One morning while visiting my in-laws I sat on the balcony sipping an Americano while watching my father-in-law forage in a nearby field. I could make out a bundle of something under his right arm, on occasion the sun would reflect off of the scissors in his other hand. He’d bend down, pop up, take a few steps and repeat. The man must have been getting one hell of an ass workout.
“Francesco!” I yelled,” I think your father is foraging random greenery from that field nearby. Can you make him stop?”
Francesco appeared in the balcony doorway, cradling our poodle, “Why would I stop him?” He squinted towards the field, “it’s for dinner.”
“Nooo!” I panicked, “We’re going to get toxoplasmosis. That field is home to about six-thousand feral cats. There was a dead one just lying here the last time I took Oliver out to pee. Which reminds me that Oliver pees and shits there.”
Francesco shrugged and reached for my coffee cup, “Don’t be so dramatic! He’ll wash them and cook them. I had toxoplasmosis when I was younger. It’s not like it would kill us.”
I was no longer looking at my husband, rather, I was looking at a man who had a disease associated with ingesting cat shit and he was slobbering all over my coffee. How had I not known about his infestation of icky before I’d signed legal documents to bind myself to him.
“Why are you glaring at me?” He smiled, “Is it because I had that and now you’re grossed out?”
“Yeah, exactly. Get your hands off of my coffee. You’re lucky you weren’t pregnant. You would have had a Toxic Avenger baby.”
“Huh?” He went back inside.
I really wasn’t that surprised that my husband had contracted a crap disease since at that very moment his dad burst onto the balcony with his glorious bounty, chest puffed out, arms full of green bushes. “You eat the poops of cats,” I mumbled as I walked inside.
When I first moved to Italy I thought, “Pasta! Pizza! Wine!” but that was before I realized that pasta and pizza were just the two Italian dishes that were easier to market to the rest of the world. Some of their other dishes just didn’t catch on in the same way and rightfully so. I was surprised the first time I found Baby Bird Stew, on the menu at a friend’s house, a dish that is exactly what it sounds like: Baby birds, in their entirety, in tomato sauce. Another time a restaurant served us Illegal Boiled Baby Fish that looked more like boiled semen. Then there’s the horse, the pigeon, the cow balls, the stuffed lamb brains, sheep intestine panini, and stomach lining soup. I could now add, “Cat Crap Field Greens,” into the mix of things that I just couldn’t convince myself to try. It’s not only because the food is “weird,” but also because I was vegan for ten years and animal products just kind of scare me. Plus, brains are gross. Zombies eat brains, not people.
Francesco’s family finds my weak stomach both hilarious and puzzling. But how did I know I wouldn’t like cheese with worms in it? Come on! It’s a specialty from Sardegna! I agreed with them that there was no way to know for sure but I certainly wasn’t willing to try. Yes, it was probably because the food in my country is weird. Yes, it’s probably because I grew up eating Kraft Mac And Cheese. I agreed that yes, that’s exactly why I couldn’t possibly know anything about good food.
Most of the food is quite delicious in Cassino and the surrounding cities. The food in the south is, and I say this expecting people to get really regionally defensive, my favorite food in Italy. It’s surprisingly diverse and very “comfort food,” in it’s simplicity. My favorite restaurants in Italy are in Cassino. You have Al Mulino, an impressive, incredible restaurant with super fresh dishes made from scratch that surpass many of the restaurants I’ve eaten at abroad. There is also Bianco/Noir, a fish restaurant that serves dishes like Branzino packed in sea salt and spaghetti alle vongola. In Cassino, as with much of Italy, everything is seasonal. In the Autumn we eat a lot of Zucca (pumpkin), squash, greens, simple cooked proteins often simmered in tomato sauce or lemon and oil.
My mother-in-law is an amazing cook and can whip up a fifty-course meal in three hours which takes another 7 hours to eat and I leave sick, heavier, tired and grumpy. The seafood in Cassino is often fresh and prepared with minimal ingredients and processing which is delicious, perfect, and totally created another culinary complication for me. Fish is served intact with it’s head or legs or whatever still attached. The first time I ate shrimp with my in-laws I stared at it for a long time trying to figure out what to do with it. I stabbed, poked, and pulled at it for twenty minutes. My husband eventually felt sorry for me enough to pull my plate over to his to help me. He had a look on his face like I’d just asked him to teach me to write my name. My father-in-law shook his head at me, stabbed a shrimp head from my plate, and popped it into his mouth. “Crunch, crunch, crunch, kist americana…”
Most days in Cassino we eat pretty typical things. I start the day with a chocolate brioche-which tastes like heaven and is usually freshly baked that morning-and Capuccino. It’s a sugary, caffeinated combo, a rush followed by a terrible crash, and withdrawal, similar to meth. Probably. For lunch if we’re lucky my mother-in-law makes roasted potatoes, broccolini (ideally not from the cat field), and meatballs or some protein followed by fruit and walnuts (that have occasionally been filled with a worm or two as they were pulled from some random tree nearby). If we’re not lucky my father-in-law makes some perverse version of Minestrone: Water, frozen vegetables, clams and calamari (no broth, flavoring, salt or pepper). Dinners are usually light, a homemade pizza made with broccolini and kalamata olives and occasionally sardines or Zuppa Di Fagioli e Verze (soup with beans and cabbage). Holidays or special occasions are when the hours of eating, and the random weird are brought to the table. You’re moving away? BALLS! Come to our house! GUTS! That’s when the “statement” dishes are busted out along with the delicious, less “bold,” recipes. It’s important to make an impression.
Food is something you give to people you care about, food is how you connect, how you impress, and how you love. You adore your family by stuffing them full of anything and everything you can buy or possibly find.
That one day that my father-in-law was stalking the nearby fields for edible greenery was for a party we were having with friends. He wanted the best cuts of meat so he called all of the butchers personally, he wanted the best produce so he and his wife visited a number of markets, and he wanted fresh so he spent the day out in the sun picking what nature provided. The Mozz Di Bufala was made the day before, there were homemade canned and pickled vegetables, meats from animals raised just down the road, and cheese from a place not even 15 minutes away. There were also other random body parts that in the US we often toss away. That’s the beauty of Cassino cuisine, really. They still have that old mentality that food is food, food is currency, everything that can be consumed, should be, nothing should go to waste, and if the toxoplasmosis doesn’t kill you, the fields are ripe for the pickin’.
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