Clara Sereni

Shortly after it was published, Clara Sereni’s pioneering autobiography in recipes Keeping House (La Casalinghitudine) became a cult for Italian women of the eighties and nineties. The term, which alludes to the condition of women in their domestic realm has since then been absorbed into the Italian language. Sereni’s depiction of homemaking as a space for reinventing the self, reflects the post 1970’s desire for turning the focus back toward the individual after years of searching for the communal experience. Through the intimate and overlooked practice of caring such as cooking and home making, the author weaves recipes into a personal narrative and turns them into bridges from where to question the relation between the personal and the collective. From the political group activities to family relations, the space of domesticity is turned into a laboratory, where the reality of the self and the other are negotiated under one the most essential human needs: food. 

Sereni’s childhood is marked by the mother’s death and the warmth of a Jewish aunt whose goal was to pass all necessary knowledge to make young Sereni into a person of genius. Her father, a former member of the Resistance and an important figure in the Italian communist party from 1946 to 1975 is a far more distant presence, one from whom she will strive to receive recognition. The lack of approval and the constant conflict with her father signal the beginning of an evaluation on the contradictions that shape our relation to others. 

The following excerpts “Crostini with Liver,” “Pasta e Fagioli,” “Zucchini Soup,” and “Tuna Loaf “are examples of Sereni’s reflection on the failures of feminism—its severance with ideals of motherhood and family—and on those of the student movement, who in its strife for change, had ended adopting the same patriarchal structures it had intended to denounce. 

A peasant dish “Pasta e Fagioli” is transformed into a “manifesto” of identity, into a choice of living a life of fewer means, carefully settled within the sphere of every day’s micro events equally present within the macro events of history. They represent a direct response to the monolithic, masculine group, and to the author’s struggle to balance her active political life with her life as a mother. Her rejection of a petit bourgeois and consumerist life, symbolized by the processed foods and heavy sauces used by the mother in law, are moments for negotiation, and a commitment to reforming the feminine model that for too long had been in crisis. 

Sereni turns a seemingly uneventful, ordinary dinner into a moment of political consciousness and in doing so proves that everything indeed is political.

CROSTINI WITH LIVER 

12 oz. chicken livers and other  giblets
1 small onion
1 handful  of salted capers,  well rinsed
4 juniper  berries
1 T. flour
1 T. tomato paste
1 T. anchovy  paste
1/4 cup wine
1/4 cup vinegar oil
salt
homemade bread

I brown a finely chopped onion with the liver in the oil. After ten minutes, I add the capers and the juniper berries and cook for another minute or two, then  remove  from  the heat and pass it through a sieve with large holes in order to obtain a rather grainy purée. I return the purée to the skillet, add the flour, wine, vinegar, anchovy paste, tomato paste, and later a little water  or broth and let it cook for another fifteen minutes.

It should be spread while very hot on slices of homemade bread. In Cetona they were first dipped in broth, but I prefer them oven crisp.      

When the two couples, Massimo and I and Lucio and Marta, chose to vacation together in Cetona, the cast-iron  unity  of the group was challenged, something that had never been done openly.

At the time, Marta and Lucio were on the fringe of what constituted the “hard core” of the group: this, as well as their self-indulgence for beautiful things, comforts, pleasures, drew them closer to me.

The heart of the group was Aldo. The unrest of the Trento experience  was over, but it was in Trento that Aldo had learned how to do politics as well as other things. He learned that workers looked with suspicion at parkas, and so he sported  a little gray overcoat, while his slacks, a bit too short,  showed his overwashed socks with their loosened elastic. He also learned that Sit-Siemens’ workers ate large  quantities of overcooked and badly  seasoned pasta, which now placated some of his anxieties and hunger, and that the oppressive  grayness  of the  factory  could  be broken  by flowers on the windows of the Porto  Marghera workers’ dorms. He religiously grew a red,  healthy  geranium, the only colorful note in his otherwise austere and faded house. He made sharp judgments about everybody, himself included, driven by his desire for an abstract yet deeply felt sense of morality. Incapable of living in a gray area, he wavered between a noncritical enthusiasm for my sense of autonomy and a barely concealed  disdain for my grandmother’s silver samovar.

The others in the group adapted differently to his dictates with varying levels of discomfort.

In Cetona we rented a small house because I feared invasions by both the group and Massimo’s family.

Marta was beautiful, elegant, full of vitality. Next to her Lucio looked like a bloodless wren whose power inside their relationship came to him from his political past (he had been a national party executive and Marta a little “red guard”) and from a rigorous, militant culture. Marta was hesitant  and unsure, her voice acquiring definition only when she was talking about her work as a teacher. Like many relationships, theirs was not an easy one.

We spent three weeks sleeping like logs, playing cards, reading, exploring the surrounding area, and experimenting in the kitchen. In the nearby Belvedere restaurant, among Disneyland-style reproductions of prehistoric monsters, trees, and  animals, we had discovered Tuscan crostini, whose taste we tried to reproduce several times by adjusting the seasoning a little here and a little there.

Toward the end of the vacation we felt just a little bored, and we had reached an almost perfect harmony among the four of us. In the kitchen, whose  exterior wall was  covered with caper bushes, the crock was steaming,  full of creamed chicken livers. It was raining and we had already gone on many excursions, so the plan for the day was to eat as many crostini as we wanted, accompanied by a bottle of good wine, already open: red wine of course, to warm up a precocious autumn. Framed by the window  overlooking the valley below, the rain, like a curtain, shaded the gentle lines of the Tuscan  hills. Being inside gave us a feeling of laziness and wellbeing.

Under the pouring rain a figure stood still on the street corner, hesitant and alarming, his arms dripping along his sides. 

We heard the doorbell. In the doorway stood Aldo, drenched and shivering: we couldn’t help but love him and make room for him among us.

With the first flash of his eyes, the affection of the first hug quickly disappeared. He dried his hair and was already aggressive. Massimo and Lucio immediately tuned to the latest political events, Marta and I kept stirring and protecting our cooking pot.

We sat down at the table. Still talking, he said he was not hungry and dismissed with  poisonous irony the brand of our good wine. His refusal was weighing on us, as if we were wasting time. We didn’t eat much either, sucked in by his logic, feeling already ashamed of our little  home in the village compared to his tent pitched  among  the rocks and vipers of the mountain.

The nearly full pot sat at the center of the table. We were discussing politics when we should have been talking about ourselves.

Absentmindedly, Aldo took a slice of bread and with a knife covered it with the liver pâté, and proceeded to eat an enormous quantity of it.

*          *         *

PASTA E FAGIOLO (PASTA WITH BEANS) 

2 cans pinto  beans
2 oz. bacon
1 medium  onion
1 t. tomato paste
1 1/2 cups water
6 oz. spaghetti, broken  up 

I sauté  the chopped onion  and  bacon. When the onion becomes golden I add the beans along with their liquid, the tomato paste, a pinch of salt. I let it simmer for about  ten minutes, I add the water and bring it to a boil. Add the pasta, and let it boil on a high flame for two or three minutes. At this point, I remove it from the stove, and allow it to finish cooking in the hot pan.

It was summertime, time for separations and absences. My ear ached, and so did my soul: probably the man I was in love with and on whom I blamed all my unhappiness (a gesture I sometimes acknowledge as unfair), the man of a thousand commitments had cancelled a date with me. Maybe it was for dinner together—first the  cafeteria, then his overflowing ashtrays, and my unvoiced desire to uncork a certain bottle of Cordon Rouge, the only occupant of my deserted refrigerator.

I cradled my ear in my pillow, a little dazed, my head throbbing. Enrico came over; he was my best friend. He was there when I had a fever, when robbers broke down my door, and when it looked  like I might be going to England for an abortion.

Enrico sat next to me on the big brass bed that squeaked at every movement while my ear rested on the pillow. As the pain in my soul diminished, it was gradually  replaced, first by a light appetite, then by hunger.

“I feel like pasta e fagioli,” I said, “But just like they make it in the country, with the beans dissolving into a thick soup, cold, with broken-up spaghetti  in it...”

That dream of pasta e fagioli began to dance before our eyes almost  tangibly. We tried to think where we might be able to eat such a dish, but we couldn’t think of any place—restaurant or trattoria, in Rome or outside—that would guarantee fulfillment of our fantasy.

With Enrico I could take  risks—with everything but love—and so I gave it a try.

The only bean soup that I had ever seen being made was the one my father liked: cannellini beans boiled in water with a garlic clove and a little oil, the rice cooked  separately and added at the end. I detested it with good reason, I think. So I consulted Enrico, who had more wholesome family traditions. I relied in part on my culinary instinct and, above all, I made do with what I had in the house.

The smell of the sauté permeated the rooms, the dream was taking form. Then we had to wait for the beans to start breaking apart before putting in the  pasta, which was  still very al dente when we put the soup in the bowls to let it rest.

This was the most difficult moment because I hadn’t even eaten lunch, and because trying to make a dream come true is always dangerous.

We were seated face to face at the light blue table, with the beans in the center—delicious—feeling our togetherness and the assurance of that distant complicity we had always shared.

What revenge on my  father’s white beans, and on my brother-in-law, who had warned me when I left home: “Go ahead, go live by yourself: you don’t know what it means to live on pasta e fagioli.”

Beans became my banner; I have prepared them for dinners, suppers, picnics, boasting about their protein contents and the healthful nutrition of the pioneers of the American west.

Time has made me more thrifty, Tommaso and health fads have made me more careful about nutrition: from canned beans I have moved on to use dried beans, soaked the day before; organizing and planning ahead are more important now than improvising.

The far west—fascination and fear, risk and adventure—is really far away now. 

SEVEN  GRAIN  SOUP 

4 medium  onions 
1 handful  each of:
red beans
black beans
lentils
garbanzos
soy
beans
wheat
pearl
barley
spelt
18 oz. mixed vegetables for minestrone
1 T. tomato paste oil
salt      

*          *         *

ZUCCHINI  SOUP 

1 lb. zucchini
1 lb. onions
1 lb. San Marzano tomatoes
1 egg
2 T. Parmesan  cheese
2 T. Romano cheese oil
salt
homemade bread 

I cook the sliced onions, the tomatoes sliced into quarters, and the zucchini  (cut into large matchsticks) in the oil over high heat for about  twenty minutes. When the vegetables are cooked but not overdone,  I add two cups of water and the salt. I bring the mixture to a boil for two  or three  minutes, then add the egg yolk beaten with  the  Parmesan  and  Romano cheeses. I then pour the piping hot soup over slices of homemade bread, preferably  toasted. 

Of Massimo’s mother I knew the courteous telephone manners, of his father I had heard occasional stories about his unsophisticated bursts of anger, mingled with infantile destructiveness. At Christmas time Massimo had surprised me with an enormous slice of the cassata that concluded the family dinner: the initiative was not his, but his mother’s. But after all, I had helped him wrap his gifts, and my crepe paper folded into a flower or candy  wrapper shape had made a mark in their routine. I had no particular desire or  interest  in becoming closer to them, but at a certain point  it became necessary. There came an invitation to dinner: their embarrassment and mine, the house sparkling, plates and glasses carefully lined up, the silver not set according to etiquette. Egg noodles, sauces, heavy cream, peas and mushrooms, much meat, many side dishes. I observed dispassionately, unconsciously  bothered by the petit-bourgeois habits that for the first time were revealing themselves to me, from the vantage point of my Luisa Spagnoli clothes, albeit sale items, and the social privileges I possessed of which I was completely unaware. The one thing that struck me was Massimo’s father’s great desire to talk about the Comintern.

Relations with the family intensified as Massimo and I progressed from cohabitants to married couple, then to parents. The dinners intensified as well: always  grand-occasion meals. Even when we dropped in unexpectedly, Massimo’s mother would extract from her freezer roasts, ricotta rolls to be heated in the oven with meat sauce, eggplant Parmesan, desserts.

There was strong-arming over  Massimo, who was the disputed ground. I feared he would be sucked back into the family, into the dependency, into the delicacies, into the perfectly ironed shirts that never had buttons missing.

She frightened me, but  more often she made me furious: because we are too alike, always on the lookout to leave our personal mark on everything  concerning  our  home,  our family, our world. She was the favorite aunt of all her nieces and nephews, an accomplished seamstress, cook, and  homemaker. Mother. On a dress that only needs a hem, she takes it in, lets it out, adds a dart or removes it, modifies the cuff or the neck, she makes it her own. I do the same with my embroidered sweaters (always with  some imperfections because I make them up and don’t copy a pattern: I can reconstruct a flavor,  not  copy a recipe), the way I arrange flowers, wrap a gift, or make a papier-maché doll for Tommaso’s birthday. For now I am not as heavy-handed as she is, but in twenty  years we’ll see.

The “home-makerness” that I keep under control  inside of me, relegating it to a circumscribed area of reason, in her becomes bold, aggressive, chaotic, resourceful, pervasive. The apparent irrationality that always causes her to turn the entire kitchen upside down, even for the simplest things—buttered pasta and cutlet, for example—answers to an iron-clad logic, to a making herself busy and needed that resounds threateningly inside of me.

We have made very few compromises with each other. 

We came dangerously close to the breaking point several times when we were together, vacationing for a month in the house in Posticciola, her house, built with her energy and her resourcefulness, where everything measures up to standards that I do not share.

Starting with food: there is a fireplace, but the food is never cooked on the coals, but  overcooked, reused, redressed, recycled. They linger too long at the table, they eat too much, they worry too much about food. And always pasta, and sauces, and condiments, a cuisine too rich in fats and in proteins that around the time of Tommaso’s  birth began to cause Massimo health  problems.

The more I revealed myself to be foreign and intolerant to all this, the more she tried to lure me in with heavy cream and processed cheese. She had envisioned that house  as the hearth where the family could regroup, and I pulled away, outside, planting ivy that without a doubt would attract animals inside, fertilizing the rocks, furiously splitting wood, defiantly taking walks, picking wild asparagus, looking for coffee not brewed at home.

(But she too, who should not have been bending down because of her health, would go out in the fields to gather chicory after she finished her chores, her poor excuse that  it was “to save money” ready, as she almost sneaked out of the house. Whenever she has fun, her husband reminds her constantly of everything that according to him might be bad for her.)

When I had an offer to work at a convention in Sardinia I accepted immediately. During that summer, when Tommaso was nine months old, everyone’s anxiety over a child who refused to grow was added onto the usual aggravations of Posticciola. Increasingly irritated, grounded in a vision of the world that was still high-spirited and   arrogant, I had difficulty curbing my mother-in-law’s campaigns, directed  in particular at dressing my son “like a little man” and at preventing  him from masturbating. So she took cover in  the  careful  search for foods that  would ensure a more peaceful sleep for Tommaso, while I tenaciously recorded  his continual waking-up as one of the unfortunate—but not  unusual—events of life. I would exhaust and calm myself in the children’s songs that I would make up for him, singing  to quiet  us both down  and  to keep myself awake:  “. . . this linden tea with just some honey/slides right down into your tummy/go to sleep my little one/white and red and curly one.”

So I left happily,  taking the bus to Rome and then an airplane, to  make  myself feel important, independent, free. This was the confirmation of the value of my work, of the financial contribution that derived from it, of the role outside  of motherhood that it bestowed  on me.

Massimo called me in the evening at the hotel. While we talked my eyes scanned the double bed that was all for me, and the bathroom things, all for me as well. There were no diapers, no plastic  pants, no diaper ointment. Posticciola was far away, the tales that  Massimo  told  me of Tommaso’s days were also pleasantly far away: the meals, the sleeping, the smiles.

On the last day, from the loudspeaker of the convention center I was paged for an urgent call. On the  phone, Massimo, excited and proud:

“Tommaso just cut his first tooth.”

I left in Cagliari my  last—perhaps  pernicious—illusions of being able to do without the umbilical cord that ties me to my son. Even though Tommaso may be born into  the  world, I will always find it impossible to deliver him completely  from me.

While I emptied my suitcase my mother-in-law smiled at me uncertainly, halfway  between relief and distress: I had stepped down from my pedestal, but she did not gloat.

She came down from her pedestal too, for her actions are never casual: for lunch she recycled dry bread in her mother’s soup, the poor, simple soup of the town where  she was born, revealing for the first time a glimpse of the roots that until that moment  she kept hiding underneath heavy  cream, processed cheese, sauces, condiments.

*          *         *

TUNA AND POTATO LOAF

1 1/2 cups tuna  in oil
1 1/2 cups cooked  potatoes
1 garlic clove, finely sliced
2 T. chopped  parsley
1 cup mayonnaise for dressing 

I combine the ingredients, which I wrap together sausage-like in a cloth napkin  tied at the two ends. I let it cook in salted, boiling water for one hour, then drain it and let cool putting a small weight on the top (the small board used to crush herbs and spices, or a toy iron). I serve the dish with mayonnaise and salted capers.

By Christmas time Massimo and I had been living together  for a while. Therefore, the fact that he disappeared for three days struck me as something inexplicable. But I still had my habits  of independence: I had dinner with my family and otherwise managed well enough.

The following year, our relationship was official: his parents didn’t know how to introduce me, (“Massimo’s fiancé’’ didn’t sound good to them either, and I found it intolerable). Anyhow, I was invited.

It was a shock for me, and I immediately christened it “the three-day  marathon”: an endless period of time spent eating, playing cards, then eating again, playing cards, without end, almost without sleeping, from the big Christmas eve supper through the entire night of Saint Stephen (the day after Christmas).

They all seemed crazy to me: brothers, cousins, uncles, nephews, and nieces smothered under the same roof, a patriarchal rite that exposed old wounds and recent ill-feelings.

My  intolerance grew with the passing years: there were always more of us (reluctantly, I put myself in that  number), and the menu was staunchly identical from one year to the next. My mother-in-law would not modify her fried food platters, whose quality decreased with every reappearance, stone cold, at every meal, and even between card games.

Same place, same people, same menu: I am not used to rituals, and that one seemed to me devoid  of any function. Family life (the warm and embracing kind that I never had, that somehow I had both envied and escaped) was reproposed to me in all its suffocating fierceness, its roles branded with fire on each member’s skin; the parents  were the repositories of power even when their children were past thirty. Massimo was always and ultimately a son and nothing more. Where did we stand as individuals?

I kept myself on the margins, I willed myself outside, concerned to preserve my identity from that magma where my contours and physiognomy would have melted away. They respected me; I doubted they could love me.

On Christmas morning I was still going to my parents’ house for presents and dinner; I found the frigid atmosphere invigorating and relaxing compared to what was awaiting me at the other house. I thought that my family, unlike the other one, had left me free to stand on my own two feet.

There was one Christmas without the patriarch; Massimo’s father was hospitalized. Even I missed his authority: a man proud of his strength, like all the others of his species. I was beginning, however, to appreciate his generosity, his becoming upset at the weakness of others. Little by little the shapeless mass that was his family began  to take form. I began to see, for instance, that my mother-in-law’s busyness in the kitchen was an attempt to resist the destructive and vulgar encroaching of couples too  caught up in their neurotic and immoral privacy. 

But I tenaciously refused assimilation. I tried to beat them by moving the “three day marathon” to my house for once; they let me do it, confident of their strength. They even consented to the addition of my tuna loaf to their firmly  established menu. My mother-in-law rearranged all my pots, silverware, and dishes, and in order to find anything I had to ask her.

I realized that they were starting to love me, to consider me one of them: but their affection was too invasive, too warm, too protective, and I clung for dear life to my being strong and independent, intellectual and atheist. Different.

Little by little, with some effort, along the way, I came to understand their reasoning. For their chain of solidarity and affection is not so different from that interest in the world which made me reject family and life as a couple, only to realize later that even these are part of it. In order for the foliage to burst open it is not necessary to cut off trunk and roots.

They were right. I know it from my son Tommaso, for whom the “three-day Christmas marathon” is the greatest  event of the year, full of warmth in spite of disagreements  and consumerism. I know it for myself, because when the patriarch’s illnesses threatened the ritual, I began taking charge of the big Christmas Eve supper. With my tuna  loaf, naturally, but also with the fried food, and with all the other nonnegotiable dishes of the unmodifiable menu.

Clara Sereni and was born in Rome in 1946 and lives in Perugia. After her first novel Sigma Epsilon in 1974, an autobiographical revisiting of the 1968 Italian political climate, she dedicated herself to translating the works of Stendhal, Balzac, and Madame de Lafayette among others. The publication of La Casalinghitudine in 1987 marks the beginning of a prolific writing career: Manicomio Primavera (Spring Madhouse) in 1989, Gioco dei regni (The Play of Kingdoms), in 1993, Eppure (However), in 1995, Taccuino di un’ultimista (An Ultimist Notebook) in 1998, Da un grigio all’altro (From One Grey to the Other) in 1998, Passami il sale (Pass the Salt) in 2002, Le Merendanze (Snackers) in 2004, and Il lupo mercante (The Merchant Wolf) in 2007. Sereni has alternated her writing to her political engagement as a Deputy Mayor of Perugia. She has been actively involved in social reforms particularly related to the mentally and physically disabled and her latest book describes the difficult, painful and deeply enriching experience of working at the service of the unprivileged and underrepresented.

 

Keeping House: A Novel in Recipes by Clara Sereni, is excerpted with the permission of the State University of New York Press ©2005, State University of New York.  All rights reserved.

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