· The culture of giving ·
A rather modest kitchen is my first memory. There was the usual pale blue wooden sideboard, a table, four chairs, a stone sink, the smells of home cooking. My grandmother was at the stove, right behind my mother, I’d be in the high chair, then at the table with my exercise books. Later in time, I acquired the right to several duties which did not involve the use of knives: kneading, beating and mixing…. It was in that kitchen that the genealogical thread between us was tightened and reached me too. Moreover food was always to be the highest and happiest moment of my relationship with my mother. Food, that is to say nourishment, through which also passed the pleasure which she knew how to give. The kitchen was the place from which my mother’s authority came, the authority that I was able to recognize in her, the same authority that she had received from her own mother, my grandmother. That kitchen was the place where knowledge circulated between us.
Nourishment is a link. A link between bodies. The new-born baby experiences this in suckling and the mother in giving her milk. Nourishing, preparing food and making it edible are part of an experience, a knowledge that concerns women above all. Over the course of the centuries cooking has certainly been a work of female culture, a culture of giving, of life and of pleasure. It is passed down from mother to daughter, it begins with a small girl watching a grown-up woman, it is passed on and learned without books or spelling primers, in a bodily contact that sets a seal on the relationship. At the beginning it is a mere babbling, as when one first learns one’s mother tongue, where there are no rules but only the mystery of the belonging of two bodies and an unconscious transmission of the greatest form of knowledge: language.
Sometimes, but not always, passion does the rest. It raises the preparation of food to another level, it removes it from the sense of obligation and service and makes it become a special job. Nourishment and caring remain present, but passion surpasses them. It is then that the task begins of seeking taste, of pleasing others, of effort and of giving. Emerging from the objective of being purely nutritional invests cooking with another meaning, a free and relational value. It is this link between nutrition and passion that rules the game which one day I named “relational cooking”.
I realized that every gesture, right from the outset, even if only in front of the stove, provided for others. The image of other bodies was beside me since my very first move and always with me was their need for food and their capacity for experiencing taste and pleasure.
We cook, we offer and we eat in order to connect with others. Materially, with the body.
All the stages required for the preparation of food require other people. Your fellow diners are already silent and invisible beside you from the start and waiting for as long as it takes. And then there is the table: they do their part, it is the moment for sharing and if food has acted as a good go-between, it is more likely that relationships will develop.
Food is an easy and short path to fostering communication. It is a pleasure to give and to share, what is more it is a pleasure of the body, thus a strong pleasure but also one that can be practised and expended with lightness. In this sense it is much more than mere nutrition and goes further than its caring role. It enters the free giving of the relationship. Naming its symbolic value and its value of exchange gives it a further meaning. Another meaning. This is relational cooking.
“Do you want something to eat? Some spaghetti?” is the most important sentence I know. It is painful, it is beautiful and I associate it with extreme cases. It goes straight to the other person and holds out a hand to him or her. It rebuilds bridges where everything has collapsed.
My mother said it. When I had the dreadful task of telling her that her son was dead, while I feared for her health and a possible sudden illness; instead she became more beautiful, her face relaxed, with her green eyes and the pallor of stone, and with an imposing calm she asked: “Do you want some spaghetti?” It was the first thing she said. In her bewilderment, she had nothing else to give, nothing else that could be taken. Her thoughts were far away but her stove allowed her to stay with us, with me.
A malign fate struck me years later with the same irreparable pain. And then a friend. All three of us turned to food as if it were holy, to the stove as to the tabernacle.
Food and death go well together. Food is a remedy for death. Obedience passes that way. Obedience that no one asks for. Obedience in order to live. Obedience as a relief. There is a nothingness that cannot be filled, there is a pain that one doesn’t want to be rid of. You soon learn that this pain can accompany life and that in seeking to be rid of it or to overcome it you remain alone. When it isn’t there you seek it and when it is too much you turn to thousands of stratagems. One of them is cooking.
In the nothingness of loss, of missing and absence, a nothingness that there is no way of filling, when rebellion is useless, resignation impossible, forgetfulness dangerous, and dwelling on it foolishness, obedience and an act of peaceful resistance remain: cooking food. Then there is a secret room in which it is essential to withdraw: the kitchen. Here is the sound of water that fills it, of fire, of knives cutting and of pieces of kitchen equipment that make themselves heard. It is here that you start down the path that leads to others in order to remain attached to the earth. It is here that life conquers everything.
Giving food is an act of removal from death and in extreme cases from its allure. Food, strength and vital power, counter them.
So cooking means opposing that nothingness which movement cannot fill. Those rapid, obligatory actions, careful to avoid the catastrophe always lying in wait, as in life: the sauce that burns in an instant, pasta that is overcooked or too much salt; these actions bring you back to the reality that eludes you, they put your feet back on the ground. The measuring out, the procedures, the recipe become the rule. Not to be disobeyed. An exercise of life, the rule of a life that is fleeting.
When I cook it seems to me that life is eternal. For everyone. Nourishment puts it back on track. Moreover in the end someone will eat that food and the relationship will be accomplished.
St. Peter’s Square
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