Monday, September 21, 2009

Recipes (4): Making Pizza with Lucia

In appreciation of the work of

One Monday in mid-June of 1996 I took the train from Milan to Vicenza and found my way to the street address printed on the call-up card I had received just a few days earlier. A little surprised to discover that it was an ordinary looking residence, not the office or hospital building I expected, I rang the bell. A tall fellow in his mid-forties opened the door, looked at me for a few moments and declared, with perfect deadpan delivery:
"You must be Franz Kafka."
And thus began my year of forced employment in the mental health sector.

I look back on it with fondness now, but the beginnings were difficult. Being suddenly drafted into such work - in the time-honoured and very deliberate fashion that the Italian army had of finding a placement for conscientious objectors at the last minute and with no forewarning, let alone training - was a little traumatic. Also, initially I had nowhere to stay but the house itself: I was the first objector in the history of that particular placement who came from out of town, and there was no other accommodation. The residents - half a dozen adult males, mostly schizophrenic - had but a vague concept of personal boundaries or working schedules, and since there were no nurses on duty at night they figured that waking me up to attend to their needs would be okay. I wish I could tell you that I took this entirely in my stride.

There is nothing quite so unsettling as a mind that cannot be read, because it works differently. Isn't that where the stigma of madness comes from? But then you realise that for the mad person every other person on the planet is a source of ambiguity and confusion, and you find yourself unable to fathom just how unsettling and distressing that must feel, and the loneliness that it must bring. Coming to that realisation enabled me to get a grip on myself and a sense of just who it was who actually needed help; at the same time, having managed to persuade my superiors to find me a bed in a nearby office building made the working conditions a little saner, as it were. But I still didn't know what my job was. Formally I was a generic adjunct to the nurses on duty, with no specific tasks - which is just as well I suppose, seeing as I had no training. I spent time socialising with the guys, played cards with them quite a bit, helped one with his gardening, another with his job-seeking and his English, but it was hard to shake the feeling that I was the only one who actually benefited from the arrangement.

The inspiration for a more meaningful way to contribute came by way of food. At the house we got our meals delivered from the hospital kitchen, and it ranged from the acceptable to the barely edible, but for dinner - by which time I was mostly off duty - I had to rely on the mess-tins left earlier that day by the door of my office-cum-bedroom. These would sometimes contain actual foodstuffs, in the form of cold pasta or slices of roast beef with salad, but just as often it would be a cold lump of sauerkraut, or several hundred mushy peas, and went straight into the bin. At 2.5 Euro per day (no, it isn't a typo, just the pay of regular soldiers) I couldn't really afford to dine out, and I had no cooking facilities, so I had to smuggle leftovers from the house, if there were any. It was grim.

Except for Wednesdays, that is. Wednesdays were a whole different story.

My friend Marco and I had applied for the status of conscientious objectors on the same day, and received our call-up papers on the same week, eighteen months later, a matter of days before we would have had to have been declared free of any obligation. We were both placed out of town, which was rare and unfortunate enough, but at least we were in the same region, and the council of the small town where he worked had granted him use of a ludicrously large house. So I tweaked my timetable in order to finish early on Wednesday and we got to spend the evening together, which brightened up my week a whole lot. We decided (it was his idea, I think) that on each one of those nights we'd treat ourselves to a sumptuous meal. To be precise, we worked our way through a book of recipes by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, the author of the Pepe Carvalho novels. I still have it.

And thus some time in the winter came the idea of incorporating cooking into my work at the house. The hospital food was awful but the ingredients were fresh, so would they mind sending those to us instead? And if we wanted to depart from the set menu, we could dip into our modest fund for social activities.

Now if you’ve never cooked with schizophrenics, it’s an interesting experience, and I’m sure it has well-documented therapeutic value when organised by people who know what they are doing. We just gave it a crack, basically, and it seemed to work. There was no compulsion to participate, nor an excessively rigid schedule. The only rule was that we had to eat what we prepared, even if somebody (I’m looking at you, Paolo) had dumped half a bag of salt into the pot for the pasta. For some of the residents, who had expectations of being able to move out and live independently in the short term, there was practical value; for others it was an activity to be enjoyed if they felt up to it, and that reinforced the learning to take care of oneself that the more professional therapists were trying to foster. Plus we really did have quite a lot of fun, which has to be an end in and of itself.

In what is possibly the longest preamble in the history of this very preambley blog: that’s how I came to learn to make pizza, from one of the nurses. It’s reasonably uncommon for Italians to cook it at home, since it can be purchased so cheaply at a bakery or pizzeria, but we couldn’t really afford it at the house and besides it was a very good group activity: it took time, everybody could be given a job, it was physical, and didn’t require too much finesse. Also, while the preparation had some structure and drudgery to it, there was room to be creative with the toppings. It quickly became our favourite recipe.


This time last year I made the obvious point that cooking can be a way of transferring ancestral knowledge, of making somebody partake of your culture. My mother puts it more succinctly when she says that ‘food is love’, a maxim whose value has become clearer to me since becoming a parent, and discovering that cooking with the children can be an important part of the family conversation. But a new and altogether less predictable turn of events has recently put this idea into much sharper focus.

The year has been dominated for us by the discovery that our daughter is autistic. That constellation of behaviours of hers that seemed puzzling, difficult or upsetting, as well as those that suggested she may have special abilities and an uncommonly sharp mind, have been given a name, and a fraught one at that. We are fortunate to have been exposed, through friends and advocates and our son’s school, to other kids on the spectrum and their families, and that knowledge has taken some of the edge off the otherwise frightening label. Besides her being wonderful and a very smart cookie, there are lots of positives in the care that Lucia gets and can be expected to receive, giving us every hope that she will grow to be happy in who she is, and equipped to make her own way in the world.

But for the moment there remains that challenge of connecting with a mind that is different, the struggle to learn to speak the same language and to understand the world as she sees it, which can be a cause of mutual distress, for her and for us; and conversely, the joy in finding a way to get through, a space where we can be ourselves with each other, and talk, if not quite in ordinary words, and share the same experiences.

There is her territory, of music and words learned by rote, obeying her rules - the few songs that can be played or sung or danced to, the few books that she will allow us to read to her, the cartoons that she can bear to watch - and then there is the world of interactive play, of drawing or mucking about with water and containers, or the trips to the playground, all with their own carefully negotiated boundaries. But for me personally (her mother has more success with a broader range of things) there is nothing that I find more rewarding than cooking pizza with Lucia. It’s at those times that I feel that she’s stepping into my world, as opposed to the other way around, and that she is at her most receptive to what I have to say and show her. It’s the attentiveness that most kids will freely give, but that with her needs to be won, and is all the more precious.

So here’s what we do.

For the base: 500g (four cups) high grade flour, eight tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil, two teaspoons of salt, one teaspoon of sugar, 20g of fresh baker’s yeast, 275ml (1 1/4 cup) of lukewarm water.

The quantities have been refined over several years, so I have every confidence that if you follow them to the letter, you will have success. The first thing to do is to mix the yeast and sugar in the lukewarm water, and let it sit for a while. It’s at this time that Lucia will ask for a wee bit of yeast to taste on the side, and remark that ‘sugar is sweet’. Ten minutes or so later, when it’s had time to start fizzing, she will put her ear to it and delight at the sound. In the meantime you mix the flour and the salt in a bowl (‘salt is savoury’), add the oil, and add the yeast when it’s nice and lively.

Mixing the very liquid mess thus created is one of Lucia’s favourite parts, although she seems quite ginger in the picture. Once the dough has become dry enough to be handled, place it on a chopping board or other suitable surface and knead it, incorporating more flower if it’s still too sticky. But remember, you want to err on the side of soft and moist rather than dry and stodgy. This phase is the key to the whole preparation and should take you not less than ten minutes. Technique-wise, you want to use your palms as much as possible. Allow us to demonstrate.

Once this is done, you put the dough back in the bowl, cover with a cloth and let it rest in a dark place for an hour or until doubled in size. Lucia is going to insist that you check often. What you’re aiming for is to go from this

to this

Then you return the dough to the kneading surface and give it a good bash. Seriously, just pound it for half a minute or so, you want to get all the air out. Place it back in the bowl, cover with the cloth and leave in a cool dark place for another hour. While you wait, you can start working on your toppings.

Mix together in a bowl 300g of boiled peeled tomatoes (tinned is fine) a tablespoon of oregano, a pinch of salt, a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Slice or grate 250 grams of mozzarella and that’s your basic margherita topping ready to go. You’ll add to it as you see fit.

Once the dough has had time to rise again, it ought to be very elastic and easy to work into a disc or rectangle, depending on the size of your tray or dish. My preference is for a very thin base and I generally extract three standard rectangular oven trays from one dough, but if you’re not practised you can initially aim for two. Alternatively, the same base will give you one tray of focaccia (the procedure for that and some alternative toppings are here). Whatever you make, it needs to cook at the highest temperature that your oven will allow, preferably in no longer than fifteen minutes or it will start to burn at the edges before it’s had time to cook in the middle. That really depends on how good your oven is. Naturally, the cooking surface needs to be greased with olive oil, and the oven needs to be pre-heated (sorry, George).

That’s all there is to it, it’s nothing complicated although it requires a little application and some free time. Having to pay attention to and be explicitly aware of the learning opportunities that Lucia gets, I’d have to say there’s plenty that we can fit into that one activity: some manual skills, a sense of time and causation (she’s learning to watch the pizza cook through the glass door of the oven) and how ingredients are combined to form something quite different, the taste of each individual ingredient and how to attend to a complex procedure in which she is asked to verbalise each of the steps. But mostly what we get out of it is the time spent together, a time in which we are both happy.

Oh, and the pizza isn’t bad either.

I'm going back to Italy this week, so while I still plan to blog when I'm there, it might be slightly less teutonically punctual than usual. I apologise for any convenience that a lack of blogging might cause.