16 October 2009

Done Romed

What, exactly, do the Romans do? Throw lesser humans to hungry lions? Drive their motorized chariots in mad circles until the wheels fall off and they die in their lover's arms? Pine the days away leaning back on steps while eating grapes straight from the bunches? I don't really know. Maybe a little bit of it all. One thing is certain, they sure know how to eat.

Apparently, Rome is a very old city. Older even than, say, Bethesda. So old, in fact, that some of the structures have fallen down in ruins. This, however, doesn't detract from the zillions of people (not Romans) who still flock to these structures with the hopes and anticipation of getting into one of these places and doing some shopping or watching some sort of inhumane "sporting" event. And, boy, you should see the looks on their faces when they realize that the mall has crumbled.

Apparently, too, there is even a smaller city within the larger city. This small city has so much power that it's able to create its own permanent rain cloud that periodically spits down on the zillions of people (not Romans) who wait in line every day to enter.

And speaking of the dark and stormy Mansion On the Hill, it has its own army of past and present soldiers it sends into the city at large for the purpose of protection and the promotion of certain causes and events. Spotting them is kind of fun. They're not as big as a monument and they are often tucked into corners or hidden places within the city. Kind of like spies. For example, here is the Patron Saint of Two Stroke Engines hiding in a back alley with a few of her disciples:

And lo the dynamic duo of the Patron Saint of Uneven Engineering tag-teamed with the Patron Saint of Free Advertising Space:

As mentioned, the city is also famous for its monuments. Turn just about any corner and you're face to face with a beautiful and functional piece of art that commemorates something or other. Witness the Monument to Ever-present Large-Scale European City Construction Projects:

And to ensure that other European cities can't claim an edge over Rome's sometimes decaying infrastructure, the city has launched a new innovative campaign of monuments that are equally awe-inspiring, portable, and conveniently disposable. These collapsible monuments also have the advantage of doubling as advertising space for a lucky sponsor that both attracts gawking tourists and makes a little residual cash for the city in the meantime.

But I like my history a little more alive. More precisely, I'm an advocate of living traditions, everyday expressions by everyday people and how that represents the particular time and place that surrounds their performance. For example, rather than learning about when and where and why the Spanish Steps (first photo) were created, I'm interested in the Filipino and North African immigrants who peddle roses to tourists on the Spanish Steps--their language or jargon, codes of behavior, rituals, and tactics employed to sell their wares.

In my mind, the best representation of a people's or city's living tradition is what and how they assemble a small bunch of ingredients with the intent and purpose of eating or drinking them. In this sense, Rome must have few rivals.

I ate quite a bit over the last few days but, really, that was one of the reasons for going. The eating was good. Very. Here is a list of some of the greater pleasures consumed:

• Scrambled eggs with black truffles. (This kicked off a black truffle frenzy and I spent the next three days combing menus to find anything with tartufo nero di Norcia. Their use here is not like the hint of truffles that are more common in the US--little black flakes that taste of truffle essence. These are serious, quarter dollar-sized shavings that you taste and feel and chew, an ingredient rather than a flavoring.)
• Bruschetta with cured lard, a quail egg, and, yes, black truffles.
• Tagliolini with zucchini and prawns.
Saltimbocca alla Romana.
• Spiced and sautéed chicory with roasted garlic.
• Sautéed spinach with Parmesan.
• Clams in olive oil with pepper flakes.
• The finest and lightest osso bucco on the planet Earth.
• Fried artichoke.
Spaghetti alla carbonara.
• Pappardelle(?) pasta with artichokes and squid.
• More black truffles, this time with stuffed ravioli.

Simple dishes all of them. Mid-range restaurants all of them. Some of them (saltimbocca and spaghetti alla carbonara) are certifiable Roman classics; others are staples of the Roman Jewish Ghetto; still others are variations of traditional dishes found in any number of the city's trendy and lively enotecas.

Romans have been grappling with the task of feeding its citizens for over 2,500 years. That's about 500 years avanti Christo: before Gesù, everybody's favorite hippie, walked the Earth, ate organic produce, sipped wine, and expounded on the virtues of humankind. This immemorial gastronomic history, still living and breathing and cooking, is what I believe informs the greater cultural dynamic of Rome's people and place in time.

At the end of the day--and probably in the beginning and at some point in the middle--Rome will need to feed itself. What and how it chooses to feed itself represents a combination of components (cultural values, rituals, resources, techniques) so characteristic of how a specific people think and interact with their food as to be reproducible nowhere else. The monuments that fill the physical space of the city will continue to disappear into the Roman underbelly while the food and the day to day expressions that surround cucina romana--political arguments over lunch, family and holiday celebrations, and the like--will continue to define why Romans are Romans and what it is they do when they do it.

So, among the many metaphors at work in the famous Trevi fountain scene in La Dolce Vita we find at least two that deal with food. The scene itself revolves around the wealthy
(and loopy) American, Sylvia, and her quest to find milk for an abandoned kitten. The frustrated, soul-searching Italian journalist, Marcello, runs off into the pre-dawn streets of Rome to please the beautiful movie star. He returns to find (the loopy) Sylvia frolicking in the Trevi fountain. She calls to him and he joins her and as dawn lifts the darkness from the Eternal City the brief image of a figure who I interpret as an early morning bread carrier watches over them.

Darkness and dawn. Milk and bread. The essentials. As the rest of the confused world plays in its fountains and oohs and aahs its history Rome keeps on keeping on, looking for food to eat and making the most from its most fundamental ingredients.

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