madonna del piatto

Italian family cooking


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the alchemist

Life went on and I started to travel the big wide world. I had always been fascinated by plants, particularly aromatic plants. However, no botanical studies with a promise of a reasonable future where available. I ended up getting a Ph.D in chemical ecology of insects, studying how plant chemicals influence insect behavior.

This is how it works:

herbivore insects, such as caterpillars, spend most of their life feeding on plants. While the herbivore is feeding, the plant is wounded by the mouth parts of the insect and emits all sort of chemicals. Carnivore insects are continuously searching their prey, i.e. the herbivore insects. Their sense of smell is so refined that they can perceive the odor of the wounded plant among all others and use it to find their victims.

summer blooming at Piano Grande di Castelluccio in Umbria

even in a tangle of vegetation like this, a tiny carnivore wasp can find a caterpillar that is stuffing himself with his favorite veggies

Food is so much about chemistry and behavior, that I feel I have not changed my subject very much.


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festa

If our everyday meals were low profile, holidays were an entire different experience. In fact,  a gastronomic extravaganza.

Half of my extended family is Sicilian and most of them live in Umbria. For Christmas or Easter, it was not unusual to have large parties of 15-20 people.

a family gathering on Christmas 1977

a family gathering on Christmas 1977

At each of these occasions, not only my mother, but all my Sicilian aunts and some uncles embarked in a sort of food contest. The contest functioned as follows:

1) each day of a holiday would be spent at a different house, i.e. Christmas at our house, New year’s Eve at zia Ida’s, New Year’s day at zia Anna and so forth

2) each day there would be a multicourse lunch or dinner

3) each meal would be different from the previous

There was no winner to the contest as all were wonderful cooks. These celebrations happened throughout my childhood and I remember them as an almost magical experience. There was no separate food for us kids. No junk food, no sodas. We were served a feast of elaborated dishes, all homemade, the results of the hard work the  week preceeding the holiday. Images of crostini with chicken liver paté, lasagne, pasta incasciata, cardoons, veal rolls, stuffed pigeon, all sort of roast meat, big bowls of fresh salad, piles of sliced panettone, baskets of mandarins and nuts, all is impressed in my mind as a dream. Good, good food.

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