Slave to the Ricotta

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Italian men love food. Cliché as it sounds, it took me a while to discover—possibly because I didn’t speak a word of Italian—that any typical male conversation would invariably center on the topic of women, soccer, or food. Their tone of voice does not change if they are talking about their most recent conquest, what they had for lunch yesterday, or how brilliant Totti’s performance was in the game against Lazio. This is not a false stereotype. It is very real and it is awesome. Since moving to Rome three years ago, I have been on the listening end of conversations that went on for 45 minutes about the best way to cook an amatriciana (which supermarket to buy the guanciale—pork cheek—at, which brand of oil to use), and lengthy debates about whether Napolitan Pizza is better than Roman Pizza (Roman Pizza wins: thin crust).

My first Roman Pizzeria experience was at the famous Ai Marmi. It is nicknamed L’Obotorio, meaning “mortuary”, because of their long marble tables, and it was unlike anything I had ever seen before. Tables lined end-to-end with pizza and beer; people eating, talking, and thoroughly enjoying themselves amid the chaos of the countless waiters screaming at each other as they carried up to eight pizzas at a time.

It was pure communal joy: the joy of eating, the joy of being together, the joy of being alive. This is what drew me to Italian culture. We are alive! Let us celebrate! Italian cuisine is simple. It doesn’t require a serious technical background like French cuisine. It’s fresh and easy, focused on the process of creating old recipes out of few necessary ingredients with an underlying respect for the deeply rooted cultural traditions inherent in them.

“IT WAS PURE COMMUNAL JOY: THE JOY OF EATING, THE JOY OF BEING TOGETHER, THE JOY OF BEING ALIVE.”

Months after this experience, I visited the southeastern tip of Sicily with my Roman then-boyfriend. We stayed with a Sicilian family: a mother who loves to cook and her two sons who love to eat. Sicilian hospitality involves a lot of food. Meals go on for hours—fish pastas, fresh parmeggiano, ravioli, followed by any number of pastries—and in my time there, the conversations were as diverse as the dishes.

It was during one of these dinners, and after having a few glasses of wine and limoncello, that the topic of my college studies came up. My Italian at the time was still very limited, but I managed to convey that I had studied Philosophy and that my thesis was on Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. I described to them as best I could the Master/Slave Dialectic. “See,” I said, “the irony is that while the Master thinks he has won sovereignty over the slave, he has really lost. Because it is the slave who is given the gift of creating—he has only the blueprint given to him by his Master, but finds complete freedom in working with Nature and his imagination.”

“IT IS THE SLAVE WHO IS GIVEN THE GIFT OF CREATING—HE…FINDS COMPLETE FREEDOM IN WORKING WITH NATURE AND HIS IMAGINATION.”

CANNOLI (plural) / CANNOLO (singular)

In my mind, the cannolo is an institution. Ever since a childhood visit to Ferrara’s in New York City, the cannolo has always been my favorite part of Italian cuisine (incidentally, Ferrara’s uses mascarpone for the filling instead of ricotta, which is a mild sin). I had mentioned this one day to the family with whom we were staying.

On my last day at their house, I offered to help make lunch. The mother said I could help her make the cannoli. While we smoothed the ricotta, mixed it with sugar, and stuffed it into the little pre-made shell molds, she turned to me, smiled, and said; “See, it is good to be the slave, isn’t it?”

Briel Simon is a post-employed weirdo with backgrounds in philosophy, filmmaking, and bartending. She is only 28 years old.