Hands, Smallness, Love, and Defiance

I just finished the book Heat by Bill Buford. It’s ostensibly a book about food and learning to cook, but I found it to be an exploration of all I hold dear and am trying to work on in this Life During Wartime project. The first half, about chefs and restaurants is illuminating if sometimes hard to take, but the second half about Buford’s time in Italy was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever read. He’s writing about food, but I think one can apply his words to everything: art, clothing, everyday objects, culture . . . modern life. I can’t stop thinking about hands, and smallness, and love, and, yes, defiance. What fortification to bring into a new year of this project. Here’s a little bit:

Italians have a word, casalinga, homemade, although its primary sense is “made by hand.” My theory is just a variant of casalinga. (Small food: by hand and therefore precious, hard to find. Big food: from a factory and therefore cheap, abundant.) Just about every preparation I learned in Italy was handmade and involved my learning how to use my hands differently. My hands were trained to roll out dough, to use a knife to break down a thigh, to make sausage or lardo or polpettone. With some techniques, I had to make my hands small, like Betta’s. With others, I made them big, like the Maestro’s. The hands, Dario says, are everything. With them, cooks express themselves, like artists. With them, they make food that people use their hands to eat. With the hands, Dario passes on to me what he learned from his father. With the hands, Betta gives me her aunts. The hands of Miraim’s mother, her grandmothers. The hands of Dario’s grandfather, his great-grandfather he never met, except indirectly, in what passed on through his hands.

Miriam, who can’t get a pastina to roll out the dough, no longer makes handmade pasta. When her daughter takes over, will she roll it out by hand? In Tuscany, you can’t get the meat at the heart of the region’s cooking, so Dario and the Maestro found a small farm that reproduces the intensity of flavor they grew up with. How long will that taste memory last? The Maestro will die. Dario will die. I will die. The memory will die. Food made by hand is an act of defiance and runs contrary to everything in our modernity. Find it; eat it; it will go. It has been around for a millennia. Now it is evanescent, like a season.

ā¤ (and fight for what you believe in!)

PS: I was always told by my family that my last name, Manni, came from the Italian mani, hands. Besides all of the feminist implications, I always wanted to (and did) keep my name when I married because of that.

PPS: Thanks to the Zero Waste Chef, who had a quote from this book on her blog, which intrigued me, so I sought it out.

(image: illustration by Bruce Hutchinson)

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2 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing such an insightful articulation of what handmade actually means. How true that in this day and age, even the most modest makers amongst us is a carrier of precarious traditions, stories and treasures.

  2. I loved Heat! I actually teared up at the end of the book (the Italian chapters which, like you, I adored). I would love to get my hands on those old Italian cookbooks he mentions (some dating all the way back to the Renaissance). Thank you for the mention and happy new year šŸ™‚

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