Weeks before their arrival, we began discussing what I would be preparing for a 9 day visit from our Italian friends, who by the way, own a restaurant below the lovely ancient city of Sermonetta. They know how to cook and they certainly know how to eat, hence my anxiety.
Beginning in June, I started thinking about the menu. I knew I didn’t want to serve pasta and compete with their native cuisine. In fact, I thought it would be better for them to taste the local flavors of California, vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, fish, cheese, great bread and wine.
Around middle June I noticed our garden would have an abundance of zucchini, squash, basil, lettuce, arugula, parsley, too early for tomatoes, however, with our cool summer weather. Thinking of food progressed to perusing cookbooks, recipes and web sites.
An obsession was beginning to take root. Here I am 55 years old worrying about feeding two 20 something visitors. Little did I know that I did in fact have something to worry about.
End of June, I carefully tended to the garden, watered, picked, plucked, cooked. Still wasn’t sure what I was going to prepare for them, however. I experimented with what was available locally. California cuisine (thank you Alice Waters) would be the deciding factor based upon what was in the market and garden. What was available would be what got prepared for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I shopped the day before they arrived and had my plan in place for the most part.
On the day of their arrival, I was informed that one of the visitors had recently developed severe allergies to most fruits, some vegetables and all nuts! Her allergies were so severe that her mate was afraid to taste the foods in fear of kissing her may spur on an attack. Much to my dismay, the dried fruit and almonds purchased were placed in the back of the cabinet. I did, however, bake the fresh peaches in wine for a dinner party in their honor, but served the Italians vanilla ice cream instead.
There were two near disasters. The first was in Virginia City. Italians love the romance of the “old west”. Here we were clopping along the wooden walkway when we came across an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. Friend with allergies wanted a scoop. Her mate was adamantly against this idea because of the possibility of fruit and nuts contaminated on the scoop would be transmitted to the ice cream. I implored the worker to scrub the spoon with hot water in the event she decided to risk it. Mildly annoyed the worker obliged.
An argument ensued in Italian that only native speakers can understand, but one can only imagine the exchange. Allergy girl trumped her boyfriend and vigorously attacked the cone like it was her last meal. Boyfriend in broken English looked at me and said, “the problem is now hers.” We all watched, tense and ready with epi-pen in hand. Apparently the scoop was in fact cleaned properly. Disaster averted but not without drama.
The second episode was during a visit to a local coffee shop. In search of an innocent muffin without the problematic ingredients we spotted what looked like a decadent chocolate brownie sans nuts, perfect with strong coffee. Five times I asked the barista if there were nuts in the brownies and five times she answered NO. I emphasized how horrible it would be if this young Italian ingested nuts while the customers waiting in the ever increasing growing line were watching with mildly amused expressions. Like my husband reported to a waiter during dessert on another night, we cannot have nuts, look at nuts or even think about nuts. The waiter laughed and I’m sure thought it was we who were nuts.
I was 99.9% sure after the 5 emphatic No’s that the brownie was ok. Brownie purchased, our friend began walking out of the café and carefully placed a very small portion in her mouth. The barista, in the meantime, was having second thoughts and pulled out the book with the ingredients of all the pastries. Last ingredient, WALNUTS! STOP EATING!
I cannot describe my horror. Apparently my faced blanched, one could see my heart thumping in my chest. Italian friend quickly ran into the bathroom ingesting large quantities of water, finger down throat to regurgitate what was the equivalent of perhaps 1/8th a teaspoon of brownie. We all sat nervously waiting for a reaction, praying that there would be none. So upset was I, I could not eat my own brownie.
Oh Dio! It took me hours to recover.
In the end, much to my delight, our visitors were furiously writing down the recipes of their favorite meals during their visits, all of course without nuts, dried or fresh fruit. Translating some of the ingredients proved a bit difficult with me gesticulating, miming and using sound effects to describe goat cheese, Dijon mustard and Herbs de Provence for a French lentil salad that was a big hit.
I love food. I love cooking. I love the watching those I serve enjoying every morsel eyed, sniffed, swallowed and digested.
Our friends have returned to Italy, delighted in every aspect of their visit, including the food. I miss them already. Am I nuts?