On Being Raised on Red Wine and Rapini
Updated: Apr 16, 2018
“No one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.”
– Julia Child
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I watch the sun dip behind the cul-de-sac, turning the sky a violet-pink hue. The clouds above look like wads of floating cotton candy and the smell of our post-backyard-barbeque
fills my nose. There really is no greater smell, is there?
Since I was a kid, my dad has collected all kinds of Disney and Pixar movies. In our basement, a shelf that practically covers an entire wall, is home to this collection. In times of nostalgia I often opt for The Little Mermaid or Shrek. Who doesn’t love Shrek?
However, standing in front of the bellowing movie rack, Pixar’s Ratatouille catches my eye. I mean, doesn’t the tale of a simple French rat trying to make a name for himself in a rat-phobic profession feel like nostalgia to you?
I pull the DVD from the rack and put it into our old player. Pouring my cure-all-remedy (chamomile tea) into my favourite Winnie the Pooh mug, I have a seat on the couch next to my dog, Charlie and unwind…
“Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere.” - Anton Ego, Food Critic from Ratatouille
As the credits roll, I can’t help but feel tears welling in my eyes. Ten year-old me loved Ratatouille then, and twenty-year old me loves it now! It’s a great movie, and I mean great movie. Comical, yet completely heart warming, Ratatouille serves up entertainment with a side dish of encouragement. It proves that despite who you are or where you come from, anyone can cook… a very inspiring message for the young chef.
A Food Centric Society
In watching this movie again, I am reminded that food shapes society.
FOOD = CULTURE.
We eat all the time, ignoring just how intrinsically it affects us. When cinema uses food as a character, it resonates with the audience. We understand the narrative better because we can taste it!
Weren’t you in awe as a kid watching the “Be Our Guest” food sequence in Beauty and the Beast? Amazed by the deflated turkey roast in National Lampoon’s Family Vacation? You had to have been impacted when the Grinch stole the Who’s roast beast!
Food connects us because we identify with it. As a people, we bond over the communal experience of eating. In microcosms of community, food acts as a cultural marker. It’s what we learn in the earliest conceptions of ourselves. Types of food, methods of cooking, how one eats, all of these things play a role in our development from an early age.
As a child, I remember sitting in my Nonna’s basement watching her crank out long, thin sheets of pasta. Every day I spent at her house was a culinary adventure. I remember afternoons when, turning off the television, she’d lead me down the varnished oak staircase to the basement.
Ahh, the basement kitchen, or as I like to call it, The Pasta Laboratory. Complete with a retro green fridge, a long white marble table, a small sink, and a stove that looked like it was from the old country, this place of simplicity produced the most extraordinary masterpieces.
My Nonna would pull out the homemade wooden tavolo that my Nonno had specially crafted for pasta and biscotti making purposes, and begin to work. It was like magic.
She’d start by making a well with her hand amidst the Tipo 00 flour. Ever so gently, she would crack a couple of eggs into the well and beat them with a short, stubby finger. I was so amazed that the well maintained its shape as the eggs changed form.
Slowly, she’d add ingredient by ingredient until it was time for me to help her roll out the pasta and shape it.
Spending time in the kitchen with her was fantastic! Side by side, we’d work the dough, laughing, smiling, and learning together.
Sometimes she would even make a little doll out of the pasta for me! It would always turn out looking like some kind of a monster once it was baked, but she tried her best anyways. Head, body, hair, buttons, occasionally a scarf… you never know, my pasta doll could get cold, baking in the oven!
Why were these times so important?
As a child, cooking with my family helped me understand flavour profiles. Eating things different from traditional Western cuisine made me willing to try new things. Veal, lamb, rabbit, nothing was a taboo. I also learned more about my own culture through eating unique foods.
I learned so much about cooking and about life in general. As I helped by Nonna cook, I practiced how to read and measure. Then, when I became a bit older, I started to learn more about technique in various recipes. At the ripe age of twenty, I find that I’m teaching Nonna a few things about food, while she continues to teach me about life!
In our household, preparing and sharing a meal is a really important source of bonding. My fondest memories happened around the kitchen table. Whether we made pasta, biscotti, pizza, or a simple sandwich, food was always at the forefront.
Teach a kid to cook and they’ll learn how to live…
On days when I had choir practice during the lunch hour, my Nonna packed my lunches. Succo di pera, taralli, and a panini layered with shards of Parmigiano Reggiano and slices of fresh prosciutto. Some days, she’d switch it up and put mortadella instead. Boy oh boy, was that a treat!
Back then, I didn’t understand just how important these lunches were in developing my sense of self. I didn’t think much of it when my classmates ate a turkey club on Wonder Bread, or fought over whose Lunchable was better. But now, I understand.
Is it weird that eight-year-old me had a preference for cured meats over Dunkaroos?
What I’m trying to say is that only a few other kids brought eccentric stuff. You could spot containers filled with leftover butter chicken or cabbage rolls but trust me, it was rare.
The important thing about being in the kitchen at such a young age was that it taught me about my culture. I knew what I liked, even if it was odd. My comfort foods varied from other kids, what can I say? I was raised on red wine and rapini.
Of course, panini and pasta weren’t the only things that gave me sustenance. Wine-making was just another part of learning about my culture.
Hot and muggy September days could only mean one thing: Nonno was definitely going to be in the garage with his wine press when I got home from school.
Sure enough, he would be wearing his blue wine-making apron, turning the press round and round. Every ten minutes he’d empty another case of plump, purple grapes into the barrel and begin the process again.
Was his wine delicious, you ask? Well, it was pretty gross, especially to nine-year old me. After hearing what everyone else used to say whenever he left the room, I can conclude that he won’t be winning any awards soon.
It wasn’t taboo to have a sip of homemade wine as a kid, it was just something that happened. Wine was always there, but solely for meal pairing reasons. Red wine, rich and full-bodied, was often the centrepiece during Sunday lunches at Nonna and Nonno’s.
Hell, I even recall going to partake in the vendemmia, grape stomping for wine, each autumn. At our Italian club there would be a contest for who could make the most juice in five minutes. Kids, women, and men would partner up, get suited, and feverishly stomp until the music stopped. My cousin, Alexandra and I were the ultimate dream team! I have several awards to support this claim, don’t test me!
Months later, when the grapes had finished fermenting and the wine was processed, this of course called for a celebration… and yes, there was lots of food!
It’s funny how the simplest things can taste so sentimental!
If you missed out on some of these valuable lessons, not to worry, here are some really fantastic initiatives to get kids (even the kid at heart) into the kitchen:
Active Chefs is a Canadian registered charity whose goal is to get children more involved in living healthier lifestyles. They offer programs that aim to empower youth to learn about cooking techniques, food across cultures, and the importance of living a balanced lifestyle.
Ben’s Beginners, a campaign launched by Uncle Ben’s, helps promote budding chefs in the kitchen. By learning how to cook, kids can learn a useful life skill, make healthier choices, and maintain good habits as they grow.
Fruits & Veggies More Matters is another health initiative that focuses on helping individuals eat more fresh produce in an effort to spread the word on related health benefits. They offer recipes as well as tips on how to eat your way to a healthier you!
And if you’re feeling really inspired, then I invite you to try a pasta classic in my household: Orecchiette con Rapini. It’s me on a plate ❤