My mom, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1943, grew up predominantly in the South of France, on the northern edge of the Pyrenees. I think maybe most parents tell stories of their childhood habits that are slightly foreign or unconventional to the next generation–little things, like coming home for lunch daily rather than staying at school–but I got the impression pretty early on that some of my mom’s were just a little further from the norm. There were the extremes (“my sister and I used to take this shortcut to school to avoid getting stones thrown at us by kids who thought we were German”; or “and then there was that time my friend and I were supposed to take a school trip to Paris, but we lied and went to London instead”) and the more mundane (“my mom tried to forbid me from playing with gypsies because she was worried I would get fleas”).
A lot of the more tame stories were of food traditions, some of which, luckily for me, spilled over into my own childhood. It wasn’t at all unusual, for example, for me to show up to school with an end of baguette and a large piece of dark chocolate shoved in the middle as a lunch when we were out of deli meats (mom: “With the salt content and fat of cafeteria food, who would dare argue that a piece of good bread with chocolate isn’t leaps and bounds more healthy? And don’t get me started on that Wonder bread crap.”). I thought it was so charming that my mom used to buy freshly roasted chestnuts on the streets on her way to school in the winter; the purchase would serve two functions: keeping her hands warm en route; being a satisfying mid-morning snack between arithmetics and Latin. When they became more available in grocery stores stateside (fresh chestnuts, none of that canned or jarred goop), we would split and “roast” them in the toaster oven. They were okay, good even, but definitely not the same. Until Siena, I has never had a true roasted chestnut.
After a full day of exploring the Gothic streets of Siena, taking in the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo, indulging in a Thanksgiving feast of bruschetta, smoked salmon, sea bass, and chianti, we trudged up the cobblestone path back to the bus, and John noticed a street vendor that I didn’t: “Should we get some roasted chestnuts?” I think the speed and assertiveness of my answer caught John a little off guard, and we gladly paid the gentleman 3 euros as he scooped up maybe 20 or so chestnuts, still sizzling over the hot coals. As we waited for the bus, it took some maneuvering to pry a chestnut or two from the bag John was using to keep his fingers warm. We polished off the bag at breakneck speed on the ride back to Florence–sensational. Quite possibly the only slightly conventional element of our holiday meal, but in a totally un-twenty-first century American setting.
Looking forward to sharing with you our adventures in Florence and Cinque Terre. Happy Thanksgiving!