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Passages to Italy: The Infinite Pantry

Everyone who spends time in Italy comes away with a story that captures the essence of the culture. Here, four American writers share their quintessential Italian experiences.

As predictable as rural life might seem to an outsider, it is full of surprises, as I’ve learned spending summers at my sister Jem’s in Tuscany. Take the morning last July, for instance, when Jem and I were tidying up after breakfast at Poggiarello, the 11th-century castle outside of Siena where she; her husband, Marco; and their two daughters live alongside her in-laws—who, Everybody Loves Raymond–style, also have an apartment on the estate. We heard her father-in-law, Mario, lurking around outside, as he does when he’s got something to say and isn’t quite sure how to get started. “Jemmy,” he called in to us in his barely intelligible super-Tuscan Italian, “would you be interested in some plums?” In retrospect, I see that our answer ought to have depended on what “interested” meant. We were presented, following a vague affirmative, with a huge plastic crate holding maybe 10 kilos of the fruit. “Napolini [the farmer next door] had some extra” was the apologetic explanation.

This is the kind of questionable windfall that occurs all the time at “Pogg.” Marco kills a wild boar, and his mother, Rita, has to spend the weekend butchering and freezing the meat—all 80 kilos of it. The porcini come into season and, after eating them grilled and fried, in rice and in pasta, one begins to wonder if that mushroom-gathering walk ought to be a yearly tradition after all.

When baking two cakes barely made a dent in the pile of plums, Jem decided we had to make jam. But where to get the sugar? It was a Sunday, and all of the local shops were closed. In situations like this, as anyone who has spent more than a night at Pogg knows, there is only one thing to do: Ask Rita. Need a potato? She offers a bag. Two eggs? You get two dozen. When we visited at Christmas, I had to tell her that our family just couldn’t fit a third panettone into the cupboard of our apartment. (It was already crammed with the plate-a-day Christmas cookies she’d been dropping off.) It’s not just, as I had originally assumed, that Rita and her peers still feel the effects of deprivation during the Second World War years. Sienese women of her generation have such a profound sense of obligation and desire to feed the family that they simply wouldn’t be caught dead without the preparations on hand for a four-course meal for 60.

Muttering, in response to our request for sugar, her typically noncommittal answer, “Qualcosa dovrei avere” ("I ought to have something”), Rita went over to her kitchen and returned with two one-kilo bags. Great, we thought, more than enough to get started. As we began to pit the plums in my sister’s kitchen, Rita shuffled in carrying two more bags—“found,” so she said, at the back of her pantry. A little while later, the woman labored in again with half a dozen one-kilo boxes. “Where’d you get those?” my sister asked, for by now—at 10 full kilos—even she was impressed. As soon as Rita left, Jem translated her response for me: “Oh, I went down under the church,” she had evidently replied, “where the real supplies are.”

Caitlin Macy is the author of The Fundamentals of Play.

Published September 2007
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