What I Really Learned at Lella's "Eating School"

In celebration of tomato season and the end of summer, I wrote this story about one afternoon in Siena, Italy when standing in Lella's kitchen, I finally learned what it means to eat. What transformative experiences have you had with food as a form of art? I'd love to hear! Please comment below.

 

Fifteen of us squeezed around Lella’s enormous table and watched as she dug a well in the center of a mound of flour and cracked six eggs into it. She drizzled water in after the eggs and talked in rapid Italian as her hands mixed and then kneaded the dough into a golden globe.

“Amalgamare le uova con la farina…piano, piano…,” she said. “Quindi…Se l’impasto risultasse troppo duro…aggiungere un po’ di acqua tiepida.”

Lella handed us each a small round of raw pasta and then demonstrated how to roll the dough between two hands to make a long, uneven worm. We set to work, and soon, long strands rested on wax paper all over the table. We were making pici, a thick spaghetti, native to the province of Siena in Tuscany.

In a frying pan made for a giant, Lella heated garlic and basil and a big drizzle of olive oil as she instructed us: “In un tegame, con poco olio, soffrigere l’aglio ed il basilico.” She tossed in cut-up stale bread and stirred until the bread absorbed everything. Then she added skinned tomatoes and broth, more oil and basil.

An intensely fragrant steam wafted into my nostrils. My mouth watered. My stomach gurgled. I still wasn’t used to the Italian schedule of meals. How could anyone go from lunch to a late dinner without a snack? By 5:00 p.m. I was starving, which was the state I arrived in with my husband, nine-year-old daughter, and twelve other students at Lella’s Cooking School—La Scuola di Cucina di Lella Cesari Ciampoli.

We had moved to Siena for a five-month stint to chaperone twenty-five students on a semester abroad from the college where my husband teaches. This was the first of two cooking classes at Lella’s school that were part of our cultural study. 

Lella passed around a ceramic pitcher of red wine, and we each poured ourselves a little in paper cups, and then she dolloped minuscule servings of the thick soup she’d made from tomatoes and bread. I could have eaten the whole panful.

I recognized this soup as the kind we’d eaten our first night in Italy, only better. Pappa col Pomodoro, with its sweet tomato, warm garlic, and soaked bread, must be Italian comfort food. It filled the emptiness in me and left me wanting more.

As a kid, I always wanted more. Seconds. Thirds. I ate until it hurt. That’s how I knew when to stop. Eat until you can’t anymore. Except in my calmest moments now, as an adult, I still often eat a little too much, even when I know I’m full.

After the soup, Lella made tomato sauce for the pasta with more skinned tomatoes and oil, and we boiled the pici. She tossed the golden filaments with the deep red sauce, and she gave us each a doll-size serving. I spied on the silent chewers around the table and back to Lella’s empty pan. No seconds tonight.

But what if my nine-year old wanted more? I wanted to have something to give her. So, I mustered every milligram of will I had, picked at my pici, lifted the strands singularly to my mouth, and chewed thoughtfully. The uneven strands had a satisfying bite and were a perfect complement to the fragrant and flavorful sauce.

For dessert, Lella unwrapped a refrigerated ball of dough she called l’impasto and showed us how to roll it and cut it into diamond shapes. She poured a boatload of oil into another big pan, and we deep-fried the strips until they were crispy and brown.

“Scolare bene e zuccherare subito,” she said as she rested the strips on paper towels and sprinkled them with powdered sugar. We passed the warm, vanilla-scented ‘cenci’—which means rags—around the table. I bit into one, stopped, bit again, enjoyed its crackle on my teeth, let the powdered sweetness dissolve on my tongue. I swallowed. Something shifted inside me. An hour ago, I would have yearned to devour a hundred of these cookies, but now experiencing just one seemed enough.

In the months that followed, I saw cenci in almost every bakery we visited in Siena, but none tasted as good as these, fresh from Lella’s pan.

As our cooking lesson ended and we gathered our backpacks and coats, I realized, amazed that even though I’d felt starved most of the night, praying to Lella’s pan for more, which never materialized, I wasn’t hungry anymore.

I’d always thought it’s better to be a little stuffed than a little hungry. If one bite is good, three bites will be better. Left to my own devices, I would have eaten two bowls of soup and pasta until my stomach hurt, and then crammed in the crispy cenci on top of that. But Lella’s Lilliputian servings and the pace of the cooking class had forced me to eat slowly and a lot less than I usually did. And there was something else.

Lella’s pan was big enough to lean half your body over, so you could infuse your whole being in the simmering fruit of the earth. This wasn’t cooking just to eat. This was cooking as a way to contact the world, stand in the dirt, feel the rain, ingest the sun.

I’d never known eating like this. This was eating to experience color, scent, texture, crunch. This was eating as a way to feel more, not less.

I didn’t need to eat too much to know I was full. As we shut the door of Lella’s kitchen, I had to admit: I was satisfied. Not stuffed. But complete.

Photo by Michael Broide