The Woman, the Girl, and the Screaming Horse

PicassoGuernica

The memory. The painting. Picasso’s Guernica.

Greetings from Madrid! I’m here to relax, to learn, to seek similarities, to find differences…to be overcome by the beauty of it all.

And today I was overcome, by the presence of an old acquaintance: the gigantic Guernica, arguably Pablo Picasso’s most famous painting. We have a little story, the painting and I.

I have a very clear memory of seeing Guernica, decades ago, with my mother and my sister, in Manhattan. I can picture the monumental canvas from the viewpoint of a young child, maybe six years old, standing left of its center, gazing up at the disturbing figures in their somber colors. It was the horse that affected me the most–the horse screaming in the midst of the broken people, beside the impassive bull.

“What is this? I remember asking my mother as I tried to make sense of the images.

“It’s about a war–in Spain,” she replied. “It was painted by Pablo Picasso.” Mom was an artist herself, so I had heard of Picasso, had seen photos of his cubist imaginings. I nodded slowly, wincing at the horse in his agony. The image never left me.

Years and years later, though, I had cause to doubt my memory when I read that Guernica was housed in the Reina Sofia in Madrid. That made sense–Picasso was a Spaniard, of course–but how, then, could I have seen it in New York?

The answer lay in the painting’s complicated history. Picasso painted it, as we know, to memorialize the victims of the 1937 bombing of the town of Guernica in the Basque country, in the northeast of Spain, during the civil war that saw fascist dictator Francisco Franco take power. Though such complete devastation and killing of civilians would become all too familiar during the rapidly approaching years of World War II, at the time, the destruction of the bombing raid on Guernica was unprecedented and utterly shocking. When Picasso completed the painting, he declared that it would never hang in Spain until the country was released from the grip of fascism and had become a peaceful republic once more. The painting toured the world, and eventually it came to be housed in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)…in Manhattan.

So I did see it–on one of the many trips into the city that my mother took us on in the summer and around Christmas, when school was out.

Picasso lived until 1973, and two years later, Franco died. Once fascism had fallen, negotiations between The Prado, Spain’s premiere museum, and MoMA finally brought the painting home in 1981. It hangs now in the Reina Sofia, where the Prado moved its collection of contemporary art when it ran out of room.

So this evening, in Madrid, half a world away from MoMA, half a lifetime away from that little girl in front of a giant painting, I encountered Guernica once again. I tried to be patient about finding it, moving slowly at first from room to room. I examined the Dalis and the Miros, lingered over the photos of Lorca (another victim of the civil war) and his La Barraca theatre group, but finally the suspense got the better of me and I left my daughter–my traveling buddy–behind and went in search of the huge canvas.

And I found it. On a great, white wall all by itself. The crowd was thin, so I was able to move right up close, left of its center once again, and look up at, of course, the horse.

And I was overcome. I mean, really overcome. My hand flew to my throat, tears welled in my eyes, and there I was: crying in a museum. I stood there for a long time, taking it all in, absorbing it, remembering it.

As if that was necessary. The six-year old me saw it once and never forgot it.

Soon my daughter appeared at my elbow. “I see you found it,” she smiled. I nodded. I could barely talk. She stayed a few minutes and then moved on, but I stayed and stayed.

So why, exactly, was I crying? I’ve been occupied by that question for hours, and now, in the middle of the Spanish night, I believe I have an answer: It involves the grownup-I-am knowing so much today–about the painting, and Picasso, and fascism, and suffering. The grownup-I-am cannot help but be moved by the tragedy that incited the painting, by the immense talent that executed it, and by the thought that despite its clear and terrible message, the painting couldn’t possibly stop war, or suffering, or human cruelty.

But it also involves the child-I-was, who was there at the Reina Sofia today, too, along with her sister and her mother–her mother who has been gone now these past three years. The child-I-was was on a trip to the city, holding her mother’s hand, seeing the canvas for the first time, trying to understand the suffering of the horse. The agony of the painting swirled into the happiness of the memory, the absence of my mother colored the memory of my mother–and I short-circuited. And cried in a Spanish museum.

That said, though, there may be a second, simpler reason that I cried; one that speaks to the power of art. As I mentioned, I know a lot about the painting, its artist, and its background now. On that long-ago trip, I knew almost nothing. And yet the painting moved me, a small child, that day, as surely as it moved the grownup me this evening.

I still winced at the horse’s suffering.

That’s the power of great art. You don’t have to “understand” it to be affected by it. Even a child can see the agony in Guernica. Live for a while and it can make you weep.

Standing there today, I could picture us decades ago, my mother, my sister, and I, taking in the same sight. My mother showing us a painting that could have been considered too grownup for us, making us understand that art has power: you can paint a lovely landscape and make people delight at its beauty–or you can paint a war and make people wince at its horror.

Connections, understanding, and memory–I found all of them in the Reina Sofia today. I was overcome. It was extraordinary.

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Golden Dreams

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Time for prompt #16 of BootsnAll’s #indie30 project:

What one landmark, anywhere in the world, would you like to see, and why?

Oh, easy answer: the Shwedagon Pagoda, in Rangoon/Yangon, Burma/Myanmar. I knew almost nothing about Burma until 2006, when it entered my radar through conversations with people who had been there. The stories of the golden temples, their spires poking through the mist; of the activism of the Buddhist monks; of the bravery of the imprisoned Aung San Suu Kyi, who had won the popular vote in the previous election and who had been in jail or under house arrest for most of the nearly two decades since–these tales had me wide-eyed. And then I saw the pictures of the Shwedagon Pagoda, 325 feet tall, the most sacred site in Burma, its brilliant, golden skin shining in the sun…and it was like looking at a set created for a fantasy epic. Its beauty was unreal.

It was built either 2500 years ago or sometime between the sixth and tenth centuries, depending on which legend-slash-history you read. It holds relics from four Buddhas, including eight hairs from Gautama Buddha, which are reported to have caused miracles to happen in their presence. I found it hard to believe this building existed, somewhere in the jungles on the other side of the world.

“Then, a golden mystery upheaved itself on the horizon, a beautiful winking wonder that blazed in the sun, of a shape that was neither Muslim dome nor Hindu temple-spire. It stood upon a green knoll, and below it were lines of warehouses, sheds, and mills. Under what new god, thought I, are we irrepressible English sitting now?”  –Rudyard Kipling, recalling his 1889 visit to the Pagoda

I knew then that I had to visit it someday. And now Burma/Myanmar is somewhat calmer, at least for potential visitors. Suu Kyi is free, and has a voice in the government. The military junta discarded its uniforms and began serving as civilians. Barack Obama has been there! Hilary Clinton has been there! Cruises stop there! There are no more mass imprisonments; the monks are no longer turning over their rice bowls and refusing to accept alms from the junta and its followers.

I’m fully aware that unrest, violence, and state-sponsored persecution of ethnic minorities still take place there. But the willingness of the country to end its total isolation from the West has made it far more likely that the likes of me can, before too long, travel to Rangoon, stand in front of the beautiful golden building, and be astonished in person.

You Say Tomato; I’ll Make Some Sauce.

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Was it twirled with or without a spoon?

Sauce or gravy? Oregano or basil? Spoon or no spoon?

Even for those of us from Italian families, the quest to cook “authentic” Italian food involves matters of taste (very important) and protocol (not nearly as important, but fun to argue about), and the fine points of cooking methods and terminology can set cooks to debating for hours (preferably over a glass of chianti and a bowl of olives).  Italy was a conglomeration of city-states, rather than a unified country, for centuries, and regional pride still plays a part in Italian identity; one way it displays itself is in how food is cooked and served in different parts of the nation–and by extension, how American families whose roots reside in those areas prepare and serve their traditional foods.

Recently, The Splendid Table website posted an interview with Maureen Fant, a cookbook author who has lived in Italy for the past 35 years. The interviewer succeeded in pinning Ms. Fant down on what we Americans must do in order to cook, serve, and eat Italian food the “right” way. Never, ever use a spoon to help you twirl your spaghetti, she cautioned. Never eat your salad first–it comes after the main course.

I enjoyed the interview and the perspective of a chef who lives full-time in La Bella Italia. But here’s the thing: I grew up surrounded by my father’s Sicilian family, all of whom made food a big part of their lives. The men, too: my Sicilian grandfather, who lived with us, loved to cook but made such a mess that a second kitchen had been installed in the basement to contain him. He and his daughter, my Aunt Lucy (whose given name was Elizabetta Maria), taught my French Canadian mother how to cook like an Italian. And we lived in Copiague, Long Island–at the time an Italian Catholic stronghold. Nearly everyone’s name ended in a vowel. The streets were named Marconi, Vespucci, Verrazano, Garibaldi–and Pio XI Street, after the early 20th century’s Italian Pope. Everybody’s grandmother was making meatballs on Sunday.

So yes–I was raised among the people who know their pasta and their olive oil. Even amidst this seemingly homogenous bunch who all hailed from the same boot-shaped corner of the globe, though, differences in the kitchen were many. My family called the rich tomato mixture “sauce”; my boyfriend’s family, also Sicilian, called it “gravy.” We ate our salad before the main course; my cousin’s family ate it after. Elizabetta Maria taught me to put basil and oregano in my marinara sauce; my cooking-enthusiast friend Frank called that sacrilege and declared that oregano is used only in meat sauces. My whole extended family twirled their spaghettini with the help of spoons; I stopped long ago, but they still do it.

So even among the most authentic of authentic Italians and Italian-Americans, there is often no “right” way to cook and eat. That said, here’s the recipe for the simple and delicious marinara sauce I learned to make as a young child, and which I taught my daughters to make when they were just children, too. It has oregano in it. You’ve been warned.

Pasta With Marinara Sauce Bresciano

Ingredients:

enough good quality, extra-virgin olive oil to film the bottom of a medium-sized saucepan

1 large clove garlic, minced

2 28-oz. cans crushed tomatoes*

small handful of fresh basil leaves, chopped

healthy sprinkle of dried oregano

splash of red wine, preferably Italian

salt

freshly ground black pepper

sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes

1 lb. of pasta, your choice of shape

Fill a large pot halfway with water; salt the water and set the pot to boil on high heat. You’ll cook the pasta in this.

While the water is coming to a boil, film the bottom of a medium saucepan with the olive oil and heat it over medium heat. Saute the garlic in the oil until it barely begins to turn golden. Pour in the tomatoes (Use caution; if the pot is too small, the comparatively cold tomatoes will cause the hot oil to spatter, potentially burning you and definitely making a mess of your stove. Use the pot lid as a handy shield if necessary.)

Add the basil, oregano, wine, salt, and black pepper; add the crushed red pepper flakes, adjusting for the level of spiciness you prefer. Stir to blend. Cover and let simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes.

By the time you’ve made the sauce, the water is probably boiling; toss in a pound of whatever kind of pasta you love and boil it, stirring occasionally to keep it from sticking. (My favorite is capellini–angel hair. My children are wild for rotini.) Follow the timing directions on the package (different pastas take different lengths of time to cook). I can tell my pasta is done just by the feel of it in the water as I stir it–if olive oil doesn’t run through your veins, though, taste a piece for doneness. It should be al dente – “to the teeth.” Not hard, but definitely not mushy.

When the pasta is done, drain it in a colander and put it back in the empty pot; drizzle in a little olive oil and mix it around, to prevent it from sticking together. Pile each serving into a shallow bowl and top with sauce. If you like, grate some good-quality pecorino romano (what my family uses) or parmegiano-reggiano cheese on top. Don’t you dare use the shaky cheese in the cardboard container.

Serve with a salad, before or after. And some olives, and some crusty Italian bread. Maybe a few slices of hard cheese and salumi. Food of the gods.

*I use Hunts brand tomatoes–though they’re not imported, they consistently come in at the top of blind taste tests, and sure enough, I like the consistency and the taste. My sister, however, swears by Tuttorosso, and her sauce is mighty good, too. A recent taste test on public radio named Muir Glen Organic as the best; I went out and bought them and bleah, I didn’t like them at all. Neither did the kids. So try a few brands till you identify your favorite.

And lest you think the regional differences among Italians and Italian-Americans are a thing of the past, consider that last December, while I was shopping at the local market for our traditional Christmas seafood feast, the older gentleman in front of me in the cashier’s line noticed the cans of scungilli** in my cart. “You’re Italian,” he declared, pointing to the telltale cans. “From where?” I knew he understood that I was born in the US–he was inquiring about my ancestors. “From Sicily,” I replied. “My grandparents were from Trapani.” He nodded. “How are you going to prepare the scungill’?” As I detailed the sauteeing and saucing of the briny morsels, his wife joined him, carrying a couple of fat eggplants. “Honey, she’s Italian. She’s making scungill’ for Christmas,” he told her. She turned to me, looked me up and down. She didn’t seem as friendly as her spouse. “Where are your people from?” she asked. “Sicily–Trapani,” I repeated. “Oh. Sicilian,” she responded, with a decided lack of enthusiasm. “And where are your people from?” I countered. “We’re Napolitan,” she answered, giving the word its Italian pronunciation. I just smiled. I’m way too American to begin to try and divine the fine, yet distinctive, lines that might separate Naples from Trapani. And I was way too eager to get home and start my sauce. Otherwise known as gravy.

**Here in Florida, scungilli is known as conch, and is something you make into fritters. Though not Italian, they’re mighty tasty.

Photo credit: By Micaela & Massimo (Flickr) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Way to a Nation’s Heart is Through Its Stomach

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta. Culinary Diplomacy in action.

The Obamas at a state dinner in Jakarta: Culinary Diplomacy in action.

When people from one nation gather around a dinner table with people from another nation, they create goodwill along with good eating. If you travel internationally, you know how true (and delicious) this is. Is there anything that disposes us more favorably toward a culture and a country than sharing its food with its natives? When English friends offer buttery homemade shortbread that dissolves on your tongue or you slurp along with Japanese colleagues on the rich, comforting broth of nabeyaki udon, it’s easy to feel at home in a faraway place.

Recently, The Splendid Table–one of Glorious Curious’ favorite public radio shows–interviewed Sam Chapple-Sokol, who writes about how food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” (Read the interview here.) The name for this practice is Culinary Diplomacy. Chapple-Sokol notes that while we all understand the importance of food in carrying off a successful state dinner between world leaders, we may not know that this brand of diplomacy is also employed by governments to proactively create a positive impression of their country in other nations. He explains that about ten years ago, Thailand created a program called “Thai Kitchen to the World,” through which they sent Thai chefs around the globe to start Thai restaurants and raise awareness of–and appreciation for–Thai cuisine. South Korea did the same sort of thing with its so-called “kimchi diplomacy.” These governments understand that food, with all its good associations, is an effective way of making your culture familiar to and sought out by people in other countries. Food has the tasty power to break down barriers and provide a welcome to the world.

Food is “used as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions in cooperation.” -Sam Chapple-Sokol

I’ve enjoyed many meals in other countries, but one of the most memorable was provided by friends of friends one summer night in Tenerife, in the Canary Islands. The islands, about 200 miles off the coast of the Western Sahara, are volcanic and gorgeous and owned by Spain. The cuisine is heavily informed by Spanish cooking but is replete with the seafood and goat cheeses and tiny potatoes (used to make the salty and addictive papas arrugadas–“wrinkled potatoes”) that are indigenous to their geographic location.

That particular night, we all met up at a tiny, dingy bar/restaurant in seaside Bajamar, on a minor road overlooking the Atlantic. (Though to be fair, on small, mountainous Tenerife, most places overlook the Atlantic. That’s part of its beauty.) As darkness fell, about a dozen of us sat at long wooden tables pushed together under a covering made of bamboo in a dirt lot outside the bar’s front entrance. The new friends–a doctor, two sculptors, and some musicians among them–had ordered island specialties to impress–and just maybe to alarm–the American visitors. Plate after plate came out the door of this somewhat questionable-looking establishment and was deposited in a row down the center of the tables, ready to be washed down with local tinto–red wine. There was pulpo (octopus), grilled and waiting to be dipped in olive oil or mojo verdegofio, a wholemeal flour mixture combined with fish stock and mojo; breads, for dipping in the green and red mojos; fried local fish; the aforementioned papas arrugadas; and the most “exotic’ dish of the evening, morena–fried moray eels, with their jawbones and tiny ferocious teeth still intact. The Spaniards seemed particularly gleeful at serving us the pulpo, imagining perhaps that its bright pink sucker-studded tentacles might send us Americans running for a hamburger. I’m half Sicilian, though, and what we call purpu is my favorite Christmas Eve treat–it’s hard to find in restaurants here in the States, but when I travel to countries that love their seafood, I enjoy it wherever I can get it.

And that night was no different–I made short work of my plate of tentacles, I dipped my bread, I drank my wine, and I picked tiny bones out of the morena. I spoke my limited Spanish, they spoke their limited English, and my bilingual best friend Maria-Jesus filled in our gaps with her expert translation. For a while, I spoke French with one of the party who had lived in France for a number of years (my French is far better than my Spanish). My artist daughter was at the other end of the table with Maria-Jesus’s daughter, creating tiny watercolor images of the food and the people. There was a great deal of laughter and conversation and goodwill between nations.

After we had stuffed ourselves with all those local delicacies, we picked up and moved to a nearby nautical club that claimed our new friends as members. More wine was presented and we staked out a large table on the deserted pool deck. Out came a guitar, and a cajón–a flamenco box-drum–and then the music started. The musicians played, the ocean roared, and our little party sat at that table and sang and drank and laughed and danced until three in the morning. The Spaniards sang old Spanish songs that they all knew. Then they sang old American rock-and-roll so we could sing along. As the night wore on, we all became drummers, beating time by banging crushed soda cans on the table as our wineglasses shuddered and danced precariously close to the edges.

At several points during the night, I was close to tears, so moved was I by the beauty and camaraderie of the celebration of which these lovely people had so graciously made me a part. The hospitality, the music, and the food reached across borders, took my hands, and drew me into the culture of Spain and the Canaries. On a real and personal level, Culinary Diplomacy was in action, doing its very effective and tasty job.