“No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”
– Julia Child
I watch the sun dip behind the cul-de-sac, turning the sky a violet-pink hue. The clouds above look like wads of floating cotton candy and the smell of our post-backyard-barbeque fills my nose. There really is no greater smell, is there?
The warm spring air rattles the shutters and wakes our dog, Charlie, who lies off the edge of the sofa with his head in his paws. His eyes close slowly and soon enough I hear the gentle hum of snoring. Should I bother starting this week’s To Do List? Nah!
Since I was a kid my dad has collected all kinds of Disney and Pixar movies. In our basement, a shelf that practically covers an entire wall, is home to this collection. In times of nostalgia I often opt for The Little Mermaid or Shrek. Who doesn’t love Shrek? However, standing in front of the bellowing movie rack, Pixar’s Ratatouille catches my eye. I mean, doesn’t the tale of a simple French rat trying to make a name for himself in a rat-phobic profession feel like nostalgia to you?
I pull the DVD from the rack and put it into our old player. Pouring my cure-all-remedy (chamomile tea) into my favourite Winnie the Pooh mug, I have a seat on the couch next to Charlie and unwind…
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” – Food critic, Anton Ego
As the credits roll, I can’t help but feel tears welling in my eyes. Ten year-old me loved Ratatouille then and twenty-year old me loves it now! It’s a great movie and I mean great movie. Comical, yet completely heart warming, Ratatouille serves up entertainment with a side of encouragement. It proves that despite who you are or where you come from, anyone can cook… very inspiring for young chefs.
A Food Centric Society
In re-watching, this movie, I am reminded that food shapes society. FOOD = CULTURE. We eat all the time ignoring just how intrinsically it affects us. When cinema uses food as a character, it resonates with the audience. We understand the narrative better because we can taste it!
Weren’t you in awe as a kid watching the “Be Our Guest” food sequence in Beauty and the Beast? Amazed by the deflated turkey roast in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation? You had to have been impacted when the Grinch stole the Who’s roast beast???
Food connects us because we identify with it. As a people, we bond over the communal experience of eating. In microcosms of community, food acts as a cultural marker. It’s what we learn in the earliest reflections of ourselves. Types of food, methods of cooking, how one eats, all of these things play a role in our development from an early age.
As a child, I remember sitting in my Nonna’s basement watching her crank out long, thin sheets of pasta. Every day I spent at her house was a culinary adventure. I remember afternoons, where turning off the television, she’d lead me down the varnished oak staircase to the basement.
Ahh, the basement kitchen, or as I like to call it, The Pasta Laboratory. Complete with a retro green fridge, a long white marble table, a small sink and a stove that looked like it was from the old country, this place of simplicity produced the most extraordinary times.
My Nonna would pull out the homemade wooden tavola that my Nonno had specially crafted for pasta and biscotti making purposes and begin to work. It was like magic.
She’d start by making a well of Tipo 00 flour with her hand. Ever so gently, she would crack a couple of eggs into the well and beat them with a short stubby finger. I was so amazed that the well maintained its shape as the eggs changed form.
Slowly, she’d add ingredient by ingredient until it was time for me to help her roll out the pasta and shape it.
Spending time in the kitchen with her was fantastic! Side by side, we’d work the dough, laughing, smiling and learning together.
Sometimes she would even make a little doll out of the pasta for me! It would always turn out looking like some kind of a monster once it was baked, but she tried her best anyways. Head, body, hair, buttons, occasionally a scarf… you never know, my pasta doll could get cold baking in the oven!
After hours of sitting and shaping pasta, my Nonna would cook up a quick meal: orecchiette con rapini (see below). Simple and satisfying, this dish uses Orecchiette (ear-shaped pasta) that we would have typically made that day. The recipe also calls for rapini. Also known as broccoli rabe, rapini looks like the distant Italian cousin, twice removed, of regular broccoli. Bitter in taste and peculiar to anywhere not from my grandparents’ hometown, rapini would comfort after a hard day’s work.
Though a peasant dish, orecchiette con rapini was a comfort dish. It’s a creation from my grandparent’s old life in Italy that’s culturally in sync. True, it’s an acquired taste, but out of necessity grew pleasure in eating this staple ingredient and crop. To this day, I still can’t refuse a plate!
Why were these times so important?
As a child, cooking with my family helped me understand flavour profiles. Eating things different from traditional Western cuisine made me willing to try new things. I also learned more about my own culture through eating unique foods.
I learned so much about cooking and about life in general. As I helped by Nonna cook, I practiced how to read and measure. Then, when I became a bit older, I started to learn more about technique in recipes. At the ripe age of twenty, I find that I’m teaching Nonna a few things about food but she’s still teaching me… less about food and more about life!
In our household, preparing and sharing a meal is a really important source of bonding. My fondest memories happen around the kitchen table. Whether we made pasta, biscotti, pizza or a simple sandwich, food was always at the forefront.
Teach a kid to cook and they’ll learn how to live…
On days when I had choir practice during the lunch hour, Nonna packed my lunches. Succo di pera, taralli and a panini layered with Parmigiano Reggiano and prosciutto. Some days, she’d switch it up and put in mortadella. Boy oh boy, was that a treat!
Back then, I didn’t understand just how important these lunches were in developing my sense of self. I didn’t think much of it when my classmates ate a turkey club on Wonder Bread or fought over whose Lunchable was better. But now I understand.
Is it weird that eight-year-old me had a preference for cured meats over Dunkaroos?
What I’m trying to say is that only a few other kids brought eccentric stuff. You could spot containers filled with leftover butter chicken or cabbage rolls but trust me it was rare.
The important thing about being in the kitchen at such a young age was that it taught me about my culture. I knew what I liked, even if it was odd. My comfort foods varied from other kids, what can I say? I was raised on red wine and rapini...
Of course, panini and pasta weren’t the only things that gave me sustenance. Winemaking was just another part of learning about my food and culture.
Hot and muggy September days could only mean one thing: Nonno was definitely going to be in the garage with his wine press when I got home from school.
Sure enough, he would be wearing his blue winemaking apron, turning the press round and round. Every ten minutes he’d empty another case of grapes into the barrel and begin the process again.
Was his wine delicious, you ask? Well, it was pretty gross, especially to nine-year old me. After hearing what everyone else used to say whenever he left the room, I can conclude that he won’t be winning any awards soon.
It wasn’t taboo to have a sip of homemade wine as a kid, it was just something that happened. Wine was always there but solely for meal pairing reasons. Red wine, rich and full-bodied, was often the centrepiece on Sunday lunches at Nonna and Nonno’s.
Hell, I even recall each fall going to partake in the vendemmia, grape stomping for wine. At our Italian club there would be a contest for who could make the most juice. Kids, women and men would partner up, get suited up and feverishly stomp until the music stopped. My cousin Alexandra and I were the ultimate dream team! I have several awards to support this claim, don’t test me!
Months later, when the grapes had finished fermenting and the wine was processed. Of course, this called for a celebration… and yes, food played a massive role!
It’s funny how the sweetest and simplest things can taste so sentimental!
If you missed out on some of these valuable lessons, not to worry, here are some really fantastic initiatives to get kids (even the kid at heart) into the kitchen:
Active Chefs is a Canadian registered charity whose goal is get children more involved in living healthier lifestyles. They offer programs that highlight issues like nutrition, food security and poverty, which hope to empower youth to learn about cooking techniques, food across cultures and the importance of a balanced lifestyle.
Ben’s Beginners, a campaign launched by Uncle Ben’s, helps promote budding chefs in the kitchen. Their initiative helps children get involved in cooking as it’s such a useful life skill. By learning how to cook, kids can make healthier choices and maintain good habits as they grow.
Fruits & Veggies More Matters is another health initiative that focuses on helping individuals eat more fresh produce in an effort to spread the word on related health benefits. They offer recipes as well as tips on how to eat your way to a healthier you!
And if you’re feeling really inspired, then I invite you to try the recipe below! It’s me on a plate…
Orecchiette con Rapini
* Makes 4 servings or 2 if you’re really committed 😉 *
- 125 g pancetta
- 1 small white onion
- 3 tablespoon olive oil
- 1 clove of garlic
- 1 bunch of rapini
- Oregano, salt, and pepper
- 1 teaspoon truffle oil
- 1 package of orecchiette pasta
- 1/2 cup of pasta water
- Grated Parmigiano Reggiano
- Boil a pot of water and add 1 tablespoon of olive oil and a generous amount of salt. You want the pasta water to taste like the sea!
- Toss in the orecchiette once the water reaches a boil and cook until al dente (8-10 minutes).
- In the meantime, add coarsely chopped pancetta to a frying pan and cook for a few minutes before adding chopped onions and garlic clove.
- Add chopped rapini to the frying pan and cook until tender, adding spices and truffle oil.
- Take ½ cup of the pasta water and add it to the pan with the rapini mixture.
- Drain the pasta and toss with the rapini.
- Serve with a glass of Negroamaro and an extra plate for your paesan’ !