My Italian Interlude – Vegetable Style

Credit: Tasha Nathanson

Elizabeth Gilbert can skedaddle off to Italy when her life goes south. Those of us up to our ears in responsibilities have no such glorious options. I have to Eat, Pray, and Love at home. Like Gilbert, though, I have an Italian fantasy. In fact, I have an Italian alter ego: Francesca.

Unlike my uptight, scheduled, angst-ridden, productive but purse-lipped self, Francesca is languid. She laughs easily, welcomes all visitors into her home with nary a thought to the dust bunnies or other potential embarrassments. Full of grace but without effort, she feeds every soul who crosses her threshold. Even her appearance is different. My sporty physique and mousy colours contrast to her voluptuous curves and dark details. Truth be told, she looks an awful lot like Nigella Lawson. Francesca is my desired but unattainable goal.

Failing access to a Gilbertain escapade to the Old Country to remake myself, early last spring I headed instead to the garden. Where else? There, I planted Italian vegetables. I wasn’t entirely sure what I had put in the ground, as the packets had no translation. I planted lattuga cappuccio meraviglia delle 4 stagioni and cicoria rossa di Treviso.

The seeds came from the First Ravioli Store on Commercial Drive. Tina has bellowed a cheerful, “Hi, Bella!” from behind the deli counter for all of the many years I’ve come in to buy pasta. She then invariably inquires after my daughters before taking my order. I come here for this, as much as for the provisions. On this occasion, I selected wild mushroom tortellini and butternut squash agnolotti and then, on impulse, snatched up two packets of seeds off a metal display fixture thrust temporarily in front of the usual foodstuffs. From the design on the front and from what translation I could divine on the spot, I knew I would be planting some kind of lettuce and red hued chicory. Tina informed me that the chicory would be bitter. I assured her that this was not a problem, that I like opinionated flavours.

At home, the seeds took their place in a wedge-shaped raised bed in my front yard, along side some chard and parsley. Last summer did not exactly offer a Mediterranean climate in coastal BC, so I worried about how these immigrant seeds would do – but they cheerfully obliged. They came in full and thick and generous, packing the bed in glorious ruby and emerald toned leaves. They grew with ease and offered plenty. I began to harvest.

The lettuce was lettuce. It was the leafy kind, rather than the head kind, so it lent itself to daily picking for salads or sandwiches or even a snack while standing in the sun, surveying the garden with satisfaction. The chicory, I discovered, really was bitter. It wasn’t just opinionated; it was vitriolic.

I went to the internet to find out more about it. Many sites agreed that it is very bitter indeed. This is to be expected, assured the sites. I was disappointed that I didn’t like it, as I imagine myself to be someone with very broad and adventurous tastes. One site suggested that chicory is sweeter when touched by frost. I decided to wait.

Meanwhile: the lettuce. By now, the region had heated up to the point that anyone who was not a gardener had forgotten how long and grim the spring had been. Gardeners could point to their stunted plants and miserable fruit and remember each and every day that the summer had been delayed. By that point, I had lost the habit of watering, as it had been superfluous for so long.

One day, I walked out to the garden and stopped in my tracks. The lettuce lay limp and defeated, flat against the earth. It was a scene of lettuce slaughter and I, through neglect, was the perpetrator. I hadn’t watered enough. The chicory, however, was firm, upright, and unphased. At moments like this, gardening becomes more tinged with science than with aesthetics or historical interest or whatever other point of entry one has taken to the business of growing. The question was: why did the lettuce die but the chicory prosper? The answer, I discovered, was deep roots. Chicory is not a surface dweller.

Following this episode, I hunkered down to wait for the frost, occasionally nibbling a leaf, hoping each time to convince myself I liked it. The frost, when it came, came hard. My chicory was not kissed by frost, but ravaged by it. The chicory was crushed almost as completely as its companion lettuce had been.

One lone chicory survived. I left it. It remains in the same bed still, the last soldier standing as a new season begins. I don’t want to eat it but I’d be the last to kill it. Deep rooted and bitter, it has endured. Perhaps it too is uptight, purse-lipped, and angst-ridden. The lettuce, Francesca-like in its easy pleasures, swooned the moment outside support waned; not so for me and that chicory. We are both demonstrably productive … and dug in for the long haul.