Soul Food

July 2011

It was our last supper in Italy. Instead of eating at tables of six on the marble terrace overlooking the cliffs and twinkling lights of the Amalfi coast, we had been moved to the more intimate dining room in our four-star deluxe hotel.

The waiter approached with notepad in hand in a familiar ritual. He makes his way around the table, taking everyone’s order in a melange of butchered Italian and English. I wait until he’s ready for the usual request, in case he doesn’t remember that I’m the tourist who came to Italy and CAN’T eat pasta.

When he’s ready, I look at him and say, “Sono celiaca.” (I’m a Celiac.)

Every night so far, this is the point where the waiter decides for me what I will eat. In Assisi, when everyone ate the same three course meal, the head waiter would repeatedly tell his staff that I wasn’t to get a certain dish, by waving his hand in front of his face and saying, “Senze glutine!” (Without gluten). No pasta for me. No bread for me. No sauce or gravy for me. Instead, how about a wonderful “omeletta“? In Rome, I was going to take a chance on the roasted chicken that appeared to have an unthickened, oil-based sauce only to have it abruptly pulled out from under my knife and fork, as my mouth watered and the tears welled. Again, I was given an omelette. Here in Sorrento, with options such as cannelloni with eggplant and zucchini and grilled salmon (slightly breaded) over a bed of lime-infused rice on the gourmet menu, the waiter simply points to the very last item on the list and says – you guessed it! – “Omelletta?” On the first two nights, it was the best omelette I’d ever tried. Nine days in, not so much.

The first thought through everyone’s mind when I said I was going to Italy was the food. Thin-crusted, lightly herbed, mouth-watering pizza. Creamy risottos that melt in your mouth. Glorious, rich, fresh, soul-filling pasta. We all came on this course for different reasons. And certainly not the least of which was to eat as much delicious food as possible. It is a coincidence of history that the home of the modern-day Catholic Church is also the home of food that is inspired by the Divine. But it makes perfect sense. The importance of the table in any culture and the community around the table – eating, drinking, laughing, sharing, encouraging, celebrating – hasn’t changed in millennia.

Food. The most basic of needs, surpassed only by water and oxygen. It is the very first level of Maslow’s hierarchy. Without it we are reduced to shells, harbouring only the seed of potential. A potential that cannot come to fruition or self-actualization until nourishment is found. “How are you going to be fed here in Italy?” our instructor asked. “What do you need? What did you come here looking for? Physically, emotionally, professionally, mentally, spiritually?”

Of course, we go to Italy to be fed in all manner of ways. We drink in the scenery and savour it as we do a fine wine. We feast our eyes on the beauty of the ages in architecture, frescoes, and the succulent lemons and tomatoes.  Some find faith nourishment in the Vatican and other equally beautiful but smaller and lesser-known churches, as well as spiritual inspiration in the homes of St. Francis and St. Benedict. In our group of 36, our hearts are fed with solidarity, friendship and acceptance.

We spent our first two days in Italy in the small, mountaintop town of Assisi. As we got to know each other, we got to know the country and the food. The home of St. Francis, a peaceful, reflective, cobblestoned town takes a mere 30 minutes to walk across. Even though it’s filled to the stone walls with tourists during the summer months, there is beauty and serenity. In the vistas. In the tomb of St. Francis. In the stained glass of Santa Chiara. In the chanted evening vespers of the Franciscan monks. The food was no less enchanting in its simplicity. Imagine plates of prosciutto and mozzarella, slices of ruby red tomatoes and fresh basil, drizzled in olive oil, paired with the local white wine. The authenticity of every aspect of the town slowed us down out of our frenetic North American pace and reminded us that life need not be the chaos that we make it. Be still. Relax. Eat.

Three days later, everything changed when we hit the glamour of Rome – the pace, the grandeur, the noise, and of course, the food. Rome was overwhelming at times. The tours were long, the weather was hot, the days started early and usually ended quite late with vigourous discussions happening over a bottle (or two) of wine on a terrazza. And here is where I had the most difficulty finding nourishment, both literally and metaphorically. The menus were more complicated and I had more difficulty communicating my needs. Likewise, spiritually, here was where I had the hardest time coming to terms with the Church as a business.

In Rome, I had a lot of questions and doubts. When there are so many poor in the world, why does the Vatican harbour so much wealth? When half the people in the course decided to make the early morning pilgrimage to the Pope’s summer residence to see him, why did I feel absolutely no compulsion to go?  [Benedict was Pope at the time.  I would’ve jumped at the chance to see Pope Francis.]  Whenever I looked at a relic encased in gold in the crypt of a church, why was my first question always, “Have they carbon-dated it to find out if it’s even from the same time frame? Do people actually believe that that is a piece of wood from the nativity manger? When did I become so doubtful of everything?” Of course, it’s hard to believe anything when you’re hungry.

The websites I looked at that gave tips for eating gluten-free in Italy all said that Italians were very aware of Celiac disease since they are tested at a very young age for it (I’m assuming because of their pasta and bread-based diet). Then why didn’t anyone understand me when I said, “Sono Celiac”? After two extremely frustrating days in Rome of picking through my food, having other people taste it for me, frantically gesturing with hand signals and ordering yet another salad, there was a breakthrough. I was sitting at a café near the Colosseum in a rare moment of solitude. After trying to explain myself yet again, the waiter shook his head to say, “I don’t understand you” when all of a sudden, enlightenment dawned on him. The initial c in celiac is pronounced as ch in Italian (something I didn’t get from any of the websites) and it ends with –a because I’m a woman, making the word sound like cheliaca. The waiter suddenly exclaimed, “Celiaca!”, waved his hand in a don’t- worry gesture and said, “Ahh!! No bread, no pasta, no wheat. Salad is okay!” Cue Handel’s Aaaaalleluia!

From here on in, Italy was a completely different country. Not because all of a sudden there was a whole new menu for me to choose from. Even though it seemed now every waiter knew exactly what I was talking about, the gluten-free selections were just as sparse as here in Canada. But because I had found a peace. I could take care of myself. I was no longer pre-occupied with where and when I would find my next nourishment. I could finally be present to what was happening in front of me and discuss questions I had about what I was experiencing.

Our last three days were spent at the Grand Hotel Europa in Sorrento, concluding with the dinner we were eating in the dining room. I waited for the waiter to make the rounds of everyone at my table and when he was ready for my order, I looked at him and said, grammatically correctly, “Sono celiaca.

His answer was so unexpected that I actually didn’t comprehend it the first time. “Abbiamo la pasta senze glutine.” The only thing I had for him was a blank stare. He repeated, “Abbiamo la pasta senze glutine. Pasta per celiaci.” (We have gluten-free pasta. Pasta for Celiacs.) Words cannot express the joy in my heart at hearing those words. It was the best pasta I have ever had. A perfect way to end this trip.

You may think I’m crazy. But in my heart, I will always look back on that final meal as the culmination of the pilgrimage. After all the questions and doubts and breakthroughs I’d had throughout my ten-day journey, I will always feel that that final meal – the epitome of Italian food, until now completely inaccessible to me – was my holy grail. My soul food.

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