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Breathing the right air

Nothing brings more comfort than a bag of good things to cook, swinging under your arm as you make your way home. Somehow it blots out the rest of the world. In these moments, the entire universe consists of a late afternoon sun, a stray dog and a clump of flowers growing strange and wild in a yard. A hit of basil jumps from my elbows with each swing of the bag, a gift from one of the ladies I buy from the most. I visit markets without intention, just eyes open ready to discover fresh peas, or the first corn. Knowing that these products will disappear as quickly as they present themselves creates a certain form of excitement. Each season offers up this rhythm and without it I might become completely lost.

I think of when we were in Tuscany a month ago, feeling like such a tourist until I wandered out along the highway and found the local vegetable stand. I shoved squash blossoms and tiny tomatoes into a bag, rushing back to our room like I had robbed a bank. I made pasta with them th…

I believe in artichokes


Italy did ruin me. After that first trip I came back disgusted by bodega coffee, which now smelled of old socks. Before, it was just fine. I rolled my eyes at red sauce joints, detouring old standbys like a stranger. If eating can be seen as a religious or spiritual experience I had been to the mountain. In time I would return on pilgrimages, always holding the simple pleasures in my thoughts.  An artichoke, methodically fried in good olive oil, with some salt. Black truffles, good butter and fresh pasta twisting around the back of a fork. A very cold and tiny glass of porto bianco sipped in a Genoa bar, with my friend Federico. A man cleaning sardines on a block of wood in the street. A woman selling green figs that she wraps into a newspaper cone. I have thousands of these memories, these artifacts. But I live in Moscow, where there has been an embargo for years now, and there is no population that expects perfect mounds of fresh cheese. They ship powdered palm oil here, that gets combined with wood pulp, ultimately labelled as parmigiano and honestly, people could care less.

An Eataly store was supposed to open a few years ago, perched in a new high-rise next to a train station just 10 minutes from us. I stared up at those dark windows every time I passed it, imagining the empty tables inside, the quiet hush of stoves and cutting boards never used. I wrote it off as a loss, a missed opportunity.

Last week, it opened and somehow I was standing with E, scarfing down slices of pizza as they burned the roofs of our mouths and we did not care. There was a good dry white from Sicily, rolling around in my glass. I chewed on slices of porchetta, fennel and pork fat running around inside my head. I slide my finger through a puddle of olive oil and tasted it without even a scrap of bread. It was intense, peppery, almost bitter. I could taste the pits. E sipped a chinotto, her thoughts flying out, asking when we would come back, how many times a week we would eat here. We wandered the mammoth place, getting lost and turning back, eyeing the shelves, studying everything as if it would disappear just as easily as it arrived.

I let her have a cappuccino before we went home, too elated to explain to her how you should not have any coffee with milk in it after 11AM if you want to respect the culture. Outside, we stood in the warm night air, as trolley buses wobbled past us, as old women in black dresses sold overpriced bouquets of roses. It is always hard to transition here, from an oasis back to the desert, from the laughter inside our home to the stone cold faces in the street.

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