Brigolante holiday rentals in Assisi, Umbria

Self-catering apartments in Assisi's town center and nearby countryside.

Italy Roundtable: Eating in the Comfort Zone

This is the sixth installment of the monthly Italy Blogging Roundtable, a project organized by travel writing powerhouse Jessica Spiegel, and including professional travel writer Melanie Renzulli, art historian and general brainiac Alexandra Korey, Tuscan uber-blogger Gloria, and me. (If you missed the previous months, take a look here.) Please, pull up a chair to our Roundtable, have some rice pudding, and join in on the conversation.

Comfort Food

If you’re very lucky, at least once during your years here on this earth, your life will fall apart.

If you are truly fortunate, you will wake up one day and find you no longer recognize yourself. And in that instant of existential prosopagnosia, everything around you will shift—infinitesimally, yet just enough to somehow strain the molecular structure of your universe until it disintegrates into a shower of glittering, lethal shards. Your universe will land in a million fragments at your feet and the more you panic and struggle to gather them up and fit them back together into the shape of the universe you once thought was eternal, the more you are left cut and bleeding until you finally realize that the only way to save yourself is to walk away forever.

And this moment–the moment that you walk away, that you close your eyes and jump, that you let go of one trapeze, trusting that you will manage to grasp the next–is both the most terrifying and the most empowering moment you will ever live. If you’re very lucky.

I am living this moment. In my inconsequential reality, my universe has shattered. I have taken a giant step off the path, and this shift in my perspective has obscured the landmarks I once used to as guides and brought into view a completely different set of reference points. It has been a period of one of the steepest learning curves of my life, of reflection and revolution, of destruction and creation, of waging battle and making peace. The dust is settling. I am doing a bit of emotional triage. I am evening out my shifted ballast. I am becoming the person I want to be.

I am eating a lot of mashed potatoes.

Yes, because there have been many lessons learned during this time of excruciating, exhilarating change. I’ve learned that if someone falls into your lap for no apparent reason, go with it. Because, more often than not, there’s a reason. I’ve learned that though you’ve pooh-poohed the notion of finding wisdom from virtual strangers online, sometimes that’s exactly where you will find the wisdom you need. I’ve learned that sometimes the hard part is making a decision, and everything else falls into place once you have. I’ve learned that there is no shame in looking someone in the eye and admitting that you are having a hard time and need help. I’ve learned that we are generally more powerful, more courageous, and more creative than we think we are. And I’ve learned that when you are going through a total life overhaul, a system reboot, a closet clean, a throwing out of baby with bathwater, a part of you still needs to be soothed by the familiar.

In my case, this craving for some tiny part of my life to remain within the safe confines of the known manifested itself in two ways. First, I actually exhumed some cassette tapes of music from my college days. Cassette tapes, people. Suddenly, my house was full of the sounds of Jonie Mitchell and early REM. I found long-forgotten Radiohead albums and mix tapes with Indigo Girls, Smokey Robinson, and Blues Traveller (I have eclectic taste). I had some scratchy Aretha and quirky Lyle and angry Alice in Chains. And, oddly, mixed in with these I had some of my favorite Francesco de Gregori, Vinicio Capossela, Fabrizio de André, and, of course, my beloved Bandabardò.

Second, I started dreaming of—and preparing—dishes I hadn’t even thought about in years. Creamy soups, scalloped potatoes, pot pies, and banana bread galore. I pushed aside my new millenium low fat ethnic whole vegetarian locavore cookbooks and fell in love with the Rombauers and their schoolmarmish, slightly scolding elderly Aunt Irma and Marion tone all over again. Our dinner table starting looking like the set of Leave it to Beaver, as I put meatloaf and tuna casserole and baked beans and pudding on the table. And, oddly, mixed in with these I found myself putting down penne in bianco, minestrina, pappa al pomodoro, and pasta e fagioli like there was no tomorrow. I should admit I love tasty food, but every time I eat something like this, I recall that question I once asked my dentist “what are the most common dental health problems“. I take care of my oral health and I advise you the same as visiting the dentist too often is too much stress for me. Therefore, I am even ready to give up on some tasty but unhealthy food, just in case.

It was a bit of an epiphany for me to discover what should have been self-evident: after spending almost half my life in Italy, my comfort zone has expanded to include elements of this country, as well. I had somehow presumed that when I fell down and scraped my knee, I would head to the mother who would make me chicken-noodle soup and sing me “Hush, Little Baby” but I found that more often I would head to the mother who would make me pane e olio and sing me “Ninna-nanna”. And that, in itself is comforting. Because perhaps I’ll get lucky again at some point in my life, and find myself starting from tabula rasa…and for a little TLC I won’t have to go far. I’ll have my music, I’ll have my food. I’ll have myself.

Curious to hear what Alexandra, Gloria, Melanie, and Jessica had to say about this month’s topic? Check out their blog posts, and leave your comments.


  1. Gloria |

    Rebecca! Now I understand why I’m the fattest here! Two only eat potatoes, another one eats pasta in bianco and one eats minestrone! I started with pane, vino e zucchero for God’s sake! LOL I seriously need to rething my dietary habits! LOL
    This said, great post. I totally agree that when you get in touch with another country your horizons expand. During my pregnancy, believe it or not, I haven’t felt like eating nutella at all, but boy I had to have bacon and cheddar cheese! LOL It is funny how my cravings were all for “ethnic” food rather than Italian food. Myabe a way to get a taste of the vacation I couldn’t take this year!
    Diana will be proud of your post by the way. It’s very much in her own style. You smart women with the ability for self-revelation…! I am jealous! I run to the fridge even before realizing I need some soul comfort!

  2. Sarah Weiner |

    Thanks Rebecca- My world did just fall apart a little and this was just what I needed! I was laid off the job I’ve been at for 11 years (new director=Sarah’s not needed anymore) and I’m in reinvention mode trying to decide what I want to do now!? I go up and down every day. Maybe that’s why, since I got “let go,” I’ve made butternut squash soup, chocolate chip cookies, roast pork, etc. Fall is a really good time for comfort food isn’t it? You’ve just inspired me to make some banana bread…


Leave A Comment