. After an evening like this you can go back and take on all the difficulties that the world will throw at you and remember that in the end you are the sum of your experiences not what others perceive you to be. Your money, degrees, and recognition mean absolutely nothing. Once you are gone only those whom you touched will ever remember your name or anything about you. Perhaps this is easier for an Italian to understand, when you see the great structures built in the 1400s and realize, they were rich and famous to create and own such works of art but who were they?

Spend time with your family and friends, those that make you laugh and appreciate you for what you are. Create great food for them, or participate in the masterpiece created by someone else. These are the things that matter. These are the memories that are worth cultivating. Live to Work or Work to Live, that is the question.


Labels: ,


Blogger Solomon said...

Nice blog. keep up the good work. i sure will regularly be coming back. You can check out my blog
Solomon's voip world devoted to voip technology and internet telephony.

7:18 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Thanks for the comment. Look forward to seeing you often.

2:32 PM

Blogger Thanis said...

Ah the joy of cooking! I remembered when I was in Australia as a student and we could virtually buy anything premade - cake mixes as well - but when I graduated and went back to my home country, I realised that things need to be made from scratch most of the time, since we don't really have much choice and hence the cooking adventures began. Great blog!

6:58 PM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Thanis Knowing the basic ingredients is really important. The pancake mix for example will cost you 5 times more in the store than buying the ingredients and mixing them yourself. Just think, better quality at a much reduced time and only 5 minutes to prepare it.

Give the Cookie Monster a read. It is quite interesting.

4:52 AM


Post a Comment

<< Home