A friend said this to me over ten years ago, as I was settling into my just-leased apartment in Italy. No longer a carefree graduate student here for the short-term, but a resident, a bona fide ex-pat (oh how this tiresome word thrilled me back then with its ring of sophistication), I was about to enter a period rife with challenges, sacrifices, and vying cultural allegiances. Yes, I was living in the bel paese, in an extraordinary, little-known corner of Tuscany, an hour from Florence no less. But oceans now divided me from the people to whom I’d been closest. I was in love with a wonderful man I would build a future with. Yet the friends and family whose company and proximity I’d always taken for granted, those relationships would take a hit, naturally, as they accommodated the distance now between us. In my native land, I’d been an educated, employable young woman on the threshold of a bright, opportunity-laden future. Moving to Italy, I downgraded to a penniless illegal immigrant whose education and training had almost no direct applicability. The gratifying career in the field of my choice, I’d have to abandon. I’d need to start everything over, from bank accounts and bedroom furniture to re-establishing a social life, finding work, casting off my clandestina status. For many of those early years it seemed every minor success I achieved in my adoptive country necessitated a number of setbacks. This tough, perplexing, sometimes sorrowful time was not without its joys, however. On the contrary. It was also thrilling, full of first-time experiences with food, art, travel, new friends, and a new lifestyle I would soon come to cherish. Although it would take several mellowing seasons for me to appreciate my friend’s prophetic remark, I now know no word more aptly sums up my initiation into Italian life than bittersweet.
It still applies today. The challenges of foreignness do not go away, though they do lessen. As I’ve adapted to my new home, what was once an acute pain has dulled to a tolerable, albeit constant, ache. Almost daily are the longings for what I cannot have (physical closeness to family; ready-made buttermilk; reliable high-speed internet); and just as frequent are discoveries of new things to dislike, given Italy’s apparently infinite supply of folly. While to some extent a sense of being locked in an eternal arm-wrestling match with Italy will forever characterize our relationship, a few years ago, I yielded. I’d hit a wall: shall I keep thrashing about, wasting energy in a fight I cannot win? Or cease, gracefully surrender? Although it feels like defeat initially, accepting that the enigmas permeating this society will never be unraveled, not by me, is really a liberation. I have learned to live with ambiguity, to see how imagined a notion is exactness, and to let go of the illusion that clear-cut, universally-right ways of doing things exist in the world. This process, fundamental to adapting to a foreign culture, has also influenced the kind of cook and food enthusiast I have become.
My cooking style is due equally to improvisation—to the accidental triumphs and fortuitous results of substituting and side-stepping—as it is to reading cookbooks and food blogs, taking classes, or watching programs. Broadly speaking, Italy has provided the setting in which an aspiring cook need only observe and practice to thrive, yet along this promising road are endless detours, and some rather frustrating roadblocks. And here’s where my cultural adjustment came into play. Much of what we view as Italian flair is rooted in the Italians’ manner of dealing with problems. Delays, arcane procedures, lack of a resource—when faced with any such problem, Italians do not as a rule look to solving the problem directly. No, no—the problem itself quickly becomes irrelevant. It is the work-around that matters, the act of out-maneuvering forces that would have you waste your time, be made a fool of, submit, or suffer. In Italy we call this l’arte d’arrangiarsi, sometimes translated as ‘the art of getting along’. And it is indeed an arte—a craft, a skill, a special knowledge—as developing the work-around invariably results in the forging of something entirely new, some innovation or novel perspective. Their long experience with an infamously knotty bureaucratic system accounts a good deal for Italians’ reliance on l’arte d’arrangiarsi, but the practice extends beyond the realm of officialdom. In my own kitchen, I not only employ the arte, when a needed ingredient is not readily available in Italy, for instance; I also sometimes discover, and create, an entirely new dish as a result of this act of ‘getting along’.
Here at The Bittersweet Gourmet you’ll find examples of these chance creations alongside traditional recipes: Italian, with an emphasis on Tuscan cooking; French, mostly focusing on the foods and traditions of Provence; and American cuisine (we have one!), classic, wonderful recipes that with each passing year taste more and more of home. I follow many chefs, great and small, local and afar, and I enjoy sharing my interpretations and—you’ll forgive my boldness—the odd improvement on the works of others. As the subtitle of this blog suggests, my achievements in the kitchen range from sublime to calamitous. I’m not above sharing those, too, the mishaps. They are instructive indeed. I occasionally write on food-related issues of interest to me and my experience of food when I travel. These writings are found in the section Food Thoughts.
It’s my hope that through The Bittersweet Gourmet my love of cooking and my fascination with foodways and food histories will inspire others and foster a dialogue among amateur, passionate cooks like myself. I welcome questions and recipe sharing at amygulick71 [at] gmail [dot] com.
1. both bitter and sweet to the taste; sweet with a bitter aftertaste
2. an emotional state comprised of feeling happy and sad simultaneously
3. pleasant and painful or regretful