In front of me there’s thick spaghetti noodles tossed with crispy pancetta, big flecks of cracked pepper sitting on a grassy pool of fava pureé. To my right there’s pecorino custard, next to that frilly waves of just shaved prosciutto, and guanciale simmered with tomatoes and a tannic red wine.
“I’m at church.” He says just as I’m putting a bite of soft set eggs with black summer truffles folded into their custard-like ribbons into my mouth. “It’s this country that makes me feel the most connected to God.”
“That right there is why food is my passion.” I answer him.
“What do you mean?”
“I remember my first taste of truffle.” I continue holding up my fork with flecks of freshly shaved truffles dotted all over the eggs. “It’s an odd taste, like nothing I had ever had. I mean it has the deep musk of a mushroom but it’s completely different. My mind went blank and I was overwhelmed by the flavor. It felt other worldly, like a gift”
At this point Mataio, my friend and the instigator of our week recent unforgettable week in Italy hushed the table, got the other’s attention and let me have a moment to preach the sermon that started it all for me. It’s the reason why I write this blog, why I care to sit around the table with my family as often as we can, why I gather friends and family around our table, it’s why I’m so passionate about food. And I realized, after I shared that moment with eight people who at the time I really didn’t know very well, that I’ve never shared it here. It’s like this little secret that I’ve kept for myself. My closest friends have heard it before when I’m a couple glasses in and sitting at the table surrounded by good food and their company. It is the foundation I connect to when I’m overwhelmed with the work of it all and the ‘I’m not enough-ness’ that threatens to strangle the passion. To know me is to know what I connect each bite to. To know why I care so much about inspiring others to sit at the table with good food. Why I desire to slow down for a moment to enjoy a meal, to have fun with food, to get creative with it, to celebrate it, and to create a life that revolves around the table.
It started in Italy over thirteen years ago. I wasn’t there to spend what little money I had buying aged Parmesan with crystalline flecks that delighted me with each bite but that’s what I did. I was there to study art. To sit under the paintings of the great masters so that when I began my high school art teaching career I could speak of such things from a place of “I’ve been there!”
I was enthralled by the art, fell deeper in love with it and relished the simple days of classes and then a café and a passeggiata (slow stroll) with sketchbook in hand. But the food took me by surprise. Actually even more than the food it was the experience of living in a culture that centers itself around the table. I loved when the streets emptied in the middle of the day. I’d wander the quiet cobbled paths imagining their homes, their tables, their billowing plates of pasta and the subsequent rest that followed. It was so foreign to me, this concept of shutting down and pushing everything else aside to make space for a meal and not one eaten haphazardly but one that took time, care, and necessitated full chairs at the table.
All of what little money I had went to food and for awhile I felt guilty about that. Can you imagine? How silly that seems to me now but then I wondered what I’d have to show for the trip at the end of it. I mean I couldn’t take half-eaten plates of carbonara home with me, as much as I wanted to.
By the time my study abroad in Italy ended I realized I had gathered enough memories from sitting at the table to fill dozens of suitcases. I brought back my first taste of legit olive oil, verdant and grassy. To this day I still wax poetic about its nearly fluorescent color and how I’d anticipate tasting it every Sunday night when the nuns would take an evening off from feeding us and we’d walk down the street to a neighborhood restaurant. I brought back the recipe for carbonara (no cream and be generous with the pasta water) that continues to be one of Gabe’s favorite dinners. I brought back a serious taste and love for gelato – thick and creamy but not heavy from dairy fat yet dense and brimming with the flavor it calls itself. But most importantly for me I brought back this idea that food is so much more than sustenance, it’s a gift and one created to be enjoyed.
It was that first taste of a truffle that engrained in me this idea that it all comes down to pleasure. We all need to eat. We know that. Our bodies are machines that need fuel and we were created with that as part of the plan but food doesn’t have to taste good. I’m sure there’s loads of evolutionary reasons for why food needs to taste good and I don’t deny that but this is it for me because it connects me to a Creator. And not just one who puts things in motion and then walks away but One who created food and did so in a way knowing, yes KNOWING that we would take great pleasure in it. In fact that’s how He/She/God wanted it all to go down. Food tastes so damn good because He wants for us to enjoy it, to have joy, to be happy, and to share that with others. Why would He care about our enjoyment? Because we are loved.
I’ve spent so many years trying to understand Love. Many counseling sessions wrestling with this idea, trying to grasp that me, in all my imperfections could be loved perfectly. But I eat a truffle and I feel inexplicably loved. I mean a truffle, it’s ugly right? It hides deep in the dirt and needs to be found by a pig or a dog because our noses can’t even smell them. And then we eat it and … there are no words. I can’t put words to that flavor and frankly I don’t even think I want to because I’d rather just keep it a feeling. The spiritual equivalent of a big, fat, juicy hug that reminds me that I’m loved perfectly.
Food is that constant reminder that I’m loved by a Creator who desires to lavish his creation onto me, onto all of us, for our pleasure.
In those moments where I’m overwhelmed with pleasure by a taste of something I just ate my next immediate reaction after sitting in that gushy loved feeling for a moment, is that I want to share it. I think that’s what happens when you experience perfect love, you are immediately moved to love.
So, that’s why I’m here, because I’m loved. And I hope and pray that those who sit at my table, that those of you who read these words, those who cook from my book, drool over the photos on my Instagram and follow along on Facebook will feel that love too. Because I can’t help but share it.
The recipe I’m sharing today is one so simple I questioned its value but they are the eggs that sandwiched the truffles that started the conversation. They are the eggs that the sweet older Italian woman made for us each morning and they are the eggs that I made myself for the first week I was home. Simplicity at its finest, when the food itself, the gift that that is, can truly shine.
Italian Scrambled Eggs
2 tablespoons Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, divided (good quality)
salt and pepper
You start with a pan; a skillet, nonstick or cast-iron if you feel confident in its seasoning. A good glug (approximately 1 tablespoons) of olive oil in the bottom shouldn’t shimmer from the heat but there will be feel a soft warmth radiating off the pan. Crack two eggs straight into the pan, add a pinch of fine salt and with a fork, whisk – don’t let them stop moving. Break up those eggs continuously while they just start to set. Striations of egg form; ribbons of soft set white and the orange tinged yolk. Long before the eggs are fully set, turn off the heat and continue moving the fork around so no one bit of egg gets more heat than the rest. Roll the eggs onto the plate while they’re still soft, more like a custard than you may feel comfortable with. Finish the eggs with more olive oil, freshly cracked black pepper, and if you feel so inclined, a bit of truffle is always nice too.