Bruschetta was the very first recipe and story I posted on this blog. It seemed so fitting that it would be the very beginning, because it was the very first thing I ever made, unless you count cinnamon toast and cereal. I learned to make Bruschetta from my cousin Jane, on my first visit to Italy. I was sixteen, eager and impressionable.
The last few weeks I have missed her dearly and so I went back into the archives to re read my very first post. I found nothing. Somehow it got deleted and now there is no memory of her in this collection of recipes. It is heartbreaking when anything gets deleted, but this story is especially unsettling. It was a good one! And seven years ago Jane died of cancer, leaving behind a husband and two beautiful little children. One day I wanted to give her children my collection of recipes and stories, because their mother was the very first person who inspired me to cook. Not only that but she opened up my entire world and now after becoming a mother myself, I have more respect and understanding for Jane than ever before.
Last weekend I arrived to a potluck with this bruschetta after a bus ride from hell. I was already stressed about taking the bus for an hour, by myself with the girls. I was annoyed that I wouldn’t be able to serve my appetizers on pretty dishes. I was upset that our bike was not yet set up to safely ride with both girls and taking a cab or a zipcar in this instance would not have been an affordable option. It was 10 am and I was already having a pity party about the reality of my transportation options. I could either take the bus to my potluck, or I could stay home. I opted to take the bus but not without admitting to my husband how much I wish we had a car. (I should note that this was the second day within our second year of living car free that I completely questioned and then doubted our lifestyle.) After some reflection I can see that those feelings come up when I feel stuck, and I usually feel stuck when I unable to ride my bike. Still, those feeling were real. Very real.
We make it on the bus. Octave is terrified by some incredibly colorful riders and so for the first time in her life, she is quiet. So far so good. Until right around the time my motion sickness goes into full effect, and a homeless man spills his bottle of booze all over the girls and I. It’s 11 am and we smell like a bar. A few minutes later a woman boards the bus and sits across from us with a big bucket boldly labeled “potty pail.” I have no idea what that means, and I don’t want to know. As if that weren’t enough, the next 20 minutes consist of me, (motion sick, hot, boozy, and uncomfortable,) listening to an older man unfold a tragic story of his twin brother blowing his brains out last week. Look, I love hearing people’s stories, in fact usually I ask for them, but clearly my hands are full and there is no room left in these bones to engage. I am barely hanging on here people. I had enough and I pulled the cord early. Two miles early. I walked in 95 degree heat with Bijou on my chest and Octave in the stroller. I watched the cars zoom past us and tears started rolling down my cheeks. Who’s idea was it to sell our car? Oh yeah, that was actually mine.
As I pushed my stroller with bruschetta, and a few extra huffs and puffs, I thought of Jane, and not just because I was bringing a part of her to my potluck. I had flash backs of watching her mother her small children, and while I didn’t get to be around her day in and day out, I saw enough over my many visits to know that in that moment she would have identified with me deeply. Living as a foreigner and raising small children in the heart of Naples, was most definitely not easy. And while I may not be raising my children in the heart of Naples, raising them in North Portland, (where it often feels like children are despised,) and sans automobile can some days feel like no easy feat. And truthfully some days I feel like a foreigner inside my own city. Some days I am not sure where I belong. If Jane were still alive I would write her a handwritten letter, all the way to Italy, only to say…I get it!
I remember one night after a long day of whinny babes, Jane and I escaped for gelato. She almost always walked or took public transit, but that night she stormed out the door, quicker than I could keep up, jumped behind the wheel and exhaled the biggest sigh of relief. She cursed and then exclaimed “I just want to feel like a normal human being. I just want to get in a car and drive.” Of course, the act of driving cannot or should not make someone feel human, but now I can understand exactly what she meant.
While I realize normal is a relative term and is largely shaped by our culture, in this moment I couldn’t help but want to feel “normal.” I just wanted to arrive to the potluck in an air-conditioned car, somewhat put together, with my food on pretty dishes. I didn’t want to be so exhausted from the journey that I couldn’t enjoy the actual event. I also wanted to arrive wearing clothes that actually fit me, but that is a whole other story.
Now that it’s passed it all seems rather silly when I think about Jane. Even the hard days and bad bus experiences are beautiful because they are spent with my girls. I am alive to love them well. I’m sure Jane would live a thousand days on that bus, and endure many bottles of spilled booze if it meant she could still hold her babies. I was with her in her last days, holding her hand, massaging her feet. I am thankful I was not yet a mother and was not capable of comprehending what her heart was feeling. Surely it would have taken my breath away. It does, right here and now. They say, time heals, but the more time that passes, the deeper my heart breaks.
As I navigate my kitchen and motherhood, Jane floods my memory. I remember how she was practical and wise and far less emotional than I. She was strong and grounded, and so dang smart. She was passionate and serious but when she laughed I felt so accepted and welcomed into her life. Oh how I wish we could sit across from each other and talk about New York and dance and art and books. I wish I could hear her complain about how horrible italian television is. I wish I could hear her vent about the cheapness and roughness of the toilet paper her mother in law would stock her apartment with. I would laugh so hard I would snort, but she never laughed because it really bothered her. I wish I could introduce her to my husband and babies. I wish I could bake her loaves of bread. She would be so proud of me. I wish I could vent to a woman who could understand the complexities of my heart. I wish I could hear her cheer me on and support the way I’ve chosen to live. I can almost hear her… “brava bella!” And it would mean the world, because she was one of the most incredible women I ever had the privilege to know.
1 baguette, thinly sliced (or ciabatta cut into slices and then halves)
1 pint of cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
1 large clove of garlic, minced
2 tbsp. finely chopped red onion
3 tbsp. chopped basil
1 tbsp. oregano
1 tsp. sea salt
Fresh ground pepper to taste
3 tbsp. good quality olive oil
1 1/2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar
*1 clove of garlic for rubbing
Usually I use ciabatta bread, cut into slices and then halved but because I was trekking this across town, I chose to use smaller baguette and assemble once I got there.
Cut tomatoes in half and place in a medium size bowl. Add all other ingredients, oil, and vinegar. Mix until combined. Let marinate for at least 20 minutes, but the longer the better. Meanwhile, slice bread and place on a large baking sheet. Jane would rub the clove of garlic on top of each slice of bread. Depending on my commitment to my bruschetta, I may or may not skip this step. Depending on size of bread, scoop 2-4 tbsp. of tomatoes on top of bread. Broil in the oven for 5-7 minutes or until tomatoes are slightly blistered and bread is toasted.