“In bocca al lupo. ‘Into the mouth of the wolf.’ It’s an Italian expression for ‘good luck,’ kind of like ‘break a leg,’ for an actor.” My girlfriend’s roommate continued, “And you’ll need some luck in that house, the place is a non-stop Italian opera in suburban Michigan.”
My girlfriend Stefania (“rhymes with lasagna” she’d tell people) had invited me home from our freshman year at college for a weekend to “relax” with her family.
On our two-hour drive to Okemos, Stefania casually mentioned her mother might be on edge because her mom’s boyfriend, Don, was going to be visiting for the first time that weekend.
“Oh, and also, don’t mention my dad, at all, because Mom just found out he’s dating some Czech girl our own age. And did I tell you my grandmother just arrived from Bologna? She thinks Mom should move back to the old country and marry an Italian.”
By the time we pulled into the driveway, I was shell-shocked from the stories of a dozen family dramas. I frantically tried to remember which items in a mine-field of “must-not-mentions” might blow up my visit.
We entered the Marconi household and traveled far away from the cookie-cutter suburban world of Michigan. Once in the door I experienced the smells of sizzling sausage, the blaring sounds of Verdi’s La Traviata, and the sight of a woman with a rolling pin about to whack a long-haired youth.
“No, no, no, I say! You may not leave school to join a band! Too young, too young, only 16.”
“Assolutamente non! You plan is finito!” Stefania’s brother, Gregory was clearly losing the argument, shrinking before the powerful presence of Giovanna Marconi, late of the Bologna opera, ex-lover of Pavorotti.
Gregory slammed his way out of the backdoor of the house as a response. We decided to leave our coats on and follow him out to town while Giovanna cooled down.
But Giovanna was still boiling: “Hey, hey! Why do you leave already?” With the dramatic inflections in her voice, I couldn’t tell if she was simply asking a question, or if we had somehow just broken her heart.
“You stay here now, stay, learn how we make spaghetti for dinner, fresh spaghetti bolognese. Bologna, my home town!” She was wearing a housedress covered in a long white apron, her fleshy arms already coated in a fine flour dust, a dust which turned her permed hair a light shade of gray. She waved a rolling pin in time with the opera music filling the room, looking like a cross between an orchestra conductor and a kitchen drill team instructor.
“No, no, no.” Her mother continued, punctuating each “no” with a jab of the rolling pin toward us, as if she were pounding our protests into part of the meal. “You put down coats, come into kitchen, we make dinner like family!”
I followed Stefania into the kitchen, already thick with the smells of steaming vegetables and broiling meat. Foodstuffs were spread on every available flat surface, looking to my untrained eye like a garage where a large auto engine had been unassembled into a thousand colorful components. It would be our job to reassemble this array into a meal.
A light snowfall of flour, with a large drift in the middle, coated the four-foot square butcher block in the center of the kitchen. Half a dozen raw eggs balanced precariously on the block, wobbling as Giovanna stomped around the kitchen to scatter more ingredients. She turned to see me nervously eyeing the eggs. “You, put eggs in flour before they fall.” Eager to help, I flattened a section of the flour drift in which I could nestle the eggs so they wouldn’t roll away.
“No, no, no! Mia Madonna!” Giovanna shook her outstretched hands at me. Then Stefania’s grandmother trotted into the kitchen. She was a tiny, gray angular woman, with head held high, standing stiffly erect in her black and white apron. When she spied my egg sculpture she flapped her arms at her sides like an agitated penguin. “Che cosa sta facendo? È molto pazzesco!” (“What is this idiot doing?”) She picked the eggs out one by one, and handed them all to me, leaving me standing, afraid to move, with both hands cupping a half dozen eggs to my chest.
The grandmother sunk her hands into the flour, reshaping the pile like she was trying to imitate Richard Dreyfus’s mashed potato sculpture in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. She dug a crater in the middle of the mound and began shouting at me again: “Uovo! Uovo!” I shuffled next to her, where she was able to reach to the eggs from my finger basket.
With two tiny hands working like a boxer, she grabbed an egg with her right hand, cracked it expertly into the crater while flicking her left hand back for another, cracking that one while her right hand reached for yet another egg. Without looking, she grabbed the appropriate whipping tool from the counter, and beat the eggs without rupturing the flour crater.
She glared back at me, sizing me up to see if I would be capable of the next step. Giovanna pointed to me and said, “Yes, you mix now. Mix, mix, mix!” The grandmother handed a wooden spoon to me, eyeing me cautiously, as if she were giving me a loaded weapon. Under her watchful eye, I began slowly pushing flour into the egg volcano, trying to mix the combination without creating any leaks. Grandma was unimpressed.
“Mix! Mix! Si! Molto forte!” She tried to grab my hands with hers, to make up for my weakness, but she knocked the spoon out at an odd angle, and caused a major egg eruption. I pushed spare flour onto the eggs, trying to thicken the flow before it reached the edge of the butcher block. The grandmother threw up her hands in disgust, and grabbed two sharp knives from the counter. I stepped behind Stefania for protection.
Stefania assigned me to cranking duty on the pasta-cutting machine while Grandma eviscerated vegetables. The pasta machine was fun, kind of like a Play-Dough toy. But while dropping Play-Dough to the floor is not a problem, the same can not be said for pasta in a room full of armed Italian women. After another series of knife waving unintelligible deprecations, I was demoted to pasta hanging duty, putting the already cut spaghetti strands to dry on a towel draped between two chairs.
Then Don, Giovanna’s boyfriend, arrived. A middle-aged schoolteacher from middle America, he was pudgy, balding, and slouch shouldered, exuding a sort of “please don’t hit me” aura. He walked into the kitchen holding a bottle of Sherry in both hands like a peace offering. “Um, well, hello everyone. Sorry to interrupt. Gregory let me in. Shall I wait in the lounge?”
Giovanna became even more animated as she washed her hands, threw down the apron, and tried to pat the flour out of her perm. She giggled like a little girl with Stefania as they rushed to the living room to talk with Don. I was left forgotten in the kitchen. Alone with Grandma.
We glanced sideways at each other, hands still busy with our dictated tasks. Left out of the greeting of Don, she began to cut even more furiously with her knives. I carefully hung the dough, keeping the butcher block between us.
My protection was short lived. “Zoupa! Zoupa!” She shouted and gestured at a huge pot of boiling sauce on the burner, and then at the chopped vegetables in front of her. She called out what I presumed were the names of the various peppers and mushrooms, and demonstrated how I should drop items in certain pots.
As I picked the peppers between her slashings, I felt like one of the kids from an industrial revolution factory, caught in the middle of a whirring assembly line, fearful for my fingers.
She laughed as I began to feel the rhythm, clearing and mixing the ingredients as fast as she cut them. Satisfied that the pots were simmering properly, and the vegetables properly apportioned, she pulled the pot with the canolli tubes off the heat.
We had tossed the dough tubes into the boiling oil a couple minutes before. I assumed they were for dessert. We had already mixed a bowl of sugar, vanilla, ricotta, and chocolate chips for the filling. But Grandma ignored this bowl, and instead filled the tubes with seeds from the hottest peppers. When I followed suit, she laughed and waved a whisk at me, friendly this time. “In bocca al lupo.”
“No, no, al lupo, là,” she pointed to the other room where “the wolf” was chatting with Giovanna and Stefania. She pantomimed his shuffling walk, holding her hand over an imaginary fat belly. Then she pretended to eat the pepper-canolli, fanning her mouth with mock surprise. She put a finger across her lips and smiled.
I went to dinner with the secret, enjoying my role as the newest player in the culinary opera of the Marconi household.
Bill Fink is a really bad cook based in San Francisco. His travel writing has been included in publications including theChicago Sun Times, the Perseus Press, and Railway Traveller magazine. He is currently working on a book about a year of misadventures in the Philippines. You can check out more of his writing at www.geocities.com/billfink2004.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.