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I'm still working on the book.  Various friends who've walked this path before me have referred to this point in the process as "the black hole of despair," "why crystal meth was invented," and "the point at which you lay in bed at night wondering if you should just give back the money."  All of those characterizations seem about right.

Writing a book is hard.  Really, really hard.  Don't let anyone tell you differently.

On the upside, I've been writing and thinking a lot these days about how I came to be a cook, and what I learned in my first years in the kitchen, and I thought of this courtyard.

I was on my junior year abroad, living in London, the first time I went to Italy.  Everyone told me I had to go to Florence, so I managed to get there and stay in a hostel for a couple of nights. I was totally stunned by the beauty of the town.  Just up the road from my hostel was this stunning courtyard, behind a cast iron gate, and each time I passed by I imagined the kinds of people who must live in a place like that, in a town like Florence, in a country like Italy.  I was about twenty years old, and had never imagined that life could be lived in a place where beauty like that was so quotidian.

I remember hoping that perhaps one day I could live in a place as beautiful as the building locked behind that gate.

A few years later, I returned to Florence, to apprentice myself to Benedetta Vitali at Trattoria Zibibbo.  For the first couple of months, she put me up in a convent in the hills above Florence, from which I could walk to work.  I ate my meals with nuns, stumbling through conversations with them in my pidgin Italian, washed my clothes on a washboard in the courtyard, and slept beneath a giant crucifix in my sterile dorm room.  It was amazing, but secluded and lonely.

Eventually, Benedetta moved me into town, onto Via dei Serragli, which is still one of my favorite streets in the world.  I packed up my bags, was dropped off in front of the apartment and handed a key.  I was so excited to be moving into the center of town, near museums and bookstores and cafes and non-nun-people that I hardly noticed where I was being moved into.  It took a couple of days of exploration before I realized that my new apartment was in the exact same building I'd spent all of that time day-dreaming about when I'd first come to Italy.  "Perhaps one day" had come a lot sooner than I'd ever imagined.

There's been a lot of this kind of serendipity in my life, and it helps to remember that.  Especially when I'm deep in the black hole of despair.

La Sagra del Maiale:
A Whole Hog Demonstration & Dinner at Soul Food Farm
Saturday, July 14th

The nearly two years I lived in Italy in the early oughts shaped and inspired my approach to cooking and life as much as anything. I was extremely fortunate to have several people take me under their respective wings and teach me about Italian food history, traditions, and culture, but no relationship was as meaningful as the one I developed with Dario Cecchini, who welcomed me into his shop and his family with open arms.

Dario, the charismatic butcher profiled in Bill Buford's Heat, continues to inspire me daily with his commitment to his craft, to community and to preserving Tuscan food and cultural traditions. His incredible generosity takes many forms, but none so important as the way he mentors aspiring cooks and butchers. Over the years, Dario has had a long line of students and protégés in Italy, but he's also taught and encouraged many of our own favorite local butchers here in the Bay Area to invest in this craft. One of the his earliest students, Riccardo Ricci has been with Dario since he was practically a kid. Now a seasoned butcher in his own right, he's coming to the Bay Area for a visit and a series of events.

When Chris from Avedano's and Alexis from Soul Food Farm asked me to participate in a butchery demonstration and dinner with Riccardo on the farm, I leapt at the chance. I haven't been back to Italy in far too many years, so any time Dario or one of his butchers comes to town, I track them down so we can share a meal together. This time, I get to cook with Riccardo! Inspired by the traditional Italian sagra, or outdoor feast celebrating the season's bounty, we're throwing a Sagra del Maiale in honor of the glorious, versatile pig.

photo: peden+munk
Riccardo Ricci of Antica Macelleria Cecchini, joined by Chris Arentz of Avedano's and John Fink of The Whole Beast will perform a whole hog butchery demonstration and showcase several of Dario's most beloved recipes. Each guest will receive a handout describing the cuts and recipes to keep and take home. After the butchery and cooking demo, Riccardo and Chris will answer any questions that may have arisen.

As the sun sets, you'll be seated at farm tables and enjoy a family-style dinner featuring all of Dario's classic pork dishes, including tonno del Chianti, fresh garlic sausages, and of course arista in porchetta. Using produce from the farm and other nearby purveyors, I'll be doing what I love to do most--making piles and piles of salads and fresh summer vegetable dishes to pass around. I'm even trying to cajole one of my baker friends into making us some special loaves inspired by Tuscan flavors for the feast. We'll serve bright, acidic wines to keep things fresh, and when the sun gives way to stars and a waning moon we'll pass out platters of biscotti and vin santo brought over from Italy by Riccardo before sweetly bidding you goodnight.


WHO: Riccardo Ricci, Chris Arentz, John Fink, Alexis Koefoed & me
WHAT: La Sagra del Maiale: A Whole Hog Demonstration & Dinner at Soul Food Farm
WHERE: Soul Food Farm// 6046 Pleasants Valley Road// Vacaville, CA 95688
WHEN: Saturday, July 14th from 5-10pm
WHY: To have endless, delicious fun with our friend visiting from Italy, and to share it with you!
HOW MUCH: $185 per person, includes butchery demonstration, recipe booklet, five-course family-style dinner, abundant wine (tax & gratuity included)
TO RESERVE: call or email Alexis at (707) 365-1798 or

Tickets will sell out as we are limiting this event to 30 people, so reserve soon!

la befana

La Befana, originally uploaded by organicc.

i forgot to write about the befana on january 6th. the befana is one of my favorite things about italy.

she's a fabulous old woman, not exactly a witch, who rides around on a broom and brings children presents on the day of the epiphany, which is january 6th. in italy, kids don't really get presents on christmas. instead, they leave out the biggest, most worn out socks they can find on the night of the 5th, along with a glass of wine and a plate with some delicious leftovers, and hope that she'll come fill them with candies, oranges and gifts (and not lumps of coal).

because she's extremely polite, she'll sweep your floor on her way out with your broom, too.

cheese, part 2

Cheese, originally uploaded by BrianEden.

i love flickr. i was searching through my photos for a shot of the baroni stand at mercato centrale in florence, where paola and alessandro baroni have curated their findings of the rarest, softest, freshest pecorini toscani. i couldn't find one of my own, but lo and behold, this lovely shot was just a couple of searches away. i'd recognize that handwriting anywhere.

you might be wondering why i am suddenly so concerned with cheese as to write two very long posts about it. well, i think about cheese a lot to begin with, but now that i have this ridiculous cast on my arm and it's suddenly fuh-reezing outside, only one long-sleeved garment i own has fatty sleeves big enough to go over my chubs arm--the sweatshirt i got at the old artisan cheese shop on california st. 6 years ago. it has a cute little mouse on it, and it says j'aime le fromage in curlicue cursive on the back. i never get to wear this sweatshirt, and now i can't wear anything else.

ok, back to jean d'alos: he's an affineur--a dying breed--a man who takes good handmade cheeses and makes them really special by aging them with a craftsman's touch. one of the things that sticks in my mind from the lectures he gave is his acknowledgement of everything that women have done for cheese. farmhouse cheeses--specifically the comte that he is so famous for--were invented by farmwives as a way to make milk last throughout the winter. jean's wife pascale shares a lot of his work, and together they travel through the countryside to choose cheeses to bring home to treat and age in their caves...a.k.a. the catacombs beneath bordeaux. they do magical things like rub cheeses with piment d'espelette, sauternes, saffron, juniper berries, cayenne pepper, savory, and peppercorns, wrap them with burlap cloths, and wash them repeatedly with brine during the aging process. he even ages one of the crazy/famous jose bove's cheeses.

jean d'alos and his family are so very special because they still do things the old way. they give the cheeses the care and time they need to go from good to perfect. these days, most cheeses are made in huge stainless steel factories, and the art of the affineur is considered by most to be irrelavent. in this fast-paced world, who has time to wait two years for some comte (the most popular cheese in france) when you can buy a six-month one at the store for a lot less money? i encourage everyone to stop by a real cheese shop in your town sometime, and ask for cheeses that have been aged by a real affineur, or to taste artisan versions next to their factory-made counterparts. if my boo-hooing hasn't been enough to pursuade you, you will surely be able to trust your own taste buds.

though i don't recommend actually buying cheese any way other than in person, these websites are good places to learn a bit, and all of them have corresponding brick-and-mortar shops for you to check out:

formaggio kitchen (boston)
artisanal cheese (new york)
murray's cheese shop (new york)
cowgirl creamery (sf, pt. reyes, wash. dc)
zingerman's (ann arbor, mi)

i have no words

i want to go to pakistan and hopefully iran and afghanistan because i want to acknowledge that the world i spend most of my time in, worrying about money, worrying about what i am going to do with my life, worrying my silly worries, is not the only world that i am a part of.

i sit here, depressed and worried about money, friends, visas, this book, becoming what i want to become.

but really there is so much more.

a man at my work, with whom i usually don't get along, has an ailing newborn.
i don't particularly like him, but i have been sure let him know that i will do anything
i can for him, to make his life and his baby's
life easier.

people are struggling with living so much more desperately than i have ever
wrestled with myself.

i want to go there to see.
i want to go there to feel.
i want to go there to understand.

i will probably never understand.
but i want to try.

i have no words for this.

i was reading this

i was reading this article in the new yorker about alex ross's awakening to pop music, and he mentions 924 gilman. this world seems so small sometimes, like when i am reading on the bumpy, bumpy bus up to careggi and boopideeboop, out of nowhere (ok, maybe that isn't the best sound effect), comes a mention of a random punk palace in my old 'hood.

reading is cool.
smallworldfeeling is cool.
the bumpy, bumpy bus is not cool.

but it snowed today and that's cold.

about the murder

i still don't know if it was technically a murder, but i do know that there is a bunch of "zona polizia" tape up all over the doors of the dead guy's apartment (i hold my breath and look away and run past it every time), and the latest thing that i have heard is that the old dude had a lover or someone who is a possible suspect. i still don't know how he died, though. and there is some speculation on why there were always young people coming and going out of his apartment (drugs? sex? no one knows. well, i don't). i'll let you know when i find out.

bella italia

in case that other story is way too long for you, here is something much shorter with a similar "oh, italy" effect:


From a Tuscan travel brochure.

Spending a holiday by Mazzocchi-Marilli's like to find the hospitality of old friends. Beside you can feel an atmosphere of thoughtlessness and light-heartedness, which only a Tuscan farm can offer.

--from the Jan. 26, 2004 New Yorker

oh, italy

alright, here is an excellent story that i never got around to telling most people because i was so exhausted by the time it was over:

a few days before new year's, i went to the very south of italy (a town called montalbaro, in basilicata. the godfather was filmed not far from there.) with my friend, CB, to visit her best friend and family. i was stoked to go, because i haven't really explored the south, and i wanted to see what the food and people and land were like. i knew it wouldn't be the kind of traveling i usually do, because we'd be staying with a family, but i was excited about the change. so CB sent me out to buy the bus tickets--we were going to take an overnight bus because it was faster and more direct than the train--since the station is not far from my apartment. she told me not to buy return tickets, which i thought was odd. i ALWAYS get, if not a return ticket, at least a ticket out to my next destination (unless i am traveling on the train; even then sometimes i buy a return). i'm not saying i am the king of traveling or anything, but i know this much. she swore that it's not really the most popular route and that of course there would be return tickets. ok....

so we left on the night of the 29th and got there on the 30th. the people we were staying with were extremely generous and warm, but they had many visitors. the thing i learned about rural italy that i had forgotten last year is that people are awfully provincial and closed-minded. yeesh! from the second i got there, i became known as "The Iranian" and it took these people nearly a week to learn my name. now, it would have been one thing if they had stuck to their little prejudices about me being iranian, but i have the sad disadvantage of also coming from america. so i was also "The American." most of these people have never left the countryside, let alone italy, so.....let the gross generalizations begin!!! it was really too much.

not only that, but then they found out i can cook, so they tried to get me to make them dinner one night, which i would have been happy to do. except that, the only thing that most italians are more opinionated about than food is soccer, so no one could agree on what they wanted me to make, and we all know how i feel about picky eaters. so i said, no way, i am not cooking for you people. besides the fact that they couldn't decide what they wanted, those people had a major aversion to salt. the food there was ridiculously bland (i thought it was the entire region that ate like that, but it turns out that i just got unlucky and found the only family in southern italy who doesn't use salt), and i was always adding salt to everything. they told me, if i cooked, i couldn't add salt. they said salt is bad for you. i'm no doctor, but i'd venture to say that the teaspoon or so of salt that i eat everyday is a lot less unhealthy than the pack of cigarettes each of them was smoking daily. i rebelled and refused to cook. then they thought i was offended.

i wasn't offended, i was just sick of 20 people ganging up on me and judging my every habit: you take a shower every day? you're going to go bald! you put milk in your tea? disgusting! you eat ricotta with honey? nasty! (except that's one of the most traditional dishes in rome. hello, WHERE did these people come from?) you don't blow dry your hair? you are going to DIE! you want to eat a snack? you have the weirdest eating habits IN THE UNIVERSE! it was too much, and after 5 days, i wanted to leave. plus, i was behind in my work (big surprise) and i wanted to get back and catch up.

so i told CB i wanted to leave, but that she could stay if she wanted to. she is the least independent person i know, so i knew that she couldn't imagine taking the trip home alone. but CB had been busy while we were there. busy eating. and she had eaten too much, and become sick. first constipated, and then with diarrhea. our bus was leaving at midnight, but she still had diarrhea at around 4 pm and begged to stay another day. it would have been cruel to make her leave (even though there is a bathroom on the bus), so i agreed to stay another day.

finally, i woke up on the day we were to leave, saturday. CB had been so sure that there would be tickets, and no one had mentioned buying them, so i figured it would be ok. then, around 12.30pm, CB asks the mom to ask their friend who lives by the bus station to go down and get our tickets. well, not only are they sold out for that night, but they are sold out for 10 days. i almost fainted at the idea of staying there for another 10 days, and told CB that i had to leave. i nearly threw a fit. i told her i didn't care, and that i would take this extremely slow and uncomfortable train that they were all talking about. so she called the train station, but it was closed. everything in rural italy is closed, not only on sunday, but on saturday, too. all of the ticket agencies were closed, too. and of course this train station was totally from a wile e. coyote cartoon and the only train there was the kind from the 1800s where you had to pump it to get it going, and of course there was no automated ticket machine inside where we could buy tickets. there was a ticket machine, but it still accepted lire.

i told CB that i would buy the tickets through the internet. it was actually easy enough, and i reserved seats and everything. they even sent a confirmation message to my cell phone. ta-da! i'd never reserved online before (i am a little sketched out by the italian internet. italians are totally distrustful of technology. in fact, i read in the ny times not long ago that 2 out of 3 italians don't know how to use a computer. i believe it.), so it was a little weird not having a paper ticket, but i figured it would be fine. all of the people in that house were doubtful of my success, but i knew it would be fine.

at 12.30 am we went to the train station. our reserved seats were in car 5, seats number 75 and 76. the train came rolling up to the station: there were cars 1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. but no 5!!! there was no car 5! how were we assigned to car 5 when there wasn't one? this was ridiculous!!!...

to be continued....i have to go to work....

ok, i'm back.

we freaked out about there not being a car 5, and we asked the conductor what this meant. of course, the first thing he asked was to see our tickets, and i, with a broad smile and more than a little pride, flashed my telefonino in his face, with the message with out confirmation number blazing on the screen. he was like, what the heck is this? i smirked that it was our confirmation number, and shouldn't he type it into his little machine or something? well, he was not amused, and he told me to go into the station and print out a ticket. but of course, the machine in the station was from the 1920s or before, and had no printing capabilities. he gave up, and said we'd figure it out, so he put us in the conductor's car with ANOTHER couple who had been assigned car 5, and they had bought their tickets at the station where the train originated, when the train was out on the tracks! oh, italy. oh, italy.

so we started to commiserate with this older couple, and i said something like, "this would only happen in italy." of course the man got totally offended, thinking i am all america-is-the-best or something, and i spent the next 25 minutes trying to calm him down. finally, i succeeded, and we turned off the lights and tried to go to sleep, it being 1.30 in the morning. but of course, as soon as we started to nod off, the conductor came back and asked for my confirmation number. i gave it to him. it was something like ADW2RP, and he started punching it into his little keypad: A-D-W....wait a minute, there was no W and he couldn't figure out how to enter one. first, there was no car 5, and now there was no W. oh, italy. then, he started to curse at me and said that he'll be back.

we tried to go back to sleep, but he came back an hour later and had figured out W and said that i owed him 113 euros. excuse me, no ticket costs that much, plus i had already paid 85 euros on my credit card to get that reservation. i argued with him about it for a while until we were approaching the next stop, where he said he was getting off and would pass us to his colleague.

the colleague was a lot nicer and more understanding and explained that we were on a slow train (duh!) and that they didn't have the fancy computer system to process the online tickets. ok, that's fine. but my question is this: if you can't process the tickets, then why on earth do you make it possible to book the tickets through the internet?

furthermore, he told us that he wasn't even going to enter our code in anywhere, and theoretically when we got to florence, we could get a refund. this man, an employee of trenitalia, was telling us how to rip off trenitalia. oh, italy.

i asked him if i should print out tickets once we got to rome, for the second train, but he said no, it wouldn't matter at that point. so when we got to termini, which is quite possibly the most wonderful, beautiful, best train station in the universe, we had a little coffee and toast at my favorite little bar there, and then got on to the next train. immediately, we asked the conductor where we should sit, since we didn't have tickets, and he was like, "what do you mean you don't have tickets? get off the train and go print out the tickets!" but the train was already moving out of the station, so he told us to get out of his sight and go to the other end of the train.

so we schlepped all the way to the other end and waited.

finally, this younger conductor came and asked to see our tickets. i told him, "listen buddy, we have no tickets. sit down, we have a story." so he sat down and we told him the entire story, with lots of swearing and laughing involved. he was dying, and he let us slide, thankfully.

when we finally got to the station, we went to the ticket booth, printed out the tickets, and got them refunded. but i still can't figure out if it was worth it.

oh, italy.
alright, this is really the last thing for today. not like i actually have anything substantial to say or anything. but i wrote a few recipes; oh yeah, i had a big epiphany about this book. i convinced benedetta that we need to put as many HARDCORE ITALIAN recipes as possible into this book. so today i wrote up one for tripe, one for veal's spleen, and one for chicken stomachs. score! and lots of onions, too, nl! take that, picky eaters of america!

oh, yes, i almost forgot: pizza party usa! via helenjane