The impenetrably thick mist was implacably bearing down on the Venetian plain like a giant’s foot. All the impoverished peasants toiling hard for the absentee landlords rushed to their huts. An elderly couple that usually lamented their miserable life had an unusual treat that night. The man brought two potatoes from the field and his wife prepared dumplings. In the sturdy cast iron cooking pot over the small fire they cooked them for a few minutes. Once they popped up to the water’s surface, they picked them up to serve on plates.
The couple smiled at each other and humbly sat on the table lit with a skinny candle. The wife had divided the dish in two equal portions of five dumplings for each one. They put a days’ old piece of rye bread and some leftover Christmas red wine on the table; it was December 29, a few days after the only festivity they could afford to celebrate. At the precise moment when they were about to take a bite, they heard a knock on the door. Initially fearful that it could be a thief or something worse, they were totally paralyzed. There was a second round of knocking, harder than the first one. The old man got up.
When he opened the door, a sudden rush of freezing blizzard hit his face, blinding him. Once he recovered, he saw a tall bearded man, covered in rags but holding a big sword. -“My whole party drowned in a surging river,” he said.”Can I come in to get warm?” The old man spontaneously extended his hand and led the stranger inside, by the fire. The devout wife quickly re-arranged the meal and put six dumplings on a third plate. They sat down in total silence to share a meager meal with some energizing drink.
Once they finished the meal, the stranger asked to lay down by the fire. The homemaker set an old rug and pillow to make his sleep more comforting. When he took off the cloak to use it as a blanket, he briefly exposed a big red cross on top of his mesh metallic dress. With the ingrained submissiveness of the serfs for authority , they cast their eyes down. The old man and his wife huddled in the opposite corner of the room and fell asleep.
At dawn, the old man got up to start his workday and noticed that the stranger was gone. Relieved that the stranger could not harm them, they carried on with their tough duties. A few days later the old man saw a posse of chevaliers in full regalia and flying colors. When the group approached the peasant, one of them came forth and dismounted. With a clean shaven face and luxurious garments, the stunned peasant did not recognize him. -“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “I’m the one you gave refuge to that stormy winter night.”
The seigneur that owned all the land as far as the eye could see, was indebted to him. Returning form a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, his party was decimated and he got lost. Only the generous intervention of the peasant couple had barely saved his life that day. As a sign of gratitude, he released them from their indenture and gave them a plot. The old couple henceforth prospered and could finally help their children.
The significance of that folk tale has been transmitted to generations of Italians in the form of a tradition that does not go away: on the day 29 we eat potato gnocchi for luck. Our mothers and grandmothers put a coin under our plates and serve us that treat. In turn we relay the same tradition to our children, as we did last Sunday at our home. Being Italian, like being Hindu, implies sharing a great culture and not just a nationhood; our allegiance is not tied to a geographical area but to a communal sense of identity. Our family members had a limited command of the language, but we all breathed “Italian.” Safeguarding our heritage, we know where we came from and where we are going.
The featured image shows our original fusion dish that we had presumptuously labeled as Ottoman style-potato gnocchi because it mixes pasta, vegetables, figs and species; the latter included the Oregano, Turmeric and Moringa, which we will discuss in Wellness. We believe that the so-called traditional Italian cooking sorely needs a make-over to add veggies and fruits, avoiding the dire excess of acidic preparations, cream and cheese. There is nothing “sacred” about splurging on tomato sauce that provokes gastric acidity or milk products that raise your cholesterol level to the stratosphere. Not untouchable.
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Don’t leave me alone.