The following is an excerpt from a novel, The Charleston Cookbook, that I began in 2017:
….Jackie was pining for Italy, where she had become smitten with the smell of basil and marjoram and the nearly meatless cuisine and rocky terrain of the Cinqueterre. Upon leaving England the summer before, she had traveled down to southern France and over into Liguria before returning to the States, and, in her journeys, had apparently shed her academic hauteur, her devotion to her studies, and her natural redhead’s fear of the sun. Everywhere she went along the Italian Riviera, the boys called after her, her hefty thighs freed of the tyranny of the thin in America. For the first time in her life, though as serious as ever, she flirted, now radiant, buoyant, and flouncy. Back home in West Virginia, and even in England, her fair skin had rarely seen the sun. Now she went topless on the rocks between the tiny fishing villages, and drank a shot of grappa with her cappuccino each morning, alongside the merchants and bankers. She moved into an apartment overlooking Camogli’s perfect little harbor and learned to speak enough of the local dialect to be invited into the homes of fishermen’s wives who taught her how to make potato gnocchi così leggeri che volano – so light they fly! They found her extravagant and wildly American, but they, too, could not resist her.
She wore no makeup, and her flaming hair, nearly the perfect complement to her hazel eyes, flew about her shoulders and face in the brezza di mare. She flirted with their wizened husbands and with their brutishly handsome grandsons – all either too old or too young for her – but they loved her because she had the touch, unlike even their proud mothers and their skilled daughters, brilliant cooks all. She knew that her linguistic skills charmed them, but she wondered if perhaps it weren’t just her red hair or directness that set her apart, so much so that the old women perceived her as so alien as to be of no threat to their sons, their cooking skills, and the fabric of their tiny neighborhoods.
One taste of an intricately involved dish like cima and Jackie could call out the ingredients as though she were conjugating French verbs. One smell of a neighbor’s minestrone and she’d ask, in her rudimentary, but brilliant, Italian, “Cos’è il profumo verde?” – What’s that green fragrance? – only to be told that the sole green in the soup was borage, which she had never seen before. The farinaio would sell her illegal prescinsêua – the clabber needed to make some of the region’s peculiar dishes – without so much as asking what she needed it for. Her reputation as a good cook – perhaps even a great Ligurian cook – preceded her throughout the region: The smart Irish American girl. Have you seen her? The one flirting with your husband? She’s got it. Capisce lei. She’s one of us.
Geoffrey had sent her to Genoa with a bit of grant money from the Goëthe-Institut. He was basically paying her to do his research on the disappearing dialects of the region – tongues entwined with swishy s’s and x’s, vowels dropped from the ends of words, sounds more Arabic than Italian, more Gaul than Rome. But he was also postponing her return to the States, hoping to ensconce her in a sunny world unlike any she had known before, baiting her with language, but thinking she might be captured by the climate and peculiarities of the Italian Riviera, so unlike the French one, mere kilometers away. Jackie was aware that she had been seduced, but it was neither by Geoffrey nor by what he had imagined. Nor was it her newfound freedom, nor the charm of the colorful ports. It was the food.
She had dallied in Provence for a week or two, taking notes on the dialects along the coast and sampling the famous herb-scented cuisine. Lavender ice cream. Ratatouille. Bouillabaisse. But she was not prepared for the heady assault of fresh basil and marjoram when she crossed the Italian border, the immediate improvement in coffee, or the extensive use of wild, fresh greens in place of pungent, dried herbes de Provence. Long before Matisse moved to Nice, Jackie remembered from an art history class, Monet had come to Liguria, where he had seen a bridge that was “a jewel of lightness,” the bridge that later inspired his own at Giverny. And Yeats, Keats, Byron, and Shelley had also chosen the more rugged and dense coastline of northern Italy instead of the far more popular French Riviera, she knew. They must have smelled the promise that was on the wind.
Or maybe, like her, they had simply succumbed to the herbal scent of the salty air.
From Nice, she had taken the slow train to Genoa. Even so, the trip wasn’t long. After a couple of hours, when the crowded train stopped in tiny Andora, she could see the streets lined with potted plants for sale, and, if she were to believe the laconic women in black seated across from her, it was the yearly herb festival in the village – the worst time to see the beautiful beach at Marina di Andora! Just before the train was to leave the station, Jackie impulsively shouted at the conductor to allow her to get off, and, with her two suitcases, walked into a nearby shop, paid the owner several thousand lire to watch her bags, and began her spontaneous induction into an almost incomprehensibly mysterious world.
Everywhere she turned, she smelled basil, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, and a dozen more bright green aromas that she couldn’t recognize. How could she not have known these plants? Surely Byron and Yeats had mentioned them. It was the first time that she had felt truly free in her life, and for many years, the smell of those herbs would bring back those adventurous two hours in a Lilliputian port.
When she arrived at the Goëthe-Institut, where Geoffrey had arranged for her to gather the keys to the apartment that his wife owned in the centro storico, the old historic center of Genoa, the receptionist was oddly cold – a combination of proper and prudish even beyond the British, she realized – and she was dressed in an outmoded Burberry manner, of schoolgirls and wives of Lords. Not surprising for a German, Jackie thought, but the woman was decidedly Genovese, she could tell by her name. La signora offered her no directions to the address, though she must have known how confusing the narrow carruggi of the old quarter would be to a newcomer. Geoffrey himself had admitted to having been lost amongst those alleyways several times.
The centro storico was famously dark and grimy, the largest intact medieval city in the world. The dank passageways stank of dog shit and human piss. One street was so narrow that Jackie could stretch out her arms and flatten both her palms against the stone walls. The carruggi snaked down to the waterfront, with snaggle-toothed whores, seventy if they were a day, beckoning seamen into doorways of beaded curtains. “Dai, mainâ,” they’d say, which sounded something like “Die, mind ya,” though Jackie knew it meant, “Come on, sailor.”
The flat, as only Geoffrey called it, was an expansive one with seamless terrazzo on an upper floor of a huge Renaissance building in Via Soziglia; his wife had inherited it. It hovered above two of the world’s oldest – and best – confectionery shops, where Jackie quickly discovered Klainguti’s hypnotic gianduja semifreddo, a semisoft hazelnut ice cream, and Romanengo’s unique conserva di manna. Manna she understood, though it would be months before she learned that the celestial elixir was made from an ash tree. She had brought no dictionaries with her, knowing that Geoffrey would have a well-stocked library, and she was so distracted by the new sights, sounds, and smells of the old city that she often forgot to look up everyday Italian words when she got back from a day of research. Her job was to record, translate, and analyze dialect words and phrases. She realized that she was learning to speak Genoese better than she was learning Italian.
Geoffrey came almost immediately, both literally and figuratively. Her second week in Genoa, he arrived with the news that he was now a free man. He told Jackie that he was separated from his wife – a stunning Ligurian beauty, a voluptuous, raven-haired Sophia Loren with a doctorate in art history – so that he could be with Jackie without guilt. He pawed at her as soon as he arrived, and made love like a teenager, loudly, quickly, and without passion. His possessiveness rubbed her the wrong way. She found his neediness offensive, as though he were a small child demanding attention, when she was the one who needed guidance in her studies. It was Geoffrey, after all, who had steered her away from the comparative literature that she had pursued at Princeton.
He stayed a week, mapping out markets and villages easily reached by bus or rail, where she would find distinct patois and grammar unlike that of the romance languages she spoke. But before he left, Jackie, cramped by his style and uncomfortable staying in his wife’s apartment, asked to be paid her stipend for the entire summer. She had found a room in a writer’s apartment in Camogli where she could live without Geoffrey breathing down her neck when he was in town.
Geoffrey was by nature a whiner — an Englishman’s Englishman, Jackie realized too late. The other Americans at Sussex had tried to explain to her the peculiar mindset of Londoners like Geoffrey who loved to complain about taxes, crime, and immigrants, but who also felt helpless to do anything about the problems. They often led dispirited lives in academia, typically in the sciences. Geoffrey was a well-known linguist, having translated some of the best turn-of-the-century writing from Italy, Spain, and France. But, despite his geeky good looks and his renown in his field, he had been unable to achieve any sort of personal satisfaction. He looked to the women in his life, who had always sought him out for sex, to fulfill the impossible role of friend, inspiration, cook, sounding board, shrink, and mother as well as lover. Attracted to bolder women who in turn were attracted to nerdy intellectuals whom they used as their pawns, Geoffrey typified the emasculated Londoners Jackie’s friends had warned her about. Often, they married homely, and wealthy, women, who made every decision for them.
Geoffrey’s wife, Carla, though, was exceptionally beautiful and talented, and she tolerated his dalliances. He had long suspected that she, too, kept young lovers on the side, and it was their own passionate lovemaking that had kept them together. His decision to leave her for Jackie, whose mind worked exactly the way he wished his did, was an impetuous one, incredibly romantic for such a cynic. Jackie knew that she could not spare him the pain of severing ties with him, but she also knew that she could not be kept the way Geoffrey had been. It was a huge move for Geoffrey to have stepped out into the unknown the way he had, but she had no sympathy for him.
“I can’t live with you,” Jackie told him. “Not even for a weekend. And especially not here.”
She did not cry, and worried that he would. She had never been one to shed many tears, but she had been depressed lately and overly emotional. She had wept several times since arriving in Genoa. She thought perhaps it might be because of her mother’s ill health – not out of any love for her hard-drinking, smoking mother, but knowing that her father, whom she adored, would be heavily burdened with her care. Geoffrey was handsome and timid, like her father. She knew that if she saw either of them burst into tears, that she would probably release a flood of her own that had been building for years.
Geoffrey was furious, and barely able to speak.
“Say something,” she said, though she would not beg.
“You are the most selfish person I’ve ever known,” was all he could manage to sputter through his muffled rage.
Though Jackie knew that he would do anything that she said, and that he would become increasingly bitter, she also knew that she had to move out. She hadn’t thought that he might fire her. And he didn’t. As he angrily opened his wallet and threw money on the bed, Geoffrey quoted something that Jackie had once written about altruism in a paper at Sussex.
“This isn’t about love, Geoffrey.” She looked at the man whom she had been sleeping with for two years and knew that she never would again. “I have to find my own path before I can help someone else find theirs. I will do anything for you, but I can’t be your raison d’être. Did you love your wife? Does she know about us?”
“Where are you going to live?” he asked, visibly shaking but managing to remain civil.
“With an old, gay poet, in Camogli.”
“Like John Edelston,” Geoffrey said, hoping that Jackie would remember Lord Byron’s young lover, and lead the conversation through the reveries that had attracted him to her in the first place.
“Like neither Edelston nor Byron. More like starting off as a busboy in a restaurant. Bisogna, Geoffrey. Devo.” It’s necessary. I must. “This is not about you, but about me. I honestly don’t know why you left your wife. I have never told you that I love you,” then, realizing that her words might sound cruel, “but I do. But not like man and wife. I will work very hard this summer, but I can’t work for you and sleep with you. Please try to understand.”
Geoffrey sat on the bed and put his face in his hands. He sighed heavily, but, Jackie was relieved, he did not weep.
“Here’s the phone number,” she said. “I’ll have you over for dinner when you come back. You’ll love Alberto.” She didn’t tell him that the poet was world-renowned.
The writer was in his eighties and had moved to Camogli when the imminent construction of a high-speed train from Milan to Genoa was announced in anticipation of the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s maiden, portentous voyage. The apartment looked out over both sides of Camogli’s waterfront – the beach on the levante, the harbor on the ponente. She paid no rent, but instead, cooked him dinner each night.
Camogli was becoming as popular as Portofino, and the poet could easily sell his place there for millions more than he had paid. But he had lost his partner of thirty years to AIDS in the spring, had never once cooked a meal for himself, and had no interest in going back to Milan, where so many of his friends were now dead. Jackie had seen his ad for a cook on a bulletin board at the Goëthe-Institut. He admitted that he thought he’d get a graduate student, and frankly, he had hoped it would be a boy.
What he got was a goddess in the kitchen.
Jackie had studied Shelley’s On Love, and she knew that it comes in many forms – a mother’s, romance, obsession – but for her it was all a matter of taste. She recalled a quote often credited to Lin Yu-Tang: “What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” Jackie had asked her comparative literature professor if the sentence were more likely to have been written by Lin’s wife, a cookbook author whose Chinese Gastronomy she had brought with her to Europe, one of four cookbooks she carried wherever she went. Though she consulted none of the books for recipes, she often thumbed through them for inspiration. She was a genius at making a meal from seemingly nothing, but where she really excelled was in her response to fresh produce, allowing the food – not the cook – to be the star of a meal. When Jackie first discovered the small local artichokes, her creations evolved so naturally, using the native olive oil and lemons, that no one was surprised that what she had come up with were perfect renditions of classic regional dishes. Alberto Ciurlo, the poet, had found a new muse who seemed to be of the past and the present at once.
“In the market today, I bought baxaicò unlike any I’ve ever seen before,” Jackie excitedly told Alberto as she unpacked her string bag of produce. “I really love the old word here for basil. It sounds more like Portuguese to me.”
“In Italian, basil is basic: basilare means fundamental; basilico is basil; and basilica, of
course, is a mighty fortress of a church.” Alberto found himself thinking about words in new ways since Jackie’s arrival. He had always loved good food, but he never really knew the language of cooks.
“Wasn’t there a Basil the Great in Greece?” Jackie, too, was thinking about things she hadn’t ever given much thought before.
“Closer to modern-day Turkey,” Alberto surprised himself by remembering. “He was somewhat of a Christian warrior who was bestowed sainthood for his fight against Arianism. He captured my attention once when I was very young, and I even tried to write a poem about his beliefs, but got bogged down in Byzantium along the way. In ancient Greek, ‘basil’ meant royal. Funny how that came to mean ‘basic.’”
Jackie and Alberto had settled into a warm, intellectually stimulating friendship, uncluttered by sexual longing or innuendo. He had studied the English poets at Oxford and, like many northern Italians, felt indebted to the English, and mimicked their clothing and manners. Tweeds and driving caps were de rigueur in Genoa.
“Well, basic it will be tonight,” Jackie laughed. “But not saintly. I think I’ll add a little hot pepper to the dish and call it ‘the devil.’” She reached over and touched his forearm. “How about a glass of Gavi?”
Their banter was at once playful and smart. They had, in a matter of weeks, become as close as lovers. Not old ones who have lost their sense of fun, but rapturous young ones, as excited by their own conversation as by lovemaking.
Alberto still wrote, but no longer appeared in public. He hadn’t published one word since his partner had died, though he had ten journals filled with poems.
“Gianni never really understood our light dishes or wines,” he mused aloud. “This is the first time that I haven’t missed him since he died. He always wanted a Scotch before his risotto and Barolo with his stufato. Thank goodness we always walked after dinner. I much prefer your cooking to his. You’re even better than Nonna.”
For a proud Ligurian to admit to a young woman that her food was better than his grandmother’s, Jackie knew, was unheard of. She turned her blushing face toward the stove, where she was frying tiny little fish as an appetizer.
“I can only wish,” she all but whispered.