“Food is the only form of art that will involve all five senses.” ~ Chef Fabio Viviani
I believe life, especially when it comes to the arts, is built on a series of connections — relationships between people, surprising sensory experiences, simultaneous interactions and threads that tie one subject to another. One passing acquaintanceship will lead to a relationship will lead to a friendship or a marriage…or a handful of ingredients in combination and baked at a set temperature will lead to a cake…or an acute observation plus a strong emotion plus a “what if” question will lead to story.
(*pictured right: Fabio Viviani and me with our books – my 3rd novel, A Summer in Europe, and Café Firenze, one of his many excellent cookbooks*)
I spend a lot of time thinking about such things because, well, one thought leads to another and, soon, a full-blown theory has appeared. I like theories and, typically, they’re easier for me to follow than recipes. So, I could jabber on and on about connections…or, I could just tell you a story.
One day I was reading Ciao Florentina’s cooking blog, where I’ve often found delicious recipes (LOVE her dips and salsas!), when I came across some pictures of Nutella Biscuits (http://ciaoflorentina.com/2011/07/16/chef-fabio-vivianis-nutella-biscuits/), the recipe of which she happened to pick up from Top Chef Finalist Fabio Viviani.
Now, you have to understand (insert critical backstory here), my addiction to Nutella goes WAY back, about 25 years, when I first tasted it in Europe. (These were in the days before you could find it at Walgreen’s. Other people brought home bottles of wine from our college dance tour…I brought home giant jars of Nutella. No kidding. ) So this recipe was a love-at-first-sight experience for me. I clicked over to Fabio’s page to get the details (http://fabioviviani.com/recipes/nutella-biscuits/), was delighted to see that it required only a few ingredients and, later that week, bought what I needed to make it.
With a little help from my son, we mixed everything together, kneaded the dough, flattened the biscuits and cut them into fall-leaf shapes before baking. I am not, as I’m sure many of you have gathered, the most skilled person in the kitchen. I was, however, very motivated to give these biscuits a try, and they were well worth it!
Having just had this exciting culinary experience, it set me off on a quest to seek out more great recipes by both Florentina and Fabio, and it eventually led me to their Facebook pages as well… Knowing the way social networking can make people’s lives criss-cross, you won’t be surprised to hear that one clicked link led to another clicked link which led to my mom (a fantabulous cook in her own right, btw) getting tickets for us to see a live cooking demonstration by Fabio himself!
The show was held in Dubuque, Iowa at the Diamond Jo Casino — my first visit to the building but not to the city. In fact, one of the many coincidences that led to me driving across all of Illinois to get there this past Saturday was that Dubuque is the city my heroine (from my upcoming novel, A Summer in Europe http://tinyurl.com/3d3kuz4) is from, along with all of the American secondary characters in the story. I hadn’t seen it since I’d written the book, so I was excited to go back to visit. And since that same heroine learns about love and is awakened to a more passionate life, thanks in part to the delicious food of Italy, I couldn’t have concocted a more perfect weekend adventure.
I left home not knowing what to expect or what I’d find, certain only that some interesting experiences would await. One thing I learned right away: My two perplexing hours at a slot machine was proof enough that I don’t have the internal fortitude of a gambler, but there were shimmery moments of excitement that, likewise, convinced me addiction to the game would be easy. The puzzle-loving side of my brain kept watching the symbols spin by, trying to figure out a pattern. Trying to mold something random into something ordered. (I suspect the tall strawberry margarita you see sitting beside the machine assisted a little in this endeavor, too. Tequila helps you find connections everywhere, LOL.)
And then Fabio’s show started and I had brand new thoughts to puzzle over. He made us laugh (“Use fresh herbs. Using dry herbs will give you the same pleasure of kissing somebody with a helmet on…”) and shared a humorous but very true distinction between “common sense” vs. “knowledge.” He said, “How many of you know that a tomato is a fruit?” Most of us in the audience raised our hands. “Knowing a tomato is a fruit is knowledge, but you wouldn’t make a fruit pie with tomatoes. That’s common sense!”
He talked about what made a dish good. He said there were really only three things a person needed in order to cook well:
1. a recipe
2. good appliances
3. common sense (ahhh!)
And I laughed because, yes, I’m sure he was right about these things when it came to being in the kitchen (I’d fallen short on #3 more than once while baking something…), but it was also a moment of connection for me between cooking and writing because I saw a similarity that I couldn’t deny.
For a novel you need:
1. a strong plot/characters
2. working writing tools, like a computer
3. common sense, which is knowing the difference between school-like knowledge and what will actually work in real life…or, in this case, in believable and compelling fiction. (Like the difference between real conversation — with all the “ums” and “hmms” left in — versus good dialogue, which is not a replica of real conversation, but it’s an impression of it — one that leads the characters toward an action or a decision.) I don’t think common sense is something we’re all born knowing — not in cooking or in writing or in life (I live with an adolescent, so I’m sure his is still in development!) – but I think if we’re paying attention, we do tend to learn that skill over time with the help of some expert guidance and hands-on experience.
Thanks for the cooking lesson, Fabio! And to all of you, what’s the best cooking (or writing) advice you ever got? I’d love to hear your thoughts.