“Hey, Cici! What’s up?”
(Giggling, from multiple girls) “Um, hi. So… do you like pie?”
“… what’s that?”
“Apple pie,” (Louder giggling) “Do you like it?”
“Why yes. Yes, I do.”
“Do you – ” (snort) “Do you have any friends” (VERY LOUD GIGGLING) “who also like pie?”
In the fall of 2003, when I was in the beginning of my fourth year at Belmont, I signed up for the fledgling study abroad program that the School of Music was getting off the ground in Florence, Italy. I spent four months in that glorious, sultry city, sharing an apartment with three other BU students – we lived about a block and a half north of the Duomo on Via dei Servi, within moments of a plethora of priceless art, acres of ageless architecture, and at least five gelaterias each of which could justifiably claim to make the best dessert known to humanity.
I learned a lot in Italy. Some of it I even learned through my studies. But the really big things I learned in Italy, the lessons that really stuck with me, had nothing to do with the language, or art history, or opera. The important lessons that I learned came from day to day living – how to survive without a television or air conditioning, how to haggle, how to truly appreciate public transportation.
For the first time in my life, I lived in close quarters with someone who vehemently disagreed with almost every opinion I had. For the first time in years, I rediscovered the joy of listening, actually listening, to music for hours at a time in utter silence, silence enriched and deepened by the presence of friends. For the first time since I began college, I remembered what it meant to read a challenging book for fun and not for homework.
But the best lesson I learned in Italy was how to cook.
Would you like to learn how to cook? Here’s the secret:
I learned to do it because I had no choice. Whatsoever. My meager budget was based on my summer’s work waiting tables at a breakfast restaurant in Birmingham and occasional stint moonlighting as a security guard at office buildings downtown. Neither of these opportunities were terribly lucrative, as I’m sure you can imagine, so I really couldn’t afford to eat out on anything like a regular basis. Not only that, but pre-packaged or frozen foods are either non-existent or ludicrously expensive in Italy, so I had to buy real, fresh ingredients, from which people had, presumably, been crafting edible meals for years.
Or so I had been told.
At any rate, most of what I learned about cooking came from two people – Bethany, one of my roommates, and Libby, another student at the school where my roomies were all studying together. Both were (and probably still are) excellent chefs who were happy to impart such previously arcane secrets as the proper method for making risotto and how to create a good flavor base.
Libby, in particular, taught me one of the most important lessons any cook can ever learn – how to screw up! That is, how to make a mess, create something that’s kinda disastrous, and laugh it off without hating yourself or deciding that you can’t cook. That’s one of the most important lessons to learn as a cook – sometimes you are absolutely going to crash and burn, and if you have a sense of humor about it, you’ll learn something and have a fun story.
If you don’t, you’ll give up on cooking and go back to eating HotPockets three times a day.
Now, back to the phone call I mentioned at the beginning. Cici, who was one of Libby’s roommates, informed me between bouts of hilarity that I needed to invite several people over to their apartment. And also to have them invite more people. After spreading the word, I hastened over and found myself greeted by a still-giggling Cici – I mean, she was at that point of giggle-dom where it had obviously exhausted her but she was still incapable of actually speaking any more without breaking out in a new fit of giggles. It was painful to experience, I’m sure. However, it was more or less adorable to behold.
The Giggler ushered me back into the kitchen, where Libby was sitting on the table, also giggling, and bright red with shame. She couldn’t even look at me. She held out her arms, head turned aside in and presented me with a plate with an enormous piece of apple pie on it. Cici managed to stop giggling enough to ask, “Would you like a piece of pie? … … Please?” which sent both of them into renewed howls of laughter.
The facts were these:
Libby went to the grocery store down the street to purchase pie-making materials. She had been feeling homesick, and determined to eat her nostalgia in the form of an apple pie. However, in her hurry to get to the store, she made a crucial miscalculation.
Her apple pie recipe called for, among other things, four (4) pounds of apples.
We were in Italy. They do not believe in pounds, as they are heathens. They have kilograms. One kilogram is, roughly, two and one fifth (2.2) pounds.
Please be aware that Libby was (and certainly still is!) a very smart young woman, with excellent taste in music, art, and literature, very well read, and possessed of a keen intellect.
She just got the numbers backwards.
Rather than purchasing slightly less than two (2) kilograms, she purchased slightly more than eight (8).
Let’s go back to the conversion math, shall we? Eight (8) kilograms is not, as Libby presumed at this particular point, four (4) pounds of apples. Eight (8) kilograms is, in fact, sixteen (HOLY CRAP) pounds of apples.
It didn’t register with her that this was, in fact, an unholy truckload of apples while she was in the produce section.
Nor did it occur to her while she was loading bag after bag after bag in the checkout line, or when she had to have somebody open the door of the building for her, or even when she peeled, cored, and sliced them.
No, she noticed for the first time when she started arranging the slices in the pie plate and found that, after placing approximately one millionth of the slices she’d prepared, the pie plate was overflowing with apple.
The reality of her situation sinking in, Libby – I told you, she’s a smart one – grabbed a lasagna dish. And I don’t mean a 9x13 casserole dish, here. I mean a true, Italian, we’re-feeding-you-because-we-love-you-so-you-stop-when-we-tell-you lasagna dish that could comfortably contain enough food to feed the NFL Players’ Association in its entirety.
She lined this pan with crust, then made more crust, put in the apples and other ingredients, then made more crust, and all of this while laughing hysterically as Cici got on the phone to invite people over to eat her monstrosity of a confection.
Half an hour after I arrived, her kitchen was crowded with American students, all of us a little bit homesick and either too proud or timid to admit it, all of us stuffing our faces with apple and cinnamon and a very little bit of crust because it was frankly still too much apple and the crust couldn’t really contain it but it didn’t matter because it was pie, apple pie, sweet and wholesome and so close to home.
Of all the many, many things I learned in Italy, this warm image is one of the strongest and most enduring. A gaffe of tremendous proportions, a miscalculation that could have been cause for anger and frustration and self-berating, instead provided laughter, community, and comfort to a bunch of kids who were none of us as confident as we pretended. All it took was a generous mixture of good humor and humility with a dash of ingenuity.
And, of course, sixteen [expletive deleted] pounds of apples.