Ciao'd while watching Ivanka give her dad a mammoth shout-out.
Can food ignite memory? During the painfully infrequent visits to my dad (but that’s a story for another day), I contemplate him in his dementia-swathed solitude. I wonder what goes on in his brain. Is it a sunny place with clear visibility to the memories that enriched his life and that he is now keeping secret from us? Or is it a snowy landscape with flickering images that occupy his time to discern?
I don’t know. I have only surface knowledge of what goes on in the Alzheimer’s brain. Truthfully, I don’t want to know. Usually, I am a person who happily dives into the research rabbit hole, but I am afraid that greater knowledge will make me sadder, and I won’t climb back out. Why else have I not read Being Mortal? It’s been on my nightstand for two years.
They say that as we grow older, our essence amplifies. The glass half full overflows. The glass half empty drains. My dad, even as he exists under a buttermilk sky, smiles and laughs, occasionally winks at an absurdity, surprises us with phrases like “Well, aren’t you beautiful girls,” and eats with gusto.
I am a natural “make things better” person, but I am helpless against a cunning foe like Alzheimer’s. I wonder if I can evoke memories if I cook for him. Years back when my dad was able to travel from Connecticut to California, he and my mom conjured opportunities and obligations to visit us. An impromptu winter escape from the cold. Check. A new baby in the house. Check. A gallivant with friends in tow. Check, check, check. When my parents visited us, I cooked the foods that my dad loved, always daddy’s girl (one of his four, mind you). I served him sautéed rabbit with sage, cavatelli, and ricotta pie.
I wonder. What would happen now? Would the sound of me chopping garlic, the snappy aroma of oregano, and finally, the flavor of ripe, juicy summer tomatoes in a dish from his childhood (and mine) filter through the gossamer in his brain?
When I return to Connecticut for a visit (soon, I promise), I will make my dad cialledda or, in his family’s dialect, cialled. The epitome of cucina povera, this refreshing and light summer salad has its origin in Puglia where, back in the day, it was made for shepherds to eat as they tended their flocks in the low-lying hills. Cialed showcases those ripe, juicy tomatoes in a dressing of olive oil, chopped garlic, oregano and – wait for it – water. I know, right? It’s the water, just enough to extend the servings rather than dilute the dish and the stale bread that accompanies it, that puts this salad in the cucina povera category.
I ate cialed with my dad on hot summer afternoons under the trees on our patio. We shared it from one big bowl. Dip the crusty bread, catch the tomatoes and a slick of dressing, ferry to the mouth. When the tomatoes were gone, we swiped the bread some more. Every last drop of that cucina povera goodness gone. Until we made it again.
TOMATO SALAD WITH OREGANO
Were you to enjoy this light and refreshing summer salad in Puglia, it would include chunks of friselle, a round, very hard bread made from semolina flour. The friselle is soaked in water and then added to the tomatoes, a humble version of Tuscany’s panzanella. It’s difficult to find friselle stateside. Substitute stale, hard country bread for it. There are many versions of cialledda. This is the version I enjoyed with my father.
4 large ripe but firm tomatoes, stemmed
1 garlic clove, finely chopped tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 tablespoon water
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
Day-old country bread
Coarsely chop the tomatoes and place in a shallow bowl with the garlic. Crush the oregano between your fingers and sprinkle it over the tomatoes along with the salt and black pepper. Drizzle the tomatoes with the water and the olive oil. Let sit at room temperature for 15 to 30 minutes.
Serve with the bread. Dip into the cialledda, using it as a scoop for the tomatoes. Often, cialledda is served as a communal dish with everybody eating from the same bowl.