The Food Diaries: Why We Eat
Do I Dare to Eat...an Apricot?
By Martha McPhee
Standing in the backyard of my friend's house in Italy, I watched as she plucked an apricot from a tree and handed it to me. I was 16, from New Jersey, and until that summer the only fruits I'd known were store-bought. But here, in this town snuggled into the foothills of the Alps, the apricot tree grew outside the kitchen window, its blush-colored fruit dangling like ornaments. Inside, my friend's mother prepared a midday meal -- squares of thin homemade pasta rolled with bechamel, ham, and Parmesan, topped with a dash of butter and cream. In the oven, a roast sizzled; its smell wafted into the garden where I stood.
The apricot languished in my friend's palm, waiting for me. Her hair spilled about her broad, lovely face, and her dark eyes said, Eat it and you'll see. Donatella was a proud girl. She loved her country, her language, her appetite, and she wanted me -- a quiet American visiting on a summer exchange -- to love it too.
The fruit broke in half easily, plump and tender. I put it in my mouth. All these 27 years later, I can still taste it -- succulent and sweet. Devouring it that afternoon pulled me inside Italy, made me adventurous in exploring new tastes. Over the next few months, Donatella urged me to venture further: cheese, salami, pheasant her father shot, uccellini (birds so tiny you eat the bones) on creamy polenta, pesce in carpione enjoyed at a ristorante overlooking the town's lake. That summer in Italy, I learned to appreciate not just the food but its origin in every bite, a sensation long sanitized out of most American cuisine. A tomato tasted as if it had just tumbled out of the garden; a fish retained saltiness that could only have come from the sea. I came to understand why I preferred peppers in August, strawberries in June, chicken from the butcher, handmade lasagna. I enjoyed taking apart the flavors of a dish as they settled on my palate, like someone distinguishing among the various instruments in an orchestral piece and appreciating how they stand apart and work together at once.
Time carried me away from that summer, but food, I came to understand, could transport me emotionally back through the years -- to Italy and many other places I have since visited. A potato, for example, carries me to a roadside stand in India, eating masala dosa with my husband in a field of sunflowers. Fine dark chocolate takes me to the Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich, where I traveled with my father to taste Teuschers at the source. And an apricot, originally from China, transported across the Persian Empire, embraced by Mediterranean people, imported to America by the Spanish, and now grown stateside and sold in a bin at the local farmers' market, always returns me to Italy. One bite and I am 16 all over again, a little Americanina in an Italian garden, traveling through a portal to my past.
McPhee is the author of L'America, Bright Angel Time and the National Book Award finalist Gorgeous Lies.
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