Foraging, Toxoplasmosis, And Eating Until You Die In Cassino, Italy

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.

The foraging field in Cassino

The foraging field in Cassino

“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.

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

Mmmm. Lamb brains (yes, seriously).

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.

Oysters on the half shell

Oysters on the half shell

Pasta with clams and parsley

Pasta with clams and parsley

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.

Ricotta And Spinach.

Ricotta And Spinach.

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’.

THIS IS A COSI POST! CHECK OUT WHAT THE REST OF THE GANG IS SAYING ABOUT FOOD THIS WEEK ON MY COSI PAGE.

COSI: Ferragosto! Pirates, Family, And Eating Until You Explode

Ferragosto is celebrated on the 15th of August. It was originally a pagan thing like most of the holidays we celebrate (What!? I’m SORRY! It’s TRUE! What does a giant bunny with treats have to do with Jesus? Nothing! That’s what!). Ferragosto was celebrated clear back in Roman times as people thanked Goddess Diana and the God Vortumno for awesome crops and all of that. Woot! Now, Ferragosto is a day of picnics, fun, and family time. In our family it is often the day of stuffing your face for four or five or ten hours until you pretty much barf, or try to barf but can’t, or just eat , sleep and dream about barfing.

For me Ferragosto signifies something even cooler than crop celebration (although celebrating food is kind of a big deal, too). It also signifies the beginning of summer vacation for many of us. In Italy, a good number of citizens get around three weeks of vacation per year. Two weeks in August and one week in December. It’s kind of amazing and probably why the homicide rate is lower in Italy than in the US. I’d be less inclined to kill people if I got to go on vacation every August, too. Last year my husband and I went some friends to Barcelona and the south of France beginning on Ferragosto. We drove from Cassino all the way to Barcelona and back. We had a blast. We danced in a nightclub that was on the beach. I convinced everyone afterwards to go “kind of skinny dipping” in the Sea. Drunk. Which is basically the only way you can get me near water because SHARKS. Then we went to some other city that was really amazing that I can’t remember because I’m not a travel writer but it was cute. We rented a paddleboat with a plastic slide on top where I sat -perched like a dog on a floating door after a flood-surveying the area for SHARKS while the guys swam. In the south of France we visited Arles, Ax-En-Provence, and Montpellier. In Arles around 1 a.m. I dragged my husband out for a hot date (me in a leather skirt running up and down the back streets making motor boat noises and summoning sailers) and we almost became Pirates. Which was like a dream come true.

Ferragosto to me is a reminder that there is more to life than work and productivity. That there is family, friends, places to see, things to do, outside of an office and without deadlines. Much of the world could learn something from Ferragosto itself and the following weeks of vacation that allow people to be people again.

AAAAND!

This Post Was Part Of Così (The expat mafia).

Check out what the other members of C.O.S.I had to say on the same subject.

Cont… My Life In Italy: Our Love Is Like The West Side Story With Spaghetti And Flying Pans

Mass-produced colour photolithography on paper...

Not Fucking Even, Dudes

I’ve been offering little glimpses into my life for the past two years. I started blogging three years after I’d lived in Italy so there was a lot that happened before that, many backstories to the shit I talk about now. I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve been telling little stories here and there from before I met all of  you. This post is particularly important because it introduces F’s parents into the picture. Many of you know my turbulent relationship with them but not many know how it started. Here we go.

I met Francesco while drunk, interviewed him like an asshole on our first date, and then to follow the pattern of WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH ME, I invited him over to my apartment for our third date along with every woman from my program. I thought, “If he can handle a room full of women he’s probably worth sleeping with. He did well. He arrived with ice cream in hand from an artisan shop because he’s manipulative and exactly as planned, everyone fell in love with him right away. ” We had our first kiss that day and it was very, very romantic. I’ll never forget it. He sat in my living room with his chest hair majestically blowing in the cross winds from my open windows. He was talking with one of my best friends who is also an engineer when he turned and said to me, “Where is your bathroom?” I gestured for him to follow me. We passed the bathroom and he was all, “Is this your bedroom?” and I was all, “yeah,” and then he walked inside, turned, grabbed me, and kissed me for like two seconds. I backed away, said, “okay, so, the bathroom is over there,” and ran back to the living room to mouth “he kissed me” to all the girls because I’m twelve years old. He left about twenty minutes later. We were so in love.

On our fourth date he took me to a pizza place near his “new apartment” and told me that if I was interested in dating someone only for sex I could go elsewhere because he was interested in a relationship. What? Yes. I found this incredibly sexy because I have low self esteem and anything difficult must be valuable, right? And I need to have valuable things to show I’m worthy. You know, basic psychology and shit (and a little bit of exchange theory). I nodded and tried to process how I was going to be in a relationship and move back to ‘Merrrrca soon. On our fourth date we totally did it and it was awesome. Two weeks after that I dumped him because he was being a monkey. He tried to win me back by chasing me through the Duomo Piazza with a guitar. I screamed, “why are you doing this to me?” While running very, very fast. Then we got back together a month later (but not before he slept with other people who were WAY, WAY UGLIER THAN ME, and stupid, and smelled like cheese, I hope). We were a hot mess those months yet I  fell in love with him anyway because we kind of just “got” each other despite all the bullshit. We’re not similar. We’ve always fought and annoyed each other. Love, for me, hasn’t been about getting along perfectly, never fighting, or having the same interests. For me being with my husband has been a  journey of deciding we would make it work together and being persistent in making it work. I think the decision to stay together was the most important step for us because husband’s are annoying, if things were tentative I’d never have moved forward. I had to decide that “this asshole is MY asshole,” hell or high water and only then was I willing to work on myself and force him with weapons to work on himself so we could be awesome together. Never underestimate what you can do with a ceramic bowl, ladies.  Sure, our “honeymoon period” never came and it probably never will but if  it does you’ll know because I’ll have nothing to write about. I’m off topic sort of. Shit. As I was saying…

Five months into the relationship we’d both said the “I love you,” thing and we were trying to sort out how feasible it would be for me to stay in Italy longer. I had no idea that pretty soon I’d find myself in an Italian version of The West Side Story, only everyone was dressed really well, eating spaghetti, and drunk. Also, there were cupboards slamming and frying pans flying. Basically it was Romeo & Juliet, only modern, with graffiti, and swearing. You get the idea. It started when Francesco became really fixated on the idea of me meeting his parents. I said no the first five times. I wasn’t interested in meeting them because I’m anti-social and scared of people, but also because I didn’t speak any Italian at that point AND because I still thought I’d be returning to the US  sooner than later and I naively thought that I might get attached to his family. “No need to form a relationship when we have no idea where our relationship will be in a few months.” It was cute that I thought I would “form a relationship.” I finally agreed though when he promised me booze and parties. “We’ll go out with my friends there. You can bring a friend! It will be so fun!”  I was such an idiot.

I asked my roommate along with me to settle my nerves but I was terrified on the drive down to his mini hometown. I desperately wanted his parents to like me. I put so much pressure on it that I caused a stream of panic attacks, practically overloading myself to a mental place where it would be impossible to function. When we arrived my throat completely closed up.  When their front door swung open I couldn’t even squeeze out a “buonasera” to his parents who studied me silently. The mother lingered behind the father, she looked at my shoes, and slowly went up until she met my face and forced an awkward smile. His parents looked like they were in mourning. They showed my friend and I to one room, F to another, and almost immediately the three of us said goodbye and went out to meet his friends for drinks and general trouble-making.

The next day we had lunch with his parents. We ate in near silence for the first twenty minutes. His parents didn’t ask me any questions, nobody spoke to me, though they spoke a little to my roommate and Francesco. Sure, I could have started the conversation but my biggest challenge with learning Italian has never been that the language is difficult rather that I’m too scared to speak to people. I’m not talkative in general, I don’t often talk about the weather or my hair, I have no idea how to have conversations about normal things. I’m similar in English but in Italian it’s even worse because not only do I do not know how to say, “Bonobo Chimpanzees resolve tribal conflicts with sexual gratification,” or “unicorns would make excellent body-guards,” in Italian, but I’m also pretty sure that no Italian  I knew at that time would want to hear it. So we silently sat at the round dining room table, course after course. F nudged me a few times demanding I try to speak but other than, “this food is delicious,” I couldn’t manage it. I drank wine as if it were water because I hoped that it would loosen me up and inspire me to speak. At the end of dinner I tried to help clean up to show that I was a decent person but the mother scolded me. I sat back in my chair knowing that I was totally fucked.

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Photo Friday: Wedding Photos Can Save Lives/Do You Need A Wedding Photographer In Italy That Speaks English?

I had a pretty solid idea of what I wanted in a wedding photographer when F and I tied the knot in Cassino, Italy, last year. I didn’t want those “I’m so in love on the beach even though my wedding took place in a garden” photos. I wanted something journalistic, a style that would capture what really happened so later on when I’m old and senile I can look at my wedding and see it happen. Or, on days where I fantasize about repeatedly stabbing my husband I can look at the photos and think, “I was super drunk right there, we’re in love, and it is awesome.” Wedding pictures save lives, people. Anyhow, I couldn’t find that style in an Italian photographer so I imported my own English speaking wedding photographer from ‘Merrrcaaa. Our wedding photographer, Alixann Loosle, loved Italy so much that she recently contacted me to ask if I know anyone who would be interested in an American photographer in Italy this year. She is offering a HUGE discount. If you know someone who is getting hitched this year, this is probably their lady, she’s amazing and super nice. Here’s what Alix had to say about Italy and her wedding package:

“Although I travel often to photograph weddings, no destination stands out to me more than Italy. Roaming the streets of Florence, catching trains to little century-old cities, and photographing the warm sunlight-light that seems to hit everything perfectly in Italy are my fondest memories of any trip I’ve taken. Because of this, I have decided to offer a massive discount on a wedding package that includes travel, if the wedding takes place in Italy this year. Please give me the chance to go back to Italy and photograph your wedding.”

Contact Alix if you’re interested. Seriously, this price is SO LOW it’s kind of making me cry right now.

Wedding Photographer Italy

 

 

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Living In Italy: Cassino And More Food (Another Six Hour Lunch)

 

As most of you know, I’ve been in Cassino with my in-laws (HOLY FUCKING SHIT!) for nearly two weeks now. We’re staying here to spend time with everyone before we head to the US for the holidays and to take care of some ‘MERCA things (like me trying to get Surviving In Italy published in book form! WOO HA!). But don’t worry! I have many-a-posts saved for you, plus I’ll be posting about importing F for a minute (should be good). Anyways, two weeks with the in-laws is a long time even if your father-in-law is Jesus Christ and your Mother-In-Law is Mother Theresa which mine ARE NOT. They are actually borderline insane who I love even if my father-in-law keeps calling me a “fucking retard” and my mother-in-law keeps telling me that my hair is ugly (when do I get sainted?). Acceptance is one of the first steps to recovery, my friends.

Whew. Anyways, all that F and I do here is eat, drink coffee, hide in the bedroom, and protect Oliver from my in-laws who think he needs “more discipline” and believe they are “helping” us by brandishing a broom at him. The one good thing about it all is that they are giving me so much fodder for my blog AND really great food shots with the series of SIX HOUR LUNCHES we’ve attended this week. The food is generally amazing but so, soooo much of it. Viola! Here is a lunch that went from 1-6 . Someone bring me Pepto.

La Tavola

La Tavola

Salad. Okay, it's SALAD but I liked the shot.

Salad. Okay, it’s SALAD but I liked the shot.

Polenta. Mmmm.

Polenta. Mmmm.

More Salad. I'm SORRY! STOP YELLING AT ME!

More Salad. I’m SORRY! STOP YELLING AT ME!

BABY BIRD STEW. What. The. Fuck?

BABY BIRD STEW. What. The. Fuck?

Wild Pheasant

Wild Pheasant

Bread with salame baked inside

Bread with salame baked inside

Wine is not complete without cheese puffs also known as FONZIES.

Wine is not complete without cheese puffs also known as FONZIES.

DSC_0257

 

My Italian In-Laws: Two Weeks In Cassino: Part 1: Italian Cuisine And I Suck At Cooking

On December 16th my husband and I are going to the US for the holidays. We’ll be staying for a few months to take care of some business (don’t worry I have dozens of posts saved and will post them regularly. Plus, I’ll be writing about importing my Italian husband and his experience in the US . Cannot wait.) We’re insane so we’re bringing Oliver with us. That’s right. This asshole:

He'll Probably Be Booked For Terrorism After This.

He’ll Probably Be Booked For Terrorism After We Land.

In the meantime my husband, F and I are staying with his parents in the great city of  Cassino for TWO WEEKS. Someone bring me a Xanax laced with vodka, please. I mean, things are better since The Great Battle Of Boundaries, and his family has calmed down considerably in the sense that they mostly stopped poking my “tiny” boobs or screaming “but why you do dis to us!?” while jabbing an accusing finger in my direction. Things are better. I love them, they’re family, but being in a house with them is like taking twenty hits of acid and then crawling into a trunk filled with rats.

The worst thing is that my husband awesome husband turns into a spoiled brat here. He’s not sexist at home and he’s all about 50/50 chores and he’s not lazy at all. When he’s here it’s like he reverts to being in utero. He doesn’t do his own laundry because his mom does it (she sneaks in and steals my underwear to wash too and I have to wrestle them from her which is super awkward and not really what I pictured myself doing at thirty-two). He doesn’t cook or help clean, he doesn’t do the dishes, he doesn’t cook for himself or get up to walk five feet to the fridge for wine. His mom does it all after spending a full day teaching children that if they mess up Jesus will shoot them in the ass with a lightning bolt (she’s teaches catholicism). She comes home for lunch, cleans the house, cooks lunch, cleans, goes back to work then returns home in the evening, cooks dinner, cleans, and then while my husband stretches out on the couch from a long day of doing NOTHING she irons his shirts until midnight. “Italian children are spoiled,” she tells me while she wipes the sweat from her forehead after carrying my husband to bed at night. “I can’t imagine why.” I mumble. I try to motivate F to help her more but he just stares blankly at me, grunts, makes weird hand gestures I can’t understand and stays attached to the couch. “My mom is nuts,” he’ll sigh while she runs across the field nearby with a dagger slaying dinner with her bare hands. “I wonder why.” I’ll mumble, again.

Right now tensions are extra high with us leaving for a bit but even more so because the parents are planning a large southern Italian lunch tomorrow afternoon. It’s the kind of southern Italian lunch that lasts for six. fucking. hours. They do this particular lunch every year for F’s friends. The lunch is in Cellole where my mother-in-law is from which is kind of like a Mississippi hick town. The lunch is supposed to be fun but everyone is so worried about being judged that they don’t seem to be enjoying it. It’s the sad result of everything being about appearances. The preparation has the whole family so stressed out that my father-in-law has only eaten Chamomile tea for two days. They’ve ordered every meat imaginable from multiple sources making sure to get the best deal (they do this by calling everyone they know and asking if they’ve seen deals lately). They’ve pre-ordered cheese and wine. Lamb heads are floating in some giant pot on the balcony. The cow testicles and cheese with worms will arrive in the morning.  “I am not eating any food that will be served at the same table as worm cheese, lamb brains or any form of testicle. Have you seen testicles? I don’t want them near me when they are attached to someone.” I tell F who can’t understand why I am “so picky when it comes to food.”

Maybe that’s because I don’t understand food. According to my father-in-law, my purpose in life is to cook and I

Augustin Théodule Ribot: The cook and the cat

Augustin Théodule Ribot: The cook and the cat (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

am failing at it miserably. Honestly, I’m  not an amazing chef but then again I’m not that fond of cooking.  I can entertain if I need to and I know some basics and thanks to a few lessons I can follow a recipe. Cooking is actually F’s passion though he’s embarrassed by it and refuses to admit it to his father who seems to think that one must have a vagina to cook. Something about the labia improves kitchen skills, supposedly. Aside from the fact that I’m American, my Italian sucks, and my dog is annoying, my shitty kitchen skills are probably one of the top things he doesn’t like about me.

“You have to learn how to cook!” He tells me every time we sit down at the table.

“I don’t like to cook.” I reply every time.

“YOU HAVE TO LEARN!” He’ll scan Francesco desperately. Surely thinking that his son will surely starve to death if I don’t learn how to perfect a frittata.

“I know how to cook. I don’t like it. He likes it. He can do it.” I gesture to F.

This inspires the dad to roll his eyes and glare at me for the rest of the meal. Then we’ll go through the same conversation again the next time we eat.

The other day after he lamented for a particularly long time I broke down and offered to make lunch for everyone the following day.

“Cosa!? CHE FA!? TU? Che Voo Di!? Eh? Poi Fa KIST!?” Which is part dialect, part heavy accent, and a lot of NOT ITALIAN which means something like, “What!?” You!? YOU DON’T KNOW HOW TO MAKE ANYTHING!? CAN YOU MAKE THIS!” He gestures to what I think is dandelion weeds that he found in a field nearby (he’s known to forage).

“No, I can’t cook that. But I can cook other stuff.”

“No! You can’t! We have to use the beans!” The mom pitched in.

“Easy. Beans. I make. I make good. Chili! It’s good!” I stumble in Italian.

They argued for a moment amongst themselves and it was settled that I would do it. The next day F and I spent all morning making chili. I am no master chef but it was good, I thought.

“This is garbage. What the fuck is this shit!? You need to learn how to cook! This is spicy RAGU!” The dad barked after he slurped down the first bite.

In all fairness it was kind of like spicy ragu. I mean, we only had a handful of beans so it was pretty much just sauce and beans. The flavor wasn’t bad but I probably wouldn’t have won an award for it either.

“It’s good!” F argued.

“It’s better than your minestrone.” I mumbled to my father-in-law. For the record, F’s mom is an amazing cook but the dad totally sucks. His go-to dish on a rare meal that the mom can’t cook is minestrone with frozen vegetables, uncooked legumes, and usually callimari and oysters that he tosses in for no fucking reason at all. Even more annoying is that he takes credit for his wife’s cooking as though she’s good because of something he’s done. Marrying a great cook doesn’t make you a master chef, guy.

“It IS better than your minestrone.” My mother-in-law chuckled.

“KIST! KIST e MONEZZA! CHEEELLLEEH !” He added in dialect which means “this is garbage,” while he mopped up the last bite of chili with his bread.

“I no cook for you again!” I tell him.

“GOOD!” He grumbles.

Everyone wins!