Monday, September 20, 2010

Vittorini's lentils

Sicilians and lentils go way back. And I do mean way.

Diogenes, the Cynic philosopher, was observed by Aristippus, a courtier of the tyrant Dionysius I of Syracuse (present-day Siracusa, in Southern Sicily) preparing lentils. Aristippus told him that if he would just learn to flatter Dionysius, he wouldn't have to eat lentils. But our man Diogenes rebutted: if you would learn to eat lentils, you wouldn't have to flatter Dionysius.

Words that should resonate with all of us, in the present social and economic climate.

Fast forward to another Syracusan, writer Elio Vittorini (1908-1966). I've been reading his Conversazione in Sicilia. At the same time, as a reader of the Briciole blog, I thought I would submit a recipe based on his description of a lentil recipe the narrator fondly remembered from his childhood, that he recounted while talking to his mother. Made from lentils, onions, dried tomatoes and fresh rosemary.

Well. I tried it. But the results were not noteworthy. Edible, but not memorable. Why?

This is a bit like Marcel Proust's famous madeleine cookie. Wrapped up in the highly specific memory (not to say neurophysiology) of the individual. It's not the criterion of science, whereby its validity is gauged by reproducibility. The passage in Vittorini is highly dependent, as he says himself, on the tastes of the narrator's own boyhood. And thus subjective. Not to mention that his appetite was heightened by two important things, for Italians of the recent past. One: hunger and scarcity; two: the strong association (as brought out in the passage) of food and the maternal figure.

(In the photo, from the Steiner archive, Vittorini looking like he's just had a bunch of lentils and vino at his mom's place)

Update, 9/22- the above-mentioned Briciole blog has published its summary for its latest Novel Food event, a virtual cook-off in which bloggers cook from recipes or food allusions found in novels. Check it out.