Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Broccoli di Rape for Breakfast

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

We Italian Americans have a special fondness for broccoli di rape, a bitter green vegetable that, like arugula, has started showing up regularly in some American supermarkets in the last several years. Who eats it besides us, I wonder? It is one of those foods, like rice to the Japanese, or lutefisk to the Norwegians, that carries identity. We take a perverse delight in relishing it, because we think it belongs to us and to nobody else. There are jokes about it, because it induces fatulence; and there is even a poem written about it by an Italian American woman named Rosella I met the last time I was in New York. She has perfected the art of steaming it with olive oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, salt, and caramelized onions.

So I had it for breakfast this morning, thinking of Rosella, who makes it better than I do. There was a bunch of it, and not much else in the refrigerator, and it had started to turn yellow. Wasting a bunch of broccoli di rabe is a sin for an Italian American, and I'm trying to avoid sinning during Lent.

So I stood there at the kitchen counter and ate the whole thing with my hands right out of the pot, stripping the delicate leaves from the limp green stems, relishing the oil as it annointed my lips and mouth, enjoying the sting of the hot pepper flakes, and the crunch of the fibers between my teeth. I thought of Annie Lanzilotto and her search in downtown New York for a lunch that "would honor her ancestors."I thought too of St Teresa of Avila who said, when she was caught wolfing down roasted quails all by herself in the convent's refectory, without apology,"When I pray, I pray, and when I eat quail, I eat quail." Later in the morning as the bitter taste kept coming back to me, I remembered these lines from a poem by Stephen Crane, ..."ah, it is good, because it is bitter, and because it is my heart."

I am not in the habit of eating broccoli di rape for breakfast. Why did I do so this morning? Because I suffer from the winter cold and I needed something to kick my heart up, to assert my identity, my ancestry, my perverse lineage. And it worked.

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