In summer, when I was a little girl, I often had lunch with my granddad Giulio. Quick lunches and, as we say nowadays: fresh and dietary. Almost always they were made with tomatoes and onions, sometimes with potatoes and fresh beans, hardly ever with meat and ravioli.
Granddad cut the tomatoes by making them jump happily on his left hand and, he swung them (made them turn) on his palm, like a dance that I ever could not imitate.
He seemed to contemplate them gently, observing their shape and colour and, at the same time, the best part, and the most suitable one to decorate. In his right hand, between thumb and forefinger, he held his Swiss box cutter with a very sharp blade, almost worn away by the constant rubbing against the Belgian blue stone that was as important as the knife, if not more. It was precious and fundamental from the far, difficult years of my Granddaddy’s Moroccan prison. Days in which there was nothing but hunger and thirst, to sharpen
From Nonno’s words
"Sometimes we hid in our pocket, one of the potatoes that we were digging for the boss. The first of many supervisors was a Frenchman. For lunch, he often gave us only a kilo of bread, to be divided between twelve. When you got it in you hands, you were almost crying as it was so little . Once, on the way to the prison camp, there were a couple of women covered from head to toe, they gave us to drink some milk for only a penny (soldo). I drank it in one breath. It was so sweet and so strange. I was afraid it was poisoned, I was afraid I would die. It was even said in the prison camp that the supervisors wanted to poison us. They often said to us that was better if we don’t take food from them, but the truth was they wanted to let us die of hunger. It was donkey’s milk the women gave us, sweet as nature, but I did not know that, I was scared by the bosses’ words, I did not drink it again. "
Granddad began to cut the slices of tomato, with extremely precision. All the tomatoes were treated by his big and gnarled hands. Hands, disproportionate to the rest of his body. Hands that were digging every day, into the earth of the vineyard and garden. And, palms which he rubbed on his hoe, from sunrise to sunset. Hands, which before had tried to change their destiny in the lime and cement of the new overseas Buildings.
Nonno’s Words again
"Very big and high buildings. Skyscrapers, so tall, with so many floor... working there we were of all races, none of us spoke the same language, but, you know, work speaks the same words in all the world. All the days working hard, as a labourer and at night I counted the money to send home, to your grandma. She would have bought the land on which we now live, and she will have brought up the three children we had had”.
The story of my granddad was charming and always began in the same way, but getting enriched day by day, with new details. It went through the years until it reached the present day, in the farmhouse with the pergola and gebbia. The gebbia is like a big swimming pool were animals can drink the water during the day, and where people can draw water for the garden and the cows on the fertile land, black and thin, bought with income from the American buildings. While Granddaddy was telling his story, it was time to take another tomato from the bowl, always choosing carefully, first with the eyes, then with the great gnarled hands. Gestures always precise, cuts always perfect.
To make a tomato salad my grandfather would take a century, if we omit the time for the selection of the same tomatoes on the plants. But it was time to give to those tomatoes, his respect and his gratitude for having arrived on his table to feed him. Feeding for granddaddy was a daily ritual, because he knew, better than anyone, that it wasn’t so simple. When he finished slicing the tomatoes, it was time to put in the onion: tears streaming down my face, but not his, which were as dry as the desert that once had taught him, that you must come to terms with injustice and misery, when you are young, if you want to go along way in your life.
Then it was the time for the spices. A little chilli because sometimes the heart needs a small boost to beat better. Then oregano and salt, enough to make the meal, anything but bland. And oil, a lot of oil. And a good one, from olive trees out of grandmother’s olive parks. Because the motor travels better if you drive it slowly. And then there was the grandmother who quietly listens and snorts, about a story overcooked, annealed and accommodated on the table, again, again tomorrow.
"And the old memory ate the new". (It’s a way that my Nonno had to say that the old memory is more clear than the recent one, that in Italian sounds like this: La memoria vecchia si mangiò la nova).
Thanks to my Friend Val Smart, always helping me with Translations.