All dogs, all the time









When we chose to live in the country, close to town but not in it, we dreamed of peace and quiet. In actuality, there has been less of both than we expected.

Tractors can be heard growling and squeaking most days, and even at night. We had a neighbor who apparently dealt with his insomnia by getting his plowing done in the depth of night, and many times we were awakened at two or three in the morning by his activities. Our piece of land was included in a wildlife sanctuary when we bought it. but shortly thereafter it was “opened” to hunters who could partake of the increase in animals in our area. Hunters get up early, and in Italy, there is no such thing as a “Posted No Hunting” area. They are supposed to keep a certain distance from habitations, but we are showered with shot regularly and are often reminded of what it might sound like to live in a war zone. Because of the excellent acoustics, people are always yelling at each other across the gulch. It is a highly overrated attribute. Once we were trying to talk with our neighbor on the cell phone and kept getting an echo, until we realized that we were hearing his actual voice, and more clearly without the help of the phone. I always know when any chicken within a mile radius has laid an egg. And then there are the dogs.

We have dogs, three of them now, two great hairy white maremma sheepdogs and one tiny, hysterical yapper dog, a volpino Italiano. We love them all, and they do their job of keeping us informed of irregularities as they occur. The small dog alerts the big dogs to any intruder, visiting bird, or bushes which are misbehaving. She is the brain behind the terrifying barking of the big dogs, and she will “drive” the big dogs from a position of invulnerability under their bellies by nipping at their tender parts. We have always had dogs here, and they have always barked. However a few years back, our neighbor across the fosso sold his place to some interesting people and things changed. Little did we imagine that we were in for a crash course in canine total immersion.

Two middle-aged sisters and their ancient mother made a trade with the owner, his land and house for their in-town palazzo where their twenty dogs were living up on the terrazza. This trade enabled those who had been living near them to finally get a good night’s sleep, and the sisters to begin accumulating dogs in a serious way. And that is what they did. Along with increasing numbers of dogs came the haphazard construction of facilities for them, a kind of canine favela. Mornings, one of the sisters could be seen trudging to town to gather bits and pieces of meat left over at the markets, and trudging back with her plastic sacks full. On days when there was too much to carry, she could be seen hauling her bags of food in their elegant but very old Mercedes. Apparently the job of seeing after the ever-growing “cowardice of curs” also lead to neglect of personal hygiene matters, and word spread that they could be detected at a distance by their distinctive, and unpleasant, odor.

We learned that rather than trying to fight against our heartbreaking loss of tranquility, it would be better to adapt. It is amazing that when the mind is directed to ignore something, a sound for instance, it can learn as long as the motivation to do so is positive. We learned to ignore the canine choir at feeding time, up to 250 dogs all vocalizing their desperate need to eat and survive another day. Luckily outside of feeding time they rarely all barked at once, but when they did, it was breathtaking. The sisters themselves contributed a continuous stream of x-rated invective, at each other and the dogs, so I was often thankful that my boys were old enough to have heard most of the terminology before. It would have been an incredibly effective method for learning Italian obscenities.

A few years later, a blitz carried out by the authorities has carted the dogs away to typical Italian no-kill facilities, and one can only hope that they are better taken care of, although I doubt it. Most are lager-like at best. While it is not officially illegal to collect dogs, it is illegal to create a situation which endangers the public health. We were always neutral and kept our peace with the sisters, who have again begun to accumulate dogs as the days go by. While most of the community is disdainful of them, and is always ready to criticize and condemn, I can’t help but have a grudging admiration for them. It has to do with the backbone it takes for a woman in a small southern Italian town to live the life she chooses, regardless of the disapproval of society and its sometimes rigid strictures. It must not be easy for them.

As to the dogs, I hope that somewhere along the line more people here will learn that spaying and neutering is the best way to eliminate animal suffering, even if it isn’t the most direct route. Most veterinarians I have talked to over the years have expressed their reluctance to carry out the operation on my dogs, as they felt it was inhumane to deprive the animals of their normal life functions. And yet, I can’t say how many times I have found abandoned puppies, mistreated and tortured dogs, newborn litters deposited in dumpsters. Maybe we need people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and take action, something to alleviate the suffering, even if it means we have to tolerate the noise.

Bark bark!

Small world

Its a small world.     And sometimes it is even smaller than that.

Years ago, during our sometimes fiery courtship, my husband and I would indulge every so often in a door-slamming, spittle-spraying hulabaloo of a fight, for recreation and rarely for good reason.  The Lira was almost worthless back then—the good old days—, and I purchased a brand new BMW in 1985 for five thousand dollars and change.  These fights were an excuse for me to use my newly-acquired and quite wonderful automobile to disappear for a while,  causing much hand-wringing and satisfyingly ineffectual investigation as to my whereabouts.   I recall that someone used to refer to me as “Leadfoot Langston.”   This was before cell phones, as you must know.  So on one such occasion I grabbed a bottle of water and a couple of sandwiches and set off for the Amalfi coast.  It was a beautiful afternoon and from Bernalda it is only about  120 miles to Salerno, where the spectacular winding road along the Tirrhenian Sea begins.  Happy to leave my significant other to stew, and enjoying the prospect of an entertaining drive with loud music, I set off.  It took me about  seven hours, round trip, and I never stepped out of my car even once!    (We were all younger then, and our road-resistant bladders are just a memory now.)     To my consternation, upon my return to Bernalda,  I was met with smug satisfaction  and a notable lack of concern.  “Oh, were you gone?  I didn’t notice.”  Someone had spotted me and made a phone call.  A relative,  a friend, or a friend of a relative,  duly noting  my passage at some point along the main road in Salerno,  communicated my whereabouts  promptly back to home base!

“Small Town”  mixed media, 2007

One Christmas, as we snaked our way through the endless airport security line in Atlanta, we glimpsed some familiar faces.  I don’t suppose it seems outside the realm of possibility to meet someone from your neighborhood at an airport, but for folks from Bernalda to run upon each other in Atlanta borders on the incredible.  Here we were, two families from a tiny town where people rarely leave the province, much less the continent.  They were on their way to visit relatives in Florida, and we were on our way yet again to Austin.  We chatted, a conversation carried on in snippets each time our zig met their zag in the slow crawl of the line.  It was a surprisingly comforting  experience for all of us.

Ever wonder why names can become so popular that you might find two or three “Meagans” or “Ethans” in a classroom?  I am reminded of the Dr. Seuss story about the woman who named all of her many sons “Dave.”  I have particular acquaintance with the name  Donato Viggiano.  If that sounds strange, let me explain.     Young men in Bernalda can be seen strolling up and down the Corso, often following a regular schedule which has them out of the house for two reasons:   1) because they are banished during meal preparation and   2)  because they have made themselves scarce afterwards when the dishes have to be washed.  So any afternoon or evening there is a regular crawl of walkers and automobiles up and down the main street, and in a circle around town.    Sometimes the Carabinieri will be positioned on roads leading in or out of town, stopping cars to check insurance and licenses.  On one such afternoon, they stopped a car and asked for identification.  The conversation was as follows:

“I need to see your identification and papers.”

“Yes, officer, here is my license.  I am Donato Viggiano.”

“And you?”

“Hello officer, my name is Donato Viggiano.”

“…OK….And you in the back, what is your name?”

“My name is Donato Viggiano.”    (burst of uncontrolled snickering)

At this point, the officer bagan to show his consternation, and the young men in the car saw that when the forth shoe dropped, it might get them fined!

“You guys are getting on my nerves.  I’ll give you a last chance.  What is YOUR name?”

The young man handed over his I.D card, which said…

Donato Viggiano!!

“Gossip”   oil on canvas, 2011

A story from Natalina

My husband’s mother,  Natalina  (her obligatory name,  as she came into this world on Christmas day,  Natale)   was an exemplary  migghieruh verrnallese*.    She worked most of her life as an expert seamstress,  as well as carrying out all the necessary activities needed to live a dignified life  in a rural economy.  Putting food by, keeping a constant display of clean clothing strung across the terrazza, visiting with living neighbors in town  and  deceased relatives at the cimitero;  hers was a simple but full existence.   I fondly remember her daily phone calls,  asking me timidly if I could use “two” of some prepared vegetable or entree,  offered in order to round out my meager American lunch offerings  for my husband:    her only son.   I was always happy to oblige.   She made the best wild chicory I ever ate—–the kind that has to be gathered by someone rising early enough to beat the goats to the fields—– and I miss it now that she is gone.    Her travels, which were very few, once took her as far away as Rome, where she went for her honeymoon trip by train shortly after the war.    It was the greatest  distance she ever traveled away from her home.   Our swallow-like  habit of flying back and forth over the Atlantic must have seemed wondrous to her.

Of course a lifetime of living in a small town allowed her to absorb a repertoire of stories.    These were always delivered in hushed tones,  at times when we were alone and otherwise unencumbered by those who might have interrupted the telling, or suggested  that facts be modified.   I have since had confirmation from others that the stories are true, although each person has his or her own particular version,  embellished by additions from the grapevine.

She told me about a woman who, many years ago, gave birth to twins.   Obviously in those days, no ultrasound alerted the mother that she would have two new babies instead of one, giving her time to adjust mentally to the situation.   The babies arrived suddenly and were a  surprise to the family, and not entirely a pleasant one in those times of meager living standards.   The new mother just could not bring herself to feel maternal love for one of the twin boys in any way,   or bring herself to care for him.    She nursed and coddled one  twin, bonding with it thoroughly while ignoring the cries of the other.  It was a total refusal to recognize the existence of the second unexpected baby.   While the family went out to their work in the fields, she would stash the poor thing away in a cupboard  so as not to be bothered with it. ( In Natalina’s version this cupboard became a niche, which to me added a semi-religious aspect to the story, and  my mental illustration was icon-like, with a baby huddled in a Gothic arch with a gold background.)   I always wonder what the rest of the family thought while this was happening, or whether they asked themselves why only one twin thrived.   I suspect that some remnant of an idea  from ancient times, the possibility  of exposing an unwanted  infant to the elements,  might still have lurked in her mind.   She would never  be guilty of anything as drastic as infanticide,   but the power of neglect would carry out her wishes indirectly.

One evening, when the whimpers of the infant again reminded the mother that it was still a problem for her, she opened the cupboard to see a horrific sight.  The baby had been discovered  in its dark  recess by the  other occupants, mice.  They had begun to gnaw away at the baby’s nose, and had consumed a significant part of it.   I imagine that this was the day that her family recognized the mother as being infanticidal,  and the baby was immediately removed from her and given to relatives to raise.   I know that both babies grew up and are still living.    Perhaps not surprisingly,  the nurtured twin has remained in Bernalda,  while the neglected one has lived most of his life up in the north of Italy.   I have a special hope that the second  man has been  successful and happy.

I cannot imagine  living with these kinds of profound psychological wounds, especially the kind that are accompanied by physical scars.   The  members of the family in which these events occurred  have all suffered,  more so in a small town where the story is well-known and often repeated.   Another account  from over a century ago tells of a mother who chose a more direct route to ridding herself of her offspring, beheading the baby on the chopping block with an ax.     It bears observing that the clinical definition  of postpartum depression may be relatively new,  but the concept is as old as the hills.

I am sorry that my mother-in-law is no longer around, and I sometimes wonder how many stories she might have given to me if she had had more time.  It is a powerful incentive to remember that a story left untold is a story lost.   Natalina lives on for me in hers.

“Castello di Oriolo”  mixed media on board, 2010

*  dialect:  “Bernaldan wife,”   (Italian:  moglie Bernaldese)

Eat your veggies!

Here is a simple preparation for leafy greens that will stand you in good stead. It has enabled me to go from someone who was exclusively a salad person to someone who is always up for a savory  bowl of greens.  We eat them as a main course with bread, or mixed with beans, with or without grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano,  or mild aged Pecorino.

This is a basic preparation method which works for all kinds of leafy vegetables, from lettuce, to escarole (my new favorite), to turnip greens (rape), to swiss chard, to kale, to spinach.    Of course the first step is to clean the leaves thoroughly.  Whether they come from the market or the garden, this involves inspecting the leaves for bugs, slugs and snails.  Usually a couple of baths in water will do the trick, then I make a quick trip outside to liberate these hangers-on.   They either survive the adventure or end up sacrificed to the chickens, depending on whether or not I feel like playing God today.  If you miss some, don’t worry, they will float to the top of the boiling water and you can pick them out, and nobody will be the wiser!

Bring a big pot of water to a boil, enough to cover about half the volume of leaves, and add a generous handful of sea salt.  Don’t use the iodized kind or you will taste it, and you will regret it.  Stuff all the leaves down into the boiling water, and stand by to shift the mass in the pot while it cooks.  Regardless of the  variety of greens, you will want to leave them until they are thoroughly wilted.    Meanwhile, slice  up some garlic, about a clove for each cupful of cooked greens.

At this point, you want to drain the greens, but reserving at least a cup of their water.  I dip them out and into a bowl with this extra liquid.   Then I throw out the cooking water  and use this same pot to saute the garlic in about two tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil.    Fry the garlic in the oil until it begins to skate around in the pan but don’t let it brown!

There are two ways to go at this point:    Plan A is for greens with sweet red pepper, to be eaten as is.     Plan B is for greens mixed with beans for a hearty one-dish meal.

Plan A:    Get your peperoncino ready.  Now here is a problem:  We use liberal quantities of sweet red pepper powder at our house, but I’m not sure what the American equivalent would be.  It is similar to paprika, but if you can find a sweet red pepper powder that is not just generic  paprika, you will have the nearest thing to what we use.   I suspect maybe a Mexican market might have this?  If you can’t find it then I suppose paprika will have to do.     Now get ready!  At this point you can add your peperoncino,   about two tablespoons.  Be quick!   It will immediately begin to bubble as you stir it in, and you should dump the greens into the pan  immediately.   Bring the whole pot to a good simmering boil.     At this point it is up to individual taste how long you cook it.   I usually leave it on the flame long enough to evaporate most of the liquid.  Eaten hot with a sprinkling of cheese (my husband, a D.O.C. southern Italian,  scoffs  at this practice)   or at room temperature with a slice or two of good bread, that’s it.  Enjoy!

Plan B:   Get yourself a couple of cupfuls of cannellini, great northern, even pinto beans, and make sure they are soft.    Cook them yourself or use canned, either will do.    You want equal amounts of beans and greens.   In a pan, saute about three heaping tablespoons of a mixture of finely diced celery, onion, carrot, and garlic in two or three tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.   ( I usually make up a huge batch of this vegetable “soffritto” mixture and freeze it in ice cube trays.  Just stick your nose into the freezer bag at any time thereafter for quick culinary inspiration!)  Dump  the beans with their cooking liquid into this mixture and bring to a simmer.  Add a bay leaf and one or two small, peeled and chopped tomatoes.  Cook the beans about forty minutes or so  and don’t let them stick and burn!    Add liquid to keep it soupy if you need to.      You are now ready to combine the two mixtures and serve.  Add generous grated cheese.   I like to add a few drops of really hot oil to my bowl, and a good crusty toasted bread will complete the meal.  Call it soup or stew, it is pure comfort food!

paintings:   “Another Summer Salad, oil on canvas, 2011

“A Vegetarian Courtship”  oil on canvas  2003

A note about editing…



“Impotence”  oil on canvas, 22 x 17 inches



I am learning the ropes of blogging, and I hope you will forgive me for being unable to resist hitting  the “Publish” button before my final edited version has been finished.   Sometimes the final version of a post shows up  on the site itself (after my tweaking) and is not necessarily the version that you got in the e-mail.    Up to now anyway.    I will try to control the urge to publish before I’m ready to publish!

And thanks!






 untitled, oil on canvas,  6 x 6 inches,  2011

Love is a Panda futon

The southern Italian society is organized, as are most, according to guidelines that are the result of economics.   In most families money is tight, and a newly adult child moving away to live alone in an apartment is unthinkable.  Of course remaining with the folks until age forty can lead to all kinds of unfortunate situations and negative behavioral consequences,  but that is for another post…a long one.

So most families will raise the children to the age of eighteen,  and then keep them around until they marry, with time out for college or military service. In many families the grown children stay even longer, and three or more generations will live together in one apartment.   Imagine getting married with loads of expense and fanfare, and the next day moving back in with Mamma and Papa’.   (I sometimes think that the concept of  “enabling” was born here.)    These spaces are low on square footage, so that means plenty of closeness and familiarity.  It isn’t surprising that much social interaction takes place outside, on the streets of the town.  Its a party every night out on the Corso, you just have to show up and meet your friends.  But what about those private moments,  the focal point of the evening for many a young couple?    Where can they find a bit of privacy?

“Tramonto, Bernalda”  pastel on paper

It is interesting to note that the English word “privacy” is used in Italy,  because there is no synonym in the Italian language!    There is also a verb for the act of taking oneself away from others to obtain privacy, which is “appartare.”   To draw apart, to separate onself from others.   Enter the automobile.   The most important changes of the last century may be attributed to the mobility provided by the automobile, but there is another reason these tiny mobile rooms have changed society around here: they provide a place to be alone…together.   When your house is small enough that it requires siblings to share a room,  and mom,  dad,  and grandma are always there,  there simply is no better place to go!

The slow crawl of couples in their automobiles on their way out of town begins at dusk,  and ends later when they return to pass the evening in restaurants or among friends in sidewalk gatherings.   Condensation on the windows is a universally recognizable sign that a couple is “fidanzati.”   The word is similar to our appropriation of the French “fiance,” but the interpretation is more open-ended,  and it refers only to the current significant other,  and is quite changeable.   Fidanzati come and go,   and they will only be considered serious if they are taken to important meals with  the parents.   One assumes their arrival to dinner is in a car with clear windows.   I often embarrass myself when,  after my vigorous evening walk in town,  the windows immediately fog up as soon as I get into my car.  I wonder if people think ill of me, a married woman with kids,  as I drive by?

At the end of gravel roads in the periphery of any city,  there will be small accumulations of white facial tissues and,  well, other items which have been tossed out of the fogged windows of parked cars.   It would not be an exaggeration to say that every country road has its “Kleenex” area,   and one would be wise to look the other way when hiking or biking.   Alas,  it is a tradition that small paper items never ever make it into a trashbin if they are used in an automobile.   The idea of keeping the countryside clean and attractive has not caught on everywhere yet.

There is a small Fiat called a Panda,   which is still in production today after thirty years,  although it has been souped-up and modernized.    In the days before the invention of the minivan,   it was unique in that it had a back seat which was pure genius,  and obviously designed with the couple in mind!   It was a kind of futon, actually,   a thin mattress hung on two horizontal bars,  which could be unhooked at will.   With the front seats folded forward,   the back seat of the car could effectively become a cramped but accomodating bed.   It was a very popular car both because it was economical and it had this added feature.  My husband and I both had Pandas back when we were courting, as did many of our friends.   It was a bestseller…no doubt due to its excellent mileage.

I can only imagine the comfort indulged in by couples nowadays, with their  fancy French minivans and Fiat Multiplas which are five times as large as the Panda ever was.   Things might change in the future,   but it will take tremendous economic growth before young couples can afford a place to go to be together other than an automobile.    I don’t see that happening anytime soon.   Models may evolve, and the number of doors may change, but as long as there are dark country roads, the phrase to be used here in place  of  “Get a room!” might as well be,  “Take a drive!”

“Behind Every Man”  pencil on paper


We live along the Mediterranean coast, so we consume a healthy Mediterranean diet, of course.   Well yes and no.  Visitors imagine the locals consuming a healthy diet of leafy greens, legumes, crusty bread and fresh fruits ripe and locally-grown.   This is all true, and yet there is another reality as well.

I have never seen people eat so  much meat!   Breakfast is the only meal that excludes it, so bacon and sausage are not acceptable choices for most in the morning.   Breakfast consists either of a coffee and nothing else, or some refined flour and sugar confection, usually industrially-produced.    Might as well eat nothing, I say.     (Yes, I know Italian coffee and pastry bars are the best in the world, but only the most un-thrifty types head there for breakfast every day.)     But then there is lunch, and there is dinner.    Plenty of animal offerings, red meat mostly.   A man will eat fish, but chicken is considered  a demeaning choice, a feminine choice!…for real men.     And cured meats never are far from any respectable table.    You will be offered sliced cold cuts and cheese for the antipasto, meat sauce on pasta, mixed grilled meats, roasted haunches of meat, meat stuffed with more meat and cheese for a main course.      Not surprisingly, Bernalda, which squeaks over the line with twelve thousand inhabitants, is rife with butcher shops:  there are at least fifteen boutique-type shops,  plus numerous supermarkets with their own butchers.

There are three butcher shops in Bernalda specializing—to the exclusion of everything else—in horse meat.    You can pick your cuts and they will cook them for you right there.    My sons are not unusual in their love of horse meat,  which is considered a more robust and nutrient-packed alternative to beef and pork.    Pregnant women and wimpified men, as well as sickly children, are encouraged to partake.    Young men and boys here have the regular pastime of getting together and going out for a huge meal of freshly-prepared carne equina, which they swear is more flavorful than any other meat.    My husband and I will not eat horse meat, but of course any explanation from people who freely partake of chicken,  pig,  and cow slices would be hypocritical.    It just feels wrong.     One visit to Calabria has provided me the stuff of nightmares.    I saw butcher shops with the heads of cows and horses hung up high in doorways so as to stare out at the sidewalk.    Their sad eyes looked out from behind those multi-string fly barriers which adorn every doorway,   a mute rebuke to every carnivore passing by.

Even these familiar animals can offer some daunting cuts for the table.    A very popular dish for festive occasions are the involtini  (wraps)  of organ meats, called niummurriedd.    These can be tiny and charcoal-grilled, or very large and slow-roasted in the oven.     The large wrapped meat roll–“u marro“— that my mother-in-law used to cook was absolutely excellent.    They are made of heart, lung, liver, and more, and wrapped in lengthy pieces of sheep gut.    They require hours of preparation time and are considered a great delicacy when made correctly.     Folks say the best ones are those which aren’t exactly scrupulously free of,  well,   extraneous matter.    Not recommended for the cholesterol-challenged.

“Homeopathic Diet”   oil on canvas, 2006

I have been offered tiny birds,  arranged on a plate with their startled eyes staring up as if to say,  “I was swatted out of the sky for this?”    Snails are popular,  not large ones served with garlic butter sauce, but tiny little gritty ones.   They are called “lumache” in Italian,  but here they are known as “varvaliesc.”    They are a very popular choice during the Spring,  and folks can be seen alongside the roads with plastic bags collecting them on any humid morning.    One unfortunate dining convocation had me refusing the main dish,  a large stewpot full of boiled chicken feet.   You should know that boiling them plumps them up and removes most traces of color,  but not the toenails.    The sounds produced by a table full of folks enjoying boiled chicken feet is similar to the sounds produced by people eating small garden snails in tomato sauce;   musical sucking sounds punctuated by loud staccato slurping.    I cannot deny that to a blind guest it might seem quite appetizing.

I have been served fox, without knowing it at the time.    A fox is close enough to a dog to be,   well,  dog.   Rabbits are popular,  and my first neighbor across the gorge had a large corral of them.    I always knew when the family was having rabbit for dinner,  because the accoustics were such that I could hear the screams the poor animals made.    There are wild hares,  and pheasants,  most of which have been added by the hunting associations for sport.    Often in their dazed confusion, freshly released from a crate into an unknown territory,  they are hit by cars.   My son’s friends have been known to improvise a barbeque if the victim was fresh enough.    Just the day before yesterday a boar ended up in the stew pot after being hit by a distracted driver.    They say that Italians have perfected the art of making do,   and this is prime evidence of the truth of that!    I once gave my husband a T-shirt with a Road Kill menu on it,   very amusing to some,   but not to all.

Years ago I participated in the making of sausage,   just pork mind you,   and I suppose I made enough snide comments during the session that the women never invited me back.    I will admit I am not sorry.   Making sausage is,  after all,  a lot like politics.    Another pork-related dish is sanguinaccio :   If you are served a dense chocolate pudding after the meal,  you might want to ask what it is called before you eat it.    It is just what it seems,  a chocolate pudding,  made however with a large percentage of fresh pig blood.    To my mind, one could leave out this ingredient and have a wonderful dessert.   With it, not so much.

It should also be said that people here are equally disgusted by  things like  peanut butter, fried rattlesnake  (this one never fails to earn me stares of disbelief),  root beer,  bottled salad dressing,  Spam, and Velveeta.  On the other hand, things do change rapidly in our traveling world.  My husband loves Pizza Hut pizza over the original Italian kind, and imported Budweiser beer,  pancakes and nachos  are all the rage here this year!  Do they sell chocolate Cornflakes in the U.S.  yet?  Go figure.

Of course the typical Mediterranean fare is available as well,   but I will leave that for other posts. Enough has not yet been said about the quality and variety of Italian cooking.    There are so many wonderful concoctions of beans, greens,  vegetable stews,   grains and fresh flavorful fruits,  that becoming a vegetarian would be an easy step to take.   We are almost there,  in terms of quantity, but we do like a little added flavor in the form of animal flesh once in a while.    But some will consider us cowards when it comes to adventurous preparation of animal parts. We keep to our safe ground,   or sliced, and above all,  recognizable,  culinary path.

“At Pasture”  oil on board, 2011

A sylvan saga

We have planted scores and scores of trees on our land.  When we bought the place, the first thing we did was to even up the periphery of scrub brush with a bulldozer, leaving a pristine and intimidating plateau of soil.  It was a  blank slate on which to write about my favorite subject.  Trees!

First we built a safe house for our tools, a tufo block potting shed.  It was our first attempt at a dry-stacked structure.  Mortar cannot be used to build without a permit, so dry sand is used to level out the heavy bricks, and there are many of these structures dotting the countryside.  Even after fifty years or more, many are still standing solidly.   Now we could begin the first really big improvement :   delineating the perimeter of the land with Arizona cypress.     We dug the holes taking turns with the hoe, a total of about 900 of these the first year.    As we had no irrigation water during the winter months,  I had to haul water in plastic drums from the nearest public fountain to keep the tiny trees alive as the weather heated up.  They are now, after twenty-five years, enormous and confident.

After these came others.  Orange and tangerine, loquat, plum, peach, cherry, persimmon,  filbert, some new olives to round out their numbers, and deciduous decorative trees as well as pines, eucalyptus and firs.  I lost count somewhere along the way, and even so I am always on the lookout for a place where I can insert a new tree without causing the place to become claustrophobic.  I love trees, and it shows, as the light inside our house fades and is blocked by foliage. Winter is our brightest season.

painting:   “Treeline”  oil on canvas, 2010

My younger son  has always been intrigued with weapons, cutting tools either home-made, bought, or imaginary.   These were used  to lunge and feint,  attacking  leafy foe and liberally carving up chips of bark.   He was impervious to my pleas to have mercy on the trees, and sword-slashes and nicks made by various blades would regularly appear at waist-level on their trunks.  Accumulations of buds and leaves might be seen in less-visible areas of the yard,  small ninja harvests.     The trees around the house have cuts dating from when he was as little as three, and the scars have deepened and become permanent features of the trunks of the living things which continue to bear them with grim and silent tolerance.  The bark swells and gathers itself in a hug around the wounds, and preserves the moment for future contemplation.    Thick and pouting,  abrupt to the touch, they  are the essential statement  of  “little boy,” written in braille.

Our house is now equipped with a wood-burning fireplace for heat.  We gave up using natural gas because it was so expensive, and now the house is rigged with what they call a “camino-caldaia” which pumps fireplace-heated water to all the radiators.  It is a job keeping it stoked, but it works wonderfully.  Our trees are providing a wealth of wood for the pile, as they lose limbs and have to be pruned.  It is my hope that I can replace the wood burned with new growth, and somehow be accountable for the smoke we produce by providing a forest of filtering leaves.

Trees are truly a renewable resource, as long as there is enough water to get them through their formative years.   It is incredible that a tree, when stressed, will shed its leaves not only to transpire less moisture, but to create a carpet to shade its own roots and conserve water.   The leaves provide an enormous surface area that traps humidity and drips it into the roots below.   Their roots will form a solid mat during the summer, and many times I have to hack flower pots free in the  Autumn because roots have discovered them and anchored them to the ground.  The story of our septic tank and roots is a chronicle of war, with many battles won and lost.

Each accidental lawnmower nick  to a root will create a new tree.  They are eternally hopeful.   There can never be too many trees, and the noisy concert  outside my window indicates that the birds agree.

painting:  “New Owner”   pastel on  paper, 2010

Critters, chapter two (speaking of pigs)

Years ago, when the wheat crop was too small to sell, we ended up with a small pile of unsalable  grain in front of our gate.  As night fell we found we had a visitor who was nibbling away at the pile.  I heard the dogs becoming agitated, barking furiously with that steady staccato rhythm which means, “Come and see, this is important!”  I got there just in time to see a black shape, the size of a calf, shambling off into the brush of the fosso.  I wondered how a calf might have found its way to our gate, but stranger things have happened.  The next morning I discovered deep prints in the soft soil of our apricot orchard that showed clearly that the animal had been a boar, and a huge one.  I was so impressed by the size of the prints that I mixed up some plaster and cast a mold of one of the prints, which I still keep as a memento.
These days, what was once a rare occurance has become commonplace.  We have boar!    And by this I don’t intend the usual feral pigs which have reverted from farm stock, but huge, unkempt and tusked porkers that have been in these woods forever.    Recently they have been augmented by the hunting associations which set free young boar during the  Spring into the woodsy areas.  The contadini* are not at all pleased with this development, as they often see their hard work destroyed by these rooting beasts during the night.  One evening I barely avoided hitting one one which galloped across the road in front of my car, slavering and wild-eyed in the moonlight.  It was as tall as the hood of my tallish SUV, and I am thankful we avoided impact as it would not have ended nicely for either of us.
                                    painting:  “Colline, Pomarico”  pastel on paper, 2011
When I go walking with my dogs, I often take pepper spray.  The woods are dense, and signs of the wild  boars’ nighttime activities are everywhere.  They can ruin a field of vegetables in a couple of hours, and will strip an olive tree of bark if it appeals to them to use it as a scratching post.  I once saw a Fiat 600—a smallish, but by no means microscopic automobile—-with a freshly-killed boar strapped onto the roof.  A hoof dangled over each window and its head lolled down over the windshield.  The tires on the car were flattened and it was stranded by the sheer weight of the creature.  Somebody had quite a barbeque that weekend.   I hope they invited lots of  friends.
On another occasion, I was summoned  again by frantic barking, and as I peered out toward the front gate I saw not one but five boar milling around.  My son and I immediately had the idea that feeding them dry dog food might be amusing. Never ones to let common sense interfere with our fun,  I gave him a bucket.  He climbed up onto our big iron gate and perched there, throwing out kibble as a king might have strewn gold coins.  Or was that pearls?  When the bucket was empty, we were faced with the fact that now they wouldn’t  go away!  From that day they would regularly return, of course, looking for more free food, and we could hardly get the car out of the gate for fear that they would come inside.   Luckily it was the golden age of  my  boys’ all-consuming interest in air rifles, so a couple of well-placed stinging shots in their nether parts  solved our self-created problem.  I’m afraid that particular group ended the Autumn season as spicy meatballs because we never saw them again.  I understand that I am  probably to blame  for having introduced them to the “nice” humans.  I can put my imaginary  “Hunter’s Friend” trophy on the mantelpiece next to the lump of coal that I earned from the scrofulous swine ranks for my dirty deed.
Sometimes  friends who hunt will bring us a cut of boar meat.  It is always a moment in culinary perplexity for me because the meat is very gamey and requires specific preparation which involves soaking in brine and such.  I did once manage to create a wonderful stufata di carne* with the meat, but I’m afraid it was a one-time endeavor.   I have to admit that most of it, after occupying a forgotten corner of my freezer for a couple of years,  has gone towards an excellent repast for the dogs.   But even though I’m not the most appreciative consumer of boar meat, I have a healthy respect for all things cinghiale* these days.   I can only hope they maintain enough respect for me to steer clear when I am out and about in the fields.
*contadini : small farmers
*stufata di carne :  meat stew
*cinghiale : wild boar

Another day another pig

Some families choose to work the land and they resist gentrifying themselves by moving to  town.   Over time and generations, these rural families can grow quite large and form veritable small villages, or in contrast,  the attrition rate of family members can be almost total, and the remaining “country” nucleus may dwindle to one or two people.  In the years since I have been here, the preference for city living, once very strong,  has shifted, and more people are moving back to their  farmland plots.  The life of the contadino, once  considered a necessary evil, is now looking better and better.  Although these days it requires a larger investment in money than in time.

A family I know of— and I will justify my sources only by saying that they are in the grapevine and therefore as believable as any—was preparing for the winter by slaughtering a pig.  The process is intense, as you know, and only slightly more traumatic for the pig than for the perpetrators.  This small family consisted of mother father and son, the others having moved back to town. The pig had just been divided into two parts and hung for  further division into butcher-sized cuts, when an urgent phone call arrived.  There had been a death in the family, and in a neighboring town a wake and a funeral requested their presence.  It was very cold, and the parents packed the car and headed off, leaving the son to guard the house and prepare for eventualities of bad weather.

The son was in his early twenties, and a healthy example of what fresh air and abundant food can do for someone, even with relatives averaging under five and a half feet tall.  In other words, he was a large guy, “nu frigoriforuh,”*  as they say here.  It snowed that weekend , a rare occurrence in this valley even in full winter, and the parents were unable to return for two extra days.  Upon their reentry they were immediately mystified by the disappearance of all things pertaining to the slaughter, and  quite pleased that evidently the son had carried out the  necessary conservation and cleanup in their absence.  But they were met with furtive eyes and a baffling lack of smugness in reaction to their praise.

As it turned out, the cold weather had whetted his vigorous appetite.  The son, foreseeing that groceries probably were not to be forthcoming that weekend,  had started in on the pig, sampling various cuts and preparations.  One serving led to another, and over the course of 72 hours the two-hundred pound carcass grew progressively slimmer.  A moral might be that  you can make your own bacon instead of bringing it home, but that won’t necessarily make you any richer.  Not when you are dealing with temptation and a large appetite.  Over the weekend the young man had eaten the entire pig!

painting:  “The Importance of Dinner”  gouache and   pencil on paper, 2004