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SOUTHERN IN FLORENCE
April 16, 2009
 
First it was a Chinese student who offered to cook the rest of us a real Chinese meal, and all the young helpers learned a few things about cooking Chinese, listening to Chinese rock music as they chopped and stirred. Then the Russians wanted in, and after that a young woman from the former Yugoslavia led the team in making four kinds of Yugoslavian pizza.

It was time for the Americans to strike back. Last night was Southern Night.

The menu's one concession to anything even close to healthiness was that the chicken was baked and not deep fried. The collard greens were a problem: we don't have collard here. But we do have bietole, which is firm enough to stand up to the onions and panchetta with which we stirred and stirred it on the big stove. A young woman from California and a former rector of St. James made dozens of devilled eggs, and a puzzled Japanese girl was inducted into the mystery of how it is that they are "devilled." It's the mustard, I explained, Americans think it's spicy. She smiled and nodded politely. Two enormous pots boiled the potatoes for the potato salad. The students were intrigued to see how easily potatoes peel when they have already been cooked, and quickly mastered the gingerly art of not burning your fingers while slipping the thin skin off a hot potato. One girl chopped an entire bunch of celery easily two feet long, and the red onions to go with it, and then we layered the vegetables together in a big pan, so that they would mix easily later on.

We would have banana pudding for dessert. The young Japanese woman, finished with the devilled eggs, carefully began installing rows of banana slices on the Italian tea biscuits we were using instead of the tasteless vanilla wafers you can't get here, and I set about making a cornstarch pudding for it. All looked well: the wonderful orange yolks of Italian eggs whisked smoothly into the cold milk, and soon it was bubbling appropriately around the edges. But something was odd: the pudding wasn't very thick. I had put in enough cornstarch, I was sure. And it looked just a bit grainy, not as smooth as it usually looks. Hmmn. Maybe it will thicken up as it sits, I thought, and in any case it will soak into the biscuits. But it was odd, that graininess. I took a taste, and all was suddenly, brutally clear: I had mistaken the container of salt for the sugar. The saltiness of the substance bubbling before me on the stove was stunning.

Hmmn again. Well, there's lots of yogurt in the refrigerator, Marguerite said. We could sweeten that, add some vanilla and substitute it for the pudding. And we could make a meringue out of the whites from the egg yolks I used to make the salty pudding. And now you have a lot of sauce you can use for something else, she went on brightly. Yes. Some of the salty pudding became a glaze for the chicken, and some of it extended the reach of the mayonnaise in the potato salad. And a lot of it is still in the icebox, wondering what the future may hold.

This is going to be perfect, I said to Daby as we stirred the mayonnaise-salty pudding mix into the layers of potato and celery and onion and egg. Perfect, she said, as she tasted it. And it was. Now that my mother is dead, I make the best potato salad in the world. But we don't mind sharing our recipe, so now several girls from all over the world know it, too.

The devilled eggs would be the first course -- Italians must have their primi. A lifelong resident of Florence approached the table and regarded the eggs with curiousity. I explained again why they were "devilled," and he gave me a polite but puzzled nod. With it we have sweet tea, I explained to the room at large as we were ready to serve. With the meal? one of the Italians asked incredulously. Yes, I said, very sweet tea. And cold. They drink it cold, with the meal. He walked off with a glass of it, shaking his head in wonder at the strange ways of the Americans.

It was perfect. An Italian boy with an American mother had three desserts, so I know he wasn't just being polite when he said it was good. I don't really know how the sweet tea as an accompanioment to the meal went over in general, but there wasn't any left. It was perfect, I said to Daby when the dinner was over. Yes, she said, it tasted just like home.

Home. So far away. We seek ways to bring it here, ways to bring the past into the present, to bring back what we remember and miss. We leave what we know and then we try to get it back.

So you used these tea biscuits instead of vanilla wafers, Peter said, taking a tentative bite of his pudding.

Yeah, his young friend chimed in nostalgically, those wafers that taste stale no matter how new they are.

Yeah, I said, probably they only ever made one gigantic batch of those vanilla wafers, and decades later we're all still eating that one batch.

Yeah, and putting it in the pudding
, Peter said, just like tiramisu.

Sort of like tiramisu. Only with bananas.
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