Monday, February 1, 2016

A Man Who Loves Food

Pheasant For Dinner
Meet my Italian friend Sergio.  You see a man who has experienced a hard life but can still find a smile.  At first he seems a complicated man, until you know something about him.  He has faced many challenges, and through a strong will he overcame them all.  I sat one day during pranzo (lunch) at his home while his wife hand rolled pasta to make a northern Italian lasagna, called pasticcio.  It was amazing to see her roll the entire slab of pasta on her thin rolling pin and then release it with a backward roll.  

When you first see Sergio you might think he is not Italian.  He is quite tall and slender.    He has a lean but  slightly muscular body for an old guy.  He smiles when he is confused or cannot hear and then he just breaks out in a smile.  He dresses casually and often wears his hunting vest (he is an excellent marksman with a shotgun).  

The most notable thing about Sergio is that when a plate of food sits in front of him, his head quickly drops, and like a race horse with blinders, he sees nothing else.  Nothing matters except the consumption of food, and quite quickly.   A bomb could go off, and when  the smoke clears  Sergio would still be eating.  Like a, Navy scuba diver, he just does not come up for air until the plate is clean.  

When Sergio and his wife come to my home for dinner, I always make up a lot of appetisers so that when he walks in the door he can start eating.  By the time the appetisers are finished the main dishes are served.  Even with the appetisers I have never seen food left over on his plate at the end of a meal.  

 The first time I sat at a dinner table I tried using my beginning Italian to listen to the conversations, but I had so much trouble that I was completely lost.  Finally I said, “Are you speaking Italian?”  Everyone broke out in smiles and laughed, and informed me that they feel more comfortable speaking Veneto, the regional dialect.  Older people in our area speak this language, while the younger people speak Italian which is taught in school, but many in their 30’s know Veneto well. When I use Italian, people have trouble understanding my accent as they are used to Italian with a Veneto accent (besides my imperfect usage).

 Why is Sergio on his second plate of food before anyone has finished their first?  He would make a great candidate for challenging  opponents on Man Versus Food.  I am sure he could eat most of those food divers under the table.  My curiosity finally got the best of me and I asked everyone why Sergio was such an eating machine. Why is he always so hungry?   They stopped him and asked him to tell me the reason.  Here is what I learned.

When he was a young boy, the Germans were encamped in the volcanic hills outside of Padova called Colli Euganei.    Hoping to catch partisans living in the hills they had taken over a rich person’s villa and forced the family to live elsewhere.  I also believe that they were there because Germans in Padova and Vicenza were being bombed by The Allies as they moved northwards. 

Sergio’s family, like most Italian families had no food.  You can believe that the Nazis were eating a lot better than any Italians as they just took what foods they wanted from the local economy.  There was little work for people at this point in the war, and so daily life began and ended with a search for something to eat.  Sergio, being an adventuresome kid wandered behind the buildings where the Nazi officers were billeted, and discovered that in the morning after breakfast the cooks would dump old food into the garbage cans out back.  He would hide in the bushes and wait until the coast was clear and then he would go fill his stomach and take what he could carry home. 

When the Nazis discovered his scrounging they would chase him off and if they  caught him he would receive a severe  beating.  They didn’t want any Italians getting free food, even if it was garbage.  But to Sergio, it was worth a beating to fill his stomach and  stop being hungry.  It was worth it to take food home to his family.  Not being afraid to come back to forage for food and receive a beating toughened Sergio for life. 

His father had been wounded in WWI by mustard gas and came home from WWI  not able to work, and so when Sergio was 8 years old he was forced to leave grade school and find a job in a quarry moving rocks in a wheel barrow.   I don’t know all of the jobs that he had, but working for many years as a plumber without a car, he rode a bicycle to work  50 miles, each way,  every day until he was  27.  He did not have a car until he was 33 years old, nor a telephone in his home until he was  52.   Like most Italian homes at that time one small stove in the kitchen served to heat the entire home.  

You can see by the photo of Sergio that he is a hunter.  You will find him with his dog wandering in the hills every morning during hunting season.   Off season he works with a local conservation group protecting the hills.  Being a hunter he has a special license to hunt in Italy and has two registered shotguns   One was his grandfather’s and he has his own that he uses to hunt birds in the hills.  Walking daily for at least 5 miles he burns off all the calories he consumes.  

Sergio has never been to Rome, Florence or Milano.  He never had the time for vacations, and is not too interested in the historical places in Italy.  One thing that he is interested in is watching American cowboy movies and reading books about Native Americans and their way of life.  Asked where he would like to visit in America I believe he would choose Arizona or New Mexico.  But even with a free ticket, meals and free hotel  he would not go.  Like a lot of older people, who lose the desire to travel far from home, he would pass on going.  He feels more comfortable walking the hills with his dog, visiting with his hunting friends, and eating his wife’s fine northern Italian cuisine.   

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