Mark Leslie knows pasta. He is the author of Beyond the Pasta, a memoir with recipes from his experiences in Italy, where he learned the mastery of cooking his noodles with everything from pollo to pomodori and beyond. Though he works as a stage manager in professional theater, Mark travels to Italy each year to fulfill his passion for everything Italian, and he keeps fellow pasta fanatics up to date on his blog. Here, he drops into first-person mode to give us the story behind the story of his cookbook.
“Ciao, Marco! Ciao, ciao, ciao Big Mark!!”
To be double-cheek kissed and wrapped in a hug forceful enough to choke the life out of a chicken may be an everyday occurrence in Italy, but for me, my first steps off the train in Viterbo on New Year’s Eve into the waiting arms of Nonna were a mixture of sheer joy and nervous anticipation.
It took a big leap of faith for me in 2005 to travel to Italy, where I would live with a family for a month to take cooking lessons from the grandmother, Nonna, and language lessons from her daughter. With all of the inherent unknowns and insecurities of that situation, how could food bridge the gap?
Nonna “wowed” me from the jump with her first culinary trick—de-boning a chicken while still leaving it whole. The process made me think of what an alien from outer space might do to a cow in a field in Iowa: remove the bones without ever cutting the cow open. I thought about sleeping with one eye open after seeing her expertise with a small paring knife.
That lesson started with lots of pointing and cries of “Guarda!” (“Watch!”) or “Capito?” (“Understand?”). The whole “extraterrestrial” skeletal extracting process took about 20 minutes. It involved making a series of cuts around the ends of the drumsticks, breaking joints, and slowly extracting the bones from the flesh without ever cutting the carcass into pieces. For those who are squeamish, remember that in order to understand food, you have to get your hands into it. I am very comfortable in a kitchen and am confident enough to jump right in and get my hands dirty. Cooking is more than just taste. It is about using all of your senses throughout the entire process—that is how a nonna cooks. Nonna is a master of chicken anatomy and, though I might not be bashful in the kitchen, she certainly intimidated me with her skills.
As the weeks went on Nonna, her family and I developed more than just a friendship. Regardless of the language barrier, food was the gateway to a deeper understanding of our two cultures, the similarities and the differences, but beyond that, it was an act of sharing that affirmed the fact that cooking can be an open expression of the heart. Over the course of that month, we fell in love with each other—the type of familial bond that might never be broken.
But what happens when you return to that experience five years later after turning it into your first book? Is food still a key to unlocking the divine in the ordinary?
If being pinched, squeezed, embraced, hugged, and kissed on a train platform by an entire family—complete strangers just five years earlier—were any indication, well, I’d say I was greeted by the angels. And to make it all the more satisfying? I was soon whisked away in a speeding car to once again learn more about food, language, and life while seated at this family’s table. Buonissimo!