Tuesday, August 26, 2014

A MID-SUMMER SNOBALL MIRAGE

In late July, my family spent a week in Fenwick Island, a lovely coastal town sandwiched between the romantic charm of Ocean City, MD and the austere beauty of Bethany Beach, DE. We were joined by my sister and her two kids, aged 10 and 12. After lying on the sand on a particularly sunny morning, we dared order a "Snoball", which is shaved ice topped with flavored syrup served in a styrofoam cup. We were hoping it would taste like a Sicilian granita, the heavenly inspiration for what you call "Italian ice": It did not.

Because of my sugar-free credo, I didn't order a Snoball for myself. I did, however, taste everybody else's: watermelon, orange, chocolate, and bubble-gum. As the kids sprinted to play in the water under my sister's watchful eyes, I slipped into a nauseated sleep. I'm sure it must have been the combination of the sugar, the synthetic flavoring, and the heat that introduced a strange and unsettling vision that haunts me to this day, and that I will recount to you now in this post.

Shortly after falling into my sugar coma, I woke up to find a plump, tanned woman in a black bikini sitting right next to me and looking towards the ocean. I had no idea what she was doing there, and I thought she was sitting a little too close, but there was something reassuring about her so I didn't protest. She was sitting against the sun in silhouette, so I could only catch glimpses of her face. What I could see is that she was probably in her mid-sixties, with long wiry grey hair and thick dark eyebrows. Her belly was big, round and smooth and the color of a cappuccino, and so were her thighs and arms. I remember thinking she actually looked like a giant smoked scamorza.

"There are lots of dolphins in the water today," she said, still looking at the ocean. Her voice was familiar somehow and carried a faint Italian accent; it reminded me of my mother's voice, but with a more deadpan tone.

"Are you Italian?" I asked.

"Yes, but I moved here a long time ago," the woman replied.

I asked her where in Italy she came from, but she didn't hear me, or decided not to reply. Instead, she started talking as in her own private conversation.

"The beach here is so different from Italy. It took me a long time to understand the waves."

"I know!" I exclaimed. "My husband put me on a body board four years ago, and I almost died. Two giant waves swept me off and I must have spent thirty seconds rolling underwater like a rag in the spin cycle. I haven't gone in since. I miss the Mediterranean Sea... calm and flat and unchallenging like an infant tub."

"And what about American beach food?" she asked, and I think I saw a complicit smile.

"Oh god! It's just burgers and pizza everywhere!" I replied. "And funnel cakes and fries! I think I'm getting tanned but it's just liver spots. No prosciutto e melone, right? Or a nice gelato."

"I miss the fresh fish," she said. "Not the frozen, chewy stuff they serve here. A big tray of fritto misto, to be shared with friends."

I was still trying to see her face through the blinding light of the sun, when I was distracted by my son calling me. He wanted me to go play in the water with him. I waved to my sister to take care of it. After the Snoball sampling, I wasn't sure I could move my legs.

"Is that your child?" she asked me.

"Yes. I have another one at home. He's napping with his dad now."

"I also have two boys. They're big now. They still come to the beach with me sometimes, but they have their own ideas of vacation now. They want better waves, so they can surf."

"No crossword puzzles under the umbrella for them, I bet!" I joked.

The woman shook her head slowly in response. She looked again towards the ocean and smiled at my son, but I knew her mind was elsewhere. My son was now happily running around his cousins, who were burying each other in the sand.

"Another thing that scares me," I started again, "is looking at families here, when they stroll on the boardwalk. Loud kids running all over the place and eating junk food into the night; their parents clothed in fluorescent T-shirts and khaki shorts, staring into space, just putting one foot in front of the other until they reach the next gadget shop. All the while the most god-awful music from ten years ago is blaring through all the speakers, canceling all their thoughts. Is my family going to look like that one day? Chilling, really."

The woman turned her gaze to me, and said, "Do you really think your family will be any different?" I could pick out a hint of a mocking smile on her face, and I immediately felt like an idiot.

"It will" she continued, "But only you will notice."

She moved her head to the side a little, and a ray of sunlight momentarily blinded me. I rubbed my eyes with one hand for a second, and when I looked back to the woman, she was no longer there. I looked around in the semi-deserted beach, but she had disappeared.

My son called me again from the water. I stood up and went to play.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

YOU'RE READING MY DIARY/2

INVASION OF THE MICROBIOME SNATCHER

Over the past year or so, I've be reading more and more reports about how science is now examining how our thoughts and behavior may be dictated by our gut flora (read here and here). To clarify: We always thought stress caused our intestinal problems, but it might be the opposite. This news is truly fascinating to me, and also creepy, if you consider the implications. In fact, if I were a journalist I would sensationalize these findings more. I just can see the titles: "Evil bacteria: At last, scientific proof for demonic possession" or "We found the human soul, and it's made of yogurt".


SPINELESS FAUNA IS MADE REDUNDANT 

Last week the Invertebrates Exhibit at the National Zoo was closed for good after 27 years. That was incredibly sad news for all of us who count octopi and cuttlefish among their favorite animals. The reason for the closure, detailed here, is that the exhibit was too expensive at $1 million per year plus $5 million for a necessary renovation. Which raises the question: Are they really saying they could not find a DC millionaire willing to save the Invertebrates Exhibit? If I had the means, I would have LOVED to put my name on the entrance (in fact, I have great ideas for my plaque). Still, I was relieved to hear that the animals will be freed into their habitat. The blue crabs will be released to the Chesapeake Bay, the spiny lobster along the coast of California, and the cockroaches to an alley in Adams Morgan.


IRON MOTHER

For the past 6 weeks, my mother stayed with us to help me cope with the fact I now have two boys in the house, and her visit was a great reminder of cultural differences between Italy and the United States. I think the main difference is that Italian mothers view ironing as one of life's necessities. My mother in particular spent at least one hour every morning ironing all the ironable. I mean, she ironed my yoga pants, and I don't even do yoga anymore. Of course, just two days after my mother left for Italy, all of her efforts were nullified again by my laziness. I have to say, though, it felt great to lounge exhausted around the house in perfectly crisp, ironed pajamas while my boys cleaned their food-filled hands on their perfectly crisp, ironed t-shirts. 


AGING CAREFULLY

I keep thinking about the article on Vice a few weeks ago, lamenting how everybody from their 20s onwards complains about how they are "officially old". I agree with the author, but I have to admit there are behaviors that betray my age and that make me depressed. To start, I often hear myself sighing, "They don't make movies like this anymore," and I have found myself toying with the idea of purchasing "elegant" sweatpants to wear outside my house. More disturbingly, though, I realized that when asked about what era in time I'd like to travel to if given a chance, I always choose the future because there's no way I can live in a time with inferior medical treatments. And that has to be the most depressing answer to that question ever.


MOMMY BURNOUT

Of course I am exhausted being at home with a 3-year-old and a 9-month-old. However, I had to admit to myself that my exhaustion has now reached its zenith (although nadir would probably be more accurate here). The thing is, I think I have put all my parental energies into my first son's first years. The nursing, the pumping, the discipline, the routines, the cloth diapers, the homemade yogurt, the early potty training, the home-cooked meals, the no-TV policy... Now I look at my youngest and the only thing I can think of is, "Oh god, don't tell me I have to teach you the fucking animal sounds. Go ask your brother. Or watch a documentary. Or go to a farm. I'm done." 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

DRIVE YOUR ITALIAN HOSTS CRAZY #3: THE WORLD CUP EDITION

The world's heaviest Ferrero Rocher
Usually, I don't watch soccer. The reason being that 1) I never really cared and 2) I was scarred forever when in 2004 the general manager of my local team, Venezia, was caught by the police with a bag with €250,000 IN CASH received for intentionally losing a match. Venezia was then punished by having to play forever somewhere completely inoffensive like the Baby&Tots Itsy-Bitsy Soccer League for Fun, Fun, Fun. Or something like that.

However, every 4 years my soccer soul awakens and stirs like that of a moulting cicada in DC. I resurrect from my soccer slumber and for a month straight I live and breathe World Cup. This frenzy is shared by all my fellow Italians, of course, which brings me to the third rule of the Drive Your Italian Hosts Crazy series.







Rule #3: When the Italian National Team is playing, praise or just shut up. 

I'm sure you're thinking Rule #3 applies to most countries, and of course you are right. However, the degree with which Italians love their national team is rather unique. In fact, I will state that the national team is the only thing that brings Italians together and makes them feel like a true nation. If this comes as a surprise, please remember that Italy is a relatively young country: We became unified only in 1861, which is 85 years AFTER the birth of the United States. Before that year, Italy was a sorry mess of a geopolitical puzzle of hate-filled mini-states and kingdoms, who only came together as one country because it looked so damned cute on the map.

The result is that today Italians still hate Italians from any other area, region, province, city, town, neighborhood, street, floor, etc. Except... when the Italian National Team is playing. Then we're all together, waving the tricolor flag you will never see us waving at any other occasion. We're finally patriotic, just like you Americans, or, what the heck, even the French!

For an Italian, the national pride is surprising and intoxicating, like discovering your family loves you and will also leave you a fortune in inheritance one day. Now that I think about it, it does really feel like family... A family where Italians are all proud parents of 23 wholesome athletes who can do no wrong... Well, except losing a game, of course. Then united Italy and its flag can go fuck themselves.

Look at our boys, all grown up!

THREE THINGS TO REMEMBER ABOUT ITALIANS WATCHING SOCCER


Superstition

From keeping your fingers crossed to actually praying, from holding tight on your genitals at any mention of possible negative outcome to replicating ad infinitum whatever you were doing when Italy scored, Italians believe (truly) that Lady Luck is looking at each and every one of us to decide if the Italian team is going to win. As an American, you're allowed to roll your eyes, because everybody is looking at the screen anyway. But no sighing, unless Italy scores while you're doing it. Then sigh again, now!

"Tifo Contro" 

Americans, you will despise us for this, but we do rejoice when our adversaries lose, are expelled, and yep, fall. And yes, I know, this is the little, seemingly innocent bud of stadium violence in Europe. (I promise I'll try to keep to a fun, not-too-mean level in front of my children and others'.) Our "countra-cheer" is directed at the team we are playing against and at the French team, our arch-enemies.

No Food: We're Busy

American might prepare immense, decadent food spreads or organize a full BBQ to watch your sports. In Italy we don't really eat during games, except for a bowl of chips and a few cans of beer (cheap, crappy, often room temperature). We try to schedule our meals before or after the game, since for 90 minutes our eyes will be glued to the TV screen. Also, you don't want to be holding a hot bowl of penne when Italy gets close to the box. There's a lot of sudden jumping from the couch when Italy plays. The only recipe that Italians might associate with the National Team is frittata di cipolle, or onion frittata, popularized in a 1976 classic Italian comedy (the recipe will soon be on this blog).


Monday, June 2, 2014

1/2 CUP SUGAR: CORNMEAL COOKIES OR ZAETI


You might remember that my family is now basically sugar-free thanks to Dr. Lustig and his anti-sugar campaign (YEAH, THANKS). I say "basically", because we still want to make room for the occasional treat, such as an unmissable dessert at a good restaurant, a cup of fresh gelato, or a homemade sweet that is as fun to make as it is to eat. We try to break The Rule a couple of times a month, and then we make sure to flog ourselves with a cat o' nine licorice ribbons.

In this regard, Italian sweets have become a perfect solution, since many of them tend to rely on less sugar than the American ones. In fact, I found that many recipes rely on 1/2 cup sugar, and that includes cakes. Mind you, these do not originate as healthy sweets: They are genuine recipes with no claim other than deliciousness. So here starts my 1/2 CUP of SUGAR series, for sweets that still need to be consumed in moderation, but should not hurl you and your family into leptin annihilation. (For this last comment, refer to Dr. Lustig's Youtube lecture linked above.)

The first recipe is for Zaeti (or Zaleti), the traditional Venetian cornmeal cookie. They are rustic and crumbly, like a hearty shortbread. They contain raisins, but sometimes also pine-nuts. I know them mostly shaped like diamonds—or to be more precise, like rhomboids—but they can be flat and round, or plump and oval. I made them both with coarsely-ground cornmeal and with finer one. I must say I prefer them on the coarser side, but medium-coarseness will leave some hard corn bits. Readers with dental crowns and fillings: Watch out.

Venetians usually have Zaeti in the afternoon, accompanied by a sip of white wine, but I'm not one to put limitations on their consumption. So if you prefer to stuff some in a paper cup and eat them in the car on your way to work, you have my blessing.

The powdered sugar is not really supposed to be there. Oh well.


Zaeti

3/4 cup of raisins
3 egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/4 cup cornmeal
a pinch of salt
a pinch of baking powder
a pinch of grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract
10 tbsp unsalted butter, melted
powdered sugar (optional)

  • Heat the oven to 350F.
  • Soak the raisins in a little warm water for 10 to 15 minutes. Drain them and squeeze out the excess water.
  • In a small bowl, beat the egg yolks with the sugar until mixture has thickened and is a very pale yellow.
  • In another bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, salt, baking powder, and lemon zest. Add the melted butter and the vanilla extract to the flour mixture and stir well.
  • Pour the eggs and sugar into the flour mixture, together with the raisins. The final dough with be very coarse and wet. 
  • Roll the dough carefully on a floured surface, adding more flour if necessary, to a 1/4'' thickness. If the dough seems too crumbly, you can add a little bit of yogurt to make it more manageable. Let the dough rest in the fridge for 30 minutes.
  • Cut the dough into long 2'' stips, then cut the strips diagonally every 2 1/2 inch or so to make little diamonds.
  • Transfer them to a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper and then into the oven for 12–13 minutes, or until they start to color and they are not soft in the center. Let the Zaeti cool down for 15 minutes before serving them. Sprinkle them with powdered sugar if you prefer or if they don't look as you expected.




Tuesday, May 13, 2014

GENIUS INVENTIONS FOR PARENTS

Those of you who don't know me well might be surprised to learn that I have an amazing talent of coming up with genius ideas for new products and business ventures (really, though, you shouldn't be that surprised). Since I became a mother three years ago, my ideas have focused more on making parenting easier, so here are 5 genius ideas for products that I hope will see the light sooner than later. I hope you like them enough to invest in their creation and distribution. (Call me.)


1. INST-A-RAIL

Imagine this, but on all sides of the bed
and remote-controlled.
Co-sleeping is all cute and cozy, but what happens when either baby or parent is awake? When the "co" in "co-sleeping" goes missing, you need the INST-A-RAIL. It's a remote-controlled system of rails that come up on all sides of the beds (very silently, of course) so that you can safely leave your child asleep in your bed alone or let him/her frolic on the sheets while you sleep. Perfect for babies who have learned to roll over, scoot, crawl and/or exercise. I know I presently need this at least twice a day.


2. PACI-FIX

It's going to fall out in 3 minutes.
The perfect solution for those babies who are not able to keep the pacifier in their mouth: a pacifier that ties around your baby's face! Okay, so this is basically a muzzle, but I just need a great designer and a complacent recommending pediatrician and we're set. Perfect also for when parents want to leave babies on the floor without worrying about what they put into their mouths.




3. HOME SCANNER

I have no idea what this actually is.
Children have amazing memories for objects, but not for the place they've hidden those objects months before they suddenly realize they have to have them RIGHT NOW. The HOME SCANNER consists in a series of radars to be installed in every room of your house. You will just type a description of the lost item into the related app ("small plastic kitten", "pin wheel", "car keys", "earless bunny") and the HOME SCANNER will scan your house and locate the object for you before the tantrum begins. 


4. PORT-A-VIBE

We'll stay in the car for another 90 minutes.
Ah, sleeping infants! They are so portable! Or are they? Well, I can tell you I can count on the fingers of one hand the times I've been able to transport my sleeping babies from the car to the house without waking them up. The PORT-A-VIBE is a small vibrating disc that can be attached to any infant car seat to replicate the feeling of being in the car so that your infant keeps on sleeping inside your house while you fall exhausted on the couch, as you should. 


5. TOILET PAPER CUTTER

I'll try the sudden side pull again.
All parents know there's a phase in which children demand to be held at all times, roughly from birth to 3 and a half years. This is the time that parents are surprised to discover the number of tasks they are able to perform one-handed. One task I would have never thought required two hands is tearing toilet paper. When you go to the bathroom holding your baby, tearing toilet paper is a nightmare. Personally, I try the quick and strong sideway pull for a clean tear, but I always end with a mess of unrolled toilet paper on the floor. A cutter like the one on foil containers will solve all my problems. Please someone design this. It would also be great for those of us who bring smartphones to the toilet (not feeling so smart now, uh, phone?).