A Taste of Paradise

On Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, my mother, like many other Jews, bakes her challah into coiled circles representing the cycle of life, the new year beginning, our next rotation around the sun…

After blessing the sweet cylindrical bread, Ima tears the loaf into pieces (avoiding the touch of a knife to the sacred loaves because these instruments also have the potential to harm). We eagerly reach for the best pieces – shiny golden on the outside and soft, fluffy dough on the inside – and passionately smear butter on our torn pieces of yeasty treasure. The required next step in this process is dripping the honey from our apple and honey ritual (another symbol of fertility, the round planet, the “head of the year”).  The final stage of this collective culinary experience is my father inevitably saying, year after year, “mmmmm…this is a taste of the garden of Eden.” The unofficial yet religiously practiced ritual is not complete without this statement.

And it is indeed the most heavenly combination filling your mouth – the creaminess of the butter, warm yeastiness of the fresh baked golden challah, and tart sweetness of the honey. You feel like you are glowing from the inside. If paradise can be imagined as a place of total harmony, simple goodness, and comfort, this is how it would taste.

I thought of this famous family idiom miles away from home while having possibly the most magical meal of my life at Al Paradiso, an elegant trattoria tucked into a cluster of old, partially crumbling stone buildings surrounded by cornfields in the Friulian countryside.

Federica, our host, had become famous in my household as the talented creator of Basil Liver Soup (a delightful translation slip-up that took place during an email exchange with my father as she generously shared the recipe for the simple, bright, silky soup my parents have now recreated and shared many times). My parents had waited and planned for ten years to bring us here, to share with us the magical culinary experience that had so deeply impacted them on their first voyage here.

Ima & Abba happily returned to their beloved trattoria,  Al Paradiso

We were seated on the terazza at a round table with white tablecloth and green velvet runner (velvet on the table felt like a generous dedication to beauty over concern for the risk of spillage). The centerpiece was a large glass vessel filled with water, and floating orange roses matching the orange stones delicately strewn around the table. Our view through the white curtains was bright blue and white hydrangea bushes and bright red geranium growing on a stone building with wooden shutters that must have been the restaurant’s wine cellar and storage. We sipped sparkling water out of delicate blown glass cups (no effort was spared in the details of this paradise) and were welcomed by Federica in a traditional medieval Friulian country dress perfectly coordinated with the colors of our table setting.  Since my parents met Federica years ago, she’s had two children, both of whom hovered around her while her mama and papa served our meal alongside her.

The context inspired Abba to play around with redefining fusion cooking – understanding it as a dining experience carefully cultivated to integrate and satisfy multiple senses and forms of enjoyment – the aesthetics of the table, the lighting, the sounds and smells, the texture and temperature of the foods, the relationship and interactions between those making and serving the food and those enjoying it, the libations and their origins and pairings, the history and energy of a place.

The amuse bouche was ravioli fritti ripieni con melanzane (fried ravioli stuffed with eggplant) with a wonderful red pepper sauce (something like romesco?). We then moved on to fiori du zucchine ripieni di ricotta (zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta) served in a beautiful zucchine cream and crispy puff pastry with capriolo cheese perfumed with aromatic herbs.

The soup was prepared specifically for us in honor of our parents’ deep appreciation and excitement. It was, of course, the revered crema di basilico con sfoglia di polenta (meaning cream of basil soup with amazingly thin and crsipy polenta on the side). My parents were thrilled by the surprise addition of a tiny patate e carrote timbalo in the middle (a small, round-shaped mold of baked potato and carrot). Then we devoured the pacchetti pasta filled with marjoram and fonduta di montasio cheese and tomatoes. Seeing as this was a vegetarian meal sweetly prepared specifically for my family, the secondi in this epic banquet was gnocchi with patate and wild herbs topped with crumbled fried parmigiano. (Our carb-loving family was up for the traditional flow of an Italian meal involving pasta as a warm up for what in this meat free situation was yet another even bigger pasta!). Then there was also a poached egg (yeah!) atop al dente veggies (celery, carrots, kale) covered with potato creme.

With each course Federica spent time with us, telling us everything we wanted to know about every dish and its ingredients. She also carefully selected and presented a different wine with each course, the most ephemeral whites, an orange wine, dessert wines, all from the region.  Dessert was creme mille feuille with “coffee caviar”!

By this point I was happily floating in a dream-like state, induced by the quaint, fantastical surroundings, the sensuality of the food, Federica’s grace and wisdom, and, of course, the many bottles of bright, crisp, complex, smooth, and then ultimately sweet wines. (In Italy, local is a designation very precisely and carefully applied. Often I would ask if I could try a local wine and I would be pointed towards a wine with the apologetic disclaimer that it wasn’t local but it was made in the next town over and would that be okay?)

The only thing that tainted the blissful gift of this meal was Federica’s sadness, subtle and balanced by her graciousness, but still present. She was clearly feeling discouraged. When asked about where she sourced her eggs from, she complained about regulations that actually prevent her from obtaining fresh eggs from nearby farmers, providing a small and concrete example of the ways in which Italy’s food system is being industrialized and privileges large producers and agribusiness, while undermining small, local producers.  She expressed how difficult it is for her to run a restaurant, making the kind of food she believes in and the kind of environment she wants to create.

So as many Americans are (re)discovering food (kind of like how Columbus “discovered” America), and tend to romanticize Italian cuisine and its local and slow food tradition, our systems and corporations are undermining and poisoning it.

Sitting at Federica’s table was a joyous privilege. To borrow Tamasin Day-Lewis‘ description of a restaurant in England that had the same effect on her: “Everything was done properly with the finest ingredients from start to finish, without ever being too rich, too much, too pretentious…” It was one of the most elevated, gourmet meals I’ve ever had. Not a single detail of the evening was anything but perfect, and the experience was served to us with genuine glowing humility and grace. This Rosh Hashana, I will dedicate my first bite of buttered challah dripping with honey to Al Paradiso, a magical haven gifted to the world by a small family who knows how to serve food that gives you a taste of the Garden of Eden.

**Thankfully, my sister Shalva, the Diva of Details, took the pictures for this post and Ima diligently recorded every menu item, even making sure to ask Federica about the types of cheese in each dish. Otherwise, my compromised memory would not have been able to do this experience justice.  And speaking of my community-supported writing process, Naomi, my partner in crime, is responsible for this and most of my posts being readable and well-constructed.

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CULTIVATE: Connecting Community through Meals and Media

Last Wednesday night on one of the hottest days thus far this summer, I took a steamy, crowded subway ride from work in SoHo to South Brooklyn for an evening presented and co-organized by The Big Ceci and SIGNIFIED featuring Just Food, the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and the 718 Collective. The event, held in the basement of the Church of Gethsemane on a tree lined street in Park Slope, was a dinner by the 718 Collective, followed by the premier of SIGNIFIED’s second season episode featuring the 718 collective, an interactive presentation with Just Food and the Brooklyn Food Coalition, and a community recipe exchange.

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As a recent resident of Brooklyn (I moved here just a little under two years ago from Boston via Mexico City), the idea of cultivating community in a city as varied and expansive as New York can sometimes seem like a daunting task. I have tried to foster relationships with people who share common interests, and have worked to become invested in certain elements of my local community. For example I joined a social-justice focused CSA and take an active role in working towards making the CSA accessible to lower-income families. And I am pleased to find that through my efforts I have been able to feel that I not only live in Brooklyn, but that I have found a space to give back and invest in my community.

The feeling of having a distinct community where I have laid down my roots has always been an important element in finding happiness in my daily life. Finding that community here in Brooklyn has been difficult, but ultimately very rewarding. While I do feel secure and rewarded by the space I have made for myself here, I am aware of the general demographic of those with whom I spend the majority of my time. While I actively try to be open to meeting new people and work to interact with those from different backgrounds, it can be easy to slip into a space of 20-something artists, writers, and activists who live in Brooklyn, ride their bikes, brew kombucha, volunteer for various causes, and care to know who grows their food. While my friends and neighbors are rich in creativity, experience, and understanding, rarely do I feel that I truly step into the shoes of those with very different lifestyles from my own. But cultivating a varied community just to feel that I have a diversified friend group can also be problematic. So how does one truly work to connect with a community different from their own, without it feeling strained or disconnected?

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During the CULTIVATE dinner I had a great conversation explaining quinoa and kale to the man sitting to my left who had never seen the foods before, and who, in turn, regaled me with tales of his fledging rap career. After a screening of SIGNIFIED’s episode, everyone at the event joined together for an exercise by the Brooklyn Food Coalition about the school food program.  The children of Brooklyn are a community that surrounds me, but with whom I rarely interact. While I live across the street from a public school, I rarely find myself in conversation with anyone under the age of 18 for longer than a few sentences.

The exercise entailed a woman from the BFC who would give out a word or fact that everyone in the room was then asked to free-associate and to write down the first word that came to mind. We then walked around showing off our answers and briefly talking to each other about the phrases that we were inspired to put down. Terms like “school food” brought out negative association words like “yuck,” “fatty,” “heavy,” and  “too expensive.” The fact “The NYC public school system buys the second largest amount of food in the United States, after the U.S. Military” brought out thoughts like “capitalism,”  “schools, prisons, military,” and “buying power.” It was unfortunate that many of the associations she threw out  with school food terms were negative and depressing. When the fact was read— “One parent working in the school food system has the opportunity to affect hundreds of children,” more positive words began cropping up — “possibility,” “opportunity,” and “stand up.” Because children are a community that, by and large, do not have the ability to stand up and advocate for themselves, it is up to those who are older to support, educate, and advocate. So while there can be negative associations related to advocating for communities that may seem disparate from our own, and while I do not yet have children of my own, it is up to us who have have a voice and an understanding of the injustices of our food system to take a stand for them.

While the community of children in Brooklyn may seem far away from my daily life, in reality, they are just down the block. They are a part of my community and as a fortunate child who benefited from healthy school lunches in Oregon, and from the tireless work of my mother, it is my job to help cultivate positive associations with the school food system for this new community of mine.

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See more photos from the event here:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/nora_chovanec/sets/72157630259177140/detail/

Presenting CULTIVATE: Connecting Communities Through Meals and Media.

Hey people – Naomi here, and I’m writing with some exciting news. It’s been a little over a year since we started The Big Ceci, hoping to create a space on the blogosphere where we could bring together our love for food and our commitment to justice. It’s been a beautiful year, and I’ve been excited and inspired by how many people have contributed to this blog – it’s truly been a community effort.

So, yes, blogging has been good to us, and we look forward to continuing in our second year and beyond. But the one thing you can’t do on a food blog is…you guessed it, folks – EAT!

That’s why this week, The Big Ceci is making moves – stepping out of the Internet and into the neighborhood – to present our first-ever event: a dinner-discussion-screening-salon-experience called CULTIVATE: connecting communities through meals and media.

Get ready, y’all…because this is gonna be a fun one.

CULTIVATE is a collaboration with the fabulous queer documentary project SIGNIFIED (please do the Internet equivalent of running-not-walking to their website if you haven’t already seen it…you need to). During this interactive evening of food and media, we’ll eat a delicious meal prepared by the talented chefs of 718 Collective, discuss food justice work in Brooklyn with Just Food and The Brooklyn Food Coalition, swap stories and recipes across the table, and get to see the premiere of the latest SIGNIFIED episode.

If you’re not catching my drift, people, let me put it to you this way: if you care in any way about alternative media, food justice, Brooklyn, hot queer chefs, or just really delicious food, you will want to find a way to get your butt to our table on Wednesday, June 20.

Space is limited, so we strongly encourage you to buy tickets in advance here: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/252443

And of course, for more info, check out the Facebook event here and the Tumblr here.

We’ll see you at the table!