Erri De Luca: the food of memories and childhood

The original article was published on Luxeat.com

Martin d’Orgeval, Aiste Miseviciute and Erri De Luca. Photo by Paola Porrini Bisson

Recognized by the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera as “the writer of the decade”, Italian novelist and poet, Enrico “Erri” De Luca needs no introduction. I and dear friend photographer Martin d’Orgeval had the great pleasure to spend a moment in his presence, and absorb his musings around what food meant to him growing up in Naples and now, take note of his poetic recipe for Parmigiana di Melanzane and imagine the atmosphere of this grandmother’s kitchen. Here are the extracts…

My name is Erri de Luca, I am first and foremost Napolitan and secondly a writer. My recipe for Parmigiana di Melanzane, a Napolitan tradition, is based on three things:

First you must slice the aubergines and leave them out in the sun. They need to be dry, because if they’re not dry they will absorb too much oil during the cooking process. So we lay them out to dry in the sun and when they’ve dried out, a little like my old face, we put them in the oil.
So the first thing is the sun and the second thing is the oil for cooking and then the third thing is to place them in layers with mozzarella, parmesan and basil, layer upon layer.
Then the last thing is to put it all in the oven.
Then you must leave it alone. Tranquil. It’s not ready to be eaten, no!
You must leave it to rest, as it’s tired after everything it’s been through.
The Parmesan is at its best and rediscovered its enthusiasm for the dish when it’s well rested.
When it’s cooled, it’s perfect.
This is a recipe from my grandmother.
And a recipe that my mother made me often and when she came to live in my house, it was my entrée.
When she died, I never ate it again, neither in a restaurant nor at my home.
Because it was linked to that intimacy, and that past.
I think that grief isn’t something that comes out at the cemetery but rather at the table.
And that is a Napolitain recipe.

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

What is the place of cuisine and food in your education?

Above all, it was a privilege, because I grew up in the place with the highest rate of child mortality in Europe. Children died because of different deficiencies, including food.
I grew up in a household where we never went without, we always had clothing.
I had the best emotional education of shame, as shame is an emotion.
It’s a persistent feeling, not like anger that passes.
Anger comes like a commotion, shakes you and then it leaves you.
Not shame. Shame stays like a sort of wound and you must heal it.
And that is why I think that shame is a political feeling, it forces you to react and respond in some way.

And it was cuisine, food, brought on that shame?

It wasn’t the food itself, it was the difference.
It was what I saw in the streets.
Food represented the indispensable realization of life.

It’s like the Manna* in the exodus, but the Manna was equally distributed to people but for us this even distribution wasn’t the case, so food for us represented the need of Manna.
[ Editor’s note: Manna is an edible substance which God provided for the Israelites during their travels in the desert during the 40-year period following the Exodus]

Erri De Luca’s kitchen. Photo by Erri De Luca

Italian food can give one the impression of coming alive, how would you summarize the spirit of Italian cooking?

Dry ingredients, even dry old bread, added to a dish and revitalised, absolutely nothing was wasted, nothing thrown out.
Everything was used.
The simplest methods were used to cook to save on water and gas.

Do you remember the atmosphere of your grandmother’s kitchen in Naples?

Yes, because on Sundays we went to my grandmothers to prepare a traditional stew — a sauce with meat. Pieces of meat specially put together.
She would cook over a very low heat, like a candle, starting the night before, regularly passing by to gently stir it during the night and on the Sunday at midday there would be that aroma ….
For me it was like Church. Like Patheos.
A celestial smell, impossible to find.
Today you can find this stew, but it’s meat with tomatoes. But my grandmother’s ragout was the apothesis of Italian cuisine.

What did your grandma transmit with her cooking?

A respect for meals and dining.
If we accidentally dropped a piece of bread on the floor during a meal, we were taught to pick it up, give it a kiss and put it back on the table.
At the table my grandmother used to say, we’re fighting with death here.
There are often accidents, one can choke on a piece of food, and when you eat fish… a fish bone can kill. A meal can be dangerous, first of all if you’re hungry, you want to eat and if you eat too fast you can choke.
My grandma would say that in all seriousness, be careful, at the table we are fighting with death!

Respect for food.

The original article was published on Luxeat.com

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